Chapter Three – BRYCE
Bryce felt a mighty need for more alcohol. His going-away party at the Pucker Up was going full Gong Show. Thank God there was no game tomorrow. They were going to have a team hangover for sure.
He picked up the cheap plastic pitcher and let the last dregs of foamy flat beer trickle into his glass. Quickly downing it, he pushed his chair back.
He’d go up to the bar and get the next round. He needed a moment away from everyone. “I’m going to grab some more beer,” he announced. “Anybody want anything else?”
Jake Donovan, left-wing, the team’s assistant captain, and Bryce’s long-time best friend, dropped the front two legs of his chair onto the ground. “I’ll get it.”
Bryce shook his head. “I gotta pee anyway. Make some room for the next round.” He locked the edges of his knee brace and pushed himself up.
He walked past the rogue’s gallery – rows and rows of pictures on the wall of all the players, past and present, who had hung out at the Puck. Since they were in chronological order, Bryce was way up there at the top. The Thunder was the newest franchise in the NHL, and Bryce had been there since the beginning.
Robbie’s picture stared out at the crowd from the bottom row. It looked like his high school yearbook photo to Bryce. These new kids were all so damn young.
The bartender caught his eyes as he walked over. “Not going to be the same around here without you.” Isaac shook his head sadly, but his dark eyes were bright, and he smiled.
“I’ll be back,” Bryce said. “I’m just going to get my mom all set up, recuperate, and I’ll be back before you even notice I’m gone.”
Isaac pulled two glasses out from underneath the bar. “I’ll notice.” He poured a long shot of top shelf whiskey into each one. “A toast,” he said, sliding one to Bryce.
Bryce raised the glass.
“To new beginnings,” Isaac said.
“To new beginnings.” Bryce knocked his glass gently against Isaac’s while making eye contact with the other man.
The whiskey sat warm in his stomach, mingling nicely with the large quantity of beer he had already consumed, and making him a little melancholy. Why did it feel like everything was changing?
All Bryce could think about were the things he hadn’t done. Things he had let slip away without even realizing it.
Like potential friendships. How had he known Isaac for four years and never socialized with him outside of the Pucker Up?
“Why haven’t we ever hung out?” Bryce blurted out, dropping heavily onto a barstool.
Isaac raised one eyebrow and turned to look pointedly at Bryce’s group of teammates and the scattering of women with them. He looked back at Bryce. “I don’t know, Bryce. Why haven’t we?”
“Hey, I don’t just hang out with hockey players.”
Isaac gave him a look.
Okay, fine. It was a total lie. The only people he did hang out with were hockey players. He’d lived for four years in Seattle, and the only parts of it he’d seen were the insides of stadiums, gyms, and bars. He probably should have taken some time to do something else.
Some of the other guys had settled in, bought houses, even gotten married. But Bryce had been moving from franchise to franchise, from town to town, for too long ever to feel securely settled.
If he signed the three-year contract his manager was in the middle of negotiating, he would at least know if he’d be staying in Seattle for the near future. Maybe he’d buy a house or at least a condo when he got back.
“Well, I’m going to have a lot more free time now.” Another whiskey had appeared in front of him, so he drank that.
“You’ll be in Colorado,” Isaac reminded him.
“Oh, yeah.” Things were starting to get a little confused in Bryce’s brain. “Just for a few months, though.”
Isaac ignored the other patrons trying to get his attention and held out his hand imperiously.
Bryce looked at it, confused. Did Isaac want a tip?
“Give me your phone.”
Bryce pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans and handed it over.
Isaac rolled his eyes and handed it back to Bryce. “Unlock it.” When Bryce had, Isaac grabbed it and added his contact information. “There. After you get to Colorado and you figure some stuff out, give me a call. I’m always here if you need someone to talk to.”
Bryce blinked as he looked at the info, his hand tightening around the phone. “Thanks, man. That’s really cool. I better get back. First the bathroom. Can I get those pitchers on the way back?”
“I’ll have someone bring them over, don’t worry. And some nachos, on the house, since you can be off your diet for now.”
“Excellent.” Bryce slid off the stool, a little less steady on his feet than he had been. He could drink beer all night, but whiskey went right to his head. “Hey, what do you mean ‘figure some stuff out?’”
Isaac muttered something under his breath. “You’ll know if you do.”
Bryce shook his head and smiled. “Okay, then. And if you’re ever in Colorado, look me up.”
Two a.m. found Bryce sitting by himself at an empty table, hovering at the border between sobriety and drunkenness.
Isaac had cut the music off about fifteen minutes earlier with the last call. Busboys cleared the last of the tables and stacked chairs around the few remaining patrons as they sucked down the last of their drinks and made desperate last-ditch attempts not to end the night alone.
Isaac sat down next to him, a glass of whiskey in one hand, and a glass of water in the other. “Friends ditch you?” he asked.
Bryce shook his head. “Nah. I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. They’ve got early practice. I’ve got…nothing.”
“You’ve got a big day tomorrow. New life starting.” He slid both glasses in front of Bryce. “Figured you’d want one or the other of these by now.”
Bryce considered. He’d already had more to drink than he’d had in years. The habits of a lifelong athlete kept him from overindulging in anything that would affect his performance. But that was all behind him now, right? Temporarily, he reminded himself. As soon as he was back up to fighting-strength, it was back to the grind for him.
He pulled the glass of whiskey towards him. “I don’t even really like this stuff,” he said, sipping the amber liquid. “But I kind of like it at the same time. Make sense?”
“Makes perfect sense.” Isaac wiped up a spill of beer with an already crumpled napkin. “So,” he said, watching the paper soak up the liquid, “do you need a ride home?”
“I can just grab a cab.”
“Let me give you a ride home. Might be the last time I see you.”
Bryce frowned. “Don’t say that. I’ll be back.”
Bryce looked at Isaac’s face. He was smiling, but his eyes looked a little sad. Why did Bryce feel like something important was passing him by? “You sure you want to give me a ride?”
“Can you wait fifteen minutes while I finish up?” Isaac reached for Bryce’s whiskey and finished the last bit.
The mist had turned to rain by the time Isaac pulled into the covered parking garage for Bryce’s building. He stopped the car near the elevator.
The bright lights of the garage felt like knives in Bryce’s eyes after the soft darkness of the night.
“Home sweet home,” Isaac said, putting the car into park.
“Hmm,” Bryce answered, eyes closed against the glare. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to open the door and get out. It was warm in Isaac’s car, a good song played quietly on the radio, and he could smell something dark and spicy.
Isaac shifted to face Bryce, one arm over the back of the seat and the scent intensified. It was his cologne, Bryce realized. “You smell good,” he said, turning to Isaac with a smile.
Isaac shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You pick now to do this? You’re killing me, Bryce. Shouldn’t you be getting out of the car now?”
Bryce frowned. He was pretty solidly drunk, but that didn’t seem to be the main impediment. There was a lassitude in his arms and legs preventing him from moving. “Probably.”
“Do you ever think about not coming back?” Isaac asked softly.
Bryce snorted. No one else had asked him that, but even if they had, he would have told them they were crazy.
Hockey was all he knew, and besides, how could he walk away from the kind of money they were tossing about for his new contract? His mom and siblings and nieces and nephews depended on him. The team needed him.
“Nope,” he lied. “I’ll be back sooner than you expect.”
Bryce patted Isaac’s hand and studied his face, something he’d found himself doing all night. There was something different about Isaac tonight. “I’m sorry we never hung out,” Bryce said. “I know it’s really late, and you’re probably tired, but do you want to come up?”
Isaac shook his head and laughed. “No offense, but not even if you weren’t shit-faced. You’re a hunk o’man alright. But you’re not my type.”
“What?” Why wasn’t he Isaac’s type? He was good looking, muscular. “Why not?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist, babe. I’m sure there are lots of men willing to take you home and show you what you’ve been missing.”
“Damn right.” Wait. Was that something he wanted?
“But we’re friends,” Isaac continued. “And I’m not gonna be the one to light your lamp for you.”
“Light my lamp?” He must be drunker than he’d realized. He had no idea what they were talking about anymore. “Wait. Is that like a gay thing, too? Like scoring on me?”
Isaac laughed, throwing his head back.
Bryce couldn’t help but smile back at him. Happy Isaac was hard to look away from. “Yeah, it’s a gay thing,” Isaac said wiping tears from his eyes.
“You’re gay. I remember.” Bryce frowned. “But I’m not gay. Right?” That’s what he’d told Robbie. Then why hadn’t he been able to stop thinking about it all night?
He’d found himself thinking about Robbie, searching for some sign he might have missed. Some sign of gayness, if that was a thing. If he found it in Robbie, maybe he could understand what people saw when they looked at him.
Isaac smiled and patted him on his arm. “What you are is drunk, and tired, and flying out in the morning. I think you should go to bed.”
Bryce leaned his head back against the seat. “Yeah. You’re right.” Lifting his head back up was hard. It felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. “Thanks for everything.”
“No problem, man. You have my number.”
Bryce smiled. “Yeah! I do!”
Isaac chuckled. “You do. Give me a call when you figure some things out, okay?”
“Now get the hell out of my car.” Isaac pushed him. Bryce didn’t even sway, and Isaac shook his head. “Stop showing off. I know you’re a big muscly manly-man. Get out.”
Bryce popped the door open. “Thanks again.”
“Sleep tight, Bryce. Good luck in Colorado.”