"Natalie!" Shane's calling my name as I try to get my things together and get out of here. "Natalie, what's wrong?"
I hear him but I'm not listening as I shovel my stuff into my hockey bag and grab my skates, no time to put them away properly. I can't meet his eyes. I have to get out of here. Bile rises up in my throat but I force it back down.
Now isn't the time for that. All I can think about is getting away from Shane, getting away from this lie.
I leave the check on the floor where it landed after slipping from my fingers and hurry toward the exit.
"Natalie!" he calls.
His footsteps clomp behind me, heavy with the ice skates he hasn't had a chance to take off, but I don't want to see him, don't want to look at his face and remember his warm eyes and great smile sitting across from me just a few nights ago, and how he hadn't really wanted to be there at all.
And I don't even want to begin to think about how dumb I've been.
I'm almost to the door now, just a few feet away from getting out of this stupid ice rink for good, when one of his hands lands on my shoulder and the other grabs the door handle so I can't turn it to leave.
"Let me out." My voice seeps out between clenched teeth, low and strained. I don't look at him.
"Wait," he says. "What's going on? What happened? Are you okay?"
Anger bubbles up in me. "I want to leave."
"But why? Nat, I have no idea what's going on here."
"Yes, you do," I say, finally looking up to meet his eyes, sure that there's a fire burning in mine. "This is because of what you did."
He raises an eyebrow. "But what did I do?"
I stare at him, my lip curling back, disgust washing over me. How can he stand there and pretend he has no idea about any of this?
"I saw it, Shane," I spit. "Stop pretending you didn't take money from my parents."
He lets out a sigh, stares at me and doesn't say anything for a few seconds. "That's not -- "
"Spare me. It was right there in my hands."
"Natalie, please, let me explain this," he pleads. "It's not what you're thinking."
I raise an eyebrow as some anger deflates out of me -- not because I believe him but because it's really hard to look into those beautiful green eyes of his and stay angry.
"So you didn't take money from my parents to teach me how to play hockey?"
He blinks rapidly. "I -- Nat, Friday night didn't happen because of your parents' checkbook."
I suck in my breath. I'm not okay with him taking money from them, not at all, but I have to work to keep my cheeks from twitching upward at his comment.
"That doesn't matter," I tell him. "You lied to me."
He shakes his head. "No, I didn't."
"Well, you conveniently didn't tell me you were getting paid to spend time with me."
"That's because I'm not. I'm getting paid to teach you how to play hockey, that's true," he says. "I'm getting paid to coach like all the other coaches out there. But, Nat, I spend time with you off the ice because that's what I want to do."
I roll my eyes. "Whatever you say, Shane."
He takes his hand off the door and I move to grab the handle and bolt, but before I can both of his hands land on my shoulders and he gently spins me toward him.
"Listen to me," he says. "I didn't tell you about the money because I didn't want you to think I was hanging out with you out of pity or because of your parents or anything like that. Because of your reaction right now. I wouldn't have taken you out Friday night if I didn't really want to. I'm not like that. I promise you, Natalie, it had nothing to do with that check. I don't even know if I want the money."
"Yeah, right," I scoff, but I think back to how troubled he looked holding the envelope when we first started practice.
"Promise," he repeats.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because you have no reason not to."
I raise my eyebrows. "Are you kid--"
"Okay, maybe now's a bad time to say that," he admits. "But we had a great time on Friday. At least I did. And I'm not saying that they did, but even if your parents had asked me to take you out, I'd still want to go again because I had so much fun."
With his warm hands burning into my shoulders and eyes staring into mine, pleading with me to understand all of this and relax, I almost want to shake my head and smile and rewind to just twenty minutes ago when I was so happy about us.
"I don't know what to think."
"Ask them," he offers, taking his hands off me, and I'm immediately sorry they're no longer touching me. "I don't know what to say if your mind is made up and you're not willing to listen."
"Like they'd tell me they paid someone to hang out with me."
He lowers his eyes and shakes his head.
"What?" I ask.
"I'm surprised you think I'm that big of a jerk."
I glare at him sharply. "You're not the one who got burned here, Shane."
"I know. I'm sorry. It just sucks that you think I'd do this to you."
"You took money from my parents and didn't tell me. What am I supposed to think?"
"I thought they told you."
"Oh, please. Now I know you're lying."
"Natalie, I promise you, the money is just for the skating. Only business. That's it. I was going to ask before you left if you want to go to the winter festival with me this weekend."
I stare at his face, searching for some sign that he isn't being straight with me but I can't find a reason not to believe him.
"I just wish that I'd known about this before," I finally say.
"If you believe me, this doesn't change a thing," he replies. "I still want to see you."
A small sigh escapes my lips, but he goes on before I can say anything.
"And even if you don't believe me, please give me another shot, Nat. I really don't want something that I know is this meaningless to ruin whatever we've got going here."
I narrow my eyes slightly, suddenly desperate to know exactly what it is he thinks we have going.
I think for a second back to the scene at the university's terrace on Friday and how easy it was to be with Shane, paycheck or not. Maybe I'm naive but I'm not convinced you can fake that kind of connection with someone just for an extra couple bucks.
But I've been wrong before.
"Okay," I say. "We can go to that winter thing."
He blinks. "Really?"
I nod. "Yeah, I want to check it out, anyway." I'm trying to keep my tone light and casual, like I'm only going with him because of the festival and not because I want to spend time with Shane, but I'm not sure it's working all that well.
A small smile flickers at the corner of his lips. "Oh! Well, okay. Great." There's a pink blush creeping into his cheeks. "I'm glad you want to."
I shrug, trying not to lose the leverage I gained today. "We'll see how it goes."
My indifferent tone doesn't do much to rattle the grin on his face.
"You won't regret it, Nat," he says. "Promise."
I haven't given much thought to the whole situation with Shane with my tryout looming the next morning. I have to get this right. Not only so I can go back to Arizona early but so I can prove that I didn't waste my time -- and Shane's.
Not that that matters much, considering he gets his money one way or another.
But despite it all, I don't really want to disappoint him.
I don't pay much attention to my classes all day as my stomach twists harder and harder as the clock ticks closer to three o'clock. I keep running over what I packed in my gym bag last night, suddenly convinced I've left a crucial piece of gear at home that will doom me in the tryout.
And then, just like that, the final bell rings, and I'm out of time to worry.
Now I just have to do it.
I make my way slowly over to the locker room where I left my gym bag and goalie equipment this morning. Several other girls are already there changing for tryouts.
"You're new, right?" one of them asks me as she slips a T-shirt on over her head.
I nod as I unzip my bag. "Yeah. To the school and hockey," I say with a smile.
"Where'd you come from?"
She raises an eyebrow. "And you played hockey?"
"No," I admit. "But hockey's still pretty popular out there. I just started playing when I moved here."
The girls exchange glances and I feel the pit in my stomach start to come back. I don't like that look, and I'm not sure I want to know what it means.
"Well, good luck," she says.
"Yeah, you're gonna need it," another adds. "Erica Wunders has been our goalie since she could walk. I mean, all the way up through elementary school and middle school and all those kid leagues and stuff, it was always Erica. Everyone knew she'd win the starting job here on her first day and she did."
I shrug. "I don't need to start or anything like that. Just want to make the team."
Even though I mean every word of what I just said, the words feel funny when I hear them out loud...like I'm totally fine with being second best. That's never been the case for me before, but it's enough for me now.
I try to brush off the icky feeling that gives me.
"That's probably a good attitude to have when you're going up against Erica. See you out there," one of the girls says as the group picks up their skates and heads for the rink, leaving me alone in the empty locker room.
I finish putting on my gym clothes then begin strapping myself into my pads, glad for the moment to myself.
I know today isn't a big deal, not in the grand scheme of things, anyway, but I can't get a grip on myself. My heart keeps pounding, palms sweating all afternoon. If I don't get this right, I won't be back in Arizona until August. I try to remind myself that isn't so bad -- it's just a few more months and, hey, maybe it's even a few more months with Shane.
But I still want this.
I can't turn off that competitive drive in me.
And you know what?
I'm going to get it.
I'm one of the last people to walk into the rink a few minutes later, and my eyes immediately search out and find two other girls dressed in goalie gear. I'm positive one of them is the apparent hockey prodigy Erica Wunders. Must be nice to know you have a spot on the team locked up and tryouts are nothing more than a formality.
Coach Dobrov walks in a few minutes later, letting the door slam empathically behind her as it echoes throughout the nearly-empty arena.
She walks up to us without a word, scans the line of girls in front of her -- I try not to wilt under her gaze when it lands on me -- then nods once before blowing the whistle hanging around her neck.
"Welcome," she says in a voice that feels anything but. "I'm very pleased with the turnout today. Best I've seen in my ten years coaching here. My assistant coaches will be in shortly so that we may begin our tryouts. Until then, I'd like to assess your conditioning. Hit the ice. Far goal line."
I already know what's coming -- it's the same sprinting drill Shane's had me do countless times, the one that I always give him a dirty look for suggesting.
We're supposed to skate from the goal line to the blue line and back, then to the first red line and back, and so on until we've skated to each line on the ice and back to the beginning.
And we're supposed to do this as many times as she wants us to before she tells us to stop.
Shane never had me go more than three full laps, and I'm pretty sure I'll die if Coach Dobrov wants us to do anything more than that.
Somehow I find myself lined up in between both goalies -- only two of us will make it, and apparently Erica Wunders is already one of them, so it's down to me and one other girl.
I won't lie; I'd definitely been hoping that there would only be two people trying out for the position and I'd essentially be guaranteed a spot and that would be that.
But instead, I guess I'm going to have to actually be okay at this.
The whistle blows and we take off skating, and the first lap isn't so bad. Maybe Shane was onto something when he kept making me do this drill after all. I breeze through it and it's only a few minutes later that I notice a few girls have already dropped out, including one of the goalies.
My eyes widen slightly and I wobble just a bit as I lose my focus on the ice. That's got to be the girl who's my real competition for the spot -- no way Erica Wunders wouldn't be in good enough shape to finish out a drill she's so used to doing year after year. And if this girl can't hack it, well, I'm pretty sure I've already got this tryout in the bag.
I smile and fly through the rest of the drill with ease after my newfound confidence gives me the boost I don't even really know I need.
Coach Dobrov blows the whistle, ends the sprints and divides us up into individual groups based on what position we're trying out for. I'm down at one end of the rink with Erica, the other girl and an assistant coach I've never seen before.
"Erica, help me set this up, would you?" The new coach nods at the girl who'd dropped out of the drill and my jaw drops.
That had been Erica?
She's in such bad shape right before the start of the season?
No, that can't make sense.
Well, the only logical explanation is that she'd stopped because she knew she had her spot wrapped up and didn't need to keep going.
But I can't ever imagine doing that, even in her position.
That's the kind of person Coach Dobrov wants on her team?
Then again, when you have the kind of talent Erica supposedly has, I guess it doesn't really matter, does it?
I try not to let out a long, defeated sigh but I guess I don't do a very good job because the other girl glances over at me and smiles from behind her goalie mask.
"They love her," she mutters. "Golden girl who can't do anything wrong."
I grimace. "How'd you know?"
"That you were thinking about her?" She laughs. "I've tried out the last two years and this is the first time when they don't already have a back-up goalie. Coach Dobrov's pretty loyal."
"Even when they loaf it through tryouts?"
She shrugs. "Guess that's the reward for making the team. I'm Clara."
She smiles at me, and I think it's too bad that she seems so nice because I'm going to have to kick her ass at these tryouts.
"Okay," the assistant coach says. "We're just going to start with the basics. I'll stand at this face-off circle and Erica will stand at the opposite one, and we'll pepper you with shots. Stop them. Clara, get in net."
I skate over to the boards to watch Clara's run at the first drill. The assistant coach takes the first shot -- Clara tracks the puck the whole way and reacts well, dipping her knee pads down to deflect the shot harmlessly away from the back of the net. Not bad. She stops Erica's weak, bouncing shot and a few more from the coach before she loses focuses and a barrage of shots find their way buried behind her.
And I know I can do better than that.
I switch places with Clara and get my bearings in the net, angling my body toward the assistant coach, ready for the first shot.
The next thing I know, Erica's fired on me and I lunge to my left, swing out my stick and just manage to deflect the shot enough to keep it from blasting past me into the net for a goal.
"Not bad," the coach calls out. "Not bad at all."
I stop most of the shots that come my way, and when I turn around, there are just three pucks behind me in the net -- way less than what Clara let in.
We run through several more drills -- Erica even takes part in a couple of them -- before the assistant (Coach King, she told us midway through the second activity) dismisses us, letting us know that Coach Dobrov will post the final roster in the rink in two days.
I'm happy walking back to the locker room, skates in hand, knowing that I don't think I could've done much better this afternoon to impress, when Erica Wunders falls into step beside me.
"That wasn't half bad," she says. "For a desert girl and all."
I frown, the snottiness in her voice not lost on me. "Well, I'm a Wisconsin girl now," I say, surprising myself when I realize I don't totally hate the way that sounds.
The corners of Erica's mouth twitch. "We'll see about that, won't we?"
"Uh, I guess so."
"I mean, you're probably not going to beat out Clara or anything so I wouldn't get too excited."
My heart's racing -- I have no idea what Erica's trying to do here -- but I keep my face stoney and calm. "We'll see about that, won't we?"
Confusion flashes across Erica's face but it disappears as quickly as it comes. "I'd trust me on this one," she says smoothly as if she hasn't missed a beat. Maybe she hasn't. "I know hockey."
"And I'm starting to," I reply. "And I think I did a pretty bang-up job."
Erica smirks. "That's the difference between you and me, I guess," she replies. "Catch you later, Natalie." She picks up her pace and walks right past the locker room and for that, I'm grateful.
What, I wonder, is that all about?