Brandon Bouchard stood facing his adversary. Two thousand restless, shouting Kazakhstani waited in anticipation. The opponents did not look at each other. Instead, they stared down at their blades hovering inches apart. Brandon tensed and tightened his grip.
The linesman dropped the hockey puck and Brandon reacted a fraction of a second quicker than his opponent. He drew the puck toward him with the blade of his stick. He passed it to one of his teammates, Zach Cullen, a winger from Minnesota. The kid skated well and had what Brandon’s teammates back home in Toronto called ‘soft hands.’ Cullen outmaneuvered his defender and turned up the ice.
Brandon spun, intending to follow but a scowling player from the opposing team caught him under the chin with an elbow. Brandon’s head rocked back and his knees grew watery. He sprawled face-first onto the sheet of ice. Dazed, he wiped ice shavings from his helmet visor in time to see that Cullen had passed the puck to Viktor Antropov, the other forward on their line. The pair had just crossed the blue line into the attacking zone. Brandon leaped back up and skated as hard as he could to rejoin the play.
Brandon liked to think of the ice rinks as battlefields, each game was a battle to win, each season of hockey, a war. Two evenly matched sides fought to achieve victory. The coaches were the generals. They drew up the battle plans and shouted commands. Each goal scored signified a step toward conquest. The players who skated out with fresh legs during a line change entered the fray like reinforcements. Brandon dreaded suffering an injury; no soldier wants to get wounded. Most of the players played through pain and did everything they could to stay in the game. To Brandon, the worst feeling wasn’t the pain that usually came with an injury, but the frustration of having to sit and watch from the stands. Each army went through boot camp, training exercises, drills, and gathered intel about their adversaries. Instead of local recruits, the teams were mostly comprised of mercenary soldiers.
Brandon, playing nearly 9000 kilometers from his Ontario home, saw himself as the ultimate soldier of fortune. He didn’t speak the local language, but understood the universal language of hockey, and they paid him to play it.
Brandon had just celebrated his 24th birthday; he wasn’t a kid anymore. This might be a make-or-break season. He always hoped to turn heads, get an offer to play for more money in a better league. And Brandon still had his looks. At least, based on the attention he received from young—and sometimes not so young—female fans, he assumed he did. He still had a straight nose, never broken; he was a sniper, not an enforcer. He’d never dropped the gloves for a tilt. He only had a single scar along his left jaw line from when a stick blade caught him up high his first semi-pro season. He considered himself lucky. Brandon sometimes wondered how much longer his luck would continue.
Cullen and Antropov cycled the puck around the net with Daniel Jarvis, one of their defensemen. Brandon stayed back at the blue line until he and Jarvis could switch places. Then he saw an open spot and drifted toward it. For the moment, the opposing team had lost track of him.
Across the ice, Cullen raised his stick blade to the rafters, as if readying for a thunderous one-timer shot. Brandon broke toward the net, his eye on Antropov. His teammate sensed his presence and found him with a perfect saucer pass. Brandon settled the puck, noted the goalie out of position thanks to Cullen’s distraction, and fired a slap shot. The goalie adjusted too late to make the save and Brandon watched the puck hit the back of the net. He always carried with him a frisson of unease until he or someone on his team scored a goal. Then the uneasiness lifted, replaced by a feeling of relief—until the next face-off.
Brandon passed the net, but before he could raise his arms in celebration, someone drove a crushing blow into his lower back. He hurtled toward the ice rink boards that surrounded the playing surface. For one frozen moment, Brandon mentally celebrated his goal. Then he struck the boards headfirst.
The soldier hears the crack of cannon fire and realizes he’s been hit. His rifle falls from his senseless hands. He topples to the battlefield, rolls, and lies still. Staring up, he sees the artillery explosions lighting up the sky overhead. He wants to close his eyes but there’s something up there... something falling out of the sky. He can’t move out of its way. It’s his helmet, knocked from his head by the initial impact. It blots out the sky and then lands on his face, turning everything to darkness.
Brandon couldn’t remember a damned thing. He didn’t need to remember to know he’d suffered a horrific injury. The wheelchair he sat in confirmed that for him. Brandon couldn’t feel anything from his waist down. He felt hopeless and alone. He was overseas on a temporary visa. He’d have to get in touch with his agent, or his parents, and alert them to his situation. He couldn’t stay, he needed better medical care than they could provide here. Brandon willed away the tears of self-pity that threatened to spill down his cheeks. He looked around him, craning his neck in hopes of sighting a familiar landmark.
The scene was so bright and clear he had to squint. Sounds seemed more like noises. Smells hit him with near-physical impact. Everything he experienced felt bolder and sharper, as if his brain compensated for its loss of mobility by sharpening the focus of his senses. His brain had dialed everything up to an eleven.
Brandon raised his voice. “Does anyone speak English? I need help.”
Passersby hurried past him. None of them looked him in the face or acknowledged his presence. They simply streamed around him. Brandon wheeled the chair toward a street corner and peered in each direction. Nothing looked familiar. Crippled, ignored, and now lost. He bowed his head and seethed. No one in Ontario would ever act this discourteous.
After a few minutes, Brandon straightened. His resolve had returned. He needed to find a location he recognized. The arena, the players’ living quarters, even a familiar grocery store would help him get his bearings.
Swarthy-faced men, women, and children surged past him, traveling in both directions. Brandon rolled forward at a deliberate pace, afraid of running over someone’s foot. As he crossed an empty street, an automobile sped straight toward him, and he pushed the chair’s hand rims in a frantic, adrenaline-fueled attempt at reaching safety. The car’s side mirror clipped one of the push handles on the back of the chair and spun him around, hard and fast. For one frozen moment, Brandon felt sure he’d tip and topple into the street. It didn’t happen.
He shouted an incoherent string of curses at the receding vehicle. He looked around for a sympathetic face but found none. Everyone ignored him as if afraid his paralyzed condition might be contagious.
Hours later, soaked in sweat, his arms trembling with exhaustion, Brandon caught sight of the ice arena. He summoned his last remaining vestiges of energy and wheeled toward the welcoming sight. He knew his teammates weren’t on the ice practicing this late in the afternoon, but he hoped he’d find Coach Popov in his office. Maybe Kenes, the team trainer, would still be around the locker rooms. One of them could help him.
Brandon reached the entrance and fumbled with the arena doors. With no one in the vicinity, he had to maneuver his way through by himself. At last, he got through the door and wheeled down the concourse toward the locker rooms and hockey operations offices. Brandon reached a black vinyl curtain and paused to collect himself. He pulled the curtain aside and rolled through, only to face another set of doors. Again, he fought the door until he had made his way through and rolled down the hallway toward Coach Pop’s office.
He reached his coach’s—former coach’s, he mentally amended—door and saw a thin line of light beneath the door. Brandon rapped on the wood but received no response. He knocked again, harder this time. Pop didn’t respond. He rattled the knob but found it locked. “Coach! Come on, open the door!” The door remained closed to him. Puzzled, he slumped against the chair’s backrest.
Brandon admitted defeat and rolled out of the arena as quickly as he could.
At least he’d regained his bearings. He’d roll to the apartments and find Cullen, or one of the others who spoke English. He knew they wouldn’t be as cold as Pop had been. By now, the sun had dipped close to the horizon and a chill had infused the air. His sweat stains chilled his skin. Brandon ignored his discomfort and rolled onward with dogged determination. Even stuck in this chair, unable to walk, he was still a hockey player, and hockey players had more grit than anyone on the planet. This he believed. One of the boys will help me out, he told himself. I’ll call my folks tonight and be on a plane home tomorrow.
His hopes were dashed yet again. Brandon found the entrance locked. He shouldn’t have been surprised. This was a standard precaution in a neighborhood with a less than ideal reputation. Brandon sat, considering. Some of the guys had likely turned in for the night, while those who had opted to go to a club wouldn’t return for hours. He was stuck.
A minor glimmer of hope came. He recalled a corner store a few blocks from the apartments. Outside that store sat a phone booth with a working pay phone. Back home, such a relic would be a rarity, but here in Kazakhstan, many still lingered. He ignored the dull ache in his arms and rolled toward the store.
Brandon wanted to scream. Part of him also felt like weeping. He did neither.
Instead, he stared dully at the pay phone. Someone had ripped off the receiver. The cord hung like the drooping tail of a chastised dog. It doesn’t matter anyway, Brandon thought. He realized he didn’t have money or a calling card to place an international call. In the end, he didn’t shout or sob—he laughed. His chest shook with rueful guffaws that bordered on hysteria. How could his current predicament get any worse?
As he pondered this, his gaze landed on a group of approaching men. His laughter ceased. Brandon could tell just by how they carried themselves—the drunken swagger, the boorish bravado—that they hunted trouble. At a club, surrounded by his teammates, he would have felt no fear. Here, at night, alone and crippled, he wanted to disappear. Not knowing what else to do, he rolled his chair backward into a recessed doorway.
There were five of them. Brandon’s eyes jumped from face to face. Wiry black hair, beetle brows, narrowed eyes, sneering lips. One guy chewed on a wooden toothpick. Another slammed his elbow into the side of the phone booth, cracking the glass. Four of them wore motorcycle boots. Brandon doubted they rode. Instead, they favored the boots as a fashion choice and because the heavy soles could inflict tremendous damage to a ribcage, for instance, or to a face. The group reached his doorway. Two of the men turned their heads to look in his direction but looked away after only a passing glance. He realized he was quaking.
The men passed him. Brandon waited, barely daring to breathe. He expected them to turn on him at any moment. Instead, the sounds of their empty boasting faded, and the group disappeared into the night. They’d shown him mercy.
Brandon wandered. He rolled through neighborhoods he’d never seen, never knew existed. When the sidewalk disappeared, he adjusted his trajectory and rolled his chair down the side of the street. He rolled well out of the way whenever a vehicle approached from either direction. But it was late, and traffic was light.
Brandon paused and gazed at the moon. It was nearly full and lent a ghostly iridescence to the tableau before him. He marveled at the idea that his family could look upon the same moon from their part of the world. There was a ten-hour difference between here and home, but Brandon could never quite reconcile in his mind which country was ahead of the other. He estimated it was close to midnight here. That meant, for his parents back home, it was closing in on 2:00 PM. The facts surrounding the moon’s orbit remained elusive to him. Would his family see the moon as he saw it later that night? Or had they already seen it during what, to them, was last night?
Brandon tried to feel closer to his family, but the attempt backfired. Now, he felt the distance between them even more keenly. Tears trickled down his cheeks and he wiped them away. For the first time, he realized he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. Nor could he remember the last time he’d used a bathroom. An appalling scenario came to him: if he couldn’t feel his legs, then maybe he couldn’t tell when his bladder was full. And if that was the case—
Brandon felt his crotch and found it dry. This should have comforted him, but it did not.
A terrifying idea presented itself, but Brandon rejected it hard and fast, like hip-checking an opponent into the boards. He grabbed the hand rims and pushed his chair down the road. He kept on at this pace until his arms felt weak and rubbery. He rolled to a stop to let his aching muscles rest.
The lit end of a cigarette glowed in the darkness. After a few moments, a querulous voice called out to him. Brandon felt so relieved at the acknowledgement of his presence that he didn’t hesitate. He rolled toward the voice.
An elderly woman hunched on a dirty wooden stoop. She wore a shawl over her bony shoulders. The elapsed decades had whitened her hair. Her face was a wrinkled roadmap of her life. She squinted at him and exhaled a cloud of tobacco smoke. Then she mashed the cigarette out and beckoned him to come closer.
Brandon wheeled so near their knees might have touched. “Do you have a phone?” he asked.
The old woman held up a gnarled hand in a gesture demanding silence. She examined his face, like a painter trying to determine if he was fit to serve as the subject of her next portrait. Then she took one of his hands. After only a moment, she let him go, broke their contact.
“Sen öldiñ,” she announced.
“Sorry, I can’t understand you.” Brandon’s frustrations reared up again. He hadn’t realized before today how much he’d relied on translations from his teammates.
The old woman rooted around in her wrappings until she withdrew a small pouch from some hidden pocket. The pouch was tied with a length of what looked to Brandon like leather, or rawhide. “Sen öldiñ,” she said again. This time, the words seemed to carry with them sympathy, even a degree of warmth. Yellowed fingernails loosened the strings. She reached into the pouch, and withdrew something that might have been dust, or ashes. The old woman repeated her words a third and final time and threw the powder into Brandon’s face.
His eyes burned and squeezed them shut. He heard her words again, but this time understood their meaning. “Sen öldiñ—you are dead.”
A blinding white light blazed behind his eyelids. Then all became darkness.
Brandon’s body reposed in the peace imparted by death, his neck broken. The empty vessel lay surrounded by teammates and opponents alike, their heads bowed, kneeling in respectful silence on the ice. The murmuring fans fell silent when the paramedics moved his inert form onto a spine board. One opponent sat weeping, apart from the others. Brandon knew, even without recognizing him, this player had dealt the deathblow.
Brandon Bouchard’s spiritual essence considered the scene for one frozen moment. He drifted toward the rafters of Kazakhstan’s Owl Creek Arena.