In the mess of my first day at Fullbrook I had one clear thought: I do not belong here. I didn’t have the right clothes, the right hairstyle, the right way to speak. I didn’t even know I had no clue about any of those things until I stood on the sidewalk outside my new home, boys’ dorm number 3, Tapper Hall, and watched the families swirling around the residential quad. The seniors managing Move-In Day strolled around in their soft-toed loafers, their linen jackets and ties, relaxed and carefree, putting parents at ease with the smiles they tossed to each other across the walkways and grass. I watched, amazed, as some of the freshmen plucked those smiles out of the air and tried them on for themselves. They were naturals.
Not me. I was the eighteen-year-old moron starting all over again at a new high school. A fifth year—postgraduate, they call it, to be kind.
“Hey,” one of the linen jackets said, approaching me. “You must be the Buckeye.” All I wanted to do was hide, but the sun was a
spotlight burning down through the leaves of the tree above me. When I didn’t respond, he continued. “They told me you were an athlete from Ohio.” He grinned. “Just look at you. You got to be the Buckeye. Hey, Hackett,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Found the Buckeye.”
I tried to look natural but I never knew what to do with my hands. That’s why I’d grown up holding a stick or a ball or a dumbbell. I clasped my fingers behind my back, and ended up looking like some keyed-up military man. I even had the stupid buzz cut.
All these guys had hair they had to style. Especially the guy walking up to us, the one called Hackett. These guys looked like they flossed their teeth with the kind of money I’d make in a summer working Uncle Earl’s farm. The short guy with a pit bull’s bulging shoulders and flat-faced grin, and his taller friend, the shaggy-haired pretty boy, the one called Hackett.
“What’s up?” I didn’t mean to sound standoffish, but I did. It comes too easy. I’m the kind of guy people expect to punch holes through walls—not because I want to, just because I can.
“Freddie.” The pit bull stuck out his hand. I took it.
The pretty boy looked on, sleepy eyed. “Hackett,” he said, without taking his hands from his pockets. “Ethan Hackett.”
“Hackett and I,” Freddie continued, “we’ve been assigned to you. All the new guys get a mentor to show them the ropes. Mostly freshmen, of course, but there are a couple PGs this year. So whatever, you’re one of the new guys.”
“We actually picked you, Buckeye,” Hackett went on.
“Ha!” Freddie barked. “No, I got assigned to you because I
play real sports too. Hackett thinks skiing is a sport.”
“Ignore him,” Hackett said. “He has a limited vocabulary.”
Freddie pushed Hackett, who stumbled, but balanced himself quickly. “See,” Hackett said, smiling. “Guy talks with his fists.”
“Back home everyone called me Jamie,” I said, trying to say something.
“Yeah, great,” Freddie said. “Drop those last two bags in your room, Buckeye.” He wiped a broad arc in the air. “We’ll show you around.”
Freddie urged me on, slapping me on the shoulder, pushing me through the dorm. He and Hackett walked down the hall throwing those smiles, shaking hands with parents and freshmen along the way. “Welcome to Fullbrook!”
They could have been running for office.
Once we’d dumped the bags and were back outside, Freddie led us up the street between the dorms. “Girls,” he pointed. “Girls. Boys.” He grinned. “We’ll get to the girls themselves later.”
“Cool,” I said, trying to follow him. I was taking in the sweep of scenery, the narrow, zigzagging paths winding through clusters of trees, connecting one brick mansion to another. The blue day—even the watery reflections in the stained-glass windows seemed curated, cultivated, perfected. History was everywhere, looming over me like the long, leafy branches casting shadows over the walkway.
“Hear you’re a football player.”
A sliver of pain sliced through me. “Was.” Football was out. That life was over. One play and it was as if I’d ripped a hole in
the ground and pulled my whole town down into the darkness below. “I’m here for hockey.”
My second sport. The one my family, Coach Drucker, and the handful of people who still talked to me back home all told me was my ticket up and out. Kid like you deserves a second chance, I’d been told.
“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Freddie went on. “You’re the new secret weapon. But this is fall. Football, football, football.” He stutter-stepped, threw a fake left, and rolled around Hackett. He got a few paces ahead of us, stopped, and turned back. “What I mean is, Coach O would give his left nut to have you on the football team. What’d you play?”
“Damn. That’s what we need, man! A defensive line. Blitz pressure. Sacks.”
He rambled on, setting nerves on fire beneath my skin. I hadn’t been on campus for an hour, and already I could hear the echoes from back home. What the hell’s the matter with you, Jamie?
“Look at you. Must have racked up a hell of a hit count. We scratch ours in rows on our lockers.” He bumped me with his shoulder. “Hit, hit, hit.” He nodded. “You know wassup.”
“Why aren’t you playing?”
I searched for something that wouldn’t sound as awful as the truth. “Grades,” I lied.
“For real?” Freddie said. “You have to do it all here, Buckeye. Do it all. Be it all.”
We crossed another street and Hackett pointed to a tree in
front of the administration building. “Oldest tree on campus,” he said. “I don’t know, 250 years old, something like that.” He pointed to a break between branches. From where we stood looking up, the branches perfectly framed the engraved lettering in the arch above the front door of the administration building. It was Latin, which I only guessed because of the weird V for a U.
“That’s right,” Hackett said. “ ‘Ut parati in mundo.’ Ready to take on the world, we say.” He grinned at Freddie.
“Are you screwing with me?”
“No,” Freddie said. He rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, it’s corny as hell,” Hackett continued. “They’ll take the whole freshman class here and show them this. They’ll talk about the tree, its deep roots, its soaring branches,” he said, dropping his voice cartoonishly. “They’ll point to the school motto and remind them what it means to join the Fullbrook legacy.”
“Corny,” Freddie echoed. “Now let’s get to the real shit.”
Ready to take on the world? I’d seen the motto when I’d visited the previous spring. Everybody at Fullbrook seemed like a genius to me, already worldly, already honing their special skill, building robots, singing arias, starting their own tech company. I wasn’t ready to do one night’s homework. I wasn’t ready to tie a tie. What did I do? I could stop a puck from passing between the pipes—but I had to make it all the way to winter before anybody would care about that.
They swung me around the administration building and into the academic quad. The lawn in the center was as long and wide as three football fields combined. In fact, Fullbrook might as well
have been a college campus. It had the multimillion-dollar sports complex, physics lab, arts center, and global studies buildings to prove it, not to mention the two-hundred-year-old redbrick mansions and halls housing all the other classrooms and offices. At the far end of the lawn, at the edge of the forest that surrounded the campus, were the baseball and football fields. But next to the sports complex, set slightly apart, as if to show off that it was there in the first place, was the hockey rink.
“That’s it,” Freddie said, pointing to the small stadium. “That’s where it’s all going down this year. I swear we’re making it to States.” The roof over the rink was concave, and because the great lawn sloped toward it, the entire building seemed sunk into the ground, the forest rising above it in the distance. The gleaming roof caught and threw back the light of the sun.
“Yeah, right,” Hackett said.
“Not football, maybe,” Freddie conceded. “We’re too small.” He eyed me. “But hockey? Hell, yes.” He clamped down on my shoulder. “We got our new secret weapon, right here. New goalie. My man, the Midwestern Monster.”
That nickname stuck like a fishbone in my throat. I was speechless.
He laughed and I forced a weak smile in return. “I know Coach O’s got to be talking to you about playing football, too,” he continued. “We need a line, man.”
Coach O’Leary wasn’t. He wasn’t supposed to. Football was out. Instead, we were supposed to meet the next day to begin planning my off-season training. I had to get decent grades, show the college world I was worth its time. I had to be ready to show
my stuff this winter. I’d been All-State junior year, but I hadn’t played senior year, so everybody needed to see that I was the goalie they all believed me to be. Coach O was counting on me. Back home, my folks were counting on me, and Coach Drucker. My old principal, too. Even Uncle Earl. This winter, everything was on the line.