Monday, April 7, 2014


Meghan walked right down front. Warm-ups would start in just a minute. Few fans were in attendance at an Islanders pre-season game, but they buzzed with a positive, reinforcing vibe that Meghan found infectious. She thought John could work with this, feed off it until later in the season when hopefully the Isles’ record was solid and their audience swelled.

The announcer’s voice came over the PA: Ladies and gentlemen, your New York Islanders! Skates stepped onto the ice, a blur of blue jerseys with with numbers. She scanned the numbers; no luck on the first go-round.

John did as he always did: one lap, stop by the bench. He was already limber, first to line up for drills. The music was loud and the lights bright, who cared if there were not many people around to enjoy it? John liked it just fine regardless. He was fixing a piece of tape on his stick when Moulson barrelled into him from the side, pinning him against the boards as hard as he dared without risking injury.

“Did you see?”

John had not seen anything. Matt nodded toward the far boards, below the penalty box area near the blue line.

Meghan had used the biggest piece of paper she could find - something legal-sized that Michael had from work. The irony of using a Rangers document at an Islanders game was not lost on her. She’d stopped at Duane Reade to buy a Sharpie before getting in the car Michael insisted on ordering. In the back of a sleek black sedan, she wrote two simple words as boldly as possible on the back of his paper. Now she held it low against the glass as the Islanders skated by.

John noticed the sign first. He read it and smiled the way he always did when fans and adoration embarrassed him. He looked to see who was holding it flush with the dasher, trying to be inconspicuous.

Hi John.

The girl behind it was Meghan.

He could tell from across the ice. She had on a short-sleeve blue shirt with an Islander logo, white long sleeves underneath and her hair pulled forward over her shoulders. He’d know her from a mile away, from the back, from the side, from space. John instantly felt guilty for not knowing at some psychic, subatomic level that she was here. Behind him, a voice said, “Dude. Really?”

Of course it was Matt Martin, shaking his head. He was too used to having the hottest girlfriend and amazed to find Tavares challenging that title. John pushed off his left foot and arrived five seconds later right in front of the girl of his dreams.

Phwoar, Meghan’s whole body said. John in street clothes was so different from John, captain of his team, on the ice for a game. The exhibition game in Brooklyn had been one thing but this John’s home rink, where he belonged. Even in a mostly empty barn the idea was overwhelming. She blinked to keep her focus as he approached.

“Hi,” he said. The smile on his face was so big it hurt. People around them were noticing. She could almost hear him over the music and definitely read his lips. So she waved.

“What are you doing here?” John asked with a demonstrative shrug.

Meghan folded over the corner of the sign where she’d written her second message: I missed you.

Nothing had ever felt so good. John thought that maybe if he someday won a Stanley Cup, maybe that would be similar. Maybe not. The Stanley Cup only lasted one summer, after all, before he had to start fighting for it again. This felt like big news, like Meghan might finally be a permanent thing.

“Good luck,” she said. Her heart was doing kickflips. She wanted so badly to shout: I got the job, I’m moving here, I can’t wait!!! But she needed to be able to end that sentence with a kiss.

There were only three words in John’s vocabulary at that moment. He was sure Meghan already knew what he wanted to say.

He flew, and the team flew with him. Meghan had bought a seat in the 100 level for under $25 - a price so low it would make her dad cry. Someday she’d tell him, after John had gotten him seats that good to a game in Toronto. She was on the penalty box side, near the blue line of the Isles offensive zone.

John knew exactly where. He felt her eyes on him like bubbles coursing over his skin. Less than two minutes into the game, he was in front of the net when a shot came from the point. John didn’t even look, he just angled his stick and knew this was his night. The puck was behind the Preds goalie before anyone could blink.

Meghan had watched John play in Brooklyn, plus James and Steven and PK and Michael plenty of times, but this still felt different. She didn’t worry more about John; didn’t need too because he was that good. Instead she wanted to shout: Look at him! He’s so good! Don’t you want to pay to see this?! Looking around the arena, she cursed the fact this wasn’t Canada and not so many people cared. When John scored, she cheered loud enough for all the empty seats.

John scored again in the first period. In the second the Isles pulled away and ended up winning 6-4. Goals were exciting but the back-and-forth on the scoreboard gave Meghan fits. Only when the buzzer sounded did she let out the breath she’d been holding.

John did his captain duty, waiting until his teammates had filed off the ice, then he practically ran down the hallway. In the locker room, he put his helmet on its shelf and chucked his soaked gloves into the equipment cart. With still-damp hands, he texted Meghan: Don’t leave.

On the concourse, she smiled. As if she would go.

John would be downstairs talking to media then he’d shower. The idea of him all freshly clean gave Meghan the flutters. She leaned against a kiosk, willing him to hurry.

Instead an usher came for her. By then she was practically the only person left in the entire building. The older man walked her to an elevator and through a maze of hallways into the bowels of the oldest unrenovated arena in the NHL. Michael had warned her that the Nassau Coliseum was bad, but she saw a certain charm in a place that hadn’t changed in decades years. It felt like old time hockey.

“You can wait in here, miss.”

The lounge was painted and decorated, TVs on the walls all turned off. Someone had tried to cover up the outdated look of the place by making this spot as comfortable as possible. It was smaller than other lounges she’d been in and Meghan thought it might be one of several tucked into the administrative level. It was empty tonight.

Photos of famous Islander moments were on display. Meant the inspire, she wondered if the pictures had the opposite effect of reminding everyone the Isles hadn’t won anything since their four Cups in a row thirty years earlier. Between the old pictures and the old building, Long Island seemed like the land that time forgot.

Behind her, the door opened. John was on her so fast he must have run down the hallway. His arms cinched her tight, face buried in her neck. His heart was pounding.

“What are you….” was lost in a kiss. John felt like he hadn’t seen Meghan in months, years even, instead of just a few days. The surprise of her turning up on Long Island could not be for no reason. But that reason would have to wait until he finished soundly kissing her face off.

Meghan was so excited, she couldn’t keep it in. “Surprise!” she said, pulling back.

John was panting a little. “You’re always full of surprises.”

“Can you handle another?”

He went still in anticipation. It was no secret he what he wanted but even John was careful not to hope himself into heartbreak.

“I got a job. Here. Today. Igotajobheretoday!” Her voice rose until she was practically shouting.

They were on the couch, on top of each other and halfway to the floor when Moulson stuck his head around the door. “Oh dear God!” Matt turned right around to leave.

Meghan slipped out of John’s embrace and landed butt-first on the ground, squeaking in surprise. John jumped to his feet and hauled her up, relieved it wasn’t his coach to catch him attacking a girl in the family lounge. As soon as Meghan was steady, she went for Matt.

“Woah, good news or what?” he asked, pushing her hair out of his face and hugging her back. Over Meghan’s shoulder, Matt looked at John. His best friend was beaming like he’d just won it all.

“Thank God,” Matt said.

Quickly John added, “Amen.”

Matt called Alicia, who called someone else to come over and watch sleeping Maja. Colin, Martin and some of the other guys joined them at a bar in Garden City. Alicia had given Meghan the biggest hug she’d ever experienced and whispered, “Welcome home.” No one asked for details, sensing she and John had not gotten to speak privately. They simply welcomed her like they’d all waited long enough to do it.

Before an hour passed, Colin declared it time to go home. He even let Meghan ride shotgun in John’s car. She went straight upstairs to John’s room and lay face down on the bed. John followed, stretching out along side her and pulling her close.

They were quiet for a long time. Meghan kept her eyes closed, face buried in John’s chest. She concentrated on taking deep breaths, each one full of John and free of uncertainty.

A lifetime had passed since she playfully kissed a cute guy at the gym. Friendships had become more. Relationships had become less. Dreams had changed, taking plans along with them, and to some degree Meghan felt her fate had been determined. She was with John. She had made that choice and bent circumstance to her will. If she had to do it again, she would. But she would always be with John.

Eventually John said, “Thanks.”

Meghan laughed softly. “Anything for you.”

“You laugh,” he shifted so he could look into her eyes, “but you mean that. I heard what you told Kaylynn, you know.”

“I know,” she admitted. Meghan heard her own words everyday: I am willing to risk it for John because that is what you do when you’re in love. You find a way to be together because you cannot be apart. She had meant what she said back on that sidewalk but it wasn’t until this moment that she could claim she’d made them true.

“Thank you for finding a way,” he repeated.

They shed some clothing and twisted together beneath a thin blanket on John’s bed. Mentally and emotionally, three months of fighting for and against this moment had worn them out. John fell asleep first and Meghan kissed the scar above his lip before she drifted off.

When she opened her eyes, it was morning. John was there, looking at her with those deep green eyes, a slight smirk on his face. Maybe he was surprised to find that had all been real.

“How’d you get here?” he asked.


“I mean to the game.”


“Whose car?”


He rolled his eyes. “I knew it. You went to Del Zotto’s.”

Meghan smiled guiltily. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Not until I knew if I got the job. I bought my ticket for the game before I got the offer - but I really wanted to have good news.”

John could not resist that reasoning. He reached for Meghan’s phone that was plugged in on the nightstand. Del Zotto picked up on the third ring. “Hey gorgeous.”

“You flirt,” John said.

“Jesus, Tavares. You sound even uglier than you look.”

John laughed. “Do you actually need a helmet, or just a little more hair gel?”

Banter aside, Michael guessed that a very happy John had spent a very happy night with Meghan. Which meant only one thing. “She hasn’t told you she’s gonna live here, eh?”

John watched Meghan’s face pull into a grimace. She could clearly hear Del Zotto. “With you?” John asked. “Over my dead body.”

“As much as Neal might appreciate that, its’ not necessary. I’ve got room - and a pool, ask her about the pool. I’m hardly here and I figure,” Michael paused for effect, “when you’re in town you’re never gonna let her stay somewhere else, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” John could not imagine Meghan sleeping twenty miles away, alone, in another guy’s condo while he slept in this very bed. “But it’s the nights I’m not here I care about.”

Michael lowered his voice, knowing Meghan was probably listening. “Come on, bro. If I wanted Meghan, I’d have made a real move a long time ago, alright?”

“That’s exactly what Neal said. You guys are the same.”

“No.” Michael’s tone was surprisingly serious. “Let me tell you the difference between me and Neal: I listen. And all I’ve heard and seen for months is that Meghan loves you. The only way Neal and I are the same is we want her to be happy. If that’s with you, well… I don’t fucking understand it, but I’m going to make sure she gets it.”

There were a million things wrong with the idea of Meghan living with Michael, but John knew the actual arrangement would be fine. It took care of the final step in her move to New York even more quickly than John could have hoped. Michael had been a voice in the chorus all summer, and it turned out he’d been telling Meghan to pick John all along.

“Listen,” Michael continued, “this way she’s practically got her own place in the city. If she hates it, she leaves. Or maybe you play your cards right and she moves out there. Either way, for now, let it be.”

John had been watching Meghan’s eyes as they both listened to Del Zotto talk. She nodded once - John trusted her, which meant trusting Michael. Which strangely felt like the right thing to do. John was confident DZ was not about the change his tune now. And if he did, well Long Island wasn’t that far away.

“I promise to keep an eye on her,” Michael said.

John sighed. “Okay.”

“Through the keyhole,” DZ added. In the background, Meghan laughed. “Maybe a camera in the shower.”

“Fuck you,” John smiled.

“Oooh, webcam. Total side business. I already know who my first subscriber will be.”

“Okay, it’s off.” John whacked Meghan with a pillow. She kept right on giggling. “She can sleep under her desk.”

“Alright, alright. No webcam,” Michael conceded. “She probably sleeps in an Isles jersey anyway.”

Meghan flew home Sunday morning. Lucy picked her up at the airport and they drove to her parents’, where Meghan had been staying since John went back to New York.

She’d been practically living out of a bag after leaving James’ house. John had given her drawers at his house in Mississauga, but even staying there every night always had an expiration date. Her parents’ place was also a temporary fix. With all that practice it would be easy for Meghan to split her time between Michael’s apartments and John’s house. She and Lucy pulled out the fall and winter clothes, divided them into bags and stuffed boots and underwear into every available space. The extra stuff - photos and books and whatnot - seemed outdated after her year in London. In the end she divided things into two small boxes, one for Michael’s and one for John’s, and figured she’d collect new stuff to match her new life.

By four-thirty, Meghan’s room was mostly empty and her car mostly full. They piled into Lucy’s car and drove the hour and a half north to Barrie, Ontario. No need to race there for a stolen moment with John now.

An NHL game in Barrie was a big deal, even in pre-season. The small arena pulsed with an energy that Nassau Coliseum had lacked. IJohn’s parents were there, along with most of the people Meghan and Lucy had met at their barbecue earlier in the summer. No one looked surprised to see her again; in fact John’s mother Barbara had already told anyone who would listen that Meghan was on her way to New York the very next day. She and Joe greeted Meghan with huge hugs.

Meghan wondered what she would have told John’s parents if the job hadn’t come through. How could she look at these people and say she was less than willing to give up… what? No job, living with her own parents, practically nothing. All summer she’d worried about doing this her own way, but in the end it had been the only way. Hockey parents sacrificed a ton for their kids to pursue the sport. From the look in Barb’s eyes, Meghan knew her own effort did not go unnoticed.

For his part, John was on cloud nine. He stepped onto the ice as the leader of his team. His family was there to see it - a family that now officially included Meghan. So what if fewer than seven thousand people could fit into this rink when a handful of only a handful of them really mattered?

For once, things clicked on the ice as well as they were working in John’s personal life. Okposo scored first, followed by three of the Isles’ minor league system guys. John knew he was supposed to be examining their play for NHL-caliber potential but all he could see was the scoreboard - one-nothing, two-nothing, three to one, four to two. Always an insurance goal between the Isles tally and what the Senators managed to score. If this patchwork lineup could click, maybe the Islanders’ were looking at a strong season.

In the third period, John got the puck on his backhand and flicked it past the Ottawa goalie. The move was a reflex. His celebration may have been a little over the top.

After the Isles won 5-2, everyone waited. They’d visited the arena when John played in the OHL and helped themselves to one of the lounges. It would be a while before his family and friends got to see him again. Meghan followed the group, but took up a spot outside the door to wait.

He came out jogging, dove grey suit coat open and lavender tie knotted tightly. The outfit was perfectly tailored - she couldn’t help but notice the thought he’d put into dressing. His dark hair was towel-dried and raked to one side in an attempt at grooming. John saw Meghan and picked up speed, not stopping until he’d wrapped his arms around her waist.

“All packed?”

“All packed,” she nodded.

“Got your passport?”


“Check your oil? You might need a change if….”

Meghan kissed him right in the middle of his responsible pre-road trip checklist. She would always love that he wanted to take care of her, though she’d taken a long time to let him do it. And even when his life was consumed by hockey, Meghan knew John would always make sure she was okay.

“I love you,” she whispered..

John said the words he’d been hoping to say since the day they met. “See you in New York.”


Tuesday, January 21

“Hey,” John said, coming to a stop near the center line.

“Sup.” Del Zotto nodded toward the visitors bench at Madison Square Garden, where Meghan was sitting two rows back watching her boyfriend and her roommate make nice. They’d actually been great all season, hanging out together when the occasion called and only mildly marking their territory when it came to sharing Meghan. She threw them a little wave. John gave Del Zotto a friendly stick tap on the shins and went back to the warm-up skate.

The Islanders were playing the Rangers in front of a packed house. Despite the standings, which still had the Isles out of playoff contention, they were the hottest team in hockey. Seven out of ten January games had been wins and John felt their confidence multiply exponentially each time. They were climbing - and John was leading. He was second in overall points, near the top in goals and had been officially selected for the Olympics. The Islanders were making a run guided by a career-year from their captain.

John tried to give Meghan all the credit, but she just laughed. He’d been nominated for the Hart Trophy before they ever met so anything John got, he earned. Still, her being in New York was working. The job was great - challenging, fast-paced, enlightening. Meghan’s bosses were thrilled with her performance and she’d eventually come clean about her connections to their favorite hockey teams. Kevin and Rick were somewhere in the crowd tonight, a little gift from their newest employee.

Outside the job, Meghan could not have asked for a better life. Michael had proven to be a great choice of housemate. He wasn’t quite the party boy she had expected - they watched movies and went to dinner, she called thirty minutes into each of his dates in case he needed to be rescued. And the pool was pretty amazing too.

That took the pressure off John. When he was away, he knew Meghan wasn’t lonely or regretting the move. He usually wished he were with her, checking out a show or eating at some brand new restaurant. When he was home though, she was all his. She called his place her “beach house” and went on “vacation” there as often and long as John was in town.

He called every single night from the road to say he loved her. Tonight he would get to say it in person.

“I don’t think he wants to see me,” John protested. Meghan laughed and kept pulling his arm. The Islanders were off the next day and no one was taking the bus home after the game. Especially because they had rallied from two goals down to beat the Rangers 5-3, making their January win percentage 73%. Celebrating was in order, as soon as Meghan changed her clothes.

“He didn’t miss you getting three assists and being named First Star, so I think he can handle five more minutes,” she insisted.

John shrugged. “I also had four shots on goal.”

At Michael’s place, he followed Meghan right into her room. She made a show of closing the door before slipping out of her sweater and leggings in a way John had come to know well. He reached out, grazing the smooth skin of her lower back as she wiggled into a pair of dark jeans. A blue and white striped top went overhead and she stepped into nude patent leather heels. Outside they heard the front door open.

“Hey, we’re just leaving,” Meghan said as they entered the living room.

Michael was standing in the kitchen staring into his hand. At her voice, he looked up.

“Tavares, I’m glad you’re here,” he tossed something to John. “Yours now.”

John caught the object: Michael’s keys. The silence was instant and suffocating.

“What?” Meghan whispered.

“Traded,” Michael said. “Nashville.”

John didn’t hear what came next. Fear welled in his chest like an oil spill, coating everything and blocking out senses. He saw Meghan grab Michael from behind, and the big defenseman move her around into his chest. They stood wrapped up in each other, still as a statue. In another instance it might have bothered John to see some guy clinging to Meghan. At this moment he was glad Michael had someone.

A trade was like a shark. It lurked out of sight, always circling. No one was ever really safe. Some guys wanted them, bargained for or demanded them. But usually it was a weapon or punishment that came out of nowhere and knocked you to the ground.

John jangled the keys in his hand.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said honestly.

Michael shrugged, letting go of Meghan. There had been rumors for months - he’d gotten so used to them being empty. Now he could not claim surprise. Still Michael loved his life in New York; besides being in the greatest city and media market in America, it was a pretty sweet place to play hockey. Nashville sounded like a death sentence.

Still DZ managed a smirk. “At least it’s not Long Island.”

John appreciated the attempt at levity. “You sure? I’ll give you my keys.”

They talked for a few minutes. The trade would officially be announced in the morning and Michael would leave immediately. Meghan promised to pack up whatever he needed and fly down with it over the weekend; Michael made John keep the house key since they had no idea yet what would happen to the condo. When Michael said he just wanted to go to bed, Meghan grabbed an overnight bag of her own.

Neither she nor John were in a mood to party after leaving. He texted his teammates and told them not to wait. She used Uber to get them a car and ten minutes later they were in the back of a dark sedan, whisking toward Long Island. John held her hand.

She was scared. Like James, Michael was a lot more fragile than he let on. The trade was a huge blow to his ego. The first few months in Pittsburgh had been rough for James - he’d even let Meghan see how bad, which meant he really hit rock bottom. The idea of that happening to Michael made her sick. Meghan tried to tell herself it was a good thing, that he’d get more playing time and responsibility. Eventually she just told herself that was hockey - the life she had chosen, or at least that had chosen her.

John waited until they were home safe in his bed before pulling Meghan close. Seeing her sad or scared broke his heart. It was tough to admit there were things he could not protect her from - especially when he couldn’t even really protect himself.

“I won’t get traded,” he said. It was a reasonable promise, given his situation.

“I don’t care if you do,” she whispered. “Because you’re not going without me.”


Meghan smiled faintly. “Ever again.”

** the end **


Thank you for sticking around for all eight months - eight months?!?! - of The Boys 'Round Here. I have never written anything so long, either in time or pages. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Writing side-by-side with Harder Than Stone was the best part for me. Imagine this whole story plus another zillion emails of ideas and conversation… we could put out an encyclopedia now.

As promised, this will be my new James Neal story. It will pick up from where The Boys 'Round Here leaves James - he returns to Pittsburgh without Meghan and without much of his confidence, but hopefully with a little more common sense. It might be a while before you see the first chapter because I want to fine tune the ideas and plan out the story to take fewer than 8 months writing! I promise it will have James being good and bad (since my love/hate relationship with him really flares during playoffs), happy and sad and sometimes completely freaking perfect. Basically true-to-life, right?  You can follow and bug me to get the first chapter posted at Take Me Home Tonight. - J

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