The jagged peaks of the mountains surrounding the valley stretched the clear sky between them like the skin of deep blue drum. The sun, pausing at the zenith, cast a shadowless bright light on the dark ice of the frozen lake in the valley’s center. A dozen or more kids and a handful of adults swarmed over the dark ice like atoms, racing from end to end of the oversized rink chasing the darting of a jet black puck.
Aside from the metal, fire-engine-red goals at each end, the only man-made structure visible was the long wooden bench Evan found himself on. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been sitting there basking in the sun, nor could he remember plodding through the deep snow from the road where he assumed he’d parked his car, but he felt happy to be here as he smiled into the warm sunshine pouring over the skin of his face. After a lung-filling breath of cold mountain air, Evan leaned over his red sweatpants to tighten the laces of his skates. Sitting back, he pulled a small toque on over the top of his head and donned his hockey gloves, then grabbed the stick leaning on the bench beside him. One step with his left foot and a push with his right and he glided out through a gap in the snowbanks and onto the soccer-field-sized rink.
Over a cotton sweatshirt and a thin under layer, Evan wore the white jersey of a team he’d played for many years before, so he angled to the right to slide in behind the team clad in white. He didn’t recognize many of the faces, but he knew enough of them that he was welcomed into the team by a shout and a pass of the puck. He took a couple of strides in the clear before a young boy of maybe 12 wearing a dark-blue jersey approached him and Evan passed the puck to an open teammate.
In addition to the standard-issue hockey equipment of skates, gloves and a stick, everyone on the ice wore a similar outfit: sweatpants, a jersey over a hoodie or sweatshirt, and a toque or baseball cap above a pair of sunglasses. Skin tones ranged from bright white to tan to red based on how long the person had been playing beneath the high-elevation sunshine. There were young boys and girls, and a couple of men and women on each team, and a fully-clad goalie at each net. The younger kids tended to swarm around the puck while the older players spread out and away from the frenzy. And like everyone else, Evan found himself unable to contain a broad smile.
The dance of offense and defense surged in either direction as the teams traded possession of the puck, and after a couple of hours after Evan had joined the game, the goalie in white made a save and steered the puck away from the net. Evan gathered up the puck and swung wide, striding in the other direction with his right hand atop his stick that pushed the puck before him as his left arm swung back and forth to generate speed. Two dark-clad kids angled toward him and Evan passed the puck between their skates to a teammate near the center. He continued his route as the kids circled to follow the puck and a moment later Evan received the puck back as his speed increased. Striding past an opposing wall of kids, Evan began to curl toward the opposing net. An adult defender angled toward him and reached out in an attempt to knock the puck away but Evan slid the disc through the gap between the man’s stick and his skate. A youngster of about 10 wearing black sweats and a white jersey received the pass in a clearing behind the defender and quickly slapped the puck past the dark goalie.
The goalscorer whooped and threw his arms into the air, hopping on his skates as the dark team regrouped and the goalie fished the puck out of the net. In the moments before the game resumed, Evan glided behind the goal and took the scene in: still the sun blazed high overhead, still the blue sky was unblemished by a single cloud, and no one on either team showed the slightest inclination to stop playing anytime soon. It seemed to Evan this game could go on forever and he hoped it might.
A moment earlier, in a hospice center in New England, the on-call doctor placed the stethoscope back around his neck before turning off the heart monitor beside him. Then he turned back to close the eyes of the now-late Evan McIlheny.