A LIE FOR LOVE
“What are the chances there will be booze at a birthday party for a pair of three-year-olds?”
“Uhhhh . . . slim to none?” My sister’s voice crackles through the car speakers on a scoff. “Why are you going to a birthday party for toddlers anyway? Is this some kind of new dating strategy? Like you’ll pick up more women if they see you interacting with small children? Oh! Is this like when we went to visit Kyle, and we took Max to the zoo, and, like, five women slipped you their numbers?”
She’s referring to an incident that happened when I was visiting our older brother, Kyle, in LA earlier this summer. Our nephew is like catnip for women. “No, Stevie, it’s not like that. The party is for my teammate’s kids, and his brother-in-law used to be the team captain, so it’s a good idea for me to make an appearance.”
“Right. Okay. Well, that makes it a lot less exciting.”
“Not everything about my life is exciting. What about you? Any plans this afternoon?” I need to move the conversation away from dating, because my little sister always has an opinion on my lackluster love life.
“I have a date tonight, so I need to try on half my wardrobe before I decide nothing is good enough, and then I’ll need to run out and buy something new.”
“A date? Who is he? How’d you meet him?”
“Listen to you, sounding like Dad.” Even though she laughs, there’s sadness in her voice. We lost our dad three years ago to complications from diabetes. We’re a pretty tight family, even with me living in Chicago, my brother being on the West Coast, and my sister and mother having relocated from New York to LA. My sister went out there for school, and my mom decided it was time to retire, so she sold the house and farm and moved out west at the end of last summer, right after Max was born.
“He’s in my program, we have a couple of classes together, and his name is Joseph.”
“How many times have you been out with him?”
“It’s our second date. Speaking of dates, when was the last time you went on one?”
I grip the steering wheel, hating that we’re back to this. “I don’t know. A while. I’ve been busy.”
“Busy pining over Alaska girl.”
It irritates me that she continues to use that nickname for the woman I spent the better part of last summer with in Alaska. “Don’t call her that.”
“It’s been a year, RJ. Don’t you think—”
I pull into the parking lot of the aquarium. “I’m at the party. I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.” I end the call. I’d like to say this isn’t a conversation we have often, but I’d be lying. Between Stevie and Kyle, someone brings her up at least once a month. Her name was Lainey. Is Lainey. Provided she’s still out there somewhere.
I park next to the massive blue pickup truck that manages to stand out in this parking lot full of silver and black SUVs. It belongs to my teammate Randy Ballistic, who’s currently leaning against the tailgate, thumb typing on his phone.
I cut the engine and get out of the car. Randy falls into step with me, pocketing his phone as we cross the lot. “I’m a little surprised to see you here.” He eyes the gifts tucked under my arm, covered in rocket wrapping paper.
“I haven’t seen most of the guys since playoffs, so I figured it’d be good to stop by.”
He nods in understanding. “Yeah, I tried to get out of it, but Lily insisted we come. She came early to help set up.” Randy and Lily have been together for as long as I’ve been on the team, and while they don’t have kids, they have a dog, which is like training for a baby.
Inside the aquarium, one of my teammates’ kids runs by holding a giant inflatable shark, screaming at the top of his lungs. I like kids, and kids generally like me. But I prefer my current role as an uncle to my nephew, Max. I can be the uncle who gives awesome presents, and when Max starts crying, I can pass him back to my brother or sister-in-law and walk away.
“This is like an advertisement for birth control right here,” I mutter as a little redheaded toddler comes wobbling over, face covered in chocolate and a doughnut in his hand. The kid—who definitely belongs to my redheaded Scottish teammate, Lance Romero—reaches for Randy’s leg with his doughnut-filled hand but misses by about six inches, which causes the kid to trip over his own feet.
I swoop in and catch him before he can do a face-plant. He startles and loses his hold on the doughnut, so he bursts into tears.
“Hey, buddy, you’re all right.”
“Mah doughnut!” he screams and lunges for it.
“Five-second rule.” Randy shrugs.
“Quinn! Don’t pick food up off the ground,” Poppy, the kid’s mother and Romero’s wife, calls from across the room.
I crouch down in front of him. “Why don’t we toss that one in the garbage and get you a new one?”
“I want dat one!” he screams in my face, then proceeds to throw himself on the floor and have an epic meltdown.
Romero stalks over. “What’re you two doing to my kid?”
Randy raises both hands in the air. “He tripped and dropped his doughnut.”
Romero looks to me. He’s a nice guy, and I like him, but sometimes he has a short fuse, and I prefer not to be the one to set him off. “I told him we should get a new one. He didn’t like that idea much.”
Romero picks his kid up off the floor and cringes when he sees his face. “Quinn, my man, yer never gonna get the ladies like this. Let’s wash yer face and get ya a new doughnut, aye?”
“Want dat doughnut!” He points to the floor.
Romero steps on the doughnut in question. “What doughnut?”
“Da-eee! Mah doughnut!”
Romero gives us both a look. “I gotta take care of this. After the party wraps up, we’re headin’ to the pub. You two in?”
“With or without the kids?” Randy quirks a brow at Quinn, who’s fighting his dad’s hold and smearing his chocolate-covered face all over his dad’s arm.
Romero rolls his eyes. “Without. What the hell would be the point otherwise?” He lifts the kid over his head and makes airplane noises all the way to the bathroom.
“I should’ve brought a flask,” Randy mutters as he fills a plastic cup with soda.
I opt for a bottle of water. We make small talk with our teammates while I keep an eye out for Alex Waters. He went into sportscasting as soon as he retired from the ice. The camera loves him, but he’s got the background and the temperament to coach a team, and I want to find out if the rumors are true that he’s thinking about making the switch in the next couple of years.
“Hey! Rookie! How’s it goin’? Glad you made it back from Alaska in time for the party.” Alex claps me on the back. I have to brace myself so I don’t stumble forward with the impact. Alex is a big guy, and just because he’s not on the ice anymore doesn’t mean he’s lost any of his size.
I accept a man hug and back pat. “Me too. Things are good. Just getting settled in—you know how it goes. Looking forward to preseason training.”
“Team’s looking good this year. You wanna talk strategy at all, just give me a call.”
Before I can segue, his wife appears. “There you are! Can you please take Robbie to the bathroom? Every time we go into a women’s bathroom, he tries to climb up on the sink and pee in there.” Violet gives us a slightly strained smile. “Hey, guys, sorry to interrupt, but getting kicked out of the aquarium for letting my kid use a sink as a toilet isn’t on my to-do list today.”
She points at another child, who I think is one of Miller Butterson’s four kids. I can’t keep their names straight, and I’m pretty sure the one I’m looking at is one of their twins, which makes it even more difficult. “I’m just waiting for that one to pee in one of the fake potted plants. This summer Miller thought the best way to potty train Liam and Lane was to let them wander around with their doodle hanging out so they could pee whenever and wherever. Now Liam keeps trying to take his pants off, and he thinks if it’s a plant, he’s allowed to pee on it.”
“That’s actually awesome,” Randy says with a snort.
Violet grins. “I know, right? Liam has been the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Alex clears his throat, and Violet rolls her eyes. “I mean in terms of offsetting my own humiliating moments. Last weekend we had a barbecue, and Liam got into the greenhouse. Let’s just say there’s a lot of contaminated science experiments in there now.”
“Daddy, can we play yer-nal hockey now?” Robbie tugs on Alex’s sleeve while cupping his junk through his pants with the other hand.
“Sure, kiddo.” He nods to us. “I’ll be back.”
Violet watches them disappear into the men’s bathroom. “Robbie likes to aim for the salt pucks. He thinks it’s like playing hockey with his wiener.”
Randy nods. “Pretty much, actually.”
Five minutes later all the kids go rushing over to the dolphin exhibit. Apparently there’s some kind of guided tour. Since neither of us has kids, Randy and I hang back near the food table. I grab a chicken wrap and another water, wondering how much longer this will go on before we can head over to the pub. I’m guessing—since they haven’t done cake yet—it’s going to be a while.
Screaming comes from the gaggle of kids. “What the hell is going on over there?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. I’m gonna go check it out—maybe you should go have a chat with some of those girls.” He inclines his head in the direction of a group of female aquarium staff who are standing in a gaggle, whispering and gawking. We’re not especially low key today, since we’re all wearing team hats and shirts.
“Uh, I’m good. They’re probably all in high school.” I follow him toward the dolphin exhibit, curious about the shrieks and screams and what sounds a lot like someone crying.
“Everyone stay calm! It’s perfectly natural during mating season for something like this to happen!” The shrill, panicked voice is familiar. Maybe one of the wives?
“Oh shit,” Randy mumbles. He has a little extra height on my six-foot-two frame, so I’m guessing he can see something I can’t.
I make my way around the edge of the group; some of the moms have their kids’ faces buried against their stomachs, and one kid is yelling about someone being stabbed.
But the commotion barely registers, because across the sea of screaming, laughing, and crying kids is a very familiar woman wearing an aquarium-issued beige button-down.
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