I stopped at a red light a mile from the bowling alley. Evie was next to me in the front seat, a Pens t-shirt on and three dozen cupcakes in a plastic tray on her lap. She looked out the side window with her face turned away from me. She thought I couldn’t see the tiny pulling lines at the corner of her mouth.
“We don’t have to do this,” I said, startling her slightly. She whipped her head around, hair flying.
“I’m okay.” She nodded twice, once for me and once for herself.
There were a fair number of cars in the lot. I hurried around to her side and took the cupcakes as she climbed out. Instead of giving them back, I gave her my hand. As we approached the glass door we saw our own reflection – young couple, holding hands, we almost looked like parents going to a birthday party. I squeezed her fingers and slowed.
“I love you,” I put my face right to hers.
“I know. I love you too.” Her eyes were a little more sure now. “We’re gonna be fine.”
And so it was. I delivered Evie and the snacks right to the bake sale table, where Kelsey and a few of the other WAGs welcomed her warmly, but not too much. They fussed over the cupcakes instead and Evie readily admitted they were Nathalie’s doing. That got an even bigger response. She gave me an encouraging smile as I trooped off to join the boys backstage.
“You came,” Max said as I reached the staff break room where we’d wait to be introduced. “Did she make it?”
I nodded proudly. “Got out of the car on her own and everything.”
“She wearing your number?”
“No. She isn’t going to hide it but she’s not going to announce it either. No big deal unless we make it one, right?”
Nathalie’s cupcakes were glorious. Kelsey and I ate one a piece before they were on the table then quickly hid the evidence. The rest of the WAGs arrived with brownies and cookies, laying them out on the main counter and standing behind it. There was more food than there were people bowling, but it would look good when Pens TV got there. Vero arrived last, tutting at Marc for being the slowest person on the team. She squeezed in next to me as the first families began to arrive.
“Ready?” she whispered. It was unnecessary – it seemed like half the place was watching me from the corner of their eyes. I ran my hands through my hair and tried to look composed. I was as ready as I’d ever be.
Kids and parents arrived in force. They were on time and determined to spend every available minute with the Pens. Before long the place was full and people were happily enjoying the treats as they waited for the players to be introduced. I stood back and took the whole thing in – these people were so nice and so excited, I got caught up in it too.
When they announced it was time to bring out the players, the whole place went crazy. The guys were called out one by one. Marc was first, laughing like always, and I admired the proud smile on Vero’s face. One by one the entire team lined up across the front of the bowling lanes. Finally Sidney was announced, second to last. He may have gotten the biggest cheer, but Geno was two steps behind him and the screaming blended together. They were quickly assigned to their bowling teams and the fun began.
Over the top of the crowd I tried to watch Sidney interact with his new teammates. He kept leaning over, presumably to talk to someone, and getting lost behind the standing people. Eventually I gave up and watched Jordan, two lanes away and lined up next to a girl of about ten. They both put the bowling balls on the floor between their feet and pushed, racing them down toward the pins. Jordan’s face was a mask of concentration as he willed his to roll slower, slower. When she won, the little girl shrieked and bounced around. Next to him, Kris and Mike Rupp used a portable ramp to help a five or six year old boy roll the ball down the lane. He knocked over a good six pins and Tanger picked him up under his arm like a puppy, laughing and spinning. I thought I might die from the cuteness.
“Can I have a cupcake?”
I almost jumped. Totally distracted by the display of adorableness going on, I had missed Sidney weaving his way through the crowd. No one else had – at least twenty people had turned and were watching him, watching me.
“You don’t eat cupcakes.”
“I do. I love them,” he said matter-of-factly. Then he gave up the ruse. “How’s it going back here?”
“Fine, great. Uh, no one has talked to me yet.” I shrugged, looking around at the other WAGs enjoying the bowling, mingling with the families and players. In truth I felt kind of invisible, which was nice. The last thing I wanted was for Sidney Crosby’s girlfriend to be the story of the day – it was clearly all about these kids and their families.
“Want to come meet my team?” he asked.
I watched Evie carefully for signs of panic. The bake sale area was near the bowling floor, but there were so many people around that no one noticed her. Probably because no one was trying to – the families and kids were here for the event, not for gossip. Even Max didn’t have anyone to hit on. I knew this would be a good event to start Evie on, then gradually work up to more public outings that were little more than bachelor auctions.
Still, I didn’t want her to feel she had to hide behind the WAGs all night. The first step got her in the door, I hoped the second would bring her next to me.
“Yeah,” she said. And she smiled – she wanted to meet them. She wanted to do this. It was all over her face and it made my heart sing. As she came around the side of the counter, I instinctively reached for her hand. She reached for mine. Then we stopped.
“In for a penny.” She wrapped our fingers together. And just like that, I walked across a crowded room holding hands with a beautiful girl.
My team was the family of Jimmy, a ten-year old boy with leukemia. He moved and played fine, but needed a lot of special medical attention that was provided by the UPMC children’s hospital. I was always careful to remember the kids I met at the hospital – I really, truly hoped to see them on my next visit. Jimmy had been there the last three times and I knew he felt like we were friends. I thought he should have the honor.
“Jimmy, this is the girl I was telling you about. This is Evie.”
He looked up from under his blond lashes and gave her a million-dollar smile then tugged her down by the hand. Evie squatted right at his eye level. “Are you his girlfriend?” he whispered.
Evie probably tried to be cool, but her face like up like Christmas. “I am. Did he tell you it was a secret?”
“No. He just said I was the first person to know. Now he says I can tell everyone, if it’s okay with you.”
Evie looked at me, her lips in a smirk but total happiness in her eyes. Jimmy thought she was taking too long to decide. “It’s okay,” he said. “I have a girlfriend too. There’s nothing to worry about.”
She laughed out loud at that, and wrapped a surprised-looking Jimmy into a hug. “Okay, introduce me to your family.”
His parents had been watching us, but he turned grandly like he was presenting the Queen of England. “Mom, Dad this is Sidney’s girlfriend.”
Their reactions were what I expected – a moment of total surprise they quickly tried to cover. Evie stuck her hand out, introduced herself and just started talking to them. It was a brilliant tactic, they didn’t have a moment to compute before she was making them like her. I’m sure they would have anyway. But she barreled right through the announcement like it was no big deal. Normally I would gladly take a break, get two minutes at a team event where I didn’t have to be “on.” In this case I stepped right up, put my hand on the small of her back and joined in the conversation.
I felt Sidney’s palm come to rest against my body and knew that was it – we were out. Jimmy brought the team over from the next bowling alley, including Duper and his wife. Jimmy introduced me and the same jolt of shock passed across their faces. The mom looked from Sidney to me and back again four times. This time Sid jumped in and started talking, never taking his hand from my back until it was his turn to bowl.
“Uh oh,” I said to Jimmy, who just nodded sagely. Sid made a sad face that I would doubt him then knocked down five pins.
“Ehhhh.” We teased him with so-so hand motions.
Sid turned over his shoulder. “Duper, you need another bowler on your team?”
He didn’t, of course, but the family was happy to take me on. Sid hit the restart for his turn, I selected a hot pink bowling ball. Just the few families around us were watching. Flower ran up between us and decided that wasn’t enough.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced rather loudly. Another lane full of people turned to look. “A challenge has been issued to see who is a better bowler, Sidney Crosby,” he paused for clapping, “or his girlfriend, Evie.”
Dead silence for a full second. Then Jimmy’s little voice, “Go Evie!”
Everyone from our Sid and Duper’s teams laughed. Then the people around them finished whispering to their neighbors – “His what?!” “Did he say girlfriend?!” – and laughed as well.
“Get ‘im, Evie,” Kris shouted. Now I saw the entire place had stopped to watch us.
“Yeah Evie, strike him out!” Geno said.
“That’s baseball,” Jordan called over the crowd.
“No, is strike. All pins down, strike. Strike him out,” Geno pointed toward the pins.
Jordan shrugged. “I guess so.”
Flower looked to make sure we were both ready. He backed up to the top of the lane divider, took off his hat and waved it over his head like he was ready to start the hot rod race in Grease. Sid smiled at me. I winked back and prayed for a lucky shot.
“Go easy on me, eh?” he asked for everyone to hear.
“You can always say I let you win.”
I lined up to the center of the lane, took three steps and let the ball roll free. Sid did the same in my peripheral vision. His was faster than mine, thrown much harder, and took six pins crashing down with it. My ball was still on the way – straight and even. With less noise but no less efficiency, I also knocked down six pins.
“Ooooooh!” Sid pinched his face in like when he missed a shot in practice.
“Shoot out!” Flower yelled, lining back up. Someone started chanting my name, then all the players joined in. Sid shouted they’d all have to do sprints at practice and the chanting got louder. We set again and he looked at me. It was almost his game face, almost serious then it split into that beautiful, heart-stopping grin.
“Let’s see it, eh?”
And we rolled. Again his bowling ball thundered down the lane, crashed spectacularly into the remaining pins and sent them all flying like shrapnel. The crowd cheered as Sid threw his arms up in a goal-scoring celebration. My shot was slower, but on target. I tried to control it with my mind and it rolled into the foremost pin and took out the two behind it. The back pin hit the one next to it so it teetered and wavered… and fell over. Spare.
“Whoooooooooooooooop!” I did a celebratory dance of my own and the crowd hollered. Sidney caught me in mid-dance, picked me up and spun me around. The moment my feet touched the floor was the moment his lips touched mine. We kissed, in front of everyone, for just a few seconds. It felt like I was being beamed up into a spaceship – bright lights, different gravity and the knowledge you’re going to wake up in a world you don’t recognize. But it got the biggest cheer of the night.
I didn’t mean to kiss her but I couldn’t help myself. Jumping up and down and waving her arms – I had to get in on that. Then when I was in, there was simply no way out.
The bowling duel made Evie the hit of the party. Jimmy insisted she bowl on his team the rest of the afternoon, so I did the rounds and talked to everyone the way the Pens always want me to do. They all mentioned how great she seemed or how pretty she was, and they were right. Glancing back at her every few minutes made my captain duties more enjoyable.
When the event was over, the families packed up and headed out. A few of the guys straggled, making plans for the rest of the day. Evie wandered over and Jordan tossed his arm around her shoulders. “You guys wanna come over? We can Google Evie every five minutes and see what pops up.”
She elbowed him in the ribs. “You’ll only find all the dirty fan fiction I wrote about you. That’ll be awkward.”
“Here, use my phone,” Kris offered his iPhone.
I let Evie stand there, casually leaning against Jordan and thought that was new too. There had been a few girls over the years, but none who felt in two weeks like they’d known everyone for two years. None were as confident as Evie. To see her scrolling through Kris’ photos or taking a sip from Max’s drink – she belonged here even without me.
My responsibilities to the team often left me feeling like I had to entertain everyone, especially at a public event where they all wants to interact with the face of the team. I’ve become like a robot programmed for a job but it’s not fun – it literally drains my batteries. And sometimes I’ve felt that way with girls, like they expect one hundred percent of my attention so they never have to worry I’m going to trade them in for something else. I feel their fear. By not pulling me around, by not clinging, Evie was making us closer.
We went to Jordan’s and ordered dinner. As we sat around the living room eating Chinese, the news came on with a clip teasing coverage of the bowling event. “The Annual Pens and Pins bowling event was today, with big smiles from the children’s hospital patients and some very big news from captain Sidney Crosby,” the voiceover said.
TK cracked his fortune cookie. “Evie, this one’s yours: You will break the hearts of girls all over Pittsburgh.”
“No, that’s Max’s.”
Max opened his cookie to check. “Hey, they all say the same thing!”
The news report was only two minutes long. It showed the players being introduced, a few shots of bowling and a brief interview with the Children’s Hospital director. Then it cut to a clip of Evie and I lined up with our bowling balls and Marc calling the little contest.
“… or his girlfriend, Evie!”
The newscaster’s voice came on. “You heard that right folks, Sidney Crosby made his first-ever public appearance with a girlfriend today, introducing her to families and kids at the Pens and Pins bowling event. We didn’t get a chance to speak with her, but if she’s caught the captain’s heart we should be seeing a lot more of her around Pittsburgh soon.”
The video showed our second shots, Evie’s victory dance and our subsequent kiss. I reached under the table and squeezed her leg. It was very chaste and cute but my heart pounded like a bass drum. That was exactly the kind of thing I’d spent so long avoiding, knowing that eventually the time would come. Finally seeing it on screen sent a flood of panic through my system.
Evie peeled back my fingers one at a time. “Not the end of the world, right?””
“Very cute,” Kelsey said reassuringly.
Jordan had the right of it though. “Five, four, three, two…”
Ring. Buzz. Beep. Like a hot potato passed around the table, every phone in the room rang one after the other. Coach called me. Max got our communications director, Kris got Mario’s assistant. It was an extra minute before Evie’s phone rang, but she ignored the call. And the next five. Everyone confirmed that everything was fine then raced to hang up the phone. Finally Marc clicked off from Katie O’Malley at Pens TV who didn’t want to be scooped. We all looked at each other in silence for a minute.
Jordan broke in. “Now we can Google.”