1 The puck smashed into the goal like a grenade exploding.
Making a quarter turn with his stick, Michael deftly flipped a new puck onto the ice from the quickly emptying bucket at his feet. Moving like a low-flying plane, he approached the goal and crossed the bar. Before another second had passed, an orange puck had smashed almost through the nubbly gray net and joined the other pucks scattered at the bottom of the goal.
"At least I can still aim, " Michael thought, looking with satisfaction at the growing constellation of pucks that had shot back onto the ice after being pounded inside the bounds. "Too bad I'm fifty thousand times too slow to be the next Wayne Gretzky.
"In the cold air of the rink, Michael's breath made plumes of smoke as he skated over to his bag to take a swig from his water bottle. "Though at this point, I'd be happy to take a job cleaning the ice."
He surveyed the rows and rows of darkened seats that surrounded the rink. His loud, ragged breathing was the only sound in the place, that and the hum of the overhead fluorescents. Michael always snapped the lights on when he had these late-night practice sessions at Orca, an indoor ice rink with distinctive black-and-white patterning.
Michael took a long pull from his water bottle and placed the cap back on. A low, groaning sound suddenly seemed to rise from the benches around him, like a beast slowly waking. Michael tensed, snapping his head around to find the cause. Then his shoulders relaxed. The groan, he realized, had come directly from him.
Before Michael could stop it, another groan escaped, this one like the whoosh of air escaping a tire. He began to pound his chest as if he were having a choking fit. It seemed like the first real exhalation he had allowed himself in months, but for some reason, he was afraid. If he let himself feel anything right now, he might discover that he was filled with enough rage to smash up the whole arena.
"Well, isn't that what hockey players are supposed to do?" he thought, surprised to find a small smile making its way across his features, like a hiker clambering over unfamiliar terrain. "Maybe I'm cut out for a life on ice after all.
"A life on ice was right. Ever since he'd reached the spring of his senior year at Georgetown University, that's how he'd felt—shelved, on hold. Michael smiled again. This was easily his first real smile in months. Or at least his first real smile since he'd finally accepted the fact that no matter how hard he'd worked to fit the profile and prepare himself for his chosen career, no matter who his father was, the CIA just wasn't going to respond to the application he'd sent them nearly a year ago.
They hadn't even sent a form letter to acknowledge receipt.
Cursing and mumbling under his breath, Michael grabbed his bucket and skated back out onto the ice to begin the tedious task of rounding up all the pucks. Kneeling down to grasp one that had lodged under the skeleton of the goal, he slipped, then found himself sprawled out nearly full length under the battered hood, his ear smarting where he'd winged the side of the goal on his way down.
Michael looked up at the ceiling, the bulbs of the hanging orbs blinding him momentarily.
"Now I'm r
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