Checked, p.1
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       Checked, p.1

           Cynthia Kadohata
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  To hockey kids all over the globe chasing their dreams—or just having fun


  * * *

  I GAZE AT the tall stairs and pause, gathering my strength, leaning my head back to stretch my neck. The sky’s a little gray ’cause there’s a fire near our house—we live in Canyon Country, near the Angeles National Forest, and the forest is on fire. But this morning the smoke still looked far away, so Dad and I decided to drive to the park and do our usual sixty-minute Saturday workout, just ’cause we’re workout animals. If you make an excuse not to work out one time, that means you can make an excuse the next time too. We’ve brought my Doberman, Sinbad, like we always do. There’re 280 concrete stairs leading from one level of the park to another. Now Sinbad looks at me eagerly, wagging his stub of a tail, but he never climbs up and down the stairs with us. He just doesn’t see the point.

  Dad starts running up the stairs, and I follow. “Come on, Sinbad!” I cry out, but even without looking, I know he won’t join in. Dad’s thirty-five and in amazing shape for an older guy. He’s already way ahead of me, so I pick it up. It’s eighty degrees, though it’s only seven in the morning, and I’m immediately sweating. June in Canyon Country can get pretty hot.

  My mind is on how my next week is looking hockey-wise. Tomorrow, three and a half hours of stick time with Shu Zhang. Then dryland muscle work with Shu. Monday, power skating and coaches’ time with Aleksei Petrov. Tuesday, pre-tryout clinic with Dusan Nagy. Wednesday, off day. Thursday, lesson with Ivan Bogdanov. He’s a figure skater who competed for Bulgaria in the Olympics. I skate with him to help my agility. Friday, pre-tryout clinic with another club in case I don’t make my first-choice team in almost two weeks. Saturday, three and a half hours of stick time with Shu. Then dryland with Shu. Plus any scrimmage that I can latch onto during the week. Plus working out a few times with my dad. Oh, and sometimes I do stick time by myself, just to get on the ice.

  Hockey is in my soul. I inherited my soul from Dad. He made it to the American Hockey League, which is the main development league for the National Hockey League, which is the premier hockey league in the world. He says that when he was twenty-three years old and briefly the best player on his team, the NHL was so close he could taste it. Then he made it up there—to the NHL!—but got sent back down in three weeks. All together he stayed in the AHL for four years, all in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s where I was born, a million miles from here.

  We sprint up and down the steps for fifteen minutes, then trudge up and down for another fifteen. Afterward—soaking wet—I lie on the grass to rest by the steps. Sinbad sniffs at me.

  “Enough relaxing!” Dad says, but I’ve only been lying there for maybe one minute!

  “Seriously? I just laid down!” He looks at me with zero sympathy. That’s the way it is with hockey. Nobody has any sympathy for you, not one person.

  We do push-ups—I can do thirty-three perfect ones and a few more half-baked ones. But I’m somehow getting my energy back. Then we rest for thirty seconds and do clap push-ups—I do ten. Usually I only do eight, so I’m suddenly thinking I’m pretty beast.

  Squats, several exercises with a ten-pound medicine ball. Frog jumps, one-legged slaloms, scissors, double Dutch. Five hundred crunches. I’m an animal!

  We finish with stretching. I’m a flexible kid, but for some reason I hate stretching. I just go through the motions.

  Then Dad takes a break with his phone while I walk off with Sinbad. There’s hardly anyone in the park. Dad lets me go off by myself with Sinbad ’cause my dog’s really muscular and really protective. Dobermans stick to you like superglue. Otherwise I’m not allowed to be out alone. Dad’s a cop, so he’s seen a lot of bad stuff—he knows what can happen to a kid on his own, even in Canyon Country. Sinbad and Dad are my only family. I mean, I have an aunt and my grandparents, but I don’t have a mom or sisters and brothers and cousins. My mom died when I was two. I can’t remember her at all, but Dad says I was so close to her that for my first year nobody else could even hold me. Then my dad was married for eight years to another woman, but it didn’t work out for a bunch of reasons that I’ll get into at some point. One reason was hockey—when a kid plays travel hockey, it takes up a lot of space in your life. Some people don’t like that.

  When I started playing, it was like Dad was living through me, but not in a bad way. It was more like him and me got so bonded he was out there with me on the ice during games. Even though I play defense, I got the winning goal in one playoff game, and later in the car he was tearing up about it. Getting that goal was pretty much the best moment of my life. Everybody was jumping all over me and pounding my helmet so that my brain was ringing and I was in a total other, like, awareness plane. When I told Dad about that later, his eyes got a faraway look, and he said, “Yeahhhhhhhh . . .”


  * * *

  HEADING HOME, AS the car drives along the 5, I see smoke billowing over a long stretch of hills and rising into the sky, so that it looks like evening—even though it’s nine a.m. The sun is red. The fire just started Thursday, but it’s already at fifteen thousand acres. Fire’s scary, but not totally unexpected—we’re in Canyon Country, man. Thing is, I love our house. It’s not a nice house or anything compared to the houses of a lot of the other guys in hockey. But I love it. I love seeing the hills in the mornings and walking Sinbad before school on the path just a mile from where we live. I was pretty much born to live here in the middle of all these hills and woods. Even if I make the NHL someday, I’m staying in Canyon Country.

  A few streets over from where we live are some fancy-schmancy houses, nothing a cop like my dad would ever be able to afford. But he loves his job. He can’t believe anyone pays him to do it. Our house is tan, a thousand square feet with two small bedrooms, a tiny dining room, a living room, and one bathroom. The backyard’s just dirt and yellow-green patches of grass. Dad doesn’t like to water a lot ’cause water’s so expensive. I mean, I feel guilty every time I flush the toilet. I just see dollar signs going down the drain. I go out back every couple of days to clean up dog poop, but otherwise we don’t use the yard much.

  When we pull onto our street, we see fire trucks at the end of the cul-de-sac. It feels like it’s already a hundred degrees. There are no flames, but a lot of smoke rises just over a ridge. It’s hard to think at first—the smoke just seems so big that all I can do is stare.

  “Maybe we should start loading up the truck,” Dad says.

  We packed up yesterday, just in case the fire got close, so loading won’t take long. Dad’s a motor cop, and yesterday he took his police motorcycle to a friend’s house. We also have a fifteen-year-old Volvo that’s our primary car. But we’re leaving that behind.

  I go in, grab my hockey bag and two sticks, and load them into the truck, Sinbad following me in and out again. I look at my hands a second, not sure why. Maybe just to make sure I’m really here. Like is this all real? Is that big fire really coming?? So. Sleeping bag, hockey gear, hockey and skating trophies and medals, luggage with clothes, dog bed, ten pounds of dog food, and Sinbad’s water bowl. I finish loading up. Aunt Mo, who lives all the way in Long Beach, has offered us her place to camp out at. Dad carries boxes of photographs, his old hockey scrapbooks and trophies, and boxes of documents. He squints out at the smoke, and for the first time I see a flame. “Dad!” I say. “Dad!” But I don’t move. I can’t.

  “You better disconnect your computer,” my father says calmly. His calmness makes me able to move again.

  I rush in and unhook my computer, my fingers shaking a bit. In this area, you always know a fire is possible, what with the drought and living near the tree-covered hills, but somehow when it’s here, you just want to panic, even though you know you can’t. But the urg
e to panic is strong—I just want to scream and run away. “Gotta get my stuff,” I say out loud. I trust my dad 100 percent, so if he thinks I have time to get my stuff, then I have time to get my stuff, period. I pack my computer, monitor, speakers, and keyboard into a box, then carry it all out. Dad is just placing his own computer into the truck. The flames have expanded into a whole row, and a flame jumps about ten feet, exactly while I’m watching, so that the fire’s maybe two short blocks away.

  “Dad! Dad, shouldn’t we go now?” I ask, my voice sounding squeaky.

  A flame jumps another ten feet, and Dad says casually, “Yeah, we better just leave everything else and get going.”

  Sinbad is upset and starts barking at nothing in particular. The firemen spray at the flames, but suddenly the fire springs down the hill, and Dad and I jump into the truck. Sinbad barks more before hopping in. He snarls from inside.

  Dad drives to the end of the block, and we sit in park for a few minutes as the flames grow larger. Dad just wants to stare back at our house. Then a fireman starts yelling at us, and we drive off. I open the window and yell out, “Thank you!” to the fireman, who holds up a hand in acknowledgment.

  “Dad! What if we never see the house again?” I ask.

  “We’ve got insurance,” Dad says, but I can tell he’s worried.

  A huge roar fills the air, and a jet passes low over the hills while dropping a load of red chemicals, some of which end up on the houses at the end of the road. That’s called Phos-Chek—Dad told me last year when we happened to drive by a big wildfire in San Bernardino. It’s colored fertilizer and water, and you drop it on trees. It insulates the trees from the heat, and after the fire’s put out, the fertilizer helps the vegetation grow again. Dad knows some stuff about firefighting ’cause he once thought about trying to become a smokejumper or a hotshot after his hockey career ended. Then he had me, and he didn’t want to travel away from home, like he’d have to during the fire season, in case I grew up and wanted to play hockey in the summers. A couple of years back, when those nineteen hotshots got killed fighting a fire in Arizona, we went to their 125-mile funeral procession with about a dozen of Dad’s cop friends and their kids. Thousands of people lined the roads. It was July—hot as frick—and many people were crying. We all stood at attention as the white hearses passed by, and knowing what was in those hearses, I remember this desperate feeling, like I wished I could go back in time and shout at those hotshots, “The fire’s coming! RUN!” We always take Sinbad on nonhockey road trips, so he was at the funeral too, and I swear that dog knew how serious it all was. He stood there at perfect attention, like a show dog. Going to that funeral is why I always say “hi” or “thank you” to firefighters.

  Now I notice Mr. Griffin at the end of our street, standing there in his flip-flops like he’s taking in some scenery.

  “Should I tell Mr. Griffin to leave?” I don’t wait for an answer as I roll down the window and call out, “It’s time to evacuate!”

  He waves at me like I’ve only said, Hi, how are you?

  “Evacuate!” I say again.

  He nods, and I keep watching him stand there until we turn the corner. He’s a Vietnam vet, so maybe he’s not worried about danger? Like he’s seen it all? “Why don’t you call your aunt?” Dad suggests.

  I take out my phone and dial Aunt Mo. She doesn’t answer, so I leave a message: “Hi, Aunt Mo. It’s Conor. We’re evacuating. We’re on our way to your house.”

  The air’s gotten so smoky, it’s hard to see too far down the street. Dad drives slowly.

  “Will we be homeless for a while if the fire burns our house?” I ask.

  My dad shoots me a look. “I’m not going to let you be homeless,” he says, like maybe he’s annoyed I asked. The one thing about my dad is that he can get a little sensitive sometimes about certain things, like his ability to provide for me. So now I can feel he might be annoyed.

  I hug Sinbad. Dad’s my dad, of course. There’s nobody like your father. But Sinbad’s with me every second I have free. There’s nobody like your dog, either. We got him in a high-kill shelter in Los Angeles. We went to three shelters that day, but we wanted to make sure we got the right dog.

  Sinbad’s ninety-five pounds; probably around six years old. He lies across my lap.

  When we finally reach the 14, it’s closed to traffic, so we have to take surface streets to the 5. We pass plenty of people driving trailers with horses and other animals. I saw on the news that there’s a large-animal evacuation center set up nearby. We even see a male lion in a cage on a trailer behind a pickup—there are several animal sanctuaries in the area, and a couple of them house big cats. It’s kind of surreal to see a lion like that, practically right in my own neighborhood. It just goes to show what a crazy world it is.

  It’s sixty miles to Aunt Mo’s house, and the traffic sucks, so it takes two hours to get there. The whole time I’m thinking about our house—twenty-four hours from now, it might not be there. Everything depends on the firefighters now.

  In Long Beach, we unload and say hello to my aunt. Then I go take out the lawn mower. Most people with yards have gardeners, but Aunt Mo has me about once a month, and if I’m not around, she does it herself. It’s cooler in Long Beach ’cause it’s near the water, so the heat is bearable as I work. Sinbad just lies in the shade on the porch. After I’m done, I pull out weeds and cut down dead flower stems. When I’m finished, things look pretty good if I say so myself. Could “gardener” be a good backup if I don’t make it in hockey?

  After the yard’s done, I check my phone, see the fire has spread to seventeen thousand acres. One person has tweeted out a picture of a huge cloud of bloodred smoke rising behind some hills. But I can’t tell from the picture exactly where it was taken from. Sinbad stands up and paws at the door, so we go in.

  Aunt Mo is tall like Dad and looks just like him—they’re twins—with pale brown hair and green eyes. I’m half-Japanese, so I have dark hair. When I was younger, a couple of times strangers said to my dad, “He’s cute. Where did you get him?” They thought I was adopted.

  Aunt Mo is a compulsive movie watcher. She watches three or four hundred movies a year. That would average out to two hours a day, every day. It’s like a part-time job. She never actually goes to a movie, though.

  After I get us all drinks, we sit in front of her huge television.

  “All right . . .” She picks up a notebook and flips through it. “Next on my list is Brooklyn. It’s about a young woman who immigrates to the US from Ireland in the fifties. Okay with you boys?”

  That sounds super boring, but I say, “Sounds great.”

  “Sounds great,” echoes Dad.

  As we watch the movie, I keep checking my phone, but there are no real updates on the fire except for more tweets with dramatic photographs taken from various areas around Los Angeles, where you can see huge clouds of smoke, and flames that look like the edges of the sun. I think of our little house, sitting there in the middle of all that smoke. In my mind, our home is the size of a Monopoly house, and the fire is as big as it is in real life. Ughhh.


  * * *

  AT FOUR A.M. when my alarm rings, I’m up instantly. Sinbad doesn’t move—he usually doesn’t get up before nine or ten, ’cause Sinbad needs his rest. That’s his way. I mean, if someone was killing me or something, he’d get up and bite their head off, but otherwise, he needs his rest. I’m in my sleeping bag on the living room floor. I go into the kitchen and study the coffeemaker. It’s easy to figure out, so I start Dad’s coffee, eat some cereal, then go into the guest room. “Dad!” I say. “It’s four ten!”

  “I’m up!” he says, which is usually the first thing he says. “Did you pack your hockey bag?” he asks, which is usually the second thing he says.

  “Yeah, I’m good to go.”

  He’s dressed in about one minute, pours coffee into his thermos cup, and we’re off. In the car he turns on the country music station, whi
ch plays songs about drinking, falling in love, and losing love. We’re both naturally early risers, but today he looks like he got about an hour of sleep. Full-on bags under his eyes. I mean, he’s old, but he’s not that old.

  “Dad,” I say.

  He comes out of a daydream and asks, “What is it, Conor?”

  “You okay? You look real tired.”

  “Just thinking about the house. I remember how cool it was to buy my first house. Do you remember that? But it should be okay. Mr. Griffin is hunkered down—I called him last night after you went to bed. The fire seems to have passed, but it’s not far away enough yet for us to go back. The wind could change.”

  I look at my dad. Something doesn’t feel right, so I ask, “Is that it, just the house?”

  “Let me tell you something. Divorce kicks your butt. I’m still healing,” is what he says.

  Dad and Jenny have been divorced for only seven months. I nod, but he doesn’t see. “Okay, man, I was just asking. Just making sure you’re, you know, okay.” I pause, then guilt washes over me. “Are we okay for money? I know all this hockey stuff costs a lot.” I ask this ’cause Jenny received a load of money when they got divorced. She was mostly going to school while they were married, but she got half the money Dad earned. She’s getting a PhD in English, specializing in Milton, who is some famous writer guy. Dad also pays her alimony, which is money he gives her every month.

  “Conor, I’ve told you this before. If you want to go for this, I’ll find the money. I’ll work two jobs if I have to, but one way or another, you’re going to skate as much as you want. Got that?”

  “Got it. But I don’t want you to work two jobs.”

  “I was just saying. I’m not really going to work two jobs. We’re okay for money. We just can’t buy groceries.” He tosses me a look. “That’s a joke, Conor. Lighten up.”

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