The ringing came through the darkness like the sound of bells down a tunnel, a train approaching on blackened tracks...
Jay pulled the pillow from his head. He'd slept with a pillow over his head for years, ever since he'd started the rotation of different roomies every few months. Guys have different schedules, different habits. The pillow kept some of the noise out, helped Jay sleep. But it wasn't keeping out this ringing.
Was it in his head? He'd had ringing in his head before, and the monster headache told him it was a possibility. But the fog of sleep began to clear and he remembered he'd recently changed his ring tone to an old-timey rotary phone. He sat up and found his cell on his night stand.
He checked before answering: 8:04 in the morning, and Mark Matthews was calling, which could only mean bad news. Mark was the Vice-President of Hockey Operations for the Mustangs. Jay played right wing for the Mustangs.
"Hello?" Jay's voice came out in a croak. His mouth was caked with film. He felt like baked shit, and his head hurt like hell. He'd taken a major right hand in a fight against the Ice Wolves the night before, and had tried to numb the pain with pints of dark ale. In addition to a serious hangover, he was also dealing with a possible concussion. Fuck life.
"Jay? Good morning, it's Mark."
"Hello Mark." The Mustangs had a morning skate scheduled for eleven that morning. Hell, Jay's alarm wasn't even set to go off until nine. If Mark was calling this early it could only mean something serious. You don't wake a player up extra-early on the morning of the second half to a two-games-in-two-nights home stand. Not if he's going to be in the lineup, anyway.
Mark cleared his throat. "Look, Jay, I just wanted to tell you first of all that you played a hell of a game for us last night. That was a tough shot you took off Woganski, and we appreciate you standing up for your teammates like that. You have the respect of everyone here."
Jay didn't feel well. His stomach was swimming. It was partly from the ale, but it was also partly from the call. He didn't like the vibe. "Thanks," he said.
There was a moan from behind him, and Jay looked over his shoulder. Shit. There was a woman in his bed. She was snuggled under the covers, and all he could see was a head of blonde hair. Sheila.
Mark cleared his throat again. He sounded awkward. "Look Jay, this is a tough call to make. We've just had a player assigned to us from Wichita. He's under contract from up above, and we're getting him for nothing. The only problem is that we're up against the roster limit, which means we need to move a body."
"Shit," Jay said. "Have I been traded?"
"Not exactly," Mark said. "We put you out there, but I hate to say it, we didn't get a sniff. The thing is Jay, you're on a non-guaranteed contract. We need to make this move today so we can get this kid in the lineup for tonight. So we've decided that we're going to have to release you."
Jay eased back down onto his back. His head felt like imploding death. Cut. From the low minors. At thirty years old. Shit, that probably meant the end of the road.

"Jay? You there?"
"Yeah," he said. "Have you called Dean?" Dean was Jay's agent. They hadn't been in touch in a few weeks. He wondered if Dean had any idea about this. He wondered if he cared one way or the other. Jay was fading.
"We faxed the paperwork to his office. You should hear from him today. I'm sorry to call so early about this. We just didn't want you to show up for the skate, get into your gear, and then get the news."
"I understand."
"I'm sorry about this, Jay. You've been a good soldier. Come by today and get your stuff, and you can say goodbye to the guys."
"Okay, Mark. Thanks." He ended the call and closed his eyes.
Sheila rolled over and snaked an arm across his chest. Her skin felt very warm against his. She'd stayed over at his place a few times since he'd joined the team. She'd been steady with the guy he'd replaced in the lineup, and he'd taken her home from the bar a few times. She was a good girl, about his age, well built, pleasant enough, but neither of them expressed much interest in each other outside of bar fun and some sex here and there. Neither of them seemed to view the other as relationship material.
Jay slipped out from under her arm and staggered to the bathroom. The apartment was a small bachelor pad, really just a single room with a kitchenette off in one corner and a bathroom with a stand-up shower. He made it to the can and managed to close the door before throwing up in the toilet. There wasn't much. A small amount of liquid and then four or five rounds of dry heaves, each making his head threaten to fly apart.
When it was all over he got up and had a look at himself in the mirror. What a face. It was a face that had taken five hundred punches, easy. Playing with a mouth guard had managed to save him from losing teeth, but he'd endured four root canals along the way. Scars subtly snaked their way around his mug, making him look puffy. Thirty years old and at the end of the line.
Three years of major junior hockey. Two years in Canadian university hockey. A year in the minors, then two years playing in Finland, plus one in the Czech Republic, then back to the minors. Bumping up, bumping down. There was a miracle, a three game cup of coffee at the dead end of a season for a last place NHL team. Not much, but he'd made the show. Then more downs, more downs, and downs, and downs. Now this.
He put cold water on his face and brushed his teeth. He pissed, drank some water, and felt a little more stable. His head still hurt. That fight against Woganski might have ended his career. They'd squared off and the tough little Manitoba bastard had popped him right on the ear. Jay lost about three seconds of time and when the stars cleared he was on one knee, just holding on. It was a clear defeat, and his head hurt for the rest of the night.
Hell, if he'd won the fight, maybe they would have cut someone else. He wasn't the only player on the team with a non-guaranteed contract.
Jay went back into the room. Sheila had rolled onto her back. The blanket covered her breasts, but Jay had a good view of her. She was a good looking woman. She was putting miles on fast, that was for sure. Spending nights in the bar, drinking and smoking and hooking up with minor league hockey players would drag her down hard as she ran through her thirties. But she looked good now.
He thought it over for a moment. If Dean was able to find him a spot on a another team, it would all keep going, for a little while at least. He could still skate, and he didn't have terrible hands. He could contribute to a team. But if no one wanted him, if it really was over, he might end up back in Moose Jaw with eight car payments left on his Hyundai and nothing to do but start sending out resumes.
And if that was true, Sheila might just be the last girl that ever fucked him just because he played for the local team.
After this, it probably meant finding a woman that he actually could stand hanging around with, building a relationship, doing all the good right things, blah blah blah...
He crawled back into bed and slipped under the covers. He let his hands find her. She was still naked. He slid his hands up and down her sides, appreciating the smoothness of her skin. She was round and firm in all the right places. He snuggled in against her and she responded, snuggling against him, and soon his lips were on her neck. He wrapped himself up in her. His head still hurt and her mouth tasted like the stink of last night's red wine, but somehow it added to the eroticism, the depravity of it.
Later he'd have to shut everything down, clear out his stall at the arena, collect the last check. Close out the apartment. Sheila would be an afterthought. But right now she responded to his every touch, she put her hands on him, wrapped legs around him, kissed him like a loving wife.

Nolan Whyte writes for a variety of web outlets, and if you buy him a drink he'll definitely buy you one. He blogs about hockey at Frozen Sheets Hockey ( and posts fiction at End City ( Track his every move using his twitter feed, @nolanwhyte.