02 – Back Home

Fern had run out of tears and tissues by the end of the first day. She’d checked her social media apps between anxiety spirals to see if Chris has unblocked her yet, but while her notifications were flooded, none were from him.

Day two, she felt numb and hungover from the emotions and maybe the bottle of wine she’d had in the middle of the night, watching videos of last year’s competitions while making a comprehensive list of her mistakes. Too rigid in the twizzle at last year’s Skate Canada, she’d under rotated and exited it after him. Instead of looking like the lovelorn heroine of swan lake, Fern watched her past self’s stiff movements turn graceful swoons into pained sit ups. Her face was frozen in a scowl of furious concentration, ruining any chance of a good presentation score. It was like watching a chicken try to be a swan, only on ice.

No wonder Chris didn’t want to skate again. She’d ruined it for him.

An incoming call (who even called anymore?) interrupted the video, and Fern sniffled. It was mom, and as much as she didn’t want to answer and hear how disappointed her mother was, Fern also knew how worried she would be.

She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and answered.

“Hi Mom,” she said. She could hear the way her clogged nose turned the ‘h’ of her ‘hi’ into a dull ‘d’ sound. Fern aggressively wiped her nose with a tissue, and cleared her throat. “How are you doing? Is everything okay?”

“Oh, Sweetie.” The softness in her Mom’s voice killed Fern, and she pushed herself to sit up in her bed and hugged her (ew, damp from tears) pillow tight to her chest. Deep breaths, don’t break down again, not while Mom was on the phone.

“Julia called me, but I wanted to give you some time,” her mom continued. “How I’m doing can wait, how are you, honey?”

That was a good question, and one that Fern wasn’t really certain how to answer. How was she? Her chest hurt, her head hurt from crying, her nose was stuffed up and she felt terrible that she’d ruined something Chris loved to the point he was ready to step away from it forever. Just thinking about that made her stomach twist, and Fern hugged the pillow harder.

“Fern?”

“I feel so bad, Mom,” she whispered. “I ruined it for him, if I’d been better at relaxing and better at letting him do what he wanted to-“

“He’d still have quit, Fern,” her mom said. Her voice was gentle, but firm. It was the Mom Voice that Fern heard so often. Between each word hid soothing reassurances meant to soothe the anxiety that twisted in Fern’s chest. She hated it, hated how easily Mom always saw how bad the anxiety was. Fern could hide it from almost everyone else, but Mom always saw right through it.

“Why don’t you come home for a while? Take a vacation, and you know Frances will always let you book ice time at the local rink.”

The words ‘I can’t’ were already on Fern’s tongue when she caught herself. Why couldn’t she? She could book time off work, it wasn’t like the library needed more people to stock shelves, the practices with Julia and Chris weren’t ever going to happen again, and… what else was left keeping her in Detroit for the next two weeks?

“Yeah,” Fern said. “Yeah, I think that’s a great idea, Mom.” She could see Chris’s comment in her mind’s eye. ‘You don’t even like skating.’ But she did, she loved it. She just didn’t love the pressure that came with competing and worrying if she’d let down her partner. A fresh break, some time at the tiny old rink in Sudbury where it was just her and the ice, that sounded exactly like what she needed.

“Hey Mom?” Fern said before ending the call. “Thank you. Love you.”

**

Fern had forgotten how small her childhood bed was. A twin, she’d never had problems sleeping in it until she’d come back for Christmas the first year she’d moved down to Detroit. Then, all of a sudden her feet kept sticking out, kicking the covers out from where they’d been tucked into the mattress. The sounds had kept her awake for a while, too. Instead of the late night traffic of Detroit, (sirens included), Fern had lay in bed listening to the ice break on the lake behind her mom’s house.

It would have been fine if her mom’s cat hadn’t made it his mission to wake her up every morning at six am, sharp. Today, it was by sticking a paw into her eye. The cat was new, adopted after Fern had moved out, and they’d never quite gotten along. Pumpkin stared down at her in the darkness of her room, his paw raised for another go. The only thing the cat had in common with an actual pumpkin was how orange he was. Rail thin from constantly being on the move, he was a complete asshole to anyone who wasn’t Mom.

“Shoo,” Fern whispered, reaching up with her pillow to nudge him off the tiny bed. With a yowl, Pumpkin threw himself off, landed on the floor with a thump and tore down the hall toward the kitchen.

Fern winced. If Mom hadn’t already woken up, there was no way she’d sleep through that. This far north it was still dark, though the grey outside promised a sunrise before the hour was out. But there was a faint glow in the hallway, one that suggested that Pumpkin had been sent on a mission to put the paw into Fern’s eye. In Mom’s defense, it probably had been left up to the jerk cat on ‘how’ to wake Fern up.

With a small groan, Fern crawled out of her warm bed and changed into her skating gear. Thick leggings followed by a pair of wool leg warmers up to her thighs. Sports undershirt, merino wool long sleeve top, and a thick hoodie before Fern started to feel warm again. She’d forgotten to put her clothes next to the vent before going to sleep last night, and Fern shivered as they chilled her skin as she pulled them on.

By the time she’d bundled up, Fern could smell breakfast waft down the hall. Toast, coffee, bacon. Following her nose, Fern padded down the hall of the bungalow to find her mom leaning against the counter with one hand as she poured a pair of coffees.

“Your cat is a jerk,” Fern said, stepping up behind her and wrapping her mom in a hug. There was something about mom hugs, especially when she was wearing one of those old oversized sweaters or flannel shirts. They drained the anxiety better than anything ever could. They looked alike, sort of. Fern knew she had her mom’s eyes and nose, though her hair was dark where her mom’s was light. And Fern was the athlete while her mother hadn’t been able to skate as long as Fern could remember.

“Morning, honey,” her mom said, setting the coffee pot down and pressing a hand over Fern’s arm. “I told him to leave you alone, but I think he’s jealous that my first born is home.” She turned and pressed a kiss to Fern’s forehead.

“He’s still a jerk,” Fern muttered, glancing over at where the cat sat in the middle of the kitchen, glaring at her. “But I’m glad he keeps you company.” She gave her mom a last gentle squeeze before letting go and looking for where her mom had left her cane. “Thank you for breakfast, you heard I had ice time?”

“Frances asked if you needed a lift this morning,” Mom said. “I told her you’d be taking my car. It’s by the table, I’ll be fine without it if you can carry your plate.” Fern, caught, felt her ears turn a bit warm. Of course mom would be fine.

“Just checking,” she muttered, and stepped out of her mom’s way. It hadn’t been until Fern was in high school that she really understood that mom couldn’t do everything on her own. As a girl, mom had been a super hero. Raising Fern on her own, working at the Train museum which was the coolest building in town (as far as Fern was concerned) and doing it all with a leg that didn’t work very well. Now, as an adult, Fern couldn’t wondering how she’d managed it.

“Fern,” her mother said, steadying herself along the wall to the table. “I manage fine when you’re gone, I can manage one breakfast. But thank you for thinking of me.” Settling down on the ancient wood chairs that were mismatched, her mom smiled brightly up at her. “Now, you’d better eat that bacon before pumpkin steals it.”

Glancing down, Fern realised the jerk cat had crept forward and jumped up onto the counter behind her. She scooped up her plate and coffee, holding it up out of the cat’s reach and followed her mom to the table.

**

God bless Frances Dubois. Whatever magic she’d pulled, the rink was completely empty of hockey teams and tykes when Fern arrived. The only other people there were Frances and her husband, a gentle giant of a Cree man who ran the concessions stand while she coached. He had a steaming cup of coffee with a smile ready for Fern, but waited as Frances, a tiny french woman, scooped Fern up into a hug so strong that it lifted her feet off the rubber mats on the floor.

“Ah look at you!” She said. “Tsk, we made sure that you had the whole place. You can plug your phone in at the officials box to play whatever music you’d like. Dylan made sure it was set up for you. Dylan, the man holding the coffee just nodded. Fern wished more people were as calm and quiet as he was. Off the ice, anyways. When he was strapped up and in net for the local men’s league, he barked orders something fierce.

“Thanks Frances,” Fern said, returning the hug once she could breathe. “Hey Dylan.”

“Go! We won’t keep you, I have to do some paper work,” Frances said, letting go. “The graduation certificates won’t sign themselves. Dylan can help you with the music if you have any trouble.” Dylan nodded.

“I think she’ll get it just fine, Frances,” he said, passing the coffee to Fern. “She’s a big city girl now, international.” He winked, to tell Fern it was nothing more than a gentle joke. God bless Dylan, too. Fern, feeling like she’d finally arrived at her real home, took the coffee and headed to the ice.

She’d been putting together a new playlist of her music to skate to. Fun stuff, upbeat stuff. Stuff that wouldn’t remind her of last year’s skate Canada, or of Chris or of Detroit. It was almost all pop, the saccharine upbeat stuff that Chris hated. All downloaded at the local Tim’s the day before so she didn’t use up her mom’s bandwidth, Fern found herself bopping along as she tied her skates.

Blackpink, Taylor Swift, BTS, Kesha, K/DA, Ariana.

The 80s synth beats of I’ll Show You filled the empty arena and Fern’s chest, chasing away the lingering anxiety of returning to the ice. Singing along under her breath, She stepped out onto the perfect ice, untouched by anyone else and the familiar ksssh kchshhh of her edges buoyed her up even higher.

Each stride chased away doubts, and Fern soon let herself practice some of the twizzles and footwork she had struggled with last season. Alone, with no one watching, she flew through them, light on the ice, her edges catching just right as she twirled, kicked, twisted.

The hour flew by, and Fern caught Frances waving at her from the boards. Skating over with a smile on her face and breathless, it was Fern’s turn to scoop up the tiny woman in a hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Frances returned the hug just as fiercely, and patted Fern on the back.

“Don’t you dare stop skating just because of that boy,” her first coach said, pulling back and cupping Fern’s face in her hands. “I don’t know what he said, but the Fern I saw on the TV is not the girl I watched growing up on my ice.”

You don’t even like skating.

Fern frowned, trying to ignore the words that kept haunting her. Was she just skating for her mom? Lost dreams were hard enough when they were yours, but-

“Stoppit,” Frances said, recognizing Fern’s frown.

“Sorry, I just- this season is a write off, right? Even if I do find someone willing to skate with me, there’s not enough time to-“

“Roch Gauthier.” Dylan walked up to where Frances and Fern were standing, a tray of two coffees in one hand and a phone in the other. “His partner just had to quit.” He waggled his eyebrows at them. “Pregnant.” He held out the phone to Frances, and the coffees to Fern to pick one.

Fern couldn’t help herself, she snuck a peek at the phone in disbelief. Weren’t Roch and Marie-Helene dating? If she was pregnant… wait.

On the phone was a video clip of Fern skating from that morning, and she felt her face flush hot.

“You messaged him?” She whispered, looking up at Dylan. “You sent-“

“No, no,” Dylan said. “Just Steph and Pauline.”

All the heat dropped out of Fern, along with the bottom of her stomach. No, just his parents who were not only his coaches but also the extremely famous Canadian sweethearts with the record for the most Olympic golds among Ice Dancers.

Fern sunk down into a crouch, hugging the coffee. She stared at the worn rubber mat under her skates, and the frost she’d kicked up that was slowly melting on her laces. This was mortifying. Roch wouldn’t want to skate with her, he was wild and unpredictable. He was all about showy displays and performance and flubbed his technical aspects all the time, and she was exactly the opposite. Stiff, robotic. Wearing the serial killer mask, as Chris liked to call it.

“Fern,” Frances said gently. “Just think about it, okay? Here, watch the video first.” She placed the phone on the bleacher bench next to Fern and gave her a gentle pat on the back. “Now excuse us, I need to explain to my husband that he should have asked you first.”

Glancing up, Fern caught a worried expression on Dylan’s face as his wife dragged him off to her office. Still crouched into a ball, Fern waited until they’d left, and then carefully picked up the phone. Frances didn’t have a lock on it, and Fern was able to open it with a swipe of her thumb.

<Salut Dylan! Oui, Roch is looking for a new partner for this season. Why doesn’t she come to Montreal and see if she’s interested?> The latest reply was an open offer, and Fern could reply right now, right there, crouched in the empty arena, that no, she was not interested. She hesitated, her thumb on the screen. Instead, she scrolled up to open the video.

Dylan had been a bit far away, and she heard him let out a low whistle as he filmed her flying across the ice. Perfect twizzles, loose and free. Her shoulders were relaxed, arms fluid and the grin on her face visible even in the small clip.

Dylan muttered to the camera, and Fern was surprised that it was to her, not the golden couple of skating.

“This is what we know you can do, girly,” he said. His nickname for her since she was barely as tall as his knee. “Show everyone how you can fly.”

Fern bit her lip. Then she texted her reply.

<I’m in.>

Then added, <(This is Fern.)>