Qwinn's Haunted Hockey Halloween

To Qwinn, Halloween was just another night of nothing to live for.

He'd snuck out of the house again, wanting to escape the drama and endless fighting between his parents, himself, and his three sisters. He was just so tired of it. Times were hard, money was tight, tempers were flaring, and he was so tired of it all. So tired of being a burden, so tired of having nothing and being nothing. So tired of having nothing to look forward to.

He had no friends and no life in this one-horse town they'd moved to after his father had lost yet another job. Poor, loser kids like himself were on the fringes of life; at least, at eleven years old, that's what he believed to be true about himself. If he'd ever believed anything different, it was so far in the past that he no longer remembered anything better.

It was late – after midnight, for sure – and the wide streets were deserted. Most of the houses he passed were quiet, windows dark. There was an autumn wind, and the big trees overhead swayed and sighed, and showered their leaves down upon his head. Streetlights gave pale illumination to darkened jack'o'lanterns and other Halloween decorations swinging from trees and peering from porches.

Qwinn had no idea where he was going. He just wanted to get out of the house. It was too crowded in there, especially when arguments were flaring. His parents never cared where he went or what he did, anyway. It was a bit chilly out, but not too bad, and he was warm enough in his old hooded sweatshirt and jeans. A ball cap kept his overlong reddish-blonde hair out of his green eyes. A splash of freckles dotted his nose and cheeks, making him look younger than he was.

Trick-or-treaters had gone home hours ago, to enjoy their hoard and get ready for school tomorrow. Qwinn hadn't gone trick-or-treating. He had no costume, and no friends to go with. None of the kids at school had invited him out. In fact, they barely spoke to him, especially after he'd trounced the school jock in a pitched battle after his first day. No one wanted to bother with the tough new kid from Toronto, and Qwinn was sure he didn't care. He hated this town.

Last Halloween, he'd worn some of his old, second-hand hockey gear as a costume and gone out with his few friends, but he'd completely outgrown his gear now. His parents couldn't afford to put him in hockey anymore, anyway, and that's what he missed more than anything. Stereotypical, sure, but he'd grown up idolizing his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, and that's all he wanted to do with his life: Play hockey. For the Leafs, if at all possible. Or maybe the Bruins. As long as it wasn't the Habs. He hated those Habs.

And that was never going to happen now, anyway. Even if he had the talent to play pro, he still needed to actually be playing. He hadn't skated on ice since he was nine, when his skates were too small to go on his feet anymore.

He missed living in Toronto. This crappy little town, with its farm fields and tractors and people with their snooty "no strangers welcome" attitude depressed him. Even their hockey rink was old and crappy, with wooden bleacher seats and wooden walls and a dirt parking lot. Beyond the rink was a huge empty field, leading to a patch of woods and a shallow stream that he liked to explore occasionally and watch trout swim by.

This late at night, the rink was deserted, Qwinn saw, and most of the exterior lights were off. Tired now, he walked around to the back of the building and sat down on the steps. Overhead, the moon was bright and full, and the stars were numerous and full. Country noises drifted to him from the field on the light breeze, along with the satisfying smells of rotting leaves and wood smoke.

It never got this dark out in Toronto, and he stared in wonder at the shimmering carpet of stars overhead. It seemed that he could almost reach up and pluck one of them out of the sky. Maybe there were some good things about a small town, he thought. Despite the late October cool temperatures, Qwinn leaned back on the steps and stared up at the wondrous night sky, looking for shooting stars. He'd heard of them, but had never seen one. If he saw one, he was supposed to make a wish. He already knew what he'd wish for: A better life. Soon, he was dozing off.

He had no idea how long he was asleep, but it was still dark out when he was jolted awake by a familiar sound. Heart pounding, he focused his senses on the new noise.

Thwack! Thwack!

"I thought the rink was closed," Qwinn muttered to himself as he struggled to sit up without making any noise. "Someone's taking shots in there."

Curious, he lurched to his feet and peered in the small window beside the door. Sure enough, there was someone inside, wearing hockey gear that was even older and crappier than Qwinn's, taking slapshots against the boards. He watched the man shooting the puck for a few minutes, impressed with the stranger's smooth skill.

After the man had taken all his shots, he skated forward to retrieve the pucks. As he did so, he glanced up and smiled at Qwinn. Startled, Qwinn jumped away from the window and turned to run home. He wasn't sure why he was running, but he had a feeling that shouldn't be there.

"Hey!" Qwinn stopped and glanced back. The stranger was standing on the back steps. Qwinn hadn't heard the door open. "Hey, little buddy! Where are you going?" Qwinn didn't answer – all he could do was stare.

The short man looked really odd. Something like…well, almost like those framed pictures at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Qwinn had sneaked in there once, with a couple of friends. This fellow looked like an old-time hockey player, except he was still young, somewhat. And…was he glowing, a little bit?

Was he a ghost?

"Come on, kid…want to take some shots?"

The fellow seemed friendly enough, but…"I…don't have any equipment…" Qwinn stammered. He didn't believe in ghosts, but there was no denying that there was something decidedly odd about the man.

"Lend you a stick. Come on, kid. What's your name?"

"Qwinn." As if of their own accord, Qwinn's feet began to take him back through the gravel-strewn parking lot, back to the rink. Back towards the odd-looking character in his strangely old-fashioned hockey gear. He supposed he should be scared, but there was just something so friendly and kind about the hockey player that, for the first time in a long time, Qwinn felt…well, safe. Almost like he wasn't a burden…

"Hi, Qwinn. I'm Kenny. Come on in, let's see what you can do." Kenny held the door open, and Qwinn passed by him, staring at the pale hand that gripped the door. Could ghosts open doors?

"Are you…a ghost?" Qwinn couldn't believe he asked such a question. As previously mentioned, he had no belief in ghosts or supernatural anything, not even zombies. But the closer he got to Kenny, the more he had to wonder. Kenny really didn't seem solid, somehow. And he really was glowing, just a little bit. Wasn't that somewhat ghostly?

"A ghost?" Kenny laughed, a honking kind of laugh. It was the kind of laugh that invited others to laugh along with him, and Qwinn couldn't resist a chuckle of his own. "A ghost? Me? Well, I don't know, Qwinn. Maybe I am. What do you think?" He clapped Qwinn on the back, in a friendly manner.

Qwinn blinked. "I think maybe I'm tired. Or crazy. Or just hungry." Boldly, he poked Kenny's arm, and felt the sleeve of the man's hockey sweater, and flesh and bone underneath. "Well…you're solid…but…well, how old are you? You look like one of those pictures of hockey players from like a hundred years ago. Like the ones on the walls at the Hockey Hall of Fame."

Kenny was quiet for a moment as they walked out to the ice. The huge wooden rink was mostly dark, and silent, but Qwinn wasn't scared. It felt familiar, in a way. Their footsteps echoed slightly. "Hockey Hall of Fame, eh?" He laughed again. "That's a good one. Well…what year is this, Qwinn?"

"Twenty-fifteen."

Kenny whistled, then gave Qwinn a crooked smile. "Twenty-fifteen…well, I'm plenty old, all right. Here. Let's see what kind of a shot you've got." He handed Qwinn his hockey stick – an ancient thing, made of wood and faded lettering, but surprisingly still strong and supple – and kicked a few chipped pucks toward the boy. Qwinn hadn't taken shots in a couple of years, but he was surprised at how quickly the skill returned. He'd always had a good one-timer.

For what seemed to be hours but was probably less than that, they kicked pucks around, took shots (Kenny had found another of the strange wooden sticks that he seemed to prefer) and practised passing. Qwinn slipped a few times and fell flat on his back, and every time, a laughing Kenny would haul him upright by the front of his hoodie. "Wear skates next time, kid!"

Qwinn grinned back. He definitely liked this strange man, ghost or no ghost, and found it easy to talk to him. It felt good to have someone to talk to. "Don't got any skates," he replied. "I outgrew them a couple of years ago."

Kenny stopped laughing, shook his head, and eyed him appraisingly. "You're good with the puck. A bit small for your age, but if you work hard, you might be able to make a go of it. Small's not the problem some people think. Look at me, I did ok. Heck, look at that Marty St. Louis fella."

"He's awesome! One of my favourites!"

"Mine, too. And kid, gear's not a problem, not if you've got the heart for the game. And I think you do."

"Kenny, I haven't skated in two years."

Kenny nodded, leaning on his stick Ken Dryden-style. "You watch hockey?"

"When I can." Which hadn't been lately. He never got to watch what he wanted on tv at home.

"Know the Oilers?"

"Well, of course."

"That Nugent-Hopkins kid?"

"Yeah, he's great!"

"He went a spell without playing hockey. Parents couldn't afford it."

"Really?" Qwinn couldn't believe this. He thought Nugent-Hopkins was one of the best young players in the league.

"So he practised as best he could in his driveway. He's got a lot of heart. I saw that story on the tv in Jack's office here." Kenny was silent for a moment, staring off into space. Qwinn wondered what he was thinking about, and with sudden insight, realized that it wasn't 'what', but more of a question of 'when'.

"Qwinn," he finally said, "Life is what you make of it. Work with what you've got. You don't want to be one of those miserable types who grouse about what they could have done, what they could have been. Do the best you can with what you've got. That's what I did. I wasn't great, but I did my best. I'll always have that." He smiled, a distant little smile, and again, Qwinn got the feeling that Kenny was not really alive, at least not in any way that Qwinn knew. He felt comfortable enough now, however, to ask him about it again.

"Are you a ghost, Kenny? Like, seriously?"

Kenny chuckled and patted Qwinn on the shoulder. His touch felt solid…but not. "It's getting late. You should go home. Come back tomorrow and see Jack, the rink manager. Tell him you want to play. He'll help you out with gear and stuff."

Qwinn felt a chill. If this was a dream, it was a weird one. But a good one. He didn't want to leave. He was afraid that if he did, he'd never see Kenny again. "Will you be here? Please?"

"Do you want me to be?"

"Yes!" He fought back tears, surprised at his reaction. "Yeah. You're…well, the only friend I have here…"

A pause. Then Kenny smiled kindly. "I'll be cheering for you. Keep the stick, kid. It's a gift from me. From old Kenny. Whenever you start to doubt yourself, well, just remember that I'm cheering for you. Grab your stick and take a few shots in the driveway. Like that Nugent-Hopkins kid."

"Yeah…" Qwinn stared down at the battered old hockey stick, and then looked back up at Kenny…

Except he was looking at the stars.

He'd fallen asleep on the back steps.

"That. Was. Weird," he muttered, sitting up and pushing his hair out of his eyes. And then he froze.

Lying beside him on the wooden steps was the battered old hockey stick that he'd dreamed about.

Qwinn sat back down on the steps for a long while, thinking.

The next morning, Qwinn walked back to the arena.

Even though he'd been out half the night, he hadn't been able to sleep. He'd tucked the old hockey stick into his closet, safely hidden behind his old hockey gear, and tossed and turned in bed until sunrise.

Was it possible? He didn't believe in ghosts. And he never had strange dreams like that, even when he ate peanut butter sandwiches before bedtime. Was it possible that he'd been shooting pucks with a ghost? And who was Kenny, anyway? And if it had been a dream, why were his arms and shoulders so sore?

He got up before anyone else in the house, drank a glass of milk for breakfast and dressed quickly in the same clothes he'd worn yesterday. It was a bit chilly out still, and his hoodie and ball cap were warm, if a bit small for him now.

In bright sunlight, the town seemed a different place. People were just getting up. There were a few cars on the streets, and a light breeze cheerfully blew dead leaves around. Everything seemed so…well, ordinary…after the extraordinary events of last night.

Qwinn sat on the front steps at the arena, and after a while, a friendly-faced older man drove up and parked his car. It wasn't Kenny. Qwinn wasn't sure whether or not to be disappointed.

"Morning!" The man said, smiling. "Looking for someone?"

Qwinn swallowed nervously. "Uh…yeah. Jack?"

"That's me. What can I do for ya?"

"Uh…I want…well, I want to play hockey. But I don't have any money. My gear doesn't fit anymore." Qwinn felt incredibly awkward, and felt like running away. What was he saying? To a total stranger, of all things? However, he stood his ground. Jack stared at him kindly for a moment, then nodded.

"Come on in, buddy. Let's see what we can do for you."

They passed through the rink and made their way to Jack's office near the back, where the Zamboni machine was parked. More light came in through the windows, and Qwinn noticed how the ice surface was scraped and chewed up where he and Kenny had played the night before. The pucks were gone, and the net had been put away, but the scrape and gouge marks from Kenny's skates were plain to see. Qwinn looked up at Jack, who was also staring at the marks. Jack frowned for a few seconds, and then his round face relaxed into a knowing smile. Once they reached the manager's office, Jack unlocked the door, and motioned Qwinn inside. "Sit down, make yourself at home. I'll be right back."

Qwinn looked around the cluttered, but comfortable, office. Books, magazines, tv, the walls covered with framed pictures…Jack had a bit of everything hanging around, and Qwinn found the office pleasant. Presently Jack returned with some hot chocolate and doughnuts from the canteen, and shared them with a grateful Qwinn. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. Everything was delicious.

"So," Jack said around a mouthful of chocolate doughnut. "You want to play hockey?"

Qwinn swallowed the last of his cocoa. "I was talking to a guy here last night, and he was telling me to come see you about hockey. He told me to tell you I didn't have any money…"

Jack smiled. "Don't worry, we have all kinds of programs and stuff in place. We can probably get you set up. What's your name? And who were you talking to? We weren't open last night…"

"I'm Qwinn. And the guy was named Kenny. He was really nice, but I don't know who he was. It's like he was a ghost or something…"

Qwinn trailed off because he wasn't sure what to say and didn't want to sound like he was crazy. Jack, however, was staring at him as though he had seen a ghost, himself.

"Kenny?" Jack said, in a strangled voice. "Really?" Then he pointed at one of the framed photos high up on the wall. Qwinn hadn't noticed it earlier. "This guy?"

Qwinn dropped his doughnut and stared at the framed, autographed picture on the wall. It was Kenny, all right…but, as he had suspected, it was Kenny of another era…

"That's my great-uncle," Jack said, with a mix of pride and astonishment in his voice. "He…he's been dead for years now…" Jack stared at Qwinn for a long moment, then sighed.

"But I'll let you in on a little secret, Qwinn. Uncle Kenny…he loved this rink. And he…his spirit, really…is here, all the time. But as far as I know, I'm the only one who sees him. I've never heard of anyone else having seen him."

Qwinn couldn't believe he was having this conversation. "I don't believe in ghosts."

"Neither did I."

A pause. Then Qwinn said, in a faint voice, "He gave me a hockey stick. He told me that life is what I make of it… He told me to come and see you…"

Jack was still smiling, but there were tears in his eyes. "Really…treasure that hockey stick, Qwinn. That's an amazing, wonderful thing. You have no idea. And…that was his motto. 'Life is what you make it.' See?" He rose and took down the photo so Qwinn could read the inscription clearly. "To Jackie: Make the best of what you've got. Life is what you make it. Love always, Uncle Kenny."

Qwinn stared at the picture for a long while, memorizing the kind, friendly features with the strange, old-fashioned hairstyle and hockey uniform. His throat felt tight, and tears stung his eyes again.

"I've only ever seen Uncle Kenny's spirit here, because this is where he learned to play hockey. That's why I still work here. So I can see him whenever I want. He was my best friend when I was a kid."

"He…he's the only friend I've made in this town. We just moved here a few months ago from Toronto."

"Toronto! Are you a Leafs fan?" Jack grinned delightedly.

"That's my team."

Jack placed a friendly hand on Qwinn's shoulder. "That was Uncle Kenny's team, too," he said, quietly. "And he's not your only friend here. I think we'll be pals, too." Jack looked at Qwinn's too-thin, too-pale face knowingly. "There are lots of good people in this town, people who will look out for you and help you and welcome you. I'll make sure you get to meet them. My wife will try to fatten you up, for sure." He patted his round tummy. "As you can see, she's a great cook and she'll love having someone else to feed."

Gently, he took the photo from Qwinn's hands and replaced it on the wall. "Come back this afternoon, and I'll have things set up for you." He smiled at the boy. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. Everything will work out."

Qwinn turned to go, his head spinning from all that he had heard. He glanced back at Jack, and nearly tripped over his own feet in shock…

Kenny was standing right beside Jack, smiling ear to ear.

"Thank you," Qwinn whispered. "Thank you."