The Game

Mark Thomas

I can only talk about it now because I’m so much better. Not perfect, just better. Occasionally, monsters still appear in my arena, skating behind the net and chasing imaginary pucks into corners, but they are no longer menacing, just examples of the normal psychological clutter that everyone experiences.

For years, those demons were stickhandling at centre ice, and in a less enlightened time I might have been chained to a bed and sprayed with cold water rather than allowed to wander freely through this apartment complex. But people are rarely institutionalized today, even the gibbering, wool-hat-wearing magpies who push shopping carts full of newspapers and bicycle parts underneath my window. 

And I’ve never been like them. 

Until age nineteen, I was a high-performance athlete, destined for the NHL. My career was derailed by one unfortunate incident, but even at my lowest point I was considered “highly functional” and “independent.” Still, prisons are prisons, even if they have nice wallpaper in the lobby. 

Ultimately, I longed for real freedom. 

And I succeeded. 

It sounds improbable, but I shed my disaffection and my delusions, like you might walk off a stiff body check in a beer-league hockey game. My primary physician actually laughed when I described my recovery in that way, and he patiently explained that acetylcholine levels couldn’t be willed into balance. 

But I know what I know.

For most of my life, I was dissevered. Outwardly, I was an all-star, but within the husk of that success lurked a third-string defenceman, hobbling behind the bench, spitting teeth into a bloodstained towel. Mental illness attacked me through that vulnerable alter ego, and I often felt utterly defeated, longing to crawl back to the dressing room where shower-steam, glove-sweat and failure could completely absorb me. 

But I didn’t give up. I kept launching my tattered body over the boards, shift after shift. 

It wasn’t easy.

Even during that last game, when I escaped forever, my eyes were glazed with blood and despair, and anyone watching would have been justified in predicting a lopsided loss and my departure from the rink via stretcher board. 

I once saw a movie, The Seventh Seal, where Max von Sydow played chess with “Death,” and I remember marveling that the competition between man and abstraction was so cultured and dignified. 

Well, I was engaged in a similar symbolic battle, except my opponent was a clumsy, nineteenth-century manifestation of “Madness,” a mean-spirited bundle of personality scraps and anti-social behaviours. In my movie, Madness didn’t wear a flowing black cloak, he wore hockey pads and a wool jersey. And we didn’t play chess, we played a dirty brand of industrial shinny in an empty small-town arena and, apart from me, no one cared if I relinquished control of my control centres. 

Of course, Madness was never something separate from me, like the figure sitting opposite Max von Sydow, it was knitted into my personality with living wires. And my Madness was never a single entity. But, at the time, some sort of clear adversarial split seemed important. 

Anyway, we battled through a long season and several playoff rounds, and we were both aware that ultimate victory would be awarded at the conclusion of this final game. Of course, Madness had thoroughly dominated play through the first two periods but, miraculously, it was still a scoreless tie. I think my opponent toyed with the outcome through sheer perversity. 

I was a feisty competitor, but Madness bested me in every individual encounter. If we skated into a corner, Madness levered the butt of his stick into my mid-section. If I tried to position myself in front of the net, he slashed the back of my legs with his adamantine blade. He delivered bone crushing open-ice body checks, and jabbed his skates into my thighs when I tried to get up. He had me bent over after every shift, trying to slide a clavicle back into place or massage some life into a damaged spleen. 

My assailant adopted the outward form of a hard-skating power forward. Ever since being pelted from heaven, he had roamed suburban hockey arenas in search of the mentally unstable. The name stitched on the back of his sweater was “Iblischuk,” which seemed suitable for a hockey-playing demon. He closed distances with tremendous speed and changed direction instantly, like a corrupted video file. There was no spot on the ice that was a safe refuge.  

On one shift, Iblischuk speared me then drove my head into a tampon ad painted on the boards just outside our blue line. He leapt powerfully into the air as he marshalled my skull into the word “protection” and my mouthguard mysteriously disappeared. Of course, the attack was grossly unfair. The puck was seventy feet away from us at the time, sliding through my goalie’s crease, but the referee only creased his eyes in derision, refusing to blow his whistle. 

Immediately afterwards, Iblischuk offered a witty aphorism: “pull your head out of your ass, kid.” I drew some strength from the realization that Madness, though powerful, wasn’t particularly clever.

The referee had been a close witness to all of my abuse—he was covered with a fine spray of blood and mucus—but a parasitic infection had defiled his cerebrum and he was no longer able to form cognitive judgments. The referee’s cheeks were a network of scars and his pupils were a mass of white cataracts. His nostrils were deep slits that housed hairs of hot copper wire protruding from inflamed pores.

“Feel me coming, kid, feel me coming,” Iblischuk taunted. He knew the referee was powerless to stop him.

The final few minutes of the game had the jump-cut quality of a poorly-edited art film. We were racing along the boards and Iblischuk leaned into me, planted his shoulder underneath my helmet buckle, and rammed my head into the unpadded stanchion next to the penalty box door. I had a brief, horrific hallucination that my jaw was completely detached and hanging underneath my chin like a loose helmet strap. 

The referee smiled, and his thin lips rippled like a leech swimming. “I told you before,” he said, clenching the whistle between his teeth to tease me with his mandible control, “medication is your only hope. I can put you out of your misery, right now.”

I carefully shook my head and made it back to the bench. 

The very next shift, I was left writhing on the ice, only dimly remembering the specific circumstances. But my neck was throbbing underneath my left ear. Iblischuk must have tried to cross check me in the throat and miscalculated by a millimetre or two. 

My injuries were grotesque, but I chose to focus on the positive: my tormentor was slightly imperfect, and that knowledge gave me strength to continue. I pushed myself into a crawling position. Then, I placed one skate boot underneath my body-shell and rose to a weak upright posture. Madness circled me, reluctant to return to his bench without delivering a parting injury. He casually sliced my Achilles tendons and sent me down to the ice once more. He sprayed snow in my eyes and skated away, wobbling his powerful hips to generate the movement. There was one more bit of trite advice: “keep your head up, kid.”  

Then, Madness transformed into a superficially different demon. The metamorphosis saw him lose four or five inches in height, but that was more than made up for in a mass of iron cordage that whipped around his chest and shoulders like snakes. In this new manifestation, Madness was a defence-man who believed in ‘taking the body,’ but not as a strategy linked to our figurative hockey game. This demon actually dragged meat-shells to oblivion after life-essences had spilled from their fragile envelopes.

Nothing compelled Madness to alter his physical form. I can only assume he voluntarily shifted iterations to share the pure joy of inflicting pain.

My new tormentor was known as Ba’al in the supernatural realm but he had “Ba’alski” stitched on the back of his sweater just to fit in, ethnically. “Yeah,” the monster said, with his new voice as skate-blades bit into the ice and cold arena paint wrestled with the scent of burnt hair, “you keep your head on a swivel.” His body language suggested glutinous anticipation. He could barely wait until our next shift to see if I had learned my lesson.

My teammates banged their sticks on the boards as a tribute to my durability while I straightened up and tottered after him. 

Ba’alski knew I was coming and understood I would attempt a feeble revenge. He was, after all, a member of the underworld and had powers of intuition that compensated for his lack of a soul. He turned to face me and held his stick chest high and considered which joint he might pry apart if I were foolish enough to continue.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have sought out this extra punishment, but the compound effects of various injuries had eroded my judgement. 

I tried to look nonchalant as I scraped closer, but desperation was apparent in the way I clutched my stick. The demon arrogantly allowed me to approach within a few feet. His body seemed to radiate heat and little pockets of expelled vapour distorted the harsh outline of his face. When I dared come no closer, I attempted to spear him in the crotch. Of course, denizens of the underworld don’t have the same weak spots as humans, but what could I do? I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I had recently misplaced my copy of Lucifer’s Anatomy. I had convinced myself that if I didn’t act quickly and decisively Ba’alski would scoop out my brain with his stick like you might remove a hard-boiled egg from its shell with a spoon.  

Unfortunately, my injured body betrayed me, and instead of thrusting, I stumbled and slumped to one knee. The knob of my stick hit the ice and bounced up.

The monster smiled and raised his own stick, slightly. There was a ringing sound as the titanium shafts connected. But instead of deflecting harmlessly to the side, the blade of my stick rotated upwards and spun crazily underneath my opponent’s chin.

Then Ba’alski’s eyes went wide and a red line appeared on the unprotected skin of his neck. I had regained my footing and was pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn’t going to be flayed alive or forced to swallow obsidian. The red line on Ba’alski’s throat quickly expanded to become a ribbon and then a bucket of steaming gore fell from the wound all at once. My teammates thumped their skate toes against the boards and screamed encouragement. 

Ba’alski dropped to his knees and tried to staunch the flow of blood with gloved hands, but it was futile. The wound I had inflicted was fatal, any fool could see that. The demon’s last thrashing leg movements kicked the puck backwards toward his own net. His teammates had abandoned their positions to watch his death throes so the little rubber disc slid quietly into the mesh.

Time died, second by second, and the scoreboard buzzer sounded.

Heads, human and demonic, glanced upwards at the electronic display.

I had won the game, although I didn’t immediately realize it because of my injuries. I skated towards the penalty box thinking I would surely get the gate for ripping the throat out of an opponent, even if my attack was sorely provoked, the actual injury was completely accidental, and the “victim” was a monster.

The cheers from my teammates were deafening, almost loud enough to drown out the angry howls from the opposing bench. I stood in front of the penalty box and raised my arms. I wanted to deride the remaining demons, I wanted to scream: “Is that all you’ve got? A brimstone-leaking idiot who can’t even cauterize his own wounds? Send me something with hooves, you subhuman pussies!”

Of course, I didn’t tempt fate by actually saying that out loud. But I grabbed a water bottle, sprayed my face and smiled. 

Here’s the thing. 

That victory broke my delusions like a skate lace. I was suddenly able to peel off my protective equipment, stuff it in an oversized canvas bag, and throw it in the darkest corner of the basement, confident that I would never need to wear it again.

And it wasn’t just a temporary remission.

The new me was able to re-evaluate things I had previously considered to be unassailable, and the amended version seemed to be sticking. It was amazing, really. I could safely examine some of my most outrageous misconceptions and transfer those thoughts from a drawer marked ‘truth’ into another more appropriately labelled “odd things that make me who I am—best kept at arm’s length.” 

My teammates were cheering more loudly than ever and the air was throbbing with the sound of skate blade against plywood and stick butt against plexiglass. I had freed myself, and my unlikely triumph spawned hope that they might be able to slay the monstrous, pulpy worms pursuing each of them. My breath formed icy victory wreaths around my temples; I had subdued Madness with nothing more than cockroach-durability and a borrowed titanium hockey stick.

It was a momentous occasion.

“What have you done?” Words echoed through my happiness. The referee grabbed my left wrist, spun me around and said: “you’ve killed him.” His voice was a skate blade on concrete. “My God, you’ve killed him.”

I looked at the spot where Ba’alski had fallen, but there was no pool of blood and no body. That made me feel good, because their shallow trickery was a clear acknowledgement of defeat. 

I tried to side-step the referee but he grabbed both my upper arms. His heart bulged, as if that organ was trying to burst through the vertical black bars of his jersey. 

Over the referee’s shoulder, I could see the arena exit door, propped open with a chair, and there was a riot of green foliage outside. How wonderful it would be to push through those tangles, brandishing skates on my fists like twin machetes! I lurched toward that opening, smelling moisture and rot and new growth.

But more people clutched my sweater, preventing me.

“That’s not how it works,” someone said, patiently. “Psychosis doesn’t participate in games; it doesn’t make deals.” 

The doctor was such a nice man and, undoubtedly, he was used to being right, but he had never entered this particular arena. 

I just smiled, because I’d won and that meant I could finally leave the game. 


Mark Thomas is a retired English and Philosophy teacher and ex-member of Canada’s national rowing team. He has been published in The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, The Orca Literary Journal and many other platforms.