[Then: Montréal 2009]
It’s been a rough morning for them both; they’re itching for a fight, and Bob is nothing if not a fighter. The joint father-son interview had turned into more of an ambush after yet another leaked picture of Jack partying, and Bob only has so much patience left.
“Jack,” Bob sighs, fisting the steering wheel tightly, “I’m not telling you how you should handle your business, but I am strongly advising you not to throw your future away on a… a parking-lot romance.”
Bob brakes a little more quickly than necessary and puts the car in park, idling the engine just outside the garage. Jack is aggressively quiet beside him, picking at his cuticles and trying not to make eye contact.
The draft is a week away. It’s taken months of planning and negotiating, backroom deals and off-the-books meetings, but if everything goes as planned Las Vegas will take Kent first and the Penguins will trade for the second overall pick, securing Jack for Pittsburgh. With Sidney in place and the current roster stacked, Jack will have a championship under his belt in two years, and the Zimmermann’s will have a dynasty. Years of grooming leading to one night and Jack chooses now to drop this bombshell on him.
Jack flusters, shifting in the passenger seat. “You told me you knew guys on your old teams, I thought —“
“You can’t be gay,” Bob stresses. “No one cares if a three-game call-up is taking it up the ass, but you?” Bob slaps the tabloid sitting on the console between them, the one with the photo of Jack double-fisting a beer and a bottle of Absolut on page six. “You can’t take a drink without someone snapping a photo and dragging your name through the mud. My name. Your mother’s name. Can you imagine what the headline will be if you’re caught fisting a cock instead of a bottle? It’s like you’re trying to fuck this up.”
Jack bristles, shifting in his seat and ready to bark some kind of retort when Bob pins him with a hard stare and he falls silent, turning his eyes back to his (shaking) hands. Bob can almost hear Alicia’s warning voice in his ear - don’t draw attention to it, Doctor Halpert said it’ll only make things worse - but he’s agitated, and they wouldn’t even be here if Jack had kept quiet.
“Aren’t your meds supposed to stop that from happening?” Bob seethes, ignoring the immediate regret he feels when Jack shoves his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt, out of sight.
“I’m out,” Jack mutters, defeated, and Bob balks.
“What do you mean ‘out’?”
Jack shrugs and doesn’t look up while Bob racks his brain trying to remember the last time Jack’s prescription was renewed.
“Crisse, you’ve got enough problems - lord knows you don’t need this too. How much are you taking?”
“If they worked like they used to I’d be fine, but I can’t play without them anymore —” Jack burrows his face into his hoodie, and Bob pretends not to notice the tear tracks on his cheeks. Bob can deal with drug abuse. He’s been there. Alicia’s been there. This is something he can do. He can’t fix league-wide homophobia, but he can help with dependency issues.
“I know you’re stressed, I’ve been where you are, and I just want what’s best for you. It’s too easy for a career to go up in flames because of one bad decision. You’ve worked too hard for too long. You deserve better than to be remembered for who you’re fucking.”
Jack might as well be a turtle, with how deep he’s burrowed in the neck of his sweatshirt.
“I’ll have Jean-Paul call Dr. Halpert, we’ll set an appointment for after the draft. See if we can’t get your dosage issues resolved. And, son, maybe in a few years, after you have a few rings, you can be…open, about this. After you retire? You can do whatever you want. Whoever you want. But not now. Do you understand?”
Jack nods jerkily, clearly itching to get out of the car, and Bob unlocks the door so his son can escape.
“This is likely just a phase. You’ll get over it.”
Jack grabs his messenger bag and bolts, nearly tripping over his feet trying to get into the house, but Bob stays in the truck and rests his head on the steering wheel, taking one deep breath after another.
One week. Jack just needs to keep it together for seven days, and then he’ll have the Pens and a purpose. Kent Parson will be in Las Vegas and Jack can start his life. The one he’s truly meant to.
The days of Bauer Supremes are long gone: his last pair from Juniors gave out years ago, and he tries not to mourn the loss as he laces up the latest hand-me-downs on loan from the rental shop. Eric had wanted so badly to get Jack a pair for his birthday, but the truck needed new tires and Jack wasn’t about to let Eric lose his job because Jack wanted to be slightly more comfortable while monitoring public-skate. Private lessons pay well, but his rink isn’t a training hotspot and Jack can’t commute easily to the nicer facilities in the suburbs. He has to take what he can get — sporadic, bi-weekly after-school lessons — but what he wouldn’t give for one or two parents with NHL dreams; families that could afford the daily, private lessons he and so many of his former teammates had received when they were children.
“Your voice is weird, Mr. B.”
“My voice is weird?” Jack asks, laying it on real heavy, “what about your voice? I can barely understand you, your accent is so thick, Em-i-ly.”
“I don’t have an accent!” Emily shouts indignantly. “You sound like a cartoon!”
Jack laughs at the thought. “Everyone has an accent, mine’s just uncommon,” he presses, skating circles around her.
“You have an accent, not me! I’m American!”
“Americans have accents. Eric has one, remember?”
“Eric’s not American; he’s from the South. South’s not America.”
“Ah. I did not realize that. I’ll have to tell him.”
They continue on for a few minutes until April signals him from the skate shop that it’s time to get the girls off the ice. The Falconers are doing some kind of outreach today, and Jack’s been short-shifted to clear the rink for a slew of underprivileged, photo-ready children and a handful of pro athletes. The level of deja-vu is staggering.
While the cameras are getting set up, Jack climbs up on the Zamboni to take a quick lap so everything’s ‘picture perfect’, when he catches sight of Alexei Mashkov and Sebastien St. Martin at the home bench, unpacking several gear bags. Jack steers closer to get a look and tries not to envy the fresh equipment they’ve brought with them, but Mashkov catches him staring and gives a jaunty wave.
“Hello! You skate with us today?” he yells, and Jack can barely hear him so he kills the engine.
“Saw you with little girls, very good teacher. We could use help with class, Thirdy and Snowy cancel last minute, leave us high and wet.”
“Tater, give it up, everyone knows your English isn’t that bad,” St. Martin snarks, before looking up at Jack. “Would you mind? We could use another body, we’ll have about thirty kids.”
“You’re running a publicity camp with thirty kids who have never played hockey? Here?” Jack looks around the rink like somehow his disbelief will make the situation more palatable.
“I know. We didn’t plan this,” St. Martin looks at Mashkov and says, “actually, ‘high and wet’ seems appropriate.”
Vindicated, Mashkov punches the air. “See? I made it better.”
Just like that, Jack loses himself in the flow, taking direction easily from the producer and wrangles the kids like the professional he is. Or was. And Jack enjoys himself right up to the moment Mashkov slides in close, butting right up to Jack, and says, “I see you skate, I think, ‘this man very familiar, how is he so familiar’ then I remember how I see you before.”
Jack’s heart is in his throat when Tater fishes his phone from his pocket, turning the screen so Jack can see a photo from his time at Worlds.
“This is you, Captain Team Canada!” Tater says excitedly, pointing at Jack mid-pass, before moving his finger across the screen to a Russian player in the background, “and this is me!”
Tater gets an arm around Jack’s shoulder and jostles him excitedly, shouting across the rink, “Marty! Is Jack Zimmermann! We play against each other in Juniors!”
St. Martin’s eyebrows are closer to his hairline than his eyes. “You say ‘Zimmermann’?”
Jack can’t escape Mashkov’s excited hold and Jack suddenly remembers meeting Sebastien St. Martin before, at a scouting combine when the Falconers were still trying to trade for a high draft pick and gunning hard for Kent. He needs to leave, now, but St. Martin is up in his face, examining him carefully and then, in French, low and even like he’s afraid of scaring him, “A lot of people are looking for you, son.”
He shakes loose and looks between Mashkov’s grin and St. Martin’s abject shock. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I think you have the wrong person.”
“But you are!” Tater protests, showing the photo to Marty. “Look! Is Jack!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeats, slipping past the camera crew and the kids, trying to get to the employee lounge and his locker before anyone can corner him. His hands are shaking as he unties his skates, and when he can manage it, he texts Eric.
I fucked up.
At first, Jack hadn’t noticed the kid beside him. It’s a chilly day. Emerson isn’t far, and the blanket around his shoulders isn’t that out of place. If Jack felt safe enough to flirt, he would. The boy is cute, and he’s looking at Jack with these big, bright eyes that can’t be real. He wants to say hello. He wants to wink, and flirt, and feel like a real boy. But he’s not, and just as Jack reminds himself he’s living out of his car, Brown Eyes introduces himself as ‘Eric Bittle’ and all his plans go out the metaphorical window.
Jack flounders for a moment, distracted by the honey-sweet tang of a Southern accent, and finally remembers to introduce himself, but he stops before offering his surname.
Eric watches him fidget curiously. “What? Just Jack?”
“Well ‘Just Jack’, what brings you to Boston?”
It’s only then that Jack realizes Eric is wrapped tightly in a ragged quilt — the kind of family heirloom that should be worn down from decades of use, not shredded and stained from exposure — and the end hanging off the bench is hiding a bulging backpack.
‘Maybe he’s like you.’
“I’m…” Jack tries to think of something that doesn’t sound as pathetic as he feels. “I’m between things, right now.”
"Well, is that what we’re calling it now?" Eric looks down at Jack’s gloved hands and clenches the edges of his quilt close for warmth. “I like it. Between things.”
Jack nods in agreement.
“Whoa, hey, slow down, honey, it’s okay, you’re okay,”
“They knew me! I played with them and they fucking know! They’re going to find me, he’s going to —“
“Easy, easy, Jack, you’re an adult, they can’t make you do anything,” Eric soothes, but Jack’s lost to his paranoia.
“They’re going to make me go back,” Jack slides down and tucks himself into the small space between the couch and the wall, hiding. “They’re going to find me.”
“Honey, I don’t know how to help you right now —“
“They’re going to know what I did —“
“Jack, baby, you have to breathe, where are your pills —“
Eric fishes around in his backpack and pulls out a hefty medal, the silver slightly beat up, ‘Southern Junior Regionals’ displayed proudly for Jack to see.
“I’m pretty good. I mean, not that I have my skates anymore, but Katya said I was on track to make the Olympic team if I stuck with it.” Eric slides the award back into his bag and clutches the blanket closer. “I miss skating.”
Jack tucks in close, trying not to think about the Junior Worlds ring in his duffle. “What happened to you? Why are you…” Jack gestures vaguely to the room, still partially filled with teens finishing their meals.
“Don’t think my parents were quite ready to accept a gay son. So I packed up my things and hot-footed it to Atlanta. Bought a bus ticket north and ran out of money sooner than I thought I would.”
“It’s July, right? It’s been about eight months now. Made it through a Boston winter!”
“You’re only 17, you couldn’t have waited until you graduated?”
“Well, I woke up one morning to find a stack of pamphlets on the kitchen table. Half of ‘em for the kinda places that send men in white to kidnap you in the middle of the night. I’ve seen the videos. Parents crying like they’re the victims, kids being dragged out of their homes.” Eric rips the zipper closed on his backpack. “I wasn’t keen on waiting around for shock therapy and reconditioning.”
Jack stares at the limp broccoli still on his plate. He needs to eat. “I don’t think they still use shock therapy in the States.”
Eric frowns. “Well, these people aren’t licensed professionals, Jack. I don’t think they give a good god damn what the government thinks. But what about you, handsome? What’s a Canadian doing in a Boston soup kitchen with me?”
Jack doesn’t think about the fact they’re in a shelter. So he tells the truth, and he’s so lost in his own story, he doesn’t realize how it must sound to uninvested ears.
“— I wasn’t going to go first,” Jack explains. “The Pens worked something out under the table with Vegas so I’d go to Pittsburgh.”
“Pittsburgh,” Eric echoes softly, nodding.
“My uncle, sort of, is Mario Lemieux. He co-owns the Penguins. I'd gone to skills camp, we’d even already gone over the contract. It was a dream come true, but the coach… he had sources. Knew about, um, Kenny. My boyfriend. He told me PR had already cleared a likability campaign to ‘straighten out’ my image. He told me Mario had signed off on everything already, and if I made waves they’d send me down. I’d ride the bench until my contract expired and no one wanted me. Of course, it was all bullshit, but I was scared enough to believe him — believe the people who had always supported me were secretly ashamed of me. And then my father…” Jack cuts himself off, not quite ready to think about ‘Bad Bob’ just yet.
“I didn’t want to live with being blackmailed before my career even started, and I thought…I thought I could go out on top. Only the good die young, right? Like it’d be better if they remembered me for what I could have been instead of being disappointed by what I would become.” Jack scrubs a hand over his face and groans. "I panicked, which I'm pretty good at, but I couldn’t go through with it. I decided maybe it would be better to just…leave.”
Eric considers him for a moment, a long, lingering stare that makes Jack want to question every decision he’s ever made, and he realizes he must sound completely certifiable. Jack looks down at his hands, traces the blue lines of his veins beneath pale skin.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly when I chose to leave. I was taking a lot of medication, and I was drinking. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and now I’m here. For better or worse.”
“But you could go home,” Eric hedges.
“So could you,” Jack fires back.
Eric hums thoughtfully and slides his tray toward Jack, offering the other half of his chocolate chip cookie.
“We could,” Eric says, softly, “but who would ever want to?”
“Wait, I’m sorry, this is actually you? You were telling the truth about all that hockey stuff?” Eric turns his tablet to Jack, showing off a Rimouski glamour shot. “How have I never Googled you before?”
Jack tries to rub the grit from his eyes, finally feeling somewhat in control after a solid hour of hysterics. “I don’t understand, you didn’t believe me?”
He reaches out to slide a finger across the screen to change the photo, and accidentally jumps to the attached article: ‘Search Continues For Hockey Legend’s Missing Son’.
“A handsome guy living out of his car tells me he has been abusing his medication and drinking heavily immediately after telling me a fantastical story about being a top tier athlete running away from his future playing hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who happen to be owned by his uncle.”
He really can’t argue with that.
“That does sound pretty insane,” Jack admits. “So this whole time, you’ve thought I was nuts?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you,” Eric says, embarrassed. “I mean, I understand now, and I just wrote off that whole exchange.”
“It might actually say more about the strength of our relationship that you didn’t believe me. You thought I was crazy and you still agreed to live with me.”
“Either I’m dumb as a rock or head over heels in love.”
“Dumb as a rock, knew it.”
Eric throws a balled up sock at him in response.
They lapse into silence, Jack clicking through article after article about his disappearance, conspiracy theories, and Jack is so caught up he jumps when Eric drops down beside him to follow along.
“You were famous,” Eric says tentatively after they finish going through a forum filled with people convinced Jack was meant to be the next Sidney Crosby and the Penguins bumped him off. “Like, famous famous.”
He resists the urge to say something disparaging because he really wants an excuse to be upset right now, but Eric is the only family he has. Maybe the only person in the entire world that loves Jack for who he is. He grits his teeth and swallows down the venom he could so easily spit, waiting for the moment to pass so he can be Jack Bittle again instead of Jack Zimmermann.
“I was meant to be famous, and I walked away from that a long time ago. It’s weird, there’s so much you don’t know about me.”
Eric drops his forehead on Jack’s shoulder in apology. “In my defense, I thought you were schizophrenic.”
“That’s not a great defense,” Jack mutters.
Eric presses a kiss to Jack's cheek, whispering, “Then will you tell me again? I don’t want to read any more about your life, I want to hear it straight from the famous hockey player's mouth."
Jack fights a smile. "Fine, but only 'cause you're cute."
“You don’t deserve this,” Jack pushes, huddled in the back of his car while Eric tries to warm his hands over the vent heater.
“Oh, honey, I’ll be okay —“
“You turn 18 in a month. They’ll give your bed to someone else, and you’ll be back on the street. You can’t live like that, please, it’s not safe. You have to look out for yourself first.”
“I’ll get another job, find a roommate, it’ll be a piece of cake! You don’t need to worry about me.” Eric smiles at him, a small, forced thing, and Jack can tell he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying. “I don’t need you to save me, Jack.”
“I’m not trying to…I have some money. Enough for an apartment, maybe, but I’m not technically able to sign a lease. I need a roommate, and you need a place to stay, I just,” Jack scratches his neck reflexively. “Please live with me. I don't want to be alone, and I don't want you to be alone, either."
Weeks pass and Jack starts to let his guard down again. If St. Martin and Mashkov were going to say something about finding the Jack Zimmermann running a Zamboni in Providence, Rhode Island, someone would have found him by now. As far as he knows, his parents still have a reward out for any information about his whereabouts.
No news is good news.
“Had a great customer this morning,” Eric says as they’re dressing down for bed. “I think he might have been stood up, he kept watching the door like he was waiting for someone. I felt bad for him, so I gave him a free slice of pie, and guess what?”
“Mmhmm?” Jack’s already thumbing through his latest library find, a book about the Battle of Stalingrad, when he looks up to find Eric staring.
“He left me a $50 tip.”
“What?” Jack lifts his head from the pillow to stare at Eric. “Why?”
“I just told you! Good lord, sweetpea. But it seemed like he was planning to come back. If I see him again, I’ll tell you. In the mean time,” Eric fishes the bill out of his wallet, “do we save it, or do we have a date night?”
Jack whistles low. “That’s a tough one. Everything’s paid up for the month, so I vote date night.”
Eric, stripped to his boxers, does a little dance and puts the money in a jar on the dresser labeled ‘Grin Bin’.
“We have to pick a good one this time,” Eric insists, sliding in under the comforter. “I really want to see Interstellar.”
Jack lifts his arm so Eric can slide under and tuck up against his chest, the book still propped open on his stomach. Jack leans down to press a kiss to the top of Eric’s head, whispering, “I’m still sorry about last time.”
Eric rests his head on Jack’s pec, his breath tickling Jack’s chest hairs. “I forgive you for your terrible taste in directors.”
“Good. Now go to sleep. You’ve been up since 4.”
Jack sends a thankful prayer to the universe for the man generous enough to give his partner such an unexpected gift.
Boston is too expensive by half, and they have a hot tip on some open beds in Rhode Island, so they pack up the car and drive to Providence.
It’s the best decision they could make — almost immediately, Eric makes nice with the shelter’s housing liaison and she finds them a tiny, subsidized studio apartment on the North Side. Jack still has a bit of money from his savings, and he pays rent three months in advance to give them a head start.
They salvage furniture from street corners and stock the fridge with odds and ends from the food bank.
Jack’s Canadian passport doesn’t get him very far in the employment department, but Eric’s friendly demeanor lands him a food service job within the week. The pay is terrible, but he can bring a meal home each night, so they make it work. Eric’s first paycheck, a meager $164.29, is just enough to stock the pantry and buy an inflatable mattress so they don’t have to sleep on the hardwood floor another second.
“You were homeless and you still had a Costco membership?” Jack asks while they browse through aisles stocked with items he can barely afford to look at.
“Costco’s return policy is incredibly lenient,” Eric says, wrestling an inflatable queen mattress into the cart. Jack can barely get his hand out to stop the box from crushing the six dozen eggs that will make up 80% of their meals for the next two weeks. “If something breaks, they’ll almost always swap it out for a new item. So you buy an air mattress instead of a real mattress, use it until it wears out, swap it for a new one. And if you need to move and can’t take it with you, just return it for credit. For a hundred dollars, we have a forever bed.”
“Did someone at the shelter tell you that?”
“No, my mama did. It’s how we furnished the guest room when Aunt Judy came to stay.” Eric blinks up at him over the side of the box. “Are you sure you’re okay sharing a bed? We haven’t really talked about it.”
“Can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”
Eric blushes and Jack backtracks hard, stammering, “No, no, I mean —“
“It’s okay, I know what you meant.”
Jack tries not to think about what he actually meant.
Jack meets Eric’s eye across the counter.
“Hey, honey,” Eric mouths, holding up a finger. “One sec.”
So Jack waits, ambling along with the steady line, and when he finally gets to the counter Eric is beaming.
“Already put your order in, sweetpea, should be up in a few. And I threw a little something extra in there.” Eric winks and hands him his coffee, but not before motioning toward the seating area. “And mystery guy is back! Wish us luck.”
Jack winks and follows Eric’s line of sight to the mysterious Good Samaritan, and when he finally focuses on the man, who has his face half hidden in a newspaper, Jack calmly sets his coffee down and heads back to the counter, interrupting Eric mid-order.
“That’s the man that tipped you? In the black coat.””
“Excuse me, ma’am — I’m sorry? Yes. That’s him”
“That’s my father.”
“That. Is. My. Father.”
“Can I pay, please?” the woman asks, agitated.
“I’m so sorry, it’ll be $7.52. Jack? Are you okay?”
Whatever plan Jack was trying to formulate disappears because when he looks at the corner table, Bob Zimmermann is staring right back at him.
They may not have the most abundant life, but they’re savvy. Jack sells his truck for much less than it’s worth, given he doesn’t have the title, and finds a much cheaper alternative to ease Eric’s commute. They pad their savings with the rest, a buffer to get them through the leaner months when Jack can’t find legitimate work.
They don’t have cable, the best they can do is piggy-back their neighbor’s unsecured wifi to watch movies on Eric’s manager’s Netflix account. Sometimes, rarely, they’ll scroll past a title and Jack’s mother will be staring back at him. Or he’ll walk by a sports bar and catch his father guest commentating on a game he’s too busy to watch.
They pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, but they’re living, and they’re happy, but that contentment doesn’t stop Jack from wishing he could afford to show Eric the Montréal he grew up loving, and he knows Eric feels the same way about Georgia.
They make promises hand over fist; when Jack has his degree and Eric has his own bake shop, they’ll have the money to travel. But for now, they don’t have the budget for plane tickets and Eric can’t miss more than a day or two of work before things get uncomfortably tight.
Not that they could travel - Jack’s still technically undocumented after missing his re-application for dual-citizenship, and Eric’s credit is so poor their emergency card has a whopping $400 limit.
Jack’s so concerned with living day-to-day, he doesn’t give much thought to the long term. The future is an amorphous thing that doesn’t affect him like it used to when the promise of success and fortune was as much a curse as a blessing. Maybe that’s why Eric’s proposal comes out of the blue.
It’s Date Night at the Wash & Fold: a Sunday tradition as holy as church used to be for Eric, and the one night of the week they actually plan in advance. Months of trial and error have revealed there are only a handful of ‘good’ machines at the laundromat, and Sunday is the best day for a chance at the half-price washer.
“I was thinking…about your work issues, and I know it’s only going to get harder if we don’t do something. But, since Rhode Island just legalized, um, gay marriage, I was thinking we could do that. Get married, so you can get naturalized faster? Lord knows we don’t need to anything you aren’t comfortable with —”
Jack shoves his chopsticks back into the broccoli beef, spearing a piece of meat, and peers over Eric’s shoulder. They still have 45 minutes on the ‘okay’ dryer, because Lupita beat them by five minutes and is washing bedding.
“Bud, are you proposing to me on laundry day? Because that is incredibly romantic.”
Eric brings a hand to his chest in mock offense, though Jack can see how anxious he still is. “How dare you, sir, I am proposing a marriage of convenience.”
Jack checks his watch, notes the date - June 8th - and says, “That’s a real shame, I was hoping to marry for love. I guess I can settle for a Green Card.”
Eric blushes. “You love me?”
“What? I tell you I love you like twice a day.” Jack snags the box of cashew chicken from his… fiancé? He likes the sound of that.
“So, you’re okay with this? Marrying me?”
“Eric, baby, I’d marry you even if it wasn’t convenient.”
It’s possibly the smoothest line Jack’s ever used, and the payoff is immediate; Eric is in his arms so fast they barely save dinner from the pocked linoleum floor of the laundromat.
“Thank you,” Eric sighs against his shirt.
Jack leans down for a kiss, but Eric pulls away at the wrong moment and he misses by a mile, shoving his nose right into Eric’s eye.
“I’m blind,” Eric laments, covering half his face. Jack is about two seconds from panicking when Eric winks with his good eye and says, “Kidding,” before lifting his hand to show Jack that his eye actually is kinda red and starting to water. “Oh, wait, actually, ow.”
By the time the dryer buzzes at them, the take out is gone, Eric’s eye is a teeny bit swollen, and they’re engaged.
“So, best proposal ever?” Eric laughs, swaying his hips to The Four Tops as he folds. "I'd say so."
Jack smiles and hip checks Eric lightly, just enough to earn a squeak of surprise.
Best proposal ever.
Jack couldn’t agree more.
Eric whispers, “Honey, are you okay?”
His father stands, unsteady, twisting his napkin in his hands, but he doesn’t leave the table. He’s waiting on Jack.
“No,” Jack answers and forces himself to move forward. He can’t run away from his life, and he won’t leave Eric behind, not if he can help it. He puts one foot in front of the other until --
“Tabarnak,” Bob breathes, eyes welling with tears, “it is you.” He reaches out to touch, or hug, something that will be too much to handle, and Jack sidesteps the hand, to pull out the chair opposite the man and sit down. Bob has the gall to look stricken by the rejection, but as Jack expected, he recovers quickly.
“You look well,” he starts, slipping into French before taking his own seat and wiping at his eyes. “I mean, I thought you might be…well, it doesn’t matter now, you’re here. You’re alive. Alicia, your mother, when she sees you — I thought for sure Sebastien was mistaken. Thank god. Thank god --”
They’re sitting in the car, holding a freshly notarized marriage license when Eric says, “Okay, I have an idea, we’re going to turn on the radio.”
Jack reaches for the knob and Eric scrambles to slap his hand away. “No, not yet! Whatever song is playing will be our song.”
"We have a song," Jack protests lamely, "'You Make Loving Fun'. That's our song."
Eric shakes his head. "No, this is our first married song."
“I feel like this is a lot of pressure. And we should check the station first, I think I was listening to NPR.”
Jack turns down the volume and adjusts the dial to 90.8. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Eric nods, failing to hide his excitement. “One, two, three!”
Jack cranks the volume.
— RA-RA-RASPUTIN, RUSSIA’S GREATEST LOVE MACHINE —
“Oh, God, turn it off!”
Jack's laughing too hard to do anything but slap the steering wheel, tears blurring his vision. “This — this is our song!” Jack howls. “It’s official!”
“No! No! The next one! This can’t be our song!”
But it is their song, and it’s possibly the greatest thing that has ever happened to anyone because they don’t just have a song, they have a story.
Bob’s still going when Jack catches Eric hovering over his father’s shoulder.
“Boys,” he interrupts with buckets of false cheer, “how are we doing, can I get y’all anything else?”
Bob takes a breath and plasters on a watery smile. “Jack, you should know Eric here makes an amazing apple pie. Honestly, best I’ve ever had.”
Jack watches how his husband puts on his ‘happy face’ and forces a smile. If Jack’s on pins and needles, Eric’s on eggshells. He knows what Bob did, how he hurt Jack. He knows what's at stake.
“Oh, sweetie, it was nothing,” Eric says, at the exact same time Jack says, “I know he does.”
Bob blinks. It’s the first time Jack’s spoken.
“Well, I shouldn’t be telling you, you seem to know this place pretty well. A sign of good taste.”
“Oh, we don’t see Jack around that often, it’s a real shame,” Eric laments motioning to the door with the paper bag in his hand. “Hon, your to-go order is ready, and I know you need to get back to work--” It’s an out, and Jack should take it, but he needs to know how this is going to end.
“It’s okay,” Jack interrupts, as gently as possible given how badly he wants to curl up under a booth and disappear, but Eric gets the message and sets the sack on the table with a parting smile.
“Okay. Let me know if you need anything.”
Bob looks at them with curiosity, trying to figure out what he’s missing. “Friend of yours?”
Jack doesn’t respond, instead, he peeks into the bag: sitting on top of his usual Reuben is a sugar cookie with extra icing, baked in the shape of a heart.
He bites the inside of his cheek to fight the pressure behind his eyes, tries not to think about the articles he didn’t let Eric read: the ones where Bob and Alicia, in desperation, had told the press their son had a mental illness and might not be in his right mind. Jack knows the same men in white that scared Eric out of Georgia could come for him, and no one would care.
“Jack? Son, are you alright?”
He needs to know if the tiny life he’s worked so hard to build for himself is going to disappear; he needs to know that Eric will be taken care of if Jack Bittle ceases to exist.
“Don’t fucking touch me!”
Jack holds up his hands, backing away slowly. “Okay, see, I’m over here, not going to touch you, Eric. Can you tell me where you are?”
Eric has good days and bad days. His episodes have lessened in intensity since they settled into a more stable routine, but he still has his triggers, and this is a particularly bad day. Eric doesn’t answer immediately, instead he curls into himself, covering his head and protecting his stomach.
“Leave me alone, please,”
“Shhhh, it’s okay, you’re going to be okay, you’re safe, you’re home, no one is going to hurt you —”
Eric doesn’t like to talk about the months he spent wandering the northeast before he came to Boston, and at this point, Jack knows better than to ask. In an ideal world, Eric would be in therapy; he’d have someone to talk to about past trauma. The reality is crueler: they can barely afford Jack’s pills as is, cracked into quarters and rationed for emergencies. So, for now, they have this: Jack doing his best to bring Eric down from fifteen feet away.
Jack swears that one day he’ll find a way to get Eric the help he deserves. Until then, they have each other, and that’s all they need.
Jack clenches his fists and knows if he waits any longer, he won’t be able to speak at all. “What happens now?”
Bob’s relieved half-smile is back. “Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t think that far ahead. I didn’t think I’d find you, I was trying to be optimistic.”
The answer doesn’t track with Jack's narrative and he struggles to think of a response. In the lapsed moment, Jack notices Bob flexing his fingers rhythmically into fists. A one-two motion he recognizes as a tic from Bob's hockey days when interviews would get too stressful.
“Are you,” Jack struggles to get the words out, “are you nervous?”
Bob’s eyes go wide and he barks a laugh, almost hysterical. “Nervous? I’m fucking terrified. I keep waiting for this to be some terrible joke.”
“But, why?” Jack demands, teetering on the edge of manic. It doesn’t make sense, none of this makes sense. “Why would you be scared?”
Bob furrows his brow, searching Jack’s face for something, and he asks, equally unsettled, “Jack, are you afraid?”
Jack’s phone buzzes in his pocket, the two-tone pulse assigned to Eric, and he scrambles to check the messages. ‘I tried to stop him’ with a screenshot of a photo on Twitter, tagged #OMG #badbob #jackzimmermannlives #sweetcakescafe. Jack recognizes the angle and spins in his seat to find a man in a Falconers jersey holding up his phone, clearly recording.
Bob catches sight of the man and shoots to his feet. “Crisse. Sir, please, I’m trying to —”
It’s over. All of it. Jack can feel his control slipping and he slides his fingers into his hair, gripping at the strands trying to ground himself. It’s the god-damn lunch rush, of course, people would see, how could he have been so stupid — this must have been the plan all along, get him in public, make him vulnerable —
A soft hand comes to rest on his shoulder, breaking the feedback loop, but it’s not his father, it’s Eric.
“C’mon, hon, time to go.”
Jack scrambles for his lunch, but Eric taps his hand lightly. “I got it, go now, the office is empty. I’ll be there soon.”
Distantly, Jack can hear his father calling his name, but he’s about thirty seconds from a full meltdown and if he doesn’t get somewhere safe the whole fucking world is going to know he’s alive and…and…
He gets into the manager’s office and closes the door behind him, tucking between the supply shelves to think, to think, because his father is here to take him away, and Eric is going to get fired, and he’ll lose the apartment, and people will hurt him again, and and and —
He’s breathing too fast.
His vision goes white.
Someone’s singing, he can feel the reverberation in his chest.
There are fingers in his hair, rubbing gentle circles on his scalp. He leans into the touch, seeking a few more moments of calm before the world falls apart again. Eric always knows how to make him feel better after he crashes, but when he blinks against the harsh fluorescents and the throbbing headache he finds Eric isn't holding him; Eric is standing by the door, white as a sheet, wringing his apron in his hands.
“Shhhh, My little prince, you’re going to be okay, you’re safe,” the man speaking to him - holding him - is not his husband, and when he realizes who it is, something deep in Jack breaks.
“Oh, thank God,” Bob’s laugh is breathy and wet, desperate in a way Jack has never known, and there's more pressure against his scalp, kisses.
Jack struggles to get upright to get a better look at Eric, who is red eyed and pale. “You need a hug, bud,” he rasps, and Eric snorts before he can catch himself.
“I think I need a drink,” Eric counters with false bravado.
Bob catches Jack looking and turns his attention to Eric. “I can’t thank you enough for helping us, if there’s anything I can do for you, please, let me —”
“Don’t take him,” Eric says, immediately, and Jack's heart sinks. “Please. Don’t take him away.”
“Eric,” Jack warns.
“No, Jack, it’s out, right? People know you’re here. So, you don’t need to go back.”
Bob looks at Jack in confusion. “I don’t understand what is happening. What kind of request is that? Who is he?”
Jack gets a hand on the desk and pulls himself up, only a little bit lightheaded. “You’re going to try to take me home,” Jack says. “That’s why you’re here, isn't it?”
“What?” Bob gapes at him. “I’m not here to drag you anywhere. Thirty minutes ago I didn’t know if you were even alive. Is that why you were afraid? You thought I was hunting you down?” Jack’s non-answer is enough of one that Bob recoils and turns to Eric, embarrassed. “I lost the right to tell my son what to do with his life a long time ago. I’m just happy he has someone so willing to look out for him —” Jack rests a hand on his father’s shoulder, cutting him off.
“You’re serious about not knowing? You're not here to bring me back?”
Bob’s cheeks go a blotchy red like he’s on the verge of tears again. “No, Jack, no, I’d...I wouldn't... I'd never do that to you. And God help me if I ever gave you a reason to be afraid…of me. God help me. I thought I was doing the right thing, and I fucked it up." Bob shoves a shaky hand through his graying hair. "I at least want the chance to make it up to you, in any way I can, just tell me what you need and it's yours. If you never want to see me again, say the word and I'll go. But, please, I just...I need to know that you're happy. That you're safe."
Jack's voice has failed him, so he lifts his left hand, displaying the plain silver band on his ring finger.
Across the small room, Eric mirrors the gesture.
[Then: Montreal 2009]
Bob’s going over the paper when Alicia pokes him gently with the prongs of her fork. “You’ve been quiet, Jack’s been moping, I’m guessing your talk didn’t go so well?”
He glances at Jack’s empty chair and pushes away the guilt that keeps trying to creep in.
“He’s so damn headstrong,” he sighs, and Alicia gives him a pointed look.
“Gee, I wonder where he gets it.”
“Well, one day it’s going to get him hurt,” Bob folds the paper and sets it down beside what’s left of his eggs. “I was too hard on him, I know I should apologize, I just…”
“The last thing Jack wants to do is let you down,” Alicia reminds him, with no small measure of accusation. “Ever since he was a kid, every decision he’s ever made, he's tried to make in anticipation of what will make you proud." Alicia stabs at a pineapple spear, leveling a glare across the table. “And, correct me if I’m wrong, I thought the plan was to go easy on him? You did far worse at that age — hell, people still call you ‘Bad Bob’.”
“I just don’t want him to be ‘Bad Jack’,” Bob counters. “Or maybe I do, I don’t know, but first he needs to have a career worth a moniker at all. That's why I'm hard on him.”
“He will. With time, patience, and a hell of a lot of luck.”
They sit in silence for far too long, Alicia chewing pointedly and Bob fussing with a newspaper he’s not actually reading. Then, “Okay, what did you do?”
Bob looks up and sees a furrow has developed between her delicately arched eyebrows.
“Why do you think I did something?”
“Because you’ve never been a good liar.”
“He’s our son, Bobby. First. Hockey will always come second to family, you promised me that when Jack was born; if he wants to withdraw from the draft tomorrow, that would be fine because it would be his choice. Would I be disappointed? Probably. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I want him to be happy.”
The guilt has blossomed into full-blown shame and he presses his palms to his eyes. It’s too much, and Bob’s mouth is going before he can stop himself.
“He told me he’s seeing Kent.”
Alicia’s bemused smile drops like a stone. “Excuse me?”
“The article about the partying had just dropped, we were cornered by that damn reporter, and I just,” he groans, dropping his head into his hands. “I didn't handle it well. I told him it wasn’t a good idea to be…gay right now. There’s a lot riding on him having an untarnished image and —“
Alicia’s blank expression fills him with a kind of dread he hasn’t felt since before Jack was born; when they were still dating and Alicia had her first pregnancy scare.
“He’s not ‘gay’, Bobby, he’s bisexual.”
“He didn’t specify,” Bob stresses. “Either way, it’s terrible timing.”
Alicia rests her hands palm down on the counter and runs through a breathing exercise. ”Okay, alright, I need you to back up here, because you just told me our son came out to you, and you ‘didn’t handle it well’.”
Bob flushes. “It wasn’t like I rejected him,” he argues, “I was frustrated.”
“Frustrated? ’Frustrated’ doesn’t equal Jack going non-verbal.”
“I told him it wasn’t a good time to be…that. Maybe later in his career, after he’s retired.” Bob thinks back on the conversation, without the filter of his trademark temper, and even just recognizing he can’t find the courage to repeat any of what he said verbatim, Bob knows he's fucked up, badly.
Alicia blinks owlishly. “I'm sorry, I thought I heard you say you told him it 'wasn't a good time'?"
He takes a breath to collect his thoughts and rests his palms flat on the table. "I've been fielding questions about Jack's off-ice behavior for months, networking, trying to get him everything he deserves, and after the interview from hell he tells me about," Bob waves a hand flippantly, "this, and I get it, he's under a lot of pressure, with his anxiety and his training, there hasn't been much time for him to go out and be a normal teenager. It makes sense he would mistake a close friendship for something more tangible when he doesn't have any experiences to compare it too."
"No, no, our son came out to you, and you told him ‘it’s not a good time’, and he should wait until he's retired. I didn't mishear you."
“Now, wait for a second, this isn't about me, this is about the League, I don’t have a problem with gay people —”
“Jesus Christ, Robert, you told him to hide until he retires. Not Bettman, not Mario, you.”
Then Bob does exactly what his therapist has tried for years to get him to stop doing. Instead of backing off, rolling over and admitting he made a mistake, he doubles down. He fights.
"Do you think I’m doing this for me? We are this close to securing his future, I don't have time to worry about hurt feelings. I'm trying to be proactive, stop him from blowing his future on nothing! He can’t be the next great if people think he's queer.”
Alicia goes white. "Is what you’re worried about? Maybe we can engrave that on the back of my GLAAD award: ‘For excellence in telling your child to hide their sexuality until they retire’. So everyone can know how fucking supportive we are of our queer son.”
Bob grits his teeth. “I was being responsible. Someone has to look out for his future, especially if he won’t do it himself. I was trying to help.”
“Spare me,” Alicia scoffs, “Jack and Kent have been together for months, this isn’t a new development, and you’d have known that if Jack hadn’t been so worried about telling you in the first place. If I'd known you were going to -- it doesn't matter. I had the gall to think you would put your family before hockey, and that was my mistake.”
Bob can’t formulate a response, and all he can do is watch as his wife of 23 years turns her back on him. "I would never..."
Alicia leans forward over the sink, still facing away from him, and braces herself like she needs the support. "Bobby," she sighs, "I'm not ignorant. I've been neck-deep in this world for far longer than I'd like to admit, and I know firsthand how cruel this sport can be to people who are gifted, people who are different. Jack wasn't trying to tell you because he wanted to come out publicly, he was telling you because you are his father. One of the few people in this world who he can trust to love him no matter what, and in response, you told him to hide who he is because it's not convenient for you."
"...that's not true, this isn't about me. He knows that. He knows I love him."
"You're going to fix this. Promise me you'll make this right." Alicia turns back, and Bob has never seen his wife look quite so tired. "I just hope you didn't scare him too badly. You know how he gets."
He thinks about Jack's fidgeting, and the panic attacks when things get overwhelming, the little blue pills that accompany every meal because Jack can't function without them.
"I'm not that person, Alicia. I swear, I'm not. everything is already so damn hard -- and it's only going to get worse."
"Then tell him that. Commiserate over what you can control instead of punishing him for being honest. Apologize. Be a father to your son before we lose him completely."
Bob fusses with his plate, already formulating a plan.
"When he gets back from his run, I'll talk to him. Set the record straight."
Alicia gives him a stern look.
"I'll find another euphemism," he amends.
Bob Zimmermann sits in the driver's seat of his rental car and watches a mess of reporters and rubberneckers swarm the front of Sweetcakes Cafe, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jack, but Bob's son is long gone: smuggled out the delivery entrance by a short, kind young man wearing a matching wedding ring.
On speakerphone, Alicia is desperate, asking, "Is it true? Did you see him? Bobby?”
“I’m here. I’m,” he blinks away tears and forces his voice to work. “Crisse, He’s married. He has a whole life, and someone who loves him, and --”
Bob's crying now, and he can't stop so he covers his face and lets the moment take him.
"Bobby? Honey --"
"His husband -- makes the most amazing pie," Bob gasps between sobs. "You really need to try it."