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Pain Perdu

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It begins when Jack is six. He’s been watching hockey since before he could walk, had cherished his father’s first NHL goal puck in lieu of a stuffed animal, and had copied the ref’s movements before he’d truly understood what they meant. Hockey was in Jack; it stood to reason there’d be a little bit of Jack in hockey.

Alicia Zimmermann remembers the first time it happens. They’re at home with Bob’s game on in the background. Alicia’s not ecstatic about Jack regularly watching his father get into fights but Bob’s adamant that he’s showing his son how to stick up for his teammates. She’s not sure Jack understands the difference, but she loves seeing his blue eyes light up whenever he recognizes his father’s number on the screen. Jack is perched on the couch with his coloring books spread out over the coffee table, his expression shifting between childish concentration as he dutifully colors in the lines and absolute awe whenever Bob has the puck.

Alicia’s just about halfway through reading a potential contract How does Vogue think she won’t read the fine print?) when Jack, his small hand paused over the half-finished picture of a dinosaur, babbles something in Quebecois. The familiar syllables mash together lightning fast in the relaxed way Jack only speaks when he’s around his parents.

“In English, honey.” Alicia reminds him, looking up from the thick stack of papers on her lap. They’re trying to encourage him to speak more English, but Jack’s just so shy. He’s reluctant to even speak at all around new people, much less in his second language, and she and Bob had decided to speak more English at home.

“Maman,” Jack whines, lips turned down in an adorable pout. Shaking her head, Alicia smooths his hair back, waiting for him to find the words. “Papa got a hat trick.” He says, clearly displeased by the way the syllables feel in his mouth. Alicia frowns - she hadn’t heard any mention of another goal, no extended cheers pouring from the speakers. She checks the screen, confusion growing when she sees that the score is still 1 - 1, same as when she’d last checked.

“I don’t think so, Jack. He’s only scored once today, see? Did you mean in another game?” Jack shakes his head, carefully setting down his crayon to turn and face his mother. Alicia bites back a smile, charmed by how serious he can look.

“Non, maman - English, I know.” He huffs, picking at a loose thread on the couch as he translates what he wants to say. “In this game. He has one point and he got two more.” Ah, now she understands. She pats the spot next to her and Jack climbs up dutifully, curling into her side. She wraps an arm around him, rubbing at his small shoulder.

“Wrong verb, baby, he will get two more goals.” Alicia gently corrects. “But we don’t know that for sure, remember? We love Papa no matter how many goals he scores.” Jack shakes his head, but doesn’t wiggle away.

“I do know!” He protests. “We love Papa no matter what but he’s go - going? Going to get a hat trick. You’ll see.” She can’t very well argue with his certainty, but a few pokes to his stomach have him wriggling and shrieking with laughter. She just hopes she can distract him long enough to postpone his disappointment.

He doesn’t get disappointed. Bob scores two more goals and Jack cheers as his father and his teammates celebrate. It’s strange, but stranger things have happened, and Alicia dismisses the incident as a cute future memory, as childish luck.

The thing is, it keeps happening. Hat tricks are few and far between but before each and every one of Bob’s Jack tugs on her sleeve and predicts it. Every single one. It’s cute at first, then it’s eerie, then it’s impressive. Bob gets a kick out of it - he starts saving the pucks from the third goals and presents each one to Jack the morning after he returns home from games or roadies. He even makes a special breakfast of puck-shaped french toast (they eat three pieces each and refuse another bite only to come crawling back to the kitchen for a snack after only an hour or so). As Jack gets older he still predicts hatties with frightening accuracy but the french toast celebrations are held later and later as his bedtime gets pushed back. His collection of pucks has grown but he treasures each and every one, even refusing to let Bob pluck one from his book shelf when they want to play shinny on the frozen pond out back.

Then Bob retires. Alicia’s relieved she won’t have to worry about him for eight months out of the year anymore but worried he’ll go stir crazy. He does, of course, who wouldn’t? But he also devotes so much time and energy to Jack, helping him with his homework as best he can and offering to play shinny whenever Jack so much as gazes longingly at his skates, and Alicia can’t fault him for that.

The predictions stop for a while. They assume they end along with Bob’s career, and while they miss hattie breakfasts, they get to spend so much more time together they hardly feel the bittersweet ache.

Then, one evening in February, Jack and Bob are waiting for the Penguins game to begin when it happens. They’re trading predictions for the game, commenting on the Pens chances against the Rangers when Jack suddenly goes still, head tilting to the side as if he’s listening for something. Bob sets his beer down, concerned, when Jack turns to him, serious as ever.

“Uncle Mario’s going to get a hat trick.” He relaxes against the cushions, as if saying the words has released the tension that had invaded his muscles.

“Is that so?” Bob asks, keeping his voice level. “You’re sure?” Jack nods decisively. Bob leans over, wrapping an arm around Jack’s neck to hold him in a loose headlock. “Well if you’re sure, you’re sure. Now go start your algebra homework before the game starts.” Jack protests but breaks free, smiling despite his feigned reluctance. He gathers his textbook and notes and scratches out equations in during commercial breaks, Bob’s arm slung around his shoulders.

Mario Lemieux scores three goals, and Bob has a hard time picking his jaw off the floor. Jack looks down at his homework with a smug little smile and after the game finishes Bob heads straight to the kitchen to make french toast.

Eventually, it becomes commonplace for Jack to scan over the night’s lineup, go still for a moment, and then declare who will score three or more. He’s never wrong, and sometimes he even goes grocery shopping with Bob to stock up on the ingredients for french toast days in advance.

Oddly enough, Bob and Alicia don’t ever think to ask him how he does it. It’s just another part of who Jack is, another personality trait they love and cherish

When Jack joins the Q they don’t see him nearly as often. They want to see each and every one of his games, but they decide to keep their distance. Bob, in particular, hates how the other parents focus more on discussing his career than their own children’s games and Alicia is worried by how Jack goes pale and ducks back into the dressing room when he spots them in the crowd.

So they compromise. Alicia gently gets Jack to agree to see a therapist and Bob arrives at games in the second period and stands in the back or finagles his way into the announcer’s booth for more cover. It’s the only way they’re able to watch Jack’s incredible growth as a player. They aren’t at the game where Jack scores his first hat trick, but they make french toast nevertheless and text Jack a picture of their plates with the message, “Why didn’t you warn us? So proud of you!”

The next day, Jack calls.

“I’ll score four this Friday.” He promises, voice tinny over the speakers of Alicia’s cell phone. She and Bob are crowded over it, soaking in every word. They know by now that if Jack says it’ll happen, it’ll happen, so they congratulate him in advance. “Merci, Papa, Maman.” He’s quiet for a moment before continuing. “I think I have to say it out loud. A few weeks ago I was so sure I was going to get one but I didn’t tell anyone, and it didn’t happen.”

“Who did you tell today?” Alicia asks, although she and Bob are pretty sure they already know the answer.

“Just Kenny.” Jack says shyly, and Bob’s face lights up when he deciphers his son’s tone. Alicia hushes him, shaking her head. ‘He’s not ready,’ she mouths, and Bob nods solemnly before asking Jack about his backhand practice.

They’re at the game on Friday and Jack scores four goals. They go out to dinner after and Kent Parson watches in confusion as they cut their french toast into four ovals. Two months later Jack sends them a pixelated video of Kent gleefully pouring the maple syrup the Zimmermanns had sent over over a plate of french toast they’d made in their billet family’s kitchen, Jack’s soft laughter in time with the shaking over the camera.

Five months later Bob re-watches the video over and over again, wondering if he’ll ever hear Jack laugh again. Alicia brushes Jack’s hair off his pale forehead, holding her breath between each blip on his heart rate monitor.

They don’t eat french toast for a long time after that.

One day in January Bob and Jack tumble inside, cheeks red from their run, and Alicia greets them with a big envelope in Samwell crimson. She doesn’t need to open it to know it’s an acceptance letter, but Jack’s hands tremble as he carefully tears open one side and fishes out the letter.

“Dear Jack,” He reads, his voice steady. “Congratulations. On behal - ” Bob’s celebratory whoop cuts off the rest of Jack’s sentence, and he finds himself wedged between his parents in a sweaty celly in the middle of their kitchen. He feels it in his fingertips first, the warm tingling he’s felt so many times before, and goes tense in his parent’s arms. They pull back immediately. Bob guides him into a chair as Alicia kneels in front of him, taking both his hands in her as she adopts what Jack has come to know as her most soothing tone, the one she’s used in every panic attack she’s helped him through since he was small. Bob is hovering nervously, holding Jack’s admission packet in a white-knuckled grip.

“Maman,” he interrupts, squeezing her hands until she looks up at him in surprise. “Je vais bien, I’m not having an attack.” Jack smiles, but it’s tinged with sadness as he watches his parents visibly relax. “I’m sorry I frightened you. I just - ” He cuts himself off, looking down at their joined hands. Bob places a hand on his back, rubbing in soothing circles. The contact grounds him, and he looks up at his father, fortified. “Evgeni Malkin, tomorrow night. Do we have any bread?”

Bob laughs, the sound bright and jovial as he pulls Jack up into a hug, Alicia tucked under both their arms. They have french toast for dinner, Jack’s acceptance letter held against the fridge with a Samwell Men’s Hockey magnet.