Jack is only half paying attention to the specialist, he knows he should be listening, but all he’s hearing is that it wasn’t real. Samwell, his friends, his comeback, the Falconers, Bitty, none of it was real.
At first, Jack thought maybe it was the overdose, some sort of adverse chemical reaction in his brain; but the world only gets more confusing when Papa tells him he took a dirty hit his rookie season with the Penguins and didn’t get back up.
He’s been in a hospital bed for almost seven years.
They talk about brain damage and memory loss. Atrophied muscles and fabricated memories. His father asks about experimental treatments and if Jack will ever walk again, let alone skate.
“I mean, the odds of you waking up at all were slim to none, but there’s nothing else physically wrong with you. It’s as close to a miracle as I’ve ever seen; with dedication and commitment, I believe you’ll be able to walk again without assistance within the next twelve months. It will take much longer to regain your old strength, but it’ll come, I have no doubt.”
Bob barks a laugh. “He’s still an athlete. Dedication won’t be a problem.”
He’s itching to call someone. Anyone. He wants to talk to Lardo. He needs to hear Shitty tell him how fucked up this all is. He wants to text Tater and Snowy. He wants to wake up in his bed and for Bitty to hold him and stroke his hair and say ‘it’s going to be okay, it was just a dream’.
He looks over at his parents, his mother unexpectedly stern, his father older and grayer than he ever remembers seeing him. They’re laser-focused on the doctor, asking questions Jack would never consider himself, and he’s waiting for this to be a joke. A terrible, awful prank, but the reveal won’t come.
His vision blurs and he can feel tears dropping onto his hands. His fingers are thin, his skin so pale it’s practically translucent. It’s disgusting. He’s disgusting.
This isn’t the Bob Zimmermann that took them to Mont Tremblant and spent three days teaching Bitty how to ski. This isn’t the Alicia Zimmermann who spent weeks ring shopping when he admitted just how much he really loved Eric.
These people are strangers. The same untouchable celebrities who didn’t understand just how badly Jack hated his life until he almost lost it. It took Jack struggling through rehab for Bob to really connect, for Alicia to regret being so absent. Rehab for an overdose that never happened. False memories of loving, understanding parents Jack apparently made up. This Alicia Zimmermann is the woman who trained him to smile when he wanted to do anything but. This Bob Zimmermann rested a hand on his shoulder at 17 and told him to think very carefully about choosing to be attracted to men.
Jack hated them once, and he has a feeling he’ll hate them again very soon.
He has a visitor, and he doesn’t know what he was expecting when Kent shows up with an expensive floral arrangement and sad looking ‘get well soon’ balloon. Kent looks almost the same, except there’s a nice pink scar just below the cut of his jaw and his teeth have clearly been redone. It’s not an injury Jack is familiar with, and it’s yet another moment of terrible wrongness. He sees Jack staring and before even saying hello announces, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to get coma patients. I panicked.”
Jack has to course correct quickly because this isn’t the same Kenny that crashed Epikegster and threatened to out him. Jack fabricated that version of his best friend. His first love.
If Dr. Holloway is right, his only love.
“You look like shit, Zimms,” he continues, trying not to show how overwhelmed he clearly is.
“You trying to sweet-talk me, Parse?” Jack jokes, dredging up memories of their old banter. “‘Cause you’re doing a bang-up job of it.”
And Kenny laughs, sets the flowers on the coffee table and lets the balloon float to the ceiling before he’s wrapping Jack in a cautiously gentle hug.
“‘Bout fucking time, Zimms. Was about to give up on you,” Jack pats Kent’s back and soaks in the physical contact, if only for a moment. “You know, I brought the cup here. I hoped that maybe you’d be so pissed I took a title before you that you’d wake up and kick my ass, you know?” Kent pulls back and shakes his head, looking up at the ceiling light to blink away tears.
“I don’t hate you,” Jack says before he can stop himself, and Kent gives him a sad smile.
“I know. I hate myself a little bit, though. If you’d gone first you never would have been laid out by the fucking Blue Jackets.”
“If I’d gone first the Aces wouldn’t have a cup,” Jack offers, sinking back into his pillows. “That was all you.”
Kent scoffs and rubs a hand over his face to hide his rising embarrassment. “You weren’t even fucking awake, don’t bullshit me.”
Jack laughs and twists at the thick blanket covering his lap. There’s a catheter down there somewhere and the only reason Jack hasn’t looked yet is that he doesn’t want to see how shriveled his legs are.
“I need your help, Kenny.”
“I remember a whole different life, college, friends, a different team, I even had a boyfriend I was ready to come out for. His name is Eric. Was Eric. We called him Bitty.”
Kent’s expression goes pinched at the mention of a boyfriend, but he quickly waves it off when Jack notices. “It’s okay, I’ve just,” Kent hesitates, “it’s been a long time but I’m over it, you know? It sucked how things ended, and then you had to get all fucked up, but it’s okay. So you were crazy in love with this fake dude, huh? Was he hot?”
That hurts more than Jack expected it to. He looks back down at his hands and Kent curses softly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to —“
“I think it was real,” Jack interrupts, “and I need you to help me prove it.”
Kent folds his arms across his chest and Jack envies the way his biceps bulge. “Jack, I’m not here to enable your delusions. In fact, Bob gave me strict instructions not to talk to you about your coma dreams.”
“Well, you’re already doing a shitty job of that. You know better than anyone ice magic is real.”
Kent waves his hand around the room dismissively. “This isn’t ice magic. You cracked your skull open on a risky play and almost died; the only magic here was the entire fucking League praying you wouldn’t be a drooling simpleton when you woke up. If you woke up. I’m not trying to be cruel, but what happened to you wasn’t a one-off. This false memory thing is a documented condition. You know you sound like someone with amnesia saying they didn’t exist before an accident because they have no memories.”
“You sound like my father.”
Kent drops into the chair beside Jack’s bed and sprawls his legs out, anxiously bouncing his heels. “Okay, fine. Say you had another life. And your ‘memories’ are even a tiny bit real. How can you prove it?”
Jack watches Kent for a moment, the way he worries his lip with an uneven overbite.
“You’re dating your winger, Jeff Troy,” Jack says, praying to every god he can think of that he’s right; that this is the one piece of information Jack had no way of possibly knowing. It’s everything he can do not the break down when Kent freezes and whispers, “How the fuck do you know that?”
“Because I’m not insane,” Jack hisses back, just barely able to keep his voice from cracking. “Because I spent four years earning a degree at Samwell, and I played for the Providence-fucking-Falconers, and I was in love, and now I’m here and it’s all gone. Kent, you have to help me get it back.”
Kent’s eyes are red and he looks away, obviously to keep Jack from seeing him crying.
“You fucker, how the hell am I supposed to do that?”
Jack laughs wetly. “You can start by getting me a phone.”