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death can't take you

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One day, it starts.

Kent crouches down next to a blue bird splattered on the sidewalk. There’s not a lot of blood, maybe because birds don’t have as much blood as humans. Or maybe it’s all trapped between the wings. Or maybe it’s still stuck in its awkward body. If Kent was only looking for blood, he wouldn’t think the bird dead. But it has a snapped neck, and its open eyes don’t twitch.

Kent reaches out, planning to push it off the sidewalk, when he feels the tug. He frowns. He touches a feather.

The bird’s eyes blink. Its neck snaps around.

Kent surges backward.

The bird’s wings spasm. It flings itself to its feet, and it looks up at Kent.

Kent’s heart beats three time, stutters once. Kent flinches, and the bird rockets into the sky, blue wings thrashing.

Rimouski has a game in Halifax, and Kent snags a window seat on the bus. It's prime napping real estate and everyone too slow to grab one is an idiot. Probably won't make it far in life.

Fish tries to kick Kent out of the seat, and Kent kicks back. “Was here first, loser,” he snaps. Fish scowls, calls him a dickwad, but moves away. Kent grins and pulls out his iPod.

It takes about two hours for Kent to pass out, music ringing in his ears to block out Crazy Craig’s snores. He startles awake to pitch black, gasping for air. Kent rips out his headphones, and his eyes snap to the road.

Between one breath and the next, a dead stag flashes past. Kent squeezes his eyes shut. Blood coated its fur, bloomed out from its legs, bent and twisted and cut. Kent’s palms itch. He scratches at them, but the itch sinks deeper, and Kent can’t get at it. Palms red and stinging, Kent squeezes his hands into fists; his nails bite into his skin.

When the forest finally gives way to streetlights, Kent risks opening his eyes. It’s fine. He’s fine. His palms sting a little but they’re… fine too. He takes a shallow breath and then a deeper one. Kent’s hands shake when he picks up his earbuds again. He forces them steady like he can always make them on the ice before he goes back to listening to music.

He doesn’t go back to sleep.

Kent counts three more dead animals. Another deer. Two raccoons.

Unbidden, the bird flashes before his eyes: The jerk of its straightening neck. The whirl of its wings. The tug from his fingertips. Kent feels sick. Starts feeling sicker, stomach rolling and head pounding.

The bus finally makes it to the hotel. Kent stumbles off it first, shouting he needs the bathroom. He barely makes it to the lobby restroom in time, puke rolling up the back of his throat. He throws up twice before the nausea passes enough for him to grab his room key from coach.

“You feeling alright, Parse?”

Kent flushes. “Stomach bug. Feeling better now.”

Kent collapses into bed without taking a single piece of clothing off. Zimms, up reading a book, makes some sort of weak chirp, probably about his hair, but Kent’s French isn’t that good yet. Either way, it’s a Jack chirp, so it doesn’t deserve more than a grunt, which is all Kent gives it.

On the way back from winning the game the next night, Kent pauses at his normal bus seat, the window wide open for the taking. Kent runs his nails over his palm. Through the glass, Kent sees the deer’s open, dead eyes and twisted legs. He blinks, and the animal disappears.

“Quick holding up the fucking line, Parse!”

Kent flips off Crazy Craig and takes his good old time moving two more seats back to Zimms. He has an empty aisle seat. Zimms has his head in a book. Kent drops down into the free seat.

Zimms starts, book almost tumbling out of his hands. Kent snorts. “You have such tunnel vision.” Kent pushes the seat back to a better angle and sprawls his legs for maximum comfort, ignoring when Zimms tries to push his leg back over.

“I have longer legs than you,” Zimms complains, shoving his right foot and calf along Kent’s left. Kent doesn’t budge. In fact, Kent ignores Zimms and gets out his music. Zimms huffs and turns back to his book. He doesn’t move his leg though.

Kent dozes off after a couple dozen miles. The bus bumps, and Kent jerks awake. He scratches at his palms, instinctively turning toward the window, but Zimms obscures the view, hunched over his book.

Good, Kent thinks, and shuts his eyes without a new dead animal lying behind them. He startles awake three more times on the trip, palms itching. He fists his hands.

Kent wonders how long it takes for someone to clean up roadkill. If it ever happens. Or if a wild animal takes the dead. Or if, sometimes, enough cars hit it that it smears to nothing.

It storms late on a Tuesday, rain turning into pelting hail. The wind howls and the trees groan. Kent stays inside and listens to the hard thuds of the ice against the roof, windows. He keeps his eyes firmly on his phone. Zimms sent two texts in the last 30 minutes, which means he’s in a talkative mood. Any delay in responding will only increase the already exhaustive delay of Zimms’s messages.

“Kent,” Mrs. Miller calls from downstairs, and Kent looks away from his phone.

“What?” he hollers back. When Mrs. Miller doesn’t respond, Kent rolls off his bed and pads down the stairs. He stops a few steps from the bottom, leaning over the banister to make eye contact with his billet mom. “What do you need, Mrs. Miller?”

“Were you still planning on going out tonight?”

Kent shrugs, glancing outside. He was going to run over to Crazy Craig’s to work on some homework. And hopefully play video games. “Dunno. Do you know when it’s supposed to pass?”

“A few minutes. Hear that, it’s already letting up. You can head on over now without getting too drenched.”

Kent doesn’t hear it letting up, but imagines Mrs. Miller knows better than him in these instances. Kent doesn’t really know how often it hails in Canada, but it probably does more here than in New York. Actually, he can count on one hand how often it hailed (and he noticed) in New York. It’s a fucking fat three times.

“You really think it’s letting up?”

“By the time you grab your coat and bag, it’ll be rain again.”

The hail hasn’t turned entirely to rain by the time Kent goes out, but he’s pretty sure he won’t be impaled by a golf-ball-sized chunk of ice between his billet and Crazy Craig’s. Kent takes the shortcut between the two houses, cutting through the grumpy neighbor’s backyard, filled with so many trees that it’s almost a small, miniature suburban forest.

The trees provide some cover for the rain though, and Kent’s almost out of the weird patch of land when his palms start itching. Kent fervently ignores them, lengthening his strides. His palms start to hurt instead of get better, and Kent stumbles to a stop when he feels his breath still for a moment inside of him.

Kent hears the clatter of a bird taking off over the pound of the rain on the overhead leaves.

Kent turns without really meaning to. He steps off the path he and Crazy Craig started wearing with overuse. Kent pushes aside one branch, and another snaps under his foot. Kent’s feet start to hurt, and Kent crouches down. He moves a pile of wet leaves, and there’s a squirrel, eyes wide and a dent in the side of its head.

Kent reaches forward. He snaps his hand back, looking around. No one’s in the woods with him, and Kent wonders if he’s crazy. What does he think is going to happen when he touches the squirrel? That it will pop back to its feet like the bird did, take off into the woods? Kent’s crazy, and he scoffs at himself. He’ll touch the squirrel, nothing will happen, and then he’ll wash his hands and go to the doctor about whatever the fuck this skin rash is that keeps kicking up.

Kent doesn’t move an inch. The trees only provide so much cover, and soon Kent’s dripping wet instead of just damp. He shivers. He either touches the squirrel now or goes to Crazy Craig’s and—

Kent presses a fingertip against the squirrel’s damp fur.

The squirrel’s eyes blink first, like the bird’s did, and Kent doesn’t draw his hand back, heart freezing in his throat. He presses another finger against the squirrel’s body, and it warms under Kent’s touch. He feels blood start to pulse. Where there had been raw, torn skin, fur fills in, stitching together the wounds. Its tail flicks, and it scuttles to its feet.

Kent pulls back, and it stares at him. Its whiskers twitch, and then its head jerks up to the sky. It shakes away rain drops, glances one last time at Kent, and then scampers off.

Kent wishes he could do the same, but his legs feel like jelly. He tries to stand and doesn’t make it far off the ground before collapsing back onto it. His palms start to itch, and Kent swallows.

He uses a nearby tree to get to his feet, and moves from tree to tree, following the tug. He finds another squirrel. It looks like it had slipped, fallen to its death. Kent kneels. He hesitates only for a moment, before lying his full palm across its back. He doesn’t breathe.

It rises up under his touch, shaking off water. It totters for a bit, as if reattaching muscles to memory. It shifts until its wet nose touches the underside of Kent’s hand. It chatters once and darts away. Right. Kent swallows and blinks away rain. Okay.

When Kent makes it to Crazy Craig’s house, he feels a bit like Coach bagged skated him for most of a period.

“You run here?” Crazy Craig asks, voice nasally from one too many broken noses.

Kent scowls and flips off Crazy Craig, before mortifyingly catching sight of Mr. Thompson. Kent immediately drops his hand and stutters off some sort of apology. Crazy Craig starts howling with laughter, and Mr. Thompson crosses his arms, giving Kent a stern staring down. On top of that, Kent’s entire backpack is soaked through, including his homework. And Zimms hasn't even texted back.

Kent tries to stay away from dead animals. Maybe he’s being paranoid. Maybe he’s hallucinated the whole thing. But he takes the long way around to Crazy Craig’s, prefers to drive instead of walk, avoids the part of the supermarket where the meats still have eyes.

Kent desperately hopes there’s a time limit on bringing back animals. He does not need to accidentally start making a fish flop and then kill it again, having no absolute clue where to get a big bowl of water for it. Kent’s pretty sure the time limit has to be a thing, or maybe the eyes are required—Kent has, thankfully, not yet brought back a cow from a slab of steak or a chicken from a fried leg. He hopes it stays that way.

So Kent avoids dead animals with eyeballs and hopes no one sees him utterly blaunch at the roasted pig they have at the end of the season party. Kent’s palms feel like they’re on fire, and Kent tells himself over and over again it’s because there’s some other dead animal by the spit, not because the pig needs saving.

Fish makes fun of Kent’s avoidance of the pig, and Zimms is Kent’s saving grace. Zimms takes one look at the pig and plants himself in front of Kent’s line of view. “Kind of creepy, eh?” Zimms says, and Kent nods, feeling immediately better without dead animal eyes staring at him, asking Kent to give it life.

In the heat of summer, Kent swelters.

The Brooklyn apartment his mom owns is too small for Kent’s too many brothers and too many sisters. Kent would rather brave the outside world, but he misjudges. Outside, there’s a lot of animals.

Baby animals, with fragile bodies and uncoordinated movements.

They die a lot, and Kent’s feet keep taking him to them. He can’t not cup his hands around a cracked egg shell, feel the baby bird’s heartbeat take off, quicker than Kent’s own, its wings swinging unstably. Kent deposits it in the nest he’s fairly certain it came from. And then his feet head in a new direction, Kent’s palms grow hotter in the humid heat, swelling and itching. He saves birds and squirrels. He brings a racoon back to life and a rat with a litter of seven.

Between hockey practices and trying to put on more weight, which he can’t seem to do, Kent doesn’t bother ignoring the tug, the itch in his palms, like he did before.

If he has the power to do good, to bring something back to life, to give them a second chance, why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t Kent do good?

Kent goes back every night to his family and their warm embraces and laughter and questions. No matter how exhausted the day leaves him, they crowd him with love and encouragement, reaching out and hugging, touching, sharing their own stories of the day. Katherine is going to college in a few weeks. Kaitlyn is trying out makeup for the first time. Kyle is pretending he can navigate the city by stars. Kameron is showing off his new skateboard tricks. And Kent. Kent saves animals when backs are turned, each time feeling something tug at his heart strings.

Each night, something in Kent settles then, and he knows he can face the next day.

Kent goes back to Canada, and he goes back to hockey. He practiced in the off season, but he didn’t get daily time on the ice. He didn’t get his teammates: Zimms and Crazy Craig and even Fish, the asshole.

“Did you miss me?” Kent asks in rusty as fuck French, walking into the locker room with his equipment bag slung over his shoulder. Mostly his teammates complain, but Zimms and his blue eyes smile.

Kent’s heart balloons, and he wonders what Zimms, Captain Zimms now, would think of Kent saving all the animals. He thinks Zimms would be proud.

When the season starts to go hard, so do the parties. Kent knows all the right people, and he takes advantage of it. He knows Teddy Frank with the big house; Kim Johnson with the great alcohol stash; and Courtney Madison with the parents who don’t care—at all.

It’s a typical Friday at Courtney’s, and Kent is double fisting. He’s honestly not quite sure what either of them are, but he knows they’ll get him drunk. It’s something he’s been very into recently, getting drunk.

It makes almost everything easier.

For example, Kent can brush up against Zimms’ side without popping a boner because whiskey dick. He can even sometimes lean his head on Zimms’s shoulder, and no one will bat an eye. Zimms doesn’t care much either, because he’s just as drunk, if not more so. They match each other drink for drink pretty well. Kent can hold his alcohol and Zimms can’t, but Zimms has a good thirty pounds on Kent. So it works out to them being about the same amount of too drunk.

Right now, Kent’s trying to find Zimms. Fish waylays him though, wants to talk about Kent’s day. “It was fucked up man,” Kent slurs, stumbling forward, and Fish leans in. Probably because Kent’s story is fucking enrapturing. “Today there was a dead deer, and I felt…” Kent trails off as a shiver runs up his arm. There was so much blood.

“You saw a dead deer?”

“Yeah,” Kent says, and if he shakes his head enough the image disappears. “Yeah, but then it got up. I made it get up, and it walked away.” Kent’s eyes bug out of his head at his own words. He can’t believe he made a deer walk again. Deer are big. Deer are like the size of humans. “How much do you think a deer weighs?”

“Female or male?”

Kent squints, takes a sip from his one drink. He doesn’t remember, so he takes a sip from his other drink. Takes another few.

“Cause if it was a male, then it might’ve been like, 125 kilos.”

Kent snorts his drink out of his nose. “Oh shit. Shit that’s huge. That’s more than a person.”

Fish nods, and then takes one of Kent’s drink. Kent does not have the coordination to get it back, knows he doesn’t, and walks away. He wants to find Zimms, but instead Kent finds himself outside. Kent’s palms start to itch, and so he makes the only logical choice and drains his cup.

It doesn’t really help, nothing ever helps except… Kent stumbles off, away from the house. His head hurts, and he can’t really tell where he’s going, but he knows at the end he’s going to find an animal. An animal that needs him, that he can save.

He finds it, but it’s not just one: it’s four out in the middle of a back road. There’s one racoon still alive, paws shoving against each body, one racoon at a time, shaking them. Kent stares until his feet start moving. His foot catches, and he falls forward onto the ground. The racoon cries, scampering back. Kent freezes on his hands and knees, and it watches him. He swallows and reaches a hand out slowly to one of the dead animals.

The live raccoon’s teeth come out when Kent sinks his fingers into the first raccoon’s fur. He feels air race through its soft, plump body. Fat covers its bones, oozing back together under his touch. The dead raccoon raises its head. Its friend chitters, and the raccoon darts out from under Kent’s palm.

The two raccoons touch noses, reach out to one another, and then abruptly stop moving. The one’s eyes twist to Kent, and it waits. Kent jerkily crawls to the next raccoon and lays his hand upon it. And then the next.

Kent watches them topple over one another in excitement, in happiness, and then they’re gone. Kent brings his hand back to himself, fingers numb and freezing. He feels so cold, so tired. His hand is covered in blood, and he doesn’t feel much of anything, heart slow, skipping beats maybe. He draws his knees up to his chest and drops his head against them. He takes ten slow, steading breaths. His stomach rolls, and Kent clenches down on the feeling.

Everything is fine, he tells himself.

The animals are alive. He saved the animals.

Kent goes back to the party, and he finds Zimms outside, relief flooding through him.

“Looking for me?” Kent gets out, before toppling over next to Zimms. Kent was looking for Zimmas. Kent takes a few minutes to properly situate himself next to Zimms, needing the warmth, his touch. Their legs press together, and Zimms has a beer. “You going to finish that?” Kent asks, already reaching for it.

Zimms hands it to him, flush high in his cheeks. He frowns a few seconds after the exchange. “Why are your hands red?”

Kent wrinkles his nose and looks down at them. “There was a dead raccoon.” Kent frowns, “No, sorry. There were three dead raccoons.”

“Three?”

“Yeah,” Kent says, going a little fuzzy around the edges. He drinks the beer. He can hear what’s happening on the second floor. Two people arguing over a cat that yowls. Kent leans over to Zimms to make a joke about pussies, when the cat falls over their heads.

It slams into the ground. It doesn’t land on four feet.

“Fuck!” Zimms goes. “Fuck—fuck, oh fuck, oh my God.” Zimms scrambles to his feet, and because he and Kent are sort of latched together, Kent makes it up to his feet, too. “Are you seeing—is it—”

“Dead,” Kent confirms, scratching at his palms. He looks down and the beer is knocked over on the ground. “Hey, Zimms,” Kent says. “Do you want to see a party trick.”

Zimms’s mouth opens and closes, and Kent shrugs and starts toward the cat. He makes it all the way to the body, when Zimms shouts, “Don’t touch it! Are you fucking crazy, don’t—”

Kent threads his fingers through its thick, brown fur. The open eyes blink, and then it straightens its spine. Kent shivers. It staggers to its feet, like Kent does drunk, and it howls. It twists between Kent’s legs, and then it darts off to the house, where the two voices from upstairs are still screaming.

Kent turns around to smile at Zimms, wants to know what he thought. Kent doesn’t even get his eyes to Zimms’s before his vision goes black.

Kent wakes up in a pile of vomit, with a pounding headache and chills that won’t go away. He drags himself to the bathroom, avoids someone with their head over the toilet, and turns on the shower. Kent strips as quietly and as quickly as he can, which is neither quick nor quiet.

But the water’s hot by the time Kent trips into the shower, barely getting his hands up in time to catch himself against the wall. The person by the toilet moans. The water pounds over Kent's skin and into his hair. Kent slides slowly down to sit at the bottom of the tub, and then cranks the water up even hotter.

Not remembering the night before is normal, how shitty he feels is definitely not. Kent pushes water out of his eyes and runs his hands through his hair. Kent’s teeth start to chatter. He pulls his legs up, wraps his arms around his knees, and waits to warm up.

He does, eventually.

“So you don’t want to go grab something to eat?” Kent asks, eyes trained on the video game, Zimms trying desperately to keep up and failing. Zimms gets even worse at the game when he starts trying to answer Kent’s question. Kent takes pity on him after the third attempt and pauses the game. “So?”

Zimms turns his full attention on Kent, and Kent squirms a bit with it. He likes being Zimms’s center of focus. “There’s leftovers in the fridge downstairs,” Zimms says.

Kent whines. “But what about something other than leftovers today.”

Zimms frowns, and Kent wants to reach out and press the corners of his lips into a smile. Or just touch his mouth. Honestly, Kent isn’t that picky at the moment. Zimms says, “Eating out isn’t healthy.”

“It is if you don’t get dessert,” Kent counters and then finds he’s slid a few inches closer to Zimms. Kent looks down at Zimms’ lips. He can’t help it, and when he flushes and tears his eyes back to Zimms’s, he sees Zimms jerk his gaze up, too. Neither of them says a word, and
Kent leans forward, hesitantly.

Zimms doesn’t move back, so Kent closes the space between them.

The picnic sounded like a great idea, but the ground is muddy, the peanut butter and jellies got too soggy, and Kent can’t keep warm. He feels better when Zimms lets Kent wrap himself around Zimms, but it’s never for long.

Zimms snorts. “Let’s just go on a walk instead.”

Kent’s nose scrunches. “In the woods?”

“Yes, Kenny, in the woods.”

Kent doesn’t point out that if the grass is muddy, the ground isn’t going to be any better in the woods. But they bundle up the now filthy blanket, toss it in Zimms’s truck, and then they’re off. Zimms ducks around a few low hanging branches and leads Kent onto a trail. “Been here before,” Zimms says. Kent tries to avoid every step that looks like a mud trap. “Usually run the trail—”

“I’m not running through the woods,” Kent interrupts as his foot sinks down a solid inch into the ground. “Motherfucker.”

Zimms turns around laughing, and he keeps laughing. “I don’t know—” Zimms suddenly cuts himself off, and his mouth drops open.

“What are you—”

“Kenny,” Zimms hisses, and Kent clamps his mouth shut. “Behind you.” Kent freezes. He can’t believe he keeps his foot where it is, slowly filling with moisture and ick, and turns. It’s a deer. Kent swallows, and it stares at him.

Kent knows it, he realizes slowly, horrified. A puddle of blood he moved through, flies circling its eye. The lurch of its second first breath, the fast stretch of skin to hide bone once again. “Hey.” The word falls out of Kent’s mouth.

It raises its head, snorting, and walks to him. It’s not worried about the mud, the squelch of each step. Good to see you alive, Kent doesn’t say, and it nudges against his shoulder. Kent sways back, and his hands come up, steadying him against its neck. He can feel its blood move, feel the heat of it, the life in it. Its eyes are a deep brown. The deer steps forward, and Kent’s hands slip from its neck to its flank. It breathes, and Kent’s hands rise with its inhale, fall on the exhale.

“Kenny?” Zimms says, and the deer spooks. It kicks up dirt and fucking wet ass leaves. Kent’s hands feel cold. His feet are wet, his shoes soaked. “Why didn’t you tell me you’re a fucking Disney princess?” Zimms laughs, sort of out of breath and in awe.

Kent turns around scowling and freezing, and shoves at Zimms. “I fucking hate the woods, Zimms. Let’s go get some hot cider.”

Kent wakes up to an empty bed, idly scratching at his palms. “Zimms?” he mutters, and when he doesn’t hear a response, Kent flips over and buries his head back into the pillows. They have a game tomorrow, Kent needs all the sleep he can get.

But it’s like he’s wired, and a few moments later, Kent kicks off the covers. He lets his feet move him, thinking getting rid of the itch will let him sleep, and he stops in front of the closed bathroom door. Kent squints at the sheaths of light coming through where the door doesn’t quite line up with the walls. Ice starts to thread its way through Kent’s veins. He puts his hand on the door and pushes.

Zimms’s eyes are open, staring at nothing, not moving, not blinking. They’re a sharp, dark blue like animals’ eyes never are. Zimms must’ve hit his head, fell. He must’ve tripped, hit his head, fallen. He must’ve been tired, tripped, hit his head, fallen.

It doesn’t take a moment for Kent to wrap his hands around Zimms’s arms.

It takes barely half a moment before Zimms blinks.

Before he sucks in a breath.

Kent keeps holding on though, because he didn’t feel any bones knit together or skull slide back into place.

Kent tightens his grip as Zimms starts to sit up, because Kent doesn’t know if he fixed whatever was broken.

“What happened?” Zimms mutters, and Kent swallows, swears his heart skipped a few beats, and doesn’t tell Zimms he died.

Zimms shakes off Kent’s hand, so Kent shifts until their thighs are touching. Zimms stands up, and Kent does, too. “What are you doing?” Zimms hisses, and Kent shrugs, his throat closing up. He thinks maybe it’s the one too many shots. “Just let me be for a bit, okay?” Zimms says, and Kent nods and doesn’t follow through.

Kent stalks Zimms through the house party, staying a few steps behind so Zimms won’t get mad. Fish and Crazy Craig try to pull Kent into conversations, and Kent ignores them. He needs to keep Zimms in his sight or else all he sees is Zimms on the floor in the bathroom, eyes wide open and unmoving.

Kent watches Zimms take five pills before he heads to bed saying, “It’s the only way I can sleep anymore.”

Kent doesn’t say he didn’t ask — hasn’t asked since that first time Zimms did it. Instead, Kent brushes his teeth, pulls on pajamas, and slips into bed next to Zimms. It takes a few moments before Zimms stops breathing, and then Kent slips his hand underneath Zimms’s shirt. His fingers press into Zimms’s still warm skin, and he rests his hand where Zimms’s heart should be beating. Kent closes his eyes and wills Zimms’s chest to rise and fall again.

It takes longer than it has before, and then Kent feels the thud of Zimms’s heart, the shaky intake of his breath. Kent’s hand curls into a fist over Zimms’s heart. He doesn’t move it the entire night.

Kent drops down into the aisle seat next to Zimms and immediately presses their legs together. Zimms’s thigh flexes, but he doesn’t pull away. Victory bubbles in the bottom of Kent’s chest. “We fucking killed it,” he says. Zimms is in a good mood, and Kent is perfectly fine with exploiting that. “You were amazing.” Zimms already knows it, but Kent can’t stop saying it, thinking it.

Kent has never played better hockey before. Strung out, anxious, sleep deprived — Kent consistently gets two to three point nights, him and Zimms lighting up the ice, passing without looking and always connecting. Tonight, between the two of them, they got seven points. Holy shit.

They haven’t lost in twelve games, and Kent imagines the Memorial Cup in his hands. Every other heartbeat, it’s what Kent sees, Zimms right next to him, raising the Cup with him.

It’s where Kent wants Zimms to always be. Next to him. And it feels like he is all the time now. Even when they’re separated, Zimms is still right there with Kent. it’s second nature now, to always know where Zimms is even when they’re off the ice.

“Here,” Kent says, passing over a blue Gatorade, a peace offering. Zimms grins up at Kent, taking it.

“My favorite,” Zimms says. Kent can’t help the smug smile sliding onto his face. He knows. He gets out his music not much later. Zimms gets out his book, but he keeps his leg pressed tightly against Kent’s, not trying to move away this time.

The bus passes a dead squirrel, and Kent almost wants to reach out, happy and ready to help in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time, but they keep moving. The moment is gone.

They win the Memorial Cup, and Kent can’t stop laughing, cheering. His eyes keep flicking to Zimms, and Zimms keeps looking back. Crazy Craig grips Kent’s shoulders hard, spins him around the ice.

Steve from the coaching staff runs out with a cell phone, slams against Kent’s ear. “Your mom!” he shouts, and Kent fumbles for the phone. He can’t tear his eyes away from Zimms — his mom and dad hug their son something fierce. Kent’s heart stutters, and he imagines he feels Zimms’s pick up right next to his own. They were made to go together; perfect for one another.

“Kent!” his mom shouts, and Kent jerks back to that conversation. “Congratulations,” she tells him, and then the rest of his siblings are chiming in, taking their time on the phone. Or maybe everyone is on speaker phone, Kent doesn’t really know. He’s so excited they watched, swelling fast with happiness.

Zimms better not kiss Kent for at least an hour, or else Kent might burst.

No other day will ever top this one.

Kent goes back to Brooklyn and his mom’s brownstone. He visits with the bodega cats, typically one sister or another under his arm. Sometimes all three go out with him. Once or twice his two brothers trail along.

Kent doesn’t have a lot of money at the moment, but he and his agent have talked about money, how much Kent will likely earn. The bonuses he could probably make on top of whatever flat rate a team gives him. Kent hasn’t signed a contract yet, hell, the draft hasn’t even happened yet, but Kent doesn’t doubt his contract will be good. Second only to Zimms’.

So Kent gets his first credit card and runs up the charges for his siblings, and doesn’t give a shit, because he’ll make enough to pay it all back the first game he plays.

When Kent’s siblings are out, having their own lives, Kent follows the itch in his palm. He toes cats back to life and birds to flight. And at the end of the day, the Parson family always comes back together for the night.

“Kent,” his mom says one day. He’s helping with the dishes, scrubbing off ketchup from burgers and fries. “I don’t think I can make it to the draft.”

“Figured,” Kent says, without any heat. His mom works long hours, has to worry about six kids. “I talked to Zimms about it though. We booked hotel rooms right next to each other. I’m leaving in about a week. We’re spending some time up there, seeing the city.”

“Good,” Kent’s mom says with a nod and a smile, starting to dry the dishes and put them away. “I’m so glad you’re happy,” she tells him. Kent leans over, a couple inches taller than her, and plants a kiss on her forehead.

“Me too,” Kent mumbles, and he swears that as he thinks about Zimms he can feel Zimms right there next to him in the kitchen.

In the days before the Montreal draft, Kent drags Zimms around to eat at different places, and Zimms insists they go to some museums. They separate in the museum about Inuit culture. Kent goes toward the weapons, Zimms the art, but when Kent wants back to Zimms, he’s always easy enough to find.

They have dinner at a swanky place with Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann, and then they go back to the hotel. Kent goes to his room first, but it’s not long before he’s going into Zimms’s.

They watch a movie together, have sex together, lie together. Zimms brushes his teeth and then takes a handful of pills — something Zimms tells Kent he only does when hockey’s closed by now. They sleep together that night, too.

Zimms dies a little after 2 a.m., but Kent brings him right back.

The night before the draft, Kent slips back into Zimms’ room. They’ve already discussed it: Pre-draft sex tonight, post-draft sex tomorrow.

“I want to sleep separate tonight,” Zimms says, and Kent freezes, halfway to taking off his shoes. The hotel door clicks closed behind him.

“What?”

“I said—”

“I heard, but I don’t—”

“I think it’s for the best—”

“I don’t think—”

“Kenny.”

Kent clenches his jaw. He twists away from Zimms, his eyes starting to smart. Fuck. He blinks rapidly.

“I just think,” Zimms says softly, “that I want to be alone before the draft.”

Kent scoffs at the about-face, and angrily rubs at his eyes, forehead. “I don’t understand why—you’re going to go first. Everyone knows it. You even said we’d—”

“Kenny,” Zimms pleads, and Kent can feel the emotion there. Jack’s regret, but unwaverable decision about this. His desire to be alone, to gather his thoughts before the draft. One last night. The anxiety he doesn’t want Kent to see, witness. He doesn’t expect to sleep and doesn’t want Kent to stay up on his behalf.

The anxiety. Fuck. “We’ll get breakfast first thing tomorrow then.”

“My parents want to get breakfast,” Zimms says and doesn’t extend an invitation like he usually would. Kent swallows down the words to invite himself along, knowing Zimms would ignore him this time. It shouldn’t hurt as much as it does. But.

“Okay,” Kent manages to get out. “Okay, fine. I’ll see you at the draft then. But you can’t. You can’t take any pills tonight, okay? Promise me.”

Zimms frowns, opening his mouth.

“I know it helps you sleep, but—” Fuck, Kent’s crying. He needs to get out of here. “But promise me you won’t take any tonight.” Kent’s voice cracks and both of them wince at the sound.

“I don’t take them every night,” Zimms says.

Kent nods sharply. Right. He knows that. “Okay,” Kent chokes on the word and pretends he doesn’t, “see you tomorrow then. Fucking Las Vegas, you’re going to melt.” Kent casts one last look back at Zimms, whose lips have twitched into a smile, before heading to his hotel room right next door.

Kent wakes up to pounding on the door. It’s not his door and—

Kent leaps out of bed. His heart hammers in his throat. His motions are frantic, clumsy. He yanks open his door. Commotion streams through Zimms’s room, and more people hurry into it. Kent clutches at his own heart, and he knows. He knows Zimms’ has stopped.

Kent ducks below someone in a polo shirt, flings himself into the room. Someone grabs at him, tugs him back. Kent is all muscle though, has been all muscle since he started hockey. He wrenches himself out of the grip and flings himself across the room. Zimms is in bed, looks like he’s sleeping, but there are metal plates on his chest, and two people leaning over him Kent doesn’t recognize. And oh fuck. Fuck. There’s Mrs. Zimmermann, and she’s sobbing in the corner, and Mr. Zimmermann is shouting at the first responders, at Zimms, at Mrs. Zimmermann.

“We’ve already tried—”

“Do it again!” Mr. Zimmermann roars, and Kent dives towards Zimms before anyone can stop him. Mr. Zimmermann lunges to pull Kent back. Kent fights against his grip.

“I just need to—” Kent blubbers. He doesn’t know how long Zimms has been dead for. How long is too long. Kent never found out, never tested how long something could be dead until he couldn’t bring it back. And this. Kent thinks this might be it. However long Zimms has been dead is the limit. Kent scrambles away from Mr. Zimmermann. Kent surges forward, and his fingers find Zimms’s skin. He slips a hand under Zimms’s shirt, palm pressing over Zimms’s heart. “Zimms,” he cries, and Mr. Zimmermann tears him away.

Kent kicks and fights. “Let me go. Let me go, I can make it better,” he shouts. Mr. Zimmermann hauls him across the room. He throws Kent out the door, slams it behind him.

Kent crashes into the hallway floor. He lurches to his feet, rams his fists against the door, demanding entry. No one gives it to him. Kent stumbles backward, crying. His hands rake over his face and through his hair. He backs into the wall, and then he drops his weight against it. He hits the ground not a moment later. He can’t get enough air, and he can’t stop crying, and he can’t move. He can’t move.

Zimms’s door flies opens, and the first responders shove a gurney out the door with Zimms strapped down on it. They pound down the hallway, and Kent can’t react fast enough. Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann follow not a step behind, and Kent can’t push himself to his feet. He can’t follow. He can’t move. He drops his head into his hands and keeps crying.

Fuck. Kent needs to get it under control. He needs to stop crying. He needs to get up, go to his room, get dressed. Then he can call Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann. Then he can find out where Zimms is. He needs to pull himself together, and then—fuck—Kent needs to go down to the front desk. He locked himself out of his room. As if the day couldn’t get any shittier.

Kent doesn’t have to call Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann to find out where Zimms is. Kent’s feet take him straight to the hospital only a few blocks away. Kent doesn’t know if that means Zimms is alive or not. His palms don’t itch. So maybe…

If Zimms was dead, he wouldn’t be in a hospital, Kent figures. He nods to the receptionist who looks at him oddly, but doesn’t make him stop. Kent keeps walking, until his feet slow outside a private room with the curtain pulled.

He knocks, and Mr. Zimmermann opens the door, circles under his red, raw eyes.

“Kent,” Mr. Zimmermann says and steps aside to let him in.

Kent goes, and Mrs. Zimmermann is at Zimms’s side. He’s awake. Relief floods Kent. “Mom,” Zimms croaks out. Fuck. Kent wouldn’t trade Zimms for anything. He’d trade anything for Zimms. Every time. Even looking like that. Pale and shitty and not at all like it’s the best day of his life. Not like it’s the draft and he’s going to go first. But even like this, what little color Zimms has gone from his cheeks and dark circles under his eyes — Kent will take him. “Dad, can I have a second with Kenny?” Kent closes his eyes, and for a moment, he imagines Zimms’s heart beating next to his. A little out of sync, but there. With him. Right next to his own.

When Kent opens his eyes, it’s just him and Zimms. Kent takes Mrs. Zimmermann’s abandoned seat by Zimms. Kent reaches out to take Zimms’s hand, but Zimms moves away.

“Zimms,” Kent says, softly. “You couldn’t just not take the pills, could you?”

“I remember the cat,” Zimms interrupts, and Kent frowns.

“What?”

“From the party. I thought I was hallucinating, but I remember it falling out of the sky. Someone must’ve thrown it out of the window, and it died in front of us.” Kent flinches. “And you said. You said something stupid like, ‘Want to see a party trick?’ and then you brought it back to life. It was dead, Kent!” Kent flinches. “It was dead and you brought it back. God, there was so much fucking blood. Its back was broken. And then you touched it, and it got up, and it went back inside.”

“I don’t remember,” Kent says, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t remember many full nights from parties, especially not the ones from before Zimms died the first time.

“And they told me, here,” Zimms continues, “They told me, ‘You’ve made a miraculous recovery. That many pills stopped your heart.’ Then they fucking asked me, ‘Did you know you were going to die if you took that many?’ And do you know what I fucking told them, Kent? I told them that I didn’t know that. That I needed that many to help me sleep, and I’d never had a problem before!”

Kent locks his jaw, looks away from Zimms’s face. Zimms starts crying a little.

Kent refuses to wipe at his own eyes, even when Zimms does it. Kent tries to take a deep breath, but it somehow lets out more air then it brings in. His hands are shaking, and he wraps them into fists, presses them down against his thighs instead of reaching for Zimms.

“How many times, Kent? How many times did you bring me back?”

Kent swallows, and stares at the window on the far side of the room. It has a sheer curtain in front of it, distorting the buildings beyond it.

“Kent,” Zimms demands.

“Every time,” Kent says. “Every time I brought you back.”

“How many?”

“Every time,” Kent repeats, because he doesn’t know how many. He didn’t count the nights he spent wrapped around Zimms, palm pressed over his heart until he came back.

Zimms lets out a harsh bark of a laugh. “Go away,” he says.

“What?”

“Go the fuck away!”

“I don’t—”

“You never told me! You never told me I was killing myself over and over and over—”

“You wouldn’t have stopped!” Kent shouts, shoving the chair back, suddenly standing, towering over Zimms like he never has before. “You wouldn’t have fucking stopped, fucking dependent on whatever the fuck is in them. The only fucking way you ever fucking slept was when you were fucking dead!” Kent heaves in breathes, but air isn’t coming fast enough.

“Get out,” Zimms repeats. “Get the fuck out.”

“No,” Kent pleads. “No, Zimms, I—”

Zimms screws his eyes shut. “Get out, Kent,” he says. “Get out, get out, get the fuck out—”

Kent does.

Kent goes first in the draft. To Las Vegas. To the relentless heat.