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Dear Mr. Zimmermann:

I hope you enjoy your day with my afternoon class! I won’t bore you too much, I promise, but other than the lesson plan I have beneath this note (word says you’re a history buff yourself, so I recommend letting the kiddos know you know what you’re doing), I just have a few things to mention for the day.

1.) They know I’ll be gone. They should not be surprised. If they act surprised, they’re trying to trick you.

2.) Jake, Vincent, and Boyd are not to sit together.

2A.) They’re going to try to convince you that they’re required to sit together. They are super wrong.

3.) Flora is allowed to read rather than participate in class discussion, but a gentle encouragement for discussion is recommended. If she declines, no need to ask a second time.

4.) The study sheets on the bright yellow paper are for Hunter and Reagan specifically.

5.) If you can’t do anything with the lesson plan, that’s TOTALLY FINE.

5A.) Just try to get them talking about things that aren’t, like. Completely off-topic.

5B.) They’ve recently “discovered” Hamilton, so if they break into song, LET THEM CONTINUE.

6.) I don’t really have anyone that gets sent to the office, but if you need to, feel free.

7.) You’re in charge, and I trust your judgment.

8.) This note is really long, isn’t it?

9.) Okay, I’m done. Have a great day!!!

- ERB

 

Jack looks at the lesson plan that’s beneath the rather extensive note written by Mr. Bittle, one of two seventh grade social studies teachers at Morgan County Middle School. They’re learning about the colonization of America. Even from his brief experience with the charter school—this is only his third day as sub for the county—he’s pleased with the lesson plans he’s seen. They’re teaching the kids important history that other schools try to sweep under the rug.

Mr. Bittle’s got a Post-It note on the half-page lesson plan: Don’t be afraid to talk about what the early Americans did to the Native Americans re: colonization. They can handle it.

A bell sounds. Jack sits on the desk as he waits for the students to filter in. They arrive quickly and take their seats, glancing at him and whispering to themselves. A sub is always exciting; even Jack remembers that as a kid. There’s always the question of just how much you could get away with.

Despite being out of the NHL for nearly six years—almost half these kids’ lifetimes—six boys and three girls stop dead when they see him, whisper his name to their friends, and take seats as close up to the front as possible.

Jack waits while they settle themselves in, unzipping backpacks and pulling out books and sheets of paper. He glances over at three boys crowding one another into seats side by side and says, “Uh uh, boys.”

“Mr. Bittle says we have to sit together,” the blonde tells him immediately. Jack waggles his finger at him, they sigh, and separate.

“Just so everyone knows,” Jack says, when the bell has rung and everyone is accounted for according to attendance, “I have a cheat sheet.”

“You also have a Stanley Cup, right?” Reagan says.

Two,” Emaline says. “If this is the right Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack smiles. “Yeah, that’s me. Same guy.”

“Do you have your ring with you?” Vincent asks, stretching as far as he can while still sitting in his seat to look at Jack’s hands. Jack nods; he always brings it with him to show to the kids, because it gives him an instant edge of respect. He pulls the ring out of his pocket and tosses it to Emaline, because she knew he had two Cups and not just one. She fumbles it but manages to clutch it to her chest. She’s small, and the ring is almost the size of her palm.

“I got that one before you guys were born,” Jack says, standing up and walking the room. “And the other one my team got the year I shattered my leg.”

They pass the ring from one to another, each student inspecting it carefully and trying it on. Jack lets them take pictures with their phones but then asks that they put their phones away. They do so instantly.

“You didn’t play hockey again, did you?” Flora asks, looking at him with a serious expression. “Did that break your heart?”

“It did,” Jack says. “was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, but then I went to college and I got my degree, and sometimes I have more fun in a classroom like this than I did on the ice.” He pauses. “Sometimes.”

They laugh, and he lets them ask him questions for another few minutes before he passes out the study sheet for the upcoming test at the end of the week and starts a discussion about colonization. The class engages after a couple of rough starts—Jack asking them to please stay on track, if not for him then for Mr. Bittle—and when the bell rings, about half of them look surprised.

“Promise you’ll come back,” Boyd says. “Please, Mr. Zimmermann, you gotta come back. We’ll make sure Mr. Bittle asks for you the next time he’s at a competition.”

“You never know,” Jack says, smiling. “Put a good word in for me, and we’ll see what happens.”

They promise that they will. As soon as they’ve left, Jack writes a return note to Mr. Bittle and heads to sub for last period PE.

**

Dear Mr. Bittle,

You have a great class; you should be proud. We discussed everything on topic as requested. The first fifteen minutes was spent discussing my NHL career. I didn’t expect to find so many hockey fans in north-central Georgia. They want me to come back, and I’d be glad to have them again should you have need of a sub. They said you do baking competitions? I hope this one went well.

Thanks again,

J. Zimmermann

 

“Mr. Bittle,” Reagan says, running into the classroom first and all but throwing herself in her seat, “you need to leave more often.”

“Wow, rude,” Bitty says mildly, giving her a grin. “Did you have fun with the sub?”

“It was Jack Zimmermann! He was amazing! Did you know it was him? My dad has an autographed puck from him, and he gave it to me for my last birthday. He’s like, one of the best hockey players ever, and he didn’t even have a full career.” She pauses. “He was so nice.”

Having mastered the art of multitasking, Bitty enters grades while they talk. “I thought the name sounded familiar, but honestly, I had no idea it could be the real guy. I’m glad he was nice to y’all.”

“He was the best! You can request him specifically, right? When you need to leave? You can ask for Jack Zimmermann?”

“I can put in a request,” Bitty says, “but he’s a part-time sub, so I usually have to go through the full-time sub list first.”

Reagan bites at her nail. “So you can’t request him by his name?”

“I’ll try,” he promises her, “but I don’t know if it works that way. But I will definitely try.”

Class that day is more interesting than Bitty expects it to be. Half their conversation is about how cool Jack Zimmermann is, and the other half is about how smart Jack Zimmermann is. To keep on task, Bitty gets them talking about what Jack said the day before and what he talked about. The kids remember every word that came out of the hockey legend’s mouth, and Bitty makes a note in his phone to see if he can request someone specifically, because even Flora participates in the conversation, and that alone makes Bitty take notice.

He spends his free period getting tests ready and Googling facts about Jack Zimmermann. At thirty-six years old, he’s way more attractive now than he was a decade ago—at least, in Bitty’s humble opinion. Like a fine wine, his friend Lardo says, when he sends her picture after picture of his substitute. Bitty has to agree.

That evening, he puts in a request for his afternoon class the Friday after next, as he’ll be heading to Atlanta for the weekend for the Georgian Bakers Convention, at which he’ll be giving a demonstration on what kinds of substitutes can be used so anyone can make a pie at any time with basic ingredients.

If Jack Zimmermann is available, he puts in the note section, I would like him specifically for this class. Thank you.

It’s a shot. It might not work, but at least he kept his promise and he tried.

**

Dear Mr. Zimmermann,

They’re going to freak. I totally lied to them and said I couldn’t get you and they were really, really upset, so now they’ll be super happy and cheerful and easy to deal with on a Friday. Everything from last time still applies. However, they did a lot of really good, hard work this week, so today is a free day. Do whatever makes all y’all happy!

P.S.: Vincent, Boyd, and Jake still can’t sit together.

- ERB

 

Jack smiles at the note and puts it aside. Mr. Bittle’s handwriting is enjoyable to read—big and swooshy and confident. When the kids start filing in, the way their faces light up reminds Jack that he’s probably doing better work here than he ever did in hockey. They’re so overjoyed to have him that they settle into their seats much faster than expected. Everyone is present and accounted for. When Jack asks them what they want to do, they vote for watching all his best hockey plays on YouTube. Jack complies and spends the entire period making one extended stay in school statement that he hopes doesn’t sound like an infomercial.

“Did you wish you woulda gone to college instead of the NHL?” Boyd asks, as Jack sits on the desk again and crosses one leg over the other.

“Sometimes,” he says, wanting to be honest with them. “Especially when my career was over. It was all I’d done my whole life. I didn’t have any other skills. I think that’s why school is so important, especially college. Where are y’all going to college?”

They laugh so hard when he says y’all that Jack says it twice more. Then he calls them stinkers in French, and has to laugh as they scramble to figure out what he said.

“Mr. Bittle bakes the best pies,” Flora says, when everyone’s looking at Jack’s second Cup ring—this one with the Vancouver Canucks, whereas his first had been with the Providence Falconers. “He brings stuff in for us all the time, and one time he made these maple tarts that were really good, and I think you would really like them since you’re from Canada.”

“I bet I would,” Jack says. “What else does he bake?”

Everyone starts talking at once, but Jack hears the usual—cookies, cupcakes, and even doughnuts.

“I bet you’d like him,” Emaline says. “You guys would be so funny together.”

“Mr. Bittle is super short,” Hunter says, putting a hand to his mouth as he tries to hide a laugh. “You guys would look funny.”

When Jack voices the question of just how short Mr. Bittle is, he scoffs. “That’s not short,” he tells them. “I mean. Not that short.”

When the bell rings, Jack has to coax them to go to their next class and promise that he’ll make sure he comes in for baked goods at some point, even if he’s not subbing. He writes his end note to Mr. Bittle and heads to Ms. Vaughan’s Reading class to end his day.

**

Dear Mr. Bittle,

I have been told I need to come in the next time you bring in something you’ve baked, regardless of whether or not I’m subbing. I was told specifically I will like your maple tarts because I’m Canadian. That’s a little bit of a stereotype, but it’s also 110% true. I actually punched someone in my rookie year because he took the maple syrup my dad had sent me. I don’t regret it.

I searched you when I subbed last time, and I sent my mother your strawberry rhubarb pie recipe from your blog (I didn’t watch the videos because I didn’t have time but I bet they were good too). She wanted me to say thank you “a few times” for the recipe. It’s her favorite she’s ever done. So thank you, thank you. That’s a few right? Thank you. One more to make sure.

- J. Zimmermann

 

Bitty is so charmed by the note he folds it up neatly and slips it into his messenger bag, re-reading it between periods, at stoplights, and before bed. Jack Zimmermann is charming, and Bitty enjoys the way he writes the B in Bittle. He knows he’s being stupid, but his life consists of seventh graders and baking pies; he’s allowed to have a little bit of a fantasy.

He tells himself he’ll bring in baked goods each day over the week, just in case Jack Zimmermann decides to stop by.

**

Dear Mr. Zimmermann,

Thanks for the short notice. When you get a request to bake on TV with a local legend, you don’t tell her no.

I do have maple tarts for you (and the kids, of course) as a thank you gift.

Lesson plan below. You know the drill. Thanks again!!

- ERB

 

Jack smiles and picks up one of the small tarts from the pan on the desk. It is perfectly made and roughly the size of two big bites. The kids will be delighted. And Jack is too.

**

Dear Mr. Bittle,

My parents are in town to visit me, and I am going to bring them half a tart. I am not proud to admit that I actually swindled one of the children out of their second tart because I liked them so much. Currently, the next time I sub for your class, whenever that may be, I owe each student a signed t-shirt. They’re confident we’ll move to jerseys next when you bring in a maple-crust apple pie.

I hope your TV appearance will be on YouTube. I will keep a lookout.

- Jack

 

Bitty clutches the note to his heart with a grin. There’s that B again, all loopy and fun. He’s an idiot, but at least he’s a happy idiot.

**

Dear Mr. Zimmermann,

Thanks again for the short notice. I’m sorry for the brevity of this note, but I can’t really concentrate on much. She was my favorite grandmother, and I’m honestly devastated.

I did bring in the maple-crust apple pie, though. It was her best recipe. I hope you and the kids enjoy it.

Lesson plan below. I only ask that they complete the in-class work—if they can do that, no homework is assigned.

- Bitty

**

Bitty,

The pie was amazing. Your grandmother was obviously a great teacher, and you are a great student. My condolences for your loss. It’s never easy to lose someone close to us, particularly someone with such an obvious impact on your life. My grandfather used to say, “I wish you healing for your heart” when someone lost a loved one, and I always liked the way that sounded. So Bitty, I wish you healing for your heart.

The kids were great, as always. They have all received signed t-shirts, and the jerseys are definitely next.

I left you a signed shirt as well, just in case you wanted one. I wasn’t sure. They insisted. They guessed a small for your shirt size, but I gave you a medium just in case. Are you really as little as they say? You don’t look that little on YouTube. If so, you should eat more of your own baking.

Best wishes,

Jack

**

During his prep period, Bitty stops by the teacher’s lounge to get an extra cup of coffee for the day. As they loom closer toward Christmas break, his work load has doubled. All of his students are passing, but his afternoon class are all Bs and higher. He knows who he should probably thank, but he’s not sure if that would be weird or not, considering he has no plans to need a substitute for the rest of the year and most of the way into the next.

The teacher’s lounge is quiet as usual, but not empty; his coworkers are either chatting together or preparing, like he is, for their next period. Bitty pours himself a cup of coffee and mixes in sugar and pumpkin spice creamer. As he takes a sip, someone sidles up next to him.

“I was hoping to finally meet you,” a voice says, and Bitty looks up at Jack Zimmermann, whose eyes are crinkling as he smiles. “Hi. Jack.” He extends his hand. Bitty takes a second before extending his own. Jack’s palm is warm and—oh Lord—big.

“Well, hi there,” Bitty says, flushing uncontrollably. It’s a Friday, which means he can wear jeans and a t-shirt. Which means he is, of course, wearing his Jack Zimmermann signed t-shirt. “Bitty. Kinda strange when you just pass notes back and forth for four months, huh?”

Jack finally lets go, but then he leans against the counter and Bitty can’t help but to admire all the nice long lines of him. His thighs and waist are thick, his gray slacks honestly too small across his ass. Jack doesn’t seem to participate in casual Friday, and Bitty can’t decide if he’s grateful or disappointed. His clothes fit him like a second skin. “From the way your students talk,” Jack says, “I honestly thought you’d be like some kind of a superhero. They really look up to you, you know. You’re important to them.”

Now flushing with pride, Bitty gives a wave of his hand. “Psh. They practically beg me to leave now because they know they can get you.”

“I always approve your requests first,” Jack says. “I’ve been getting a lot.”

“I’ll bet,” Bitty says, and when he realizes that it might sound a bit lewd, he follows up with, “You’re really good with the kids, and I think the fact that you played a professional sport and still went back to school really resonates with them. Reagan has already decided she’s going to go to Samwell because that’s where you went.”

“Samwell was good to me,” Jack says, pouring himself a cup of coffee as well. He sips it black. Bitty makes a face, because no one should drink black coffee. “You went to Georgia, right?”

“How’d you know that?”

Jack’s pleased little smile is stupidly endearing. “Your kids know a lot about you.”

“They know plenty about you too,” Bitty says, trying to figure out what the hell to do with his awkward body. He’s never been so aware of himself before. He leans against the counter much like Jack did and hopes he doesn’t look like a moron. At least his haircut is fresh and he’s wearing deodorant. “Seriously, first ten minutes after I come back is like a Jack Zimmermann gabfest.”

“They’re sweet,” he says, and Bitty wants to say no, you are but he tells himself he’s being weird and changes the subject. They talk briefly about what Bitty’s working on with social studies and what Jack’s been doing in the other classes he’s subbing for. Jack admits to watching Bitty’s vlogs, and Bitty tries to remember how to put air into his goddamn lungs.

Then Bitty has to go back for his afternoon class. “Care to make an appearance?” he says, because Jack’s PE subbing has been cancelled due to Coach Armstrong returning early from his leave. “They’ll freak, and I brought pumpkin bread I made entirely without electricity to start a conversation about the industrial revolution.”

Jack agrees so readily Bitty’s heart skips beats, and when they walk back to the classroom together, he has to remind himself that even though Jack Zimmermann is confirmed to be bisexual, it doesn’t mean he’s interested in Bitty, which is fine, but man, Bitty has to wonder what the fuck if.

**

Jack can’t stop thinking about Bitty now that he’s met him. Yes, he’s shorter than average, but he is most definitely not a small in t-shirts, and the next time Jack subs for Bitty’s class he’s going to tease the kids about their terrible guessing. Bitty is compact and athletic, and when Jack manages to catch him during his prep period in the teacher’s lounge, he learns that Bitty was a figure skater before he went to college. Jack tries to imagine him doing all those leaps and twirls but can’t. “Maybe you’ll see me on the ice one day,” Bitty tells him, as he’s finishing up grading his last test during prep in late January. “Not sure if you’ve ever been, but Madison has one little skating rink, and I like to go on Saturday mornings. The students go there regularly too—really the only cold weather thing we’ve gotten in the godforsaken south.”

With so many requests from all the teachers at the little school, Jack is there nearly every day, for at least half a day, and he always manages to run into Bitty. At first he thinks it’s got to be a coincidence. But then he realizes that he knows Bitty’s general schedule and sort of, maybe, without thinking about it, puts himself in a position to be found.

Bitty doesn’t seem to mind. Jack does, only because it makes him wonder more than he’d like to wonder. Like what Mr. Bittle’s mouth tastes like.

In February, Jack subs for Bitty’s class on Valentine’s Day, and there are handmade heart-shaped cookies in a little box on the desk. Happy Valentine’s Day! his note says. I’m in Atlanta for a competition, but I thought y’all would like a little treat! Lesson plan below. Thanks so much, Jack!

Jack writes him an end-of-class note like he always does, telling him how great the cookies are, how they had fun while learning today. On a whim, he says, with sincerity, Can’t wait to see you when you’re back and leaves it at that. The worst that’ll happen is Bitty will probably politely turn him down. Jack can handle rejection. It’s the not knowing he can’t handle. So he signs his name, leaves the note, and heads to Mrs. Hart’s math class.

**

Bitty approaches Jack in the empty teacher’s lounge, taking a seat at the table with him before saying, “Is it okay if I sit here?”

The smile he gets in return is unbelievable. Jack’s got dimples. He says, “Yeah, of course, definitely,” and lights up even more when Bitty presents him with an entire pie box of maple tarts.

“Since your parents are visiting this weekend,” he says by way of explanation. Bitty remembers everything Jack tells him. Bitty remembers, viscerally, the last note Jack left for him after subbing. Maybe we could get dinner sometime.

“They’ll love these,” Jack tells him, sneaking one from the top of the pile for himself. “I’ll even share them this time.”

“You’d better,” Bitty warns. “Or else I’ll know about it and I’ll stop making them.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Jack says.

“I totally would,” Bitty says.

“Let me take you out to dinner,” Jack says, and Bitty stares at him across the table. Jack scratches at the back of his neck. “I mean, if that’s not weird. I know I said it in my last note, but I wasn’t sure—I didn’t want to overstep a boundary, but—”

“Yes, definitely,” Bitty says, “obviously, yes, of course, I would love that, absolutely, Jack, how could I do anything but say yes to that?”

They haven’t touched other than their first handshake and brief, playful shoves at one another. All flirting, Bitty knows. He was flirting hard, and apparently Jack Zimmermann was flirting harder. “I don’t know,” Jack says in response, fingers fiddling with the pie box. “I was hoping, but I wasn’t sure.”

“I would love to go out with you,” Bitty says, thinking about the last six months, their notes, their flirting, their longing, the way they moved around each other’s orbit before finally colliding. The force of that collision on his heart. The way Bitty seems to know him and vice versa. The way he wants to know so much more.

Jack watches him for a long moment. He looks around the empty lounge. Toward the closed door. Leans across the table and waits, and Bitty meets him halfway with a kiss, a peck of mouth to mouth. It is a sweet kiss, in no small part to the sugar that still clings to Jack’s bottom lip. When they separate, Bitty feels lit up inside like a lantern.

“Friday?” Jack says. Bitty nods, holding his excitedly trembling hands together.

“Friday, yes, absolutely. Jack. Of course.”

Jack smiles, and Bitty’s little heart shudders in delight.