Chapter 1: A Log in the Waters
It was a fine, crisp morning. The autumn chill brought out wool sweaters, but most residents still forwent anything resembling jackets. In nothing other than some running tights and a t-shirt, Jack Zimmermann – tall, brunette, and just out of the ward after hockey history’s most covered overdose – ran down a small gravel path. To the left were the mushy fields of his childhood, still as bleakly brown as they had been when he was learning to bike down the very same road. To his left, a wide river that eventually transformed into even more bleak, mud filled wet lands. A few miles down, it opened up to create a delta with the sea.
A beep from the watch on his hand indicated that his pulse was getting too high. Taking shallow but efficient breaths, he slowed down until the band around his chest stopped making his watch scream at him. Continuously, he ran this path, every morning. Sometimes at night too. To get out of the house, in the beginning, when the walls seemed to close in on him and his vision became blurry enough that he felt dizzy. Now, it was mostly to breathe, to get away from the mindless flipping between TV channels only to find that the reporters were talking about him. Or away from his father, when anxiety crept up behind Jack’s defenses.
Some people meditated. Jack ran.
“Are you running away from your problems?” Jack’s therapist had asked him once, when she had learned that Jack had taken up the habit. “Does it feel like you’re using running as a way to disconnect?”
Jack hadn’t answered her that session. He hadn’t been able to give her an answer the next time they met, either. But during the third meeting, held early in the day when Jack could still feel the burn of the workout in his legs, he had answered her with a, “I don’t need to think when I run, so my mind can think on its own.”
“How do you mean?” she had asked him, putting her right leg over the other and scribbling notes into the small wad of paper in her lap.
“During hockey— “ Hockey, at that time, had still been painful to talk about. It would continue to be so for a long time afterwards, but this was the first time he had freely spoken about it since waking up in a hospital bed, days after he had swallowed a bottle full of pills. “When I play hockey,” he had started over, “I have to think – all the time. What does the trainer think of this? How can I improve, how can I become better, should I train more? Can I live up to the expectations it comes with being Bad Bob’s child? But when I run, I— I don’t need to think.”
The therapist hummed slightly, scribbling down something more. She hadn’t asked a follow up question, but Jack gave her an answer anyways.
“My mind can work without my worries interfering.”
She had recommended that he continued running after that, but had reminded both Jack and his parents that they should keep an eye out for an overly focused interest in the activity, which Jack took as a code for obsessive behavior.
Sometimes, Jack listened to podcasts as he ran, or running playlists on Spotify, or even an audio book at some point. Mostly, however, he preferred the quiet. The house his parents had bought as a vacation retreat back when his father still played was sufficiently far away from Montreal that journalists never bothered them, but close enough that the family could still visit the city for whatever errands they may have. Occasionally, he would meet a long time neighbor walking their dog, or another jogger passing him as he warmed up. But the silence that stretched as far as Jack’s eyes could see and his ears hear – all the way to the strip of the ocean in the distance – helped Jack the most.
It was such a day this day: quiet and empty, the sun barely above the horizon. Jack took care to mind his breathing, as well as his thoughts. The words running around in his head were becoming easier to deal with as time went. His failures didn’t sting as much; his worry for not living up to his father’s legacy slowly but surely lessened.
In the water, the geese were waking up. The small ones, still young after the summer, yelled for their mothers’ attention. The swans nearby were fattening themselves up for the trip south. A late frog jumped away from Jack’s path, down into the water where it would freeze to death if it couldn’t find a place to hibernate soon.
Some of the birds had surrounded what looked to be a pale tree trunk. It wasn’t unusual to find debris floating in this far from the sea, and with yesterday’s stormy climax to consider, the trunk could well enough have been brought from inland. The whole ordeal would’ve left Jack’s mind quickly, had the birds not gotten out of the way when Jack neared them on the path. What he saw made him want to scream, but caused him only to fall over – in the water lay a naked body, bruised all over and barely moving. Only the cold air betrayed that the teenage boy lived, for his breath caused puffs of white smoke to leave his mouth.
It was no doubt in Jack’s mind when he made his way down to the water front. Stepping into the freezing water, he plunged his arms down and around the boy’s chest in an attempt to bring him up and away from where he lay.
“Câlisse,” Jack let out when he realized why it was harder than expected to carry up the tiny body. Under the water, where the boy’s legs should’ve been, were instead stark black and blinding white skin, leading down to a large fin – no, the proper name was a peduncle, Jack remembered.
The rubbery texture of the boy’s – well, mermaid’s? No, merman’s – skin felt nice under Jack’s touch as he finally got him into his arms. But every inch a new gash appeared, covering even the non-human part of the body in cuts and bruises. Jack made sure to slowly get his hold on the ground below him as he made his way back to the gravel road. There, he nodded at the birds – geese and swans, and even the occasion duck – and mumbled, “Thanks, guys,” and saw them all nod back once at him.
Considering that not everyone’s mother had raised their son to never believe something to be unbelievable, Jack knew he couldn’t take the merman to a common hospital. At best, they’d refuse to treat the boy the moment Jack stepped through the doors. That is, if the merman would survive being out of the water for so long: the closest hospital was back in Montreal, and Jack didn’t think his family owned a truck big enough to fit with a make-shift pool. At worst—
Jack didn’t want to think about it.
He carried the heavy creature in his arms through the fields. It felt like a much longer distance than what it was yesterday, or fifteen years ago. Then, at last, he saw the edge of civilization. A proper road exchanged the gravel path underneath his feet. An elementary school, still closed in the early morning. The house he now called home, just up the hill.
Drenched in sweat, Jack somehow managed to get into the house without putting down the merman. His front door, which he was sure he had locked before leaving, opened with more ease than it had ever done when he touched the handle. The hallways through the house weren’t as long, and the floorboards underneath Jack’s feet didn’t creak as they were prone to do, even though he was now considerably heavier than he normally was.
Jack heard his father in the distance kitchen. A sweet and savory fragrance, similar to how Jack imagined his childhood to smell like, wafted through the house. Jack wasn’t sure if the smell were from a stew, or just a plain omelet. Had they been any other family than the Zimmermann’s, Jack would’ve guessed on the egg dish. But it was Jack’s father standing in the kitchen, not any ordinary dad, so Jack wasn’t too sure. He had to investigate later.
Making his way to the back porch, Jack found his mother right where he had thought she would be. She was sitting in the small strip of sun that had managed to rise above the horizon by this time, drinking in the rays with her eyes closed. Though the lines on her face were showing, she looked young in this light. Younger than Jack himself, even, though he knew otherwise.
“Maman,” Jack called out as soon as he could.
She turned to him, standing up quickly when she saw what was in his arms. “Jack,” came her breath, “what happened?”
“I found him by the river,” he said. At her encouragement, he gave her the details she needed as she ran around them both, looking over the merman’s condition. The worry made her look truer to her real age, Jack thought sadly, worn down from his own suicide attempt and now this. Each fold in her skin seemed to appear out of nowhere now, eyes sunken and the skin of her face dry. Jack was sure, though he didn’t comment on it, that her nails were splitting at the ends right now.
Stopping suddenly, she gasped once, twice, and frantically looked around her. “Salt,” she said in her haste. Then she was running indoors, yelling over her shoulder, “How big do you think the hot tub is?”
It took a moment for Jack to take in her question. Looking at the very edge of the porch, uncleaned and unused, lay a hot tub in the shadows. “Uh.” He tried to gauge the volume, and settled for, “Around a thousand liters, I suppose?” when his mother came back.
In her arms, she held the huge sack of salt they had preserved for their driveway for the upcoming winter. “Around three kilos should do – no, let’s make it three and a half.”
“Maman, I—“ Jack started, but stopped himself when he realized he didn’t know how to continue. “I don’t understand.”
“Salt water, Jack.” Carrying the sack in a way that compressed her spine made her look even tinier than he used to think of her, hunched up by the weight he knew shouldn’t bother her normally. “He needs it.”
That would explain why Jack had found the merman barely breathing. Though the cuts were nasty, they looked fairly superficial; each cut didn’t go further than a couple of centimeters down into the flesh of his human part, and they were even less severe on his mammal-possibly-whale lower half of the body. The unfavorable habitat, then, was the real culprit. Alongside whatever stress had been put on the merman’s body.
It was a good thing Jack had been trained professionally since before he had started school, or else he wouldn’t have been able to hold the merman in his arms for as long as he did. But when he lowered the body into the empty tub, he felt the aching protests of his arms where they had locked up in their position. He’d be sore most of the night, like this, but the slim strand of caring about it left him when he saw just how pale the merman had become since their walk.
His mother dumped almost the entire bag of salt into the slowly rising water. It turned ghostly pale for a moment as the mineral settled, and then showed through the green, slimy porcelain finish that Jack had promised his father he’d take care of, but never had gotten around to. He wished he had, now. He wished a lot, after the events happened, but he had learned that it didn’t help to dwell on things. The dirt could add some additional nutrients that the merman could make use of, if nothing else. Not like the ocean’s clean.
Utterly hopeless, Jack felt like crying for the first time in recent memory.
Chapter 2: Itty Bitty Small
During the two agonizing days that it took for the merman to wake up, Jack barely dared to leave his side. He spent most of his meals there, keeping an eye out for any sign of consciousness as he chewed his way through carrot sticks and chicken breasts. He took his laptop with him, extending the charger so he could watch countless documentaries without having to move. He even slept out there, the first night, bundled up inside a sleeping bag clad in layers upon layers of thin insulated clothing.
He woke up constantly that night. The first few times, it was because the wind kept creating noises that penetrated his dreams. Then, because the ground underneath him was hard, and left his body aching. At the culmination point of the temperature drop of the night, Jack woke up from the cold. He shivered slightly, something he definitely wasn’t used to, as he walked over to the hot tub to check in on the merman.
The lips blue and wet, blonde hair on the brink of freezing in the night air, Jack wished he could bring the merman inside. They did own an inside pool – a privilege and a luxury only multi-millionaire sportsmen would spend their money on – but it was deep all the way through, made for serious training rather than leisure. Jack wouldn’t dare to drop the merman in, only to have him end up drowning: the merman seemed to breathe through his small, button nose, indicating he most likely had lungs.
So instead, Jack settled for turning up the temperature of the water inside the hot tub, making sure to fill up the tub so that the water covered most of the merman’s body. The water created a trail of steam rising out of the tub. Jack turned the up the temperature of the water a bit more, to be on the safe side. The merman seemed to relax almost immediately, though Jack knew that wasn’t possible in his state. His lips turned from blue to rosy pink again.
Jack didn’t spend the next night out in the cold, however, no matter how much he tried to convince his mother otherwise. “No,” she had said, “absolutely not,” and that had been it. Jack felt like a scolded child as he went up the stairs to his own room, until he realized that this had been the first time since the overdose that she had actually dared to say no to him. He looked out of the window several times throughout the night, only to find his mother sitting right next to the tub, stroking the merman’s hair and whispering things into his ears and tending to his wounds.
Jack fell asleep knowing the merman was in good hands. He woke up to the sound of splatter.
Making his way down the stairs in the speed he tried to keep up with was a mistake, he realized, after he had fallen down and knocked his knee against a sharp edge. The rest of the walk – which he had hoped to be a run – to the back porch was done with a heavy limp.
When he came to the porch, the merman’s eyes were open. They were a dark, warm color, looking around himself from one point to another, unable to focus on a single thing so they could take everything in. Landing on Jack’s face, the merman’s eyes creased into an expression of happiness and gratitude.
“Hello,” the merman said, and Jack had never felt more relief than he had in that moment.
“Hi,” Jack replied back. He made his way over to the hot tub. His mother, who had been sitting next to it, left to go indoors.
“You found me, didn’t ya?” His voice, Jack noted, came out hoarser than what sounded comfortable. A cough right after confirmed Jack’s worry, but the merman refused the offer of a glass of water.
“Who told you?” Jack asked. It was a conflicted feeling Jack got from the merman knowing it was him that had found him; he felt important, as if he had finally done something right in the world, but he also felt ashamed that he felt proud over it. Everyone would have done what Jack did— no, they wouldn’t, and Jack knew that. But.
He sighed heavily as he got the answer. “Your mother!”
“Of course maman would tell you,” Jack commented. “Did she that smear the green paste all over your scrapes too?”
“She did!” He sounded happy, and the more he spoke, the less Jack could hear the raspy undertones in his voice. Perhaps, Jack thought, it got better the more he used it. “Did you know she used to give the same paste for Napoleon to eat when his stomach hurt?” He looked expectantly at Jack. “I don’t know much about history, but from the way I feel much better already, I’m sure she helped him a lot.”
Jack nodded, absentmindedly. He had heard the story before; just having seen his first French revolution documentary on early morning television at age six, Jack had woken his parents up and told them about his new-found interest. Though he had believed his mother’s words when she had told him about her meeting with the military leader, his beliefs had been shattered when his father had agreed with what whatever his mother said. ‘Everything coming out of Bad Bob’s mouth is made up,’ his father’s old team mated used to say to him, and believing they never lied, Jack had taken their words to heart.
He believed his mother’s words less and less each time she told them, but regarded the tradition of her telling outrageous stories as an inside family joke just as well. He never called her out. When she once had told Jack about all the American presidents she had met (all of them, to date, though Jack only had proof of Ronald Reagan and forward from the pictures hanging in their hallway), Jack had laughed at her. Then, as he saw the hurt expression in her eyes, he had asked her questions about them nonetheless.
Making his mother happy had been far more important to Jack than to crush what she thought would bring her closer to him.
“Where are you from?” Jack asked instead of continuing with where the conversation was going.
“Cumberland Island,” the merman said, and then continued with, “right by the southern tip of Georgia.”
“Is it by the ocean?”
“Sure is.” He flapped his tail as he said it, causing the already overflowing water to spill even more. “We orcas don’t get along well with anything but the salt water.”
“Orca?” It would explain the pattern on the fin. And the worryingly sharp teeth that filled his mouth, now that Jack looked closer.
The merman nodded. He smiled, too, and despite the teeth, it looked peaceful. “I’m small for one, though. They call me Bitty, back home.”
“Why Bitty?” Jack asked, unsure of where the question was coming from. Usually he didn’t care. With the merman – Bitty, Jack reminded himself – he couldn’t seem to stop caring.
“I’m itty bitty small, I guess,” Bitty laughed. “Or for the fact that my surname’s Bittle.”
It barely took a second before the next question was out of Jack’s mouth. “First name?”
“Eric,” he said.
“Eric,” Jack repeated, then, holding a hand out so that the merman could shake it, still sitting in the hot tub, he said, “I’m Jack.”
Bitty – Jack decided to call him Bitty, after all – laughed heartily at him. Despite having heard it ever since they started talking, Jack wished Bitty would never stop. “Your mom told me already, sweetheart,” Bitty said after he calmed down, still grinning. “But thank you anyways.” His smile lessened slightly, but stayed on his face. Then he focused his – brown, warm, god they’re practically golden – eyes on Jack’s own. “And, thank you, for not leaving me. Though, I guess with a mother like yours, you must be used to us stranger creatures already.”
Jack didn’t understand what Bitty was talking about, so he simply told him that it had been a clear choice whether or not to help someone in need. He didn’t mention the lie that, “Everyone would’ve done the same, in my situation,” though the words were on the tip of his tongue.
“Aren’t orcas supposed to live in colder climates than Georgia?” Jack said, instead.
“Jack, honey, please. There’s orcas in the Gulf of Mexico these days. I’m sure that back when MooMaw and her then-husband made the move south, sure, they probably got frowned upon. But it’s the 21st century already.” He took his hand out of the hot tub to place it on Jack’s shirt. Salt water seeped through the cotton fabric as soon as Bitty’s hand made contact with Jack’s chest. “Your mother married a human. Times are changing.”
Jack repeated the last word, changing, mostly to himself. “Alors,” he said, because he couldn’t seem to stop talking, kept his mouth running for more than he had ever done before, and continued with, “why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” said Bitty. It was said in a tone that indicated that it was something final. The cheerful mood was gone. The clouds, as if sensing Bitty’s emotions, blocked out the morning sun, leaving them both in a murky light that matched the color of the water Bitty was sitting in. Jack watched Bitty as he looked down into the water underneath him. He wasn’t shedding any tears, but it was a close call. “I don’t remember.”
As if Jack didn’t know that feeling all too well.
Chapter 3: Flounder and Other Delicacies
“A storm?” Bitty asked skeptically. “Y’all sure?”
Jack nodded. “We checked the weather reports, and the storm that passed through here just before I found you came in from the south. It wouldn’t be impossible for you to have been caught in it around South Carolina, or such.”
“Or even further south, brah,” Shitty added, walking out on the porch with a beer in his hand.
Jack had introduced Shitty and Bitty just the night before, when Shitty had called to ask Jack out for the evening.
“Sorry,” Jack had said into his phone. “I can’t.”
“What could be more important than a future team player finally finding his way all the way to Montréal?”
Jack had decided not to tell him about Bitty – after all, Jack and Shitty might’ve met (and connected) at the Samwell pre-visits, but it didn’t mean Jack felt overly comfortable in the other man’s company just yet – but had done so accidentally. While trying to come up with an excuse that would satisfy Shitty, but wouldn’t place Jack knee-depths in lies, he had accidentally let it slip that he was taking care of someone. Most of the time Jack actually liked that his past had made him unable to lie, that someone could see right through him when he wanted help but couldn’t make himself say it. This time, it hadn’t been in his favor.
“Wait, are they sick? Hurt? Man, I make a bomb-ass fish soup that could raise the dead. Family recipe. I’m coming over.”
Well, maybe it was in his favor. Bitty had barely eaten anything during his stay, feigning a stomach ache and then a vague non-hunger. Shitty’s soup, however, Bitty had chowed down like a starving man being allowed to eat from a feast. And maybe he was starving, Jack realized, mentally slapping his own face at his incompetence.
He should’ve let someone else care for Bitty, really. When he could barely care for himself (just a few weeks ago, he hadn’t been able to leave the bed for an entire week), how could he have expected to care for someone else’s wellbeing?
“Did you add flounder to this?” Bitty had asked. “It’s amazing, really. Just like back home.”
Shitty had sat quiet for quite some time before he had commented, “Are we just going to ignore the fin?” to which Bitty had stopped bringing a spoonful of fish halfway to his mouth, and Jack had simply said, “Yes.” It was the end of that, because Shitty had just said, “All right,” to that, and changed the subject to tell Bitty about what fish he had used.
“So y’all are saying,“ Bitty began, swallowed, and continued with, “that you think I got knocked out?”
Shitty looked sad when he nodded his confirmation. Jack felt even worse. “Sorry, dude,” Shitty said.
The expression Bitty sported broke off a tiny piece of the stone hard shell Jack had placed around his heart for protection. He wanted to promise Bitty that everything would be alright, that he would make sure Bitty would be fine and home soon, but—
Jack could barely promise himself that he’d be alright most of the time. With the cold weather – and the one stubborn, nasty cut on Bitty’s lower back that refused to heal or scab over (even with Jack’s mother’s help) – he couldn’t just send Bitty on his way. He had to stay, despite his wish to be back home, despite Jack’s wish he would heal nicely, despite.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “Ah, chit, Bitty, I really am.” He didn’t say what he thought. He wanted Bitty to heal, really, he did, but Bitty had finally given Jack something sustainable to wake up to in the mornings, and Jack wanted to keep him close for at least a while longer. It was selfish, and Jack hated himself for thinking it.
He had almost worked himself into a minor anxiety attack by the time Bitty picked up the now empty bowl of soup, dragging the spoon through the remainder of the sauce at the bottom. A way, perhaps, to distract himself from his feelings. Jack wished he had something to fiddle with, too. Bitty’s form of distraction ended with Bitty dropping the dirty dish into the murky water he sat in. Jack saw it sink slowly, but told Bitty to not care for it.
“We’re moving you to the swimming pool.” If he was one to judge, Jack would’ve said he sounded determined, though the thought had just popped into his mind.
The fact that neither Bitty or Shitty commented on the pool, on Jack having the privilege to own one – Jack knew first hand such privileges came with more negatives than positives – felt special. He could find some real friends, in both of them, if they were willing to look past Jack’s last name.
“I’ll finally be able to stretch my fin!” Jack didn’t know if it was a merpeople thing, or a Bitty thing, but whenever the merman got excited, he splashed water on everyone around him as he moved his lower half in excitement. It happened more and more often as the days passed, which Jack was thankful for, despite having to change his shirt several times a day.
“But bro, wouldn’t your pool be filled with chlorine water?”
Jack swore to himself. “Maman,” he called, walking inside. He found her in her study, where she spent most of her time when Jack took care of Bitty. “Maman,” he repeated when he saw her. “We need to install a salt water pump to the pool.”
“Is Bitty going in there?” she asked. Jack nodded. “We should’ve thought about this earlier. No, no, mon chéri, it’s not your fault.” She stood up and gave Jack a small hug. “I’m going to call some friends and family and see what they can do, alright?”
As his mother dealt with the logistics, Jack helped Shitty carry Bitty to the bathroom for a rinse down. He looked weird, sitting in the shower with his fin scrunched up inside, but it was the best they could do. Jack didn’t want to leave Shitty with the merman – not that he didn’t trust Shitty to act well around Bitty, but because he didn’t want to leave Bitty with someone he barely knew – but someone had to clean the mess that was the hot tub. He wasn’t about to ask Shitty to do something he should’ve done way earlier, but when Shitty volunteered himself, with the words, “It’s not like I have anything against Bitty, but I’d rather keep out of the way, you know?” Jack didn’t try to stop him.
Cleaning a merperson, Jack learned, was not as strange as he would’ve believed. The orca part had no hair for dirt to latch onto, and the skin felt slippery under Jack’s hands. He didn’t even need to use soap, which he was glad for. Though most cuts had already healed completely in a few short days despite the non-ideal condition – Bitty thanked “Mrs. Zimmermann’s Special Ointment” for that – the open gash that refused to get better still caused problems.
Jack had heard Bitty groan through the nights in his sleep, the pain he felt cutting through his dreams. Like before, Jack didn’t get much sleep, collapsing only in the early mornings when raw exhaustion took over.
Jack didn’t want to aggravate that even more, causing Bitty more nights of the same agony.
The human part of Bitty was, not surprisingly, as easy to clean as any other human. Though Bitty’s fingers didn’t seem to scrunch up in prolonged water visits, his hair benefitted greatly by a round of apple-smelling shampoo and matching conditioner.
From underneath them, they could hear the work being done on the pool filters. Someone said something that sounded crude in the same language Jack’s mother sometimes muttered in. Some clashes and clangs, the pumping of water in and out of the pool, and two huge trucks outside that Jack hadn’t heard arrive.
Shitty entered the bathroom just as Jack was finishing up Bitty’s shower. “It seems like Bitty doesn’t have to go back into the hot tub just yet,” Shitty laughed. “one of the workers – his hair, brah, it was magnificent – told me they were just finishing up.” He then looked at Bitty, talking to him directly. “If you want to, you can stay here until then.”
Jack’s shirt got wet.
“I suppose I can find the patience,” Bitty said, and grinned.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to test Bitty’s patience much, because Jack’s mother entered the bathroom within a half hour with the good news. “They’ve been working some real magic down there,” she said, and both she and Bitty laughed.
Shitty laughed too, a couple of moments later. Jack didn’t.
“I’m sure they did,” he said, but furrowed his eyebrows nonetheless. Apparently he didn’t get the joke they shared.
His mother smiled at him, but it never reached her eyes. Jack wished he could figure out why his mother kept the same, hurt expression on her face, when he and Shitty carried Bitty down to the pool, just as she had done when Jack was eight and had laughed at the historical stories she had told him. When Bitty swam over to them only to comment, “I can’t truly enjoy this, knowing mama must be worrying herself sick at my absence,” Jack wished he could figure out a way to help him, too.
But in this moment, he couldn’t.
Chapter 4: Maman
After a long consideration, Jack decided it would be best if he talked to his mother first. If anything, she deserved to hear an apology coming from him, soon, for the way he seemed to hurt her feelings exceedingly more now. He should talk to her, figure out what he did – he might not know, but it didn’t mean he didn’t actually do something to hurt his mother’s feelings – and then he’d take her advice to figure out Bitty’s situation.
Bitty would come second. Not that Bitty wasn’t important to Jack, he was, but—
The physical side of Bitty seemed to improve almost immediately as soon as he got to change habitat from the small hot tub to the almost Olympic-sized swimming pool. The wound that had refused to heal scabbed over within hours of the move, and when Jack moved Bitty back to the hot tub for the night, both of them were too excited to actually calm down. The ointment his mother had told him to reapply to Bitty’s wound helped to ease the pain, just like it had done when Jack had used it back when he still played in the Q.
Jack realized, sometime later, that this was the first time in weeks that he had even thought about the Q. Hockey. The anxiety.
“And your old friend?” Jack’s therapist had asked when he had told her it didn’t hurt just as much as it used to, now that Bitty was with them (he hadn’t told her Bitty wasn’t entire human, of course, nor how Bitty had entered his life). “Have you talked to him at all?”
“Kent?” Jack had asked back. The therapist had nodded. “Euh,” Jack had said to that, “it’s strained,” but before he could dwell on it for too long, the therapist had seemed to sense his discomfort and suggested that he think about it for their next appointment.
Jack probably wouldn’t, but he hadn’t told her so.
Just before they were to part – by her office door, Jack holding his jacket awkwardly in one hand, his therapist holding onto the door so it wouldn’t shut behind her – she has asked him, “Your mother’s ointment – does it still help to drink it?” Against his anxieties, of course, but she hadn’t needed to point that out.
Jack had answered that, yes, he still took the ointment orally daily (it was made of only edible plants, after all), and that yes, it helped. While piercing his eyes with her own dark pupils, she had smiled, and only said, “Good,” before she let him go.
The same word Jack repeated to himself, standing outside his mother’s study once more. He didn’t dare to enter, nor knock on the door, for a long time. He breathed, slowly, to calm himself.
Ask for forgiveness, he told himself then, and tell her you will do your best not to trample on her words again, over and over. She probably heard his breathing through the door by now. And if his pulse got any faster than it already was, she would probably hear his heartbeat as well. He raised a hand, ask for forgiveness, tapped his knuckles against the wooden door in quick succession, ask for forgiveness, and waited for her to call him in, ask for forgiveness.
No sound was heard from inside. When Jack opened the door, the room was empty.
He heard footsteps approaching, but the stomping was far too heavy to be his mother’s and too light to be his father’s. He turned around to find Shitty walking down the hallway with a plate of store brought cookies on it.
“If you’re looking for ya mom, she told me and Bitty earlier that she and Mr. Bob had to go get some fish.”
Jack nodded, silently thanking Shitty. When he thought about it, Jack had heard her mentioning that their frozen supply of fish was running low.
His plan had to be postponed.
During his wait, Jack thought he could deal with some other important tasks he had to tackle. It was a recommendation from his therapist, to deal with his issues heads on instead of postponing them like his anxieties wanted him to. And if the Zimmermann’s frozen fish stock was getting low, it meant his parents had gone to a fish market in Montréal. They wouldn’t be back for hours, most likely.
Starting with Shitty was always a good start.
“Shitty?” Jack called after him. He had kept walking through Jack’s short internal monologue. “Yesterday, when maman and Bitty laughed…” He let the words die out in hopes that Shitty would understand what he was getting at. Shitty, either not understanding or being enough of a – and Jack didn’t want to say it – dick to force Jack to finish his sentence, didn’t say anything. He thought thoroughly about what words to use, and settled at last for, “At the joke.”
It didn’t explain much more than his first sentence had done, but Shitty seemed to understand him anyways. “The joke, brah,” he began by throwing a hand over Jack’s shoulder, dragging him in close, “is that they probably did work some magic, down there.”
“What.” Furrowed eyebrows, downcast glance; it wasn’t even a question.
“Dude, you found a mermaid half-dead in the water, right?” Jack nodded. Shitty laughed, and Jack thought it sounded pitying. “It isn’t really far-fetched that magic could be real then, is it?”
He walked on, leaving Jack stranded once more.
It didn’t take much time before Jack realized how he had fucked up. “Shitty,” he called again, running up to his friend for the second time in a few short minutes. “The guy, yesterday, what did he look like?”
Shitty combed through his – thin, but ever growing – mustache. “His hair was sick, as I’ve said. I want hair like that one day, bro.”
Jack urged him on.
“He had these, like, super pale eyes?”
“Looked a lot like yours, actually, though he looked nothing like you, my fine Jack.”
“Shitty.” Shitty stopped teasing. “Did he have dark pupils?”
Jack had been made fun of for his dark pupils as young, so mismatched to his irises. “It’s makes you unique,” his mother had said, and his father had agreed with her.
“But, maman, you got it too.”
Jack’s parents had laughed, and cradling himself into their shared embrace, his mother had whispered, still laughing, “Alright, mon fils, it makes both of us unique.”
Shitty answered clear enough to cut through Jack’s memories. “Yeah, now that you’re mentioning it, he did!”
The knot in Jack’s stomach tightened. His head swam with questions, question after question demanding answers he now realized his parents had given him since he was young. The hallway, narrow enough that Jack could easily trace his hands against the walls on either side, felt too open. His clothes, too light, no security from their weight. His throat closed up, and he couldn’t do anything but to fall to his knees as he repeated, airless whispers and barely moving his lips, désolé, maman, désolé, désolé, désolé.
He felt Shitty’s hands on his back, soothing circles running across his shirt in an attempt to calm him. He knew what was happening. He wondered, as far as anxiety can make someone wonder for another person, if Shitty had any idea of what was going on. The touch felt wrong, hands too light on him when he needed more pressure to ground himself.
Like his maman used to do.
He desperately wished she was there.
The moment his parents got back home – he heard the front door open and several heavy bags being placed on the hallway floor – Jack was curled up beneath almost ten kilograms of weighted blanket. Anxiety mostly under control, a panic attack far away, the blanket helped him breathe properly. Slowly and surely. In and out. Again. Again. Again.
Another weight on his left shoulder. His father’s hand, placed on him so that Jack would know he was there. Offering support with no words until Jack would deem it necessary. They had been through this before, Jack and his father, and they had the routine laid down.
Jack barely took a moment before he poked his head out of the blanket. The cool, oxygen-rich air filled his nostrils, his throat, his lungs, and with the same air, he spoke, “Papa, I’m sorry.”
His father searched Jack’s face for a while. His brown eyes – much like Bitty’s and yet completely different, a darker shade of mahogany where Bitty’s was golden chocolate – looked sad, and relieved, and possibly a bit confused. “What brought this on, Jack?” he asked.
For not believing, Jack thought. Not believing you, or maman, or anyone. He said, “For everything.” Then he explained. “For not realizing you were always serious, when I thought you were making fun of me.” Unable to keep looking at his father’s eyes, Jack turned his head away. “Papa, je suis tellement désolé.”
His father removed his hand. Then he replaced it. Finally, he sat down next to Jack on the bed. “It’s not your fault. We should’ve made it clearer. Made sure you got to experience that part of your life as well. We were just so…” He didn’t continue. Sighing, he said, “I should get your mother,” and stood up.
Jack was left alone.
“You know,” his mother had said once, during dinner, “your auntie – Auntie Rebecca, you remember her, right? – she’s having another child.” Jack had only been seven, and far too young to be interested in baby cousins. His mother turned to his father. “They say, with yet another human. Just like last.” She turned to Jack again. “The child will be just like you, Jackie!”
Jack had already finished his plate, only staying at the table to be polite. But the conversation confused him, so he left the plate with a cheerful, “Thanks for the food, papa!” and had ran out of the kitchen.
“Ah, it’s sad,” his mother had said once, holding onto her husband’s hand. “Elder Élie won’t be able to visit us this year. His wife told me he’s getting too old and weak to make the trip.”
“How old is he getting, you reckon?” his father had asked. Jack could see how he held onto his wife’s hand a little harder.
“Almost a millennium, they say,” his mother answered.
Jack was only ten, and didn’t know what the English word millennium meant.
His mother turned towards him. “Jackie, should we try to visit him this year?” she said, smiling encouragingly at him.
Jack had always liked Elder Élie, but the thought of traveling so far, sleeping away for so many nights, surrounded by people he didn’t know – it made his stomach hurt just thinking about it. He hadn’t told his mother this, only said, “No thanks, I don’t want to,” and thus got to stay with one of his father’s old team mates over the weekend when his parents travelled all the way to France to meet the Elder.
“What will I do when you’re gone?” his mother had said once, curled up next to her husband on the living room sofa. Jack’s already sixteen and has just started therapy to tackle his anxiety problems, but it’s far too late for him to be up sneaking into the kitchen for a midnight snack.
“You’ll live, and you’ll find someone else to love, and you’ll live a long and plentiful life,” his father had said, and Jack hadn’t been able to hear a trace of sadness in his voice.
“I’m not sure I want to live without you,” she had said, her own voice on the brink of tears. “You’ve been the best thing I’ve ever had.”
“Except Jack,” his father had reminded her.
“Except Jackie, yes,” she had repeated.
“Live for him, then. You know he’ll live long and strong; he got my looks, but your soul, love.”
“If his mixed blood doesn’t give him any added anxiety to what he’s already shown. You know that’s how Rebecca’s first daughter succumbed to…” She stopped herself, letting out a sob.
Jack left the hallway, wondering how a mixture between American and Canadian blood could cause him any added risk for anxiety. He looked back, seeing his father hugging his mother tightly. Then he turned, sandwich in hand, and walked the stairs to his bedroom for some sleep before the big geography test in the morning.
“Jackie.” Jack shifted. “Jackie?” Somehow, he’d gotten himself under the covers again. “Jack.” Had he fallen asleep? “Are you asleep?”
Jack groaned and sat up. The blanket fell off his body onto the floor. With bleary eyes, he saw his mother in front of him. “Maman,” he croaked. Pushing words through his closed-up throat, he croaked again, “Maman.”
“Jackie.” She hugged him hard. Jack hugged her back harder. “Jack, I’m so sorry.”
“No,” he tried to say. The words didn’t get out. “No.” He sped up his breathing. “No, maman, it’s not—“
His mother hushed him. “There, there. It’s going to be alright.” Jack felt his own hard breaths as her hand started soothing circles on his shirt in a way that Shitty hadn’t gotten close to mimicking. “Breathe slowly.”
“I never realized,” Jack coughed out. “Anything, maman, I never realized.” Tears burned his eyes. Snot smeared on his mother’s shirt, right by the shoulder, but she kept holding onto him. He let the sobs take control over his body for a while, riding out the experience so that he could get it out of his system.
In the midst of it, his father joined them in Jack’s room. Sitting with his side firmly pressed against Jack’s open one, his father made sure that Jack was covered by human contact in all directions. Jack felt – just like he had felt when they had done this when he was younger – like he was being embraced by pure security and comfort.
Slowly and surely, Jack’s body stopped the heavy, full body spasms of tearless cries and settled out into small shivers. His parents kept repeating soothing words. He felt his mother’s hand brushing through his hair. Then, quiet once more.
“We’re magical, aren’t we.” It wasn’t a question. Never again would it be one.
His mother just nodded, but his father said, “Oui, fils. You are.”
“Elves, to be specific,” his mother added. “Bobby’s just a human, though.”
It had been a long time since he heard his mother call his father Bobby, and with how it clashed against the severity of their discussion, Jack couldn’t help but let out a small snort. Had he looked at his parents, Jack was sure he would see his parents smile tiny, hopeful smiles.
Jack moved away from their embrace and asked, “How did you meet?” and, “Where are you from, maman?” and then finally, “How old are you?”
“I was born right before Martin Luther put up the Ninety-Five Theses on a church in Wittenberg. Well, as legends go. I never saw any papers nailed to any of the church doors, anyways.”
“So you’re German?”
His mother smiled, and said, “Ja.”
Jack let out another snort. Putting on his thickest German accent, he asked, “Should I start calling you mama instead, then?”
All three of them laughed.
Making their way down the stairs felt liberating, both physically and mentally. The muscles in his stomach weren’t so tense they caused lower back pain anymore. In his stomach, stones no longer resided. Nice, he thought. It feels nice. He felt light and animated and young.
Beside him, his mother looked like she wasn’t a day above twenty-five. His father looked like he always did, gray hair scattered on his temples, though a smile had taken over his face. It didn’t look like it’d disappear anytime soon.
“Mr. and Mrs. Zimmermann,” Shitty nodded towardst Jack’s parents as they all walked into the kitchen. When he noticed Jack, he called out a, “Yo, Jack, I’ve been looking for ya!”
His father laughed. “He’s all yours, Mr. Knight,” he said. His placed his hand on Jack’s shoulder again. “After he’s helped us unpack all this fish.”
“Bro, I’ll help you with that,” Shitty offered. He moved over to Jack. “Bitty’s been asking about you, wondering where you’ve gone off to.”
Jack hadn’t been down to Bitty since yesterday, he realized. He had neither taken the time to see him swim around in their pool, nor had he held up on his promise to take a dip together.
“Who’s Bitty?” Jack’s mother asked, to which his father answered with, “Is he the mermaid I met in the pool this morning?”
“Yes,” Jack said, “the merman, Eric – euh, Eric Bittle. Bitty’s his nickname.” He continued, turning to his father, “Kinda like a hockey one?” He let out a low laugh, mostly to himself.
His mother gasped. “Did you say Bittle?”
Jack hummed. “Oui.” He hummed some more. “You wouldn’t happen to know anyone who could get them in contact with Eric, would you?”
Jack didn’t get an answer, his mother already running towards her study. “We’ll figure something out!” she called towards them, and then closed the door behind her.
Jack left Shitty and his father to care for the fish as he walked down to tell Bitty about the positive response he got from his mother. As he stood by the edge of the pool, Bitty swam up to him. He splashed some water onto Jack’s feet, and then Jack dove in.
“You look happy today, Jack,” Bitty said as Jack got up for air, dragging Jack down underwater again.
Jack couldn’t do anything but to gurgle back his reply.
Maybe things would turn out alright after all.
its while reading this chapter that yall start realizing this whole story was written as a byproduct from a messy, crack idea. they fuckin elves, man. fuckin..... elves. pupil elves........... the fuc