Chapter 1: “We have, indeed, the authority of the whole of Scriptural teaching that God allows the devil to afflict sinners more than the just”
It took a while to kill him. The drugs, that is, or his own recklessness. Either way there was this weird stretch of… waiting, he supposed. He would have held his breath but for the tubing they had shoved unceremoniously down his throat, so that he was no longer in control of his own breathing.
It was something he was becoming steadily more aware of. That and the shaking of the ambulance, his father clutching his hand in one of his own while the other tried to contact his mother on the phone, the doctors…
This wasn’t how he normally became aware, waking up in the morning to blink against the brightness leaking in through the curtains, starting to notice the warmth of the duvet. He wasn’t becoming aware of it because he was waking up, he was becoming aware of it because he was watching.
They wheeled him into a bland room. More doctors. Strange machines. His father’s stricken face and then his mother’s blank fear when she arrived. Nurses and words of comfort and waiting room magazines that would be available if his parents left the room to pursue them. Jack felt separated from this whole world, watching these people he grew up with as they struggled to comprehend something that he knew was significant, but couldn’t quite feel. This was the waiting part; he didn’t realise what was happening just yet.
The constant movement didn’t slow but now his mother was crying. His father too, with red ringed eyes and shaking hands that didn’t belong on the quintessential male athlete that Jack had grown up being told his father was. This was how things worked in his world; when Jack was crying and shaking it was in private and as hushed up as he could manage, his father did neither because he wasn’t supposed to. But this behaviour seemed normal to the doctors and nurses who tried to console them as alien fluids were injected into Jack’s arm. More wires on his chest. A strange clip on his fingers that he didn’t understand but must have been important. Once, then twice more, the entire contingent removed their hands from his pale frame so one of their number could press paddles to his chest and shock him back to life.
The third time this happened, it didn’t work.
They were still trying, but it wouldn’t help. Jack knew this because suddenly he could feel again, and what he could feel was nothing like he’d ever experienced in his life. It was the sort of clarity that was sharp enough to hurt as he understood for the first time what everyone else seemed to know. That so many of his problems were made up in his own head. That his parents loved him and were terrified of losing him. That the doctor had told him not to mix his meds with alcohol for a goddamned reason and he should have listened but he couldn’t because it had hurt.
That was over now. The doctor trying to restart his heart didn’t know that it was futile. For the first time, Jack had discovered a problem that couldn’t be fixed if he would only push himself just a little bit further. He was dead, and he’d absolutely fucked up.
It was strange how much he wanted to scream, when he’d never wanted anything of the sort while he was alive. He wanted to run as fast as he could and fight back at everyone who’d done this to him and… and see the pyramids. That’s what he wanted. And Stonehenge, where the only people allowed close to it were the Druids, even though Druids were never a religion, they were the name of the Celtic priests and, anyway, Stonehenge predated the Celtic invasion and still no one knew what it was really for.
He wanted to visit the Isabell Gardner museum. He’d never done that. It was ridiculous; it was in Boston, he could have gone there without too much difficulty. That was the site of the greatest art theft in history and there was still a five million dollar reward for the paintings. They had been stolen on Saint Patrick’s day in the year of his birth. The mystery had outlived him.
He wanted a dog. And a twenty-first birthday. And his own home where he struggled to cook his own food and forgot to change the bag of the vacuum cleaner until it lost all suction. He wanted to choose the colour he’d paint his house. God, he wanted a house he’d paint himself.
He had no idea what to do now.
There was supposed to be a tunnel, wasn’t there? Or some light he was supposed to walk towards? He’d read stuff about Saint Peter and the gate of heaven and, sure, he’d never been exactly Christian but he liked the idea. At least that way he’d have someone to plead his case to. Ask for a do-over. Or, if that didn’t work, ask why he had to have this life. What a waste of time.
There was no manual for the newly dead. Jack shut his eyes and waited for something to happen. Heaven, he thought, the people who believe in it are always so damn sure. If I’ve ever done anything worthwhile in my life, please let me go to heaven.
When he opened his eyes, he was in an ice rink.
Because of course he was. There was a moment when he genuinely considered raising his arms to the heavens and asking of the Lord, “Is this a fucking joke?” but he wasn’t sure that this was an afterlife at all. For a start, there were no lights on. He could see only by the moonlight that poured in through the huge window at the end, glittering off the smooth ice and flashing off the blades of the boy at the other end of the rink.
Jack had been expecting something a little more… ethereal. Even the effect of moonlight on ice was ruined somewhat by the deep lines and the faceoff circles that made it clear that, apparently, Jack was nothing more than a hockey player.
‘Erm.’ he said. There was a split second where all he could think was how glad he was that he was already dead so that his last words weren’t “erm”.
The boy at the other end of the ice slipped over mid-spin with a startled little ‘Gosh.’
‘Sorry,’ Jack said, skating towards him (and why was he wearing skates?), ‘I didn’t mean to, uh, frighten you. Um.’
The boy was back on his feet when Jack made it over. In the half-light what must have been large brown eyes appeared black.
‘It’s just…’ Jack continued, still at a complete loss, ‘well… where am I?’
What he really wanted to know was if this boy was some sort of angel. He could certainly pass for an angel, with the blond hair and the graceful movements on his blades. But he wasn’t going to ask that because he might not be an angel, and then Jack would just seem weird.
‘You’re in an ice rink.’ the boy said.
‘Yes.’ Jack agreed. ‘I worked that much out.’
There was a pause that Jack entirely refused to acknowledge as awkward.
‘I don’t know where the rink is.’ the boy added, in an accent Jack recognised from American television as deeply southern.
Now what he wanted to know was if the boy was also dead, but that seemed somehow impolite so instead he held out his hand and said, ‘I’m Jack.’
‘Eric.’ said the boy, shaking the offered hand. So they could touch. One point for dead. Besides, Eric wasn’t a particularly angelic name. Eric sounded like a heavenly intern. Like he was doing administration for the real angels who were all too busy dancing on the heads of pins, presumably, or whatever it was angels did.
‘Um.’ Jack said, because apparently he was confused enough that real words were difficult, ‘Can I ask why you’re here?’
Eric – who surely couldn’t have been more than fourteen – seemed to be digging a hole nervously in the ice with his toe pick, ‘I didn’t break in,’ he said, ‘If you work here, um, I’m just practicing and… well… you did sort of ask where we were so I guess you don’t work here so. Hm. I’m sort of… dreaming? I do this a lot. It’s a good way to practice-’ he was talking so much that Jack was beginning to wonder if he even needed to breathe ‘-I just try to get to an ice rink but I always seem to end up at this one and I’m not really sure why but I think it’s somewhere that’s going to be important to me in the future. That’s Grandma’s theory anyway. She’s a witch, by the way, and so- so am I.’
He finished strangely self-consciously and Jack knew enough about how he felt to want to reassure him, ‘I’m a witch too. Well, I mean I thought I was. I never did stuff like visit ice rinks when I was asleep. It was mostly just, um, herbs.’ he finished, lamely.
Eric grinned, ‘Herbs are great! I never meet other witches where I’m from. And besides, you’re here now, that must count for something. I wonder if this place will be important to you someday too? It’s a really nice rink. You can watch the sunrise if you stay long enough and-’
‘It won’t.’ Jack said, cutting him off and then internally cringing at how rude he must sound.
‘What d’you mean?’
Deep breath. Not that he needed breaths anymore, ‘It won’t mean anything to me in the future because I, sort of, don’t have one anymore. A future, I mean. I guess I just died.’
‘Oh.’ Eric said.
‘Can I ask…’
‘Accident, I suppose.’ Jack supplied, having no intention of explaining to this kid what had really happened, ‘It didn’t hurt but…’ shit, ‘They took me to a hospital and…’ this almost felt like a panic attack, except Jack was pretty sure those didn’t happen to the dead. He was shaking, though, feeling the truth of what had just happened suddenly become something real that he had to acknowledge, ‘And my parents were there and I’m their only child and I’m- I’m only nineteen. I was supposed to be moving out soon. Jesus,’ (why couldn’t he stop talking? Why did this all still hurt if he was dead? It was supposed to be over) ‘I’d thought that I just needed to get through the Memorial Cup and everything would be fine but we won it and I was supposed to just relax but I can’t ever seem to relax and,’ he took another deep, shaky breath, ‘My parents are still at the hospital. When I left the doctor was still trying to get my heart to start beating again but it won’t.’
Eric had been letting him talk in complete silence, the expression of horror on his face just visible beneath his polite mask of sympathy.
‘I don’t want to be dead.’ Jack admitted, in a quiet voice.
There was a good chance that Eric had no idea what to say to a dead person. He certainly seemed pretty startled by this turn of events. But he pulled himself together and, a little awkwardly, said, ‘Well, you can stay here if you want. It’s nice. I like watching the sunrise from the rink.’
For once, Jack didn’t particularly want to skate. What he wanted was to find the way out, find a loophole in this whole life and death thing. A few hours ago he was so scared about his future and now he apparently didn’t have one.
‘I want to see my parents.’ he said, eventually, ‘Though I’m not sure how to…’
‘I can take you.’ Eric offered, ‘Just help me out and think about where they are.’
Eric placed a hand on his arm for presumably magical reasons, and Jack closed his eyes once more, thinking of the hospital room and the doctors and his parents crying on the edge of the action.
‘Oh no.’ Eric whispered, next to him.
He opened his eyes.
It was much brighter here than in the rink, with white walls and white sheets and his own skin, whiter than it should ever appear. It seemed as though no time had passed and the doctor was still standing over him, trying to bring him back. Jack turned his face away and towards his parents.
Oh, he thought, shit.
Jack had, on occasion, wished that he wasn’t an only child. Just so he didn’t have the same pressure. So his parents had a back-up child in case he turned out wrong. It was a terrible thing to wish for, but he’d never wanted it more than he did in that moment.
His mother had her arms around herself, fingernails gripping so tight that she could have broken skin if not for the jacket she was wearing. Her face was utterly pale, with salty tear-tracks from where she’d been openly allowing them to fall. The expression she wore was rigidly caught on the edge of terror, like she wasn’t quite sure that this was actually happening just yet. But his father was something else; one hand on his wife’s shoulder as if he were in a fit state to comfort anyone, the other covering his mouth. There was red in his wide eyes and horror on his face and Jack just wanted to fix it somehow. They were both staring through Jack to his body on the bed, not moving, barely breathing, shaking minutely as they waited.
The doctor swore softly as the next jolt failed to save Jack.
‘Sorry to bring you here,’ he said to the boy next to him, ‘you probably don’t want to see this.’
I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to see their faces when the doctor gives up and they all realise I’m dead. I don’t want to be dead… I don’t want-
‘I never remember my dreams anyway.’ he said, but he flinched when another shock was sent through Jack’s chest. Any moment now and they’d call it. He wasn’t waking up.
The boy was trembling, and then he’d apparently struck a resolution because he was saying, ‘It’s going to use all my magic but there’s something my grandmother taught me.’ in a rush. Next he was moving with urgency to the body on the bed, dragging Jack over by the wrist.
‘You want to live?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ Jack said, because he didn’t have to think about this at all. It was the strongest impulse in his mind, like he was a scared animal caught between the moment he realised it was over and the moment the predator got him.
‘Okay then,’ was the response, and Eric placed the hand that wasn’t grasping Jack’s wrist on the breastbone of the body on the bed, waiting for the tiniest moment as the doctor lowered the paddles once more. ‘I shouldn’t do this.’ he assured him, and then he did it anyway.
This time Jack felt the jolt through his chest, and then he felt nothing at all.
Darkness. And then
A dull ache. Like the ache from lying in one position for far too long, except he wasn’t entirely sure he could move.
It was worse around his ribcage, a feeling as though he’d been bound like a barrel and each of his steady breaths hurt them more. Maybe he should
Maybe he should take shallower breaths. Except that didn’t seem to work and he didn’t seem to be in control of his breathing at all. Why did he feel like this? He dimly remembered
Okay, whatever that was, it was distracting. He dimly remembered a shock right through his chest and…
…and a feeling like he’d lost more than he’d ever thought he could. His parents’ desperation,
An ice rink, that boy.
Yet another moment of weakness in a long and inglorious train. The feeling
Of cold tiles under his cheek. The childhood-nightmare
Sensation of not being able to scream.
His dad was in the house. Beep But Jack couldn’t tell him Beep that he was dying.
Beep. Beep. Beep, beep, beep beep beep beep…
That was his mother’s voice. But again he couldn’t call out. The beeping kept going, faster than before, and he could feel his fingers curling but he couldn’t seem to move.
‘Jack, honey, are you awake?’
She sounded scared, now. But there was a hand on his forehead and Jack wanted to explain how much trouble he was in but his tongue couldn’t seem to move.
There was something in his mouth. And harsh sheets beneath his hands. His mother brushed a lock from his forehead while the beeping gradually began to slow. The darkness was stained red now, and Jack slowly realised that it was light filtered through his closed lids.
It took all of his drained mental capacity to remember how to open his eyes.
‘Oh Jack-’ relief ‘-thank god. I thought… but it’s alright, I should get a nurse or…’
She trailed off, and Jack wanted to fill the silence somehow but there was still a plastic tube restricting his speech. The machine that was beeping was also moving air in and out of his lungs. This was a hospital, clearly, and the doctors apparently wanted him to have as few things to do as possible. With his mind still thick and sluggish, he couldn’t begin to make sense of what had happened. And then his mother wasn’t there anymore, and he was left alone with the pale ceiling, and in the next moment she had returned with someone to check the machines and to tug the tube out of his mouth. It was longer than he’d expected, slowly being dragged out from his throat.
He was left with a strange taste and cracked lips. A smaller tube was placed under his nose and the nurse was asking if he wanted water. Eventually, he remembered how to nod.
‘Your father should be back soon.’ his mother informed him, holding his hand in both of hers and Jack struggled to gulp down the water.
Speech was next, if he could remember how that worked. They waited in silence for a few minutes while his mind slowly cleared and he could better understand what had happened.
He should have known better. He should have asked for help when he knew he was losing control. He should have-
His father arrived soon after, looking as though he hadn’t slept in all the time that Jack had been unconscious. He took the seat next to his wife with a weak ‘Hey.’ as his whole frame seemed to relax as though it hadn’t for a long time. Already, Jack could feel himself start to drift back to sleep.
‘I’m sorry.’ he managed, unable to meet either of his parents’ eyes.
His mother was shaking her head, and his father responded, ‘Don’t. It’s our job to look after you, this isn’t your fault.’ It sounded as though he’d expected Jack to apologise, but after that statement he seemed to get more nervous, watching Jack closely as he added, ‘We just need to know-’
‘It wasn’t intentional.’
It was a mistake. A giant goddamned fuck up. But his answer must have come as a relief because both his parents took steadying breaths and his mother ran a thumb over this hand.
‘Okay.’ she said, ‘We’re going to sort this out. You’re going to be fine.’
This was a strange definition of “fine”. Jack was sure he had the only parents in the world who could be disappointed in him for going to college.
They weren’t actually disappointed, of course, because they had taken to being so supportive and protective of him that he almost missed those teenaged years when they’d actually be exasperated with him now and then.
No matter, ESPN was disappointed enough for everyone.
This was his life now; go to his therapist, attend his lectures, play hockey, and keep his head down. He could still make it to the NHL if he could just keep his head down. Keep your head down, he told himself, every time the world started to overwhelm him. Keep your head down, he repeated, whenever he needed motivation to work on assignments. He was there to do what he was supposed to and to try to be forgotten. The Stanley Cup could still be in his future if he managed to just…
Keep your head down. It was there in the back of his mind as his fingers fidgeted over the table. He wasn’t precisely doing a very good job at that particular moment.
The first time he met Officer Erangi was a Tuesday, and Jack was trying his best to seem inconsequential.
‘Good afternoon.’ he said, as he walked into the room with a small stack of paper. The door was closed behind him and Jack couldn’t help but notice the hoop on the table for people to be handcuffed to.
It took a few moments for Jack to remember that he was supposed to respond, ‘Afternoon.’
‘Don’t look so nervous, you’re not any in trouble.’
The papers were placed on the table and the officer took a seat on the other side, hands clasped in front of him.
‘My name is Officer Hemi Erangi and I’m here to take your statement. It’ll be over quickly and won’t hurt a bit.’
He had a strange accent, with a habit of pronouncing more of the letters in each word in a vaguely English way, and a lilt at the end of the sentence.
‘Just start from the beginning.’
Jack nodded politely, opened his mouth to speak, and then realised that he had no idea what he was going to say.
‘I… saw someone being mugged.’ he tried.
Officer Erangi raised his eyebrows, ‘Okay, go back just a little bit. Why were you there?’
Just keep it simple. Don’t make him suspicious. ‘I was going for a walk.’
Erangi frowned down at his pile of papers, ‘You live at Samwell?’
Oh good. An easy question.
‘That’s two hours away, how did you get there so fast?’
Shit. He should have thought about that before. This was ridiculous, he had practice soon and he hadn’t even met the new frogs. What was he going to say? “Sorry I’m late guys, I was stuck at the police station”?
‘I was going for a run.’
‘You said walk.’
‘Yeah… I was walking and then I started running.’
‘You’re wearing jeans.’
His mother was an actor, god dammit, he should be better than this. At some point in his life he should have learnt how to lie.
‘It was a spontaneous run.’
It’s not like this was the first time he’d been in this situation. It was, he supposed, the price he paid for still being alive. All he had to do was keep his head down and ignore the memories that drifted through his mind like the moment you realise that that thing you remember only actually happened in a dream. That was probably the best way to think about it, yet he’d begun to let himself acknowledge that those memories were things that hadn’t happened yet. But that wasn’t the biggest problem that that witch had caused.
‘A spontaneous run.’ Erangi repeated.
‘I’m a hockey player.’
The biggest problem was his ability to know when people were going to die. And there was no pretending that this one wasn’t real; it had been a part of his life for years now and he was stuck with it. One sudden vision that a mugging was going to go wrong and he had to be there to stop it or that was blood on his hands.
‘So you were out running…’
‘…you saw someone being mugged…’
‘…and you decided to break his nose.’
Jack was already trying to work out how to hide his bruised knuckles from the team.
‘I’m a hockey player.’ he repeated, ‘It’s just instinct I suppose.’
Eventually the confusion turned to boredom, and Jack let work fatigue and the low level of offending sap Erangi’s interest in “getting to the bottom of this” or whatever it was that police officers did.
He was out in another half hour, heading for the bus stop at a brisk walk and just hoping to get back to the rink on time.
Shitty was there. He and his moustache seemed confused.
He did, in fact, shut up. But Jack could tell that he was thinking, which was just as bad.
‘I had a thing.’ Jack added, unnecessarily.
‘Okay fine, don’t tell me anything.’
From their past two years of friendship, Jack knew enough about Shitty to tell that he was trying to somehow pout without actually pouting. Telepathic pouting. There was intent to pout, but no actual action.
Jack irrationally wanted to apologise. Instead, he mumbled, ‘let’s just get started.’ and kept his eyes down as he headed into the locker room.
New season. Deep breath. Just the process of getting all his gear on and slipping his jersey (Samwell red; he’d come to appreciate it, even if it wasn’t where he thought he’d be by now) over his head. It wasn’t as if this would be his first time on the ice that year – it wasn’t even his first time on the ice that week – but it was the very start of a brand-new season and Jack tried to keep his heartrate slow as he assured himself that this year would be the year they’d win.
One of the frogs was holding what was left of a pie. It wasn’t the most auspicious start that Jack could have hoped for. The other players were towering over him, finishing off the last pastry and leaving the man with his empty pie dish, while the frog looked smaller than he no doubt really was. Not that he wasn’t small anyway; he looked short even in his skates. It didn’t help that he had blond curls and huge eyes, and was looking suddenly nervous as he noticed Jack watching him.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘The uh, the boys finished off the pie already.’
The deep southern accent was a bit of a surprise as well. Of course, there was no way to predict how good someone was at hockey just by their accent, but somehow this drawl wasn’t exactly filling Jack with confidence.
He didn’t respond to the new guy’s apology, choosing instead to turn to the rest of the frogs and clear his throat, ‘Welcome to Samwell,’ he began, mostly because Shitty told him that that was a better way to begin than a lecture, ‘I’m your captain, I go by Jack. You’ve already met Shitty, he’ll but running the Haus tour and generally welcoming you all to the team. Our manager, Lardo, is in Kenya at the moment but she’ll be back later in the year. And if you need any advice, you can talk to any of the upperclassmen. The coaches will be explaining most of what you need to know, but if you have any questions, now’s a good time.’
Shitty was looking at him approvingly, so Jack took that to mean that he’d done alright at appearing “approachable” and “friendly” or however he was supposed to come across.
The frogs shuffled a little in their skates, looking too nervous to be the first to ask a question. A few silent seconds passed until Jack decided that that was that and added, ‘Well then let’s get started. And, uh…’
It took a few moments for the blond man to notice that Jack was looking at him.
Shitty cut in, ‘We’re calling him Bitty.’
Of course he’s called Bitty. ‘Right. Bitty, do you want to put the pie dish down?’
‘Oh.’ he said, ‘Right.’
At least he skated over to the benches looking natural on the ice. The pie dish was set on the away bench and he skated back in quick, fluid movements. Maybe, Jack began to think, he might have judged Bitty too quickly. Height, and baking ability, weren’t really indicators of hockey talent, and the coaches must have chosen the guy for a reason.
Five minutes later, Bitty was curled up on the ice.
With all his captaincy experience, Jack hadn’t needed Shitty’s suggestion to start with a game of shinny. It was a good way to get an overall sketch of how the new guys play and, with the world’s smallest forward getting his first taste of checking, there were two people on the ice now abjectly panicking.
Bitty was lying in the foetal position, Ransom objecting that he’d barely touched him, and Jack was watching his hopes for the season slip away already.
He didn’t know how to deal with this. But it was his job as captain and what he knew was that yelling was not going to fix anything at this moment. Later, there would probably be yelling, but for now…
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked, crouching down to talk to Bitty. For an instant his mind was filled with the thought that this frog was vulnerable, in that position, to Jack’s deathly sharp blades. But the image passed and Jack was too used to intrusive thoughts not to push on through.
‘Nothing.’ Bitty replied, peeking out at Jack even as he kept shaking.
‘Are… are you sure?’
His arms were still pulled in tight to his chest.
Deep breath. ‘It’s just that you appear to be lying in the foetal position.’
‘Oh. Right. That.’
‘Let me just…’ with some evident difficulty, Bitty forced himself to uncurl and sit upright, one side of his face flushed from proximity to the cold ice, ‘There, I’m fine.’
This, Jack knew deep in his soul, was going to become a real problem for him later.
‘Alright.’ he said, ‘You want to stand up? We should be getting to the hard work now anyway.’
Bitty was rising unsteadily to his feet and avoiding eye contact, but everyone else was grimacing at the phrase “hard work”.
It was time to see how much they were willing to push themselves, and to make it clear what Jack expected of the team. This was serious. And yeah, it was more serious for him in particular than the rest of the team as a whole, but this was still varsity level hockey. People were supposed to take it seriously.
People weren’t supposed to curl up on the ice at the first suggestion of contact.
This was turning into a particularly bad day.
Chapter 2: “But it is common to all of them to practice carnal copulation with devils”
In general, I'm trying to stick to the folklore for any supernatural stuff happening, but I have made some things up (examples include; Jack's powers, the actual process through which his life was saved, that whole thing about "somewhere that will be important to you in the future"). There are also things where the folklore isn't detailed enough for a story so I had to fill in the gaps (for instance, Jack's experience of being dead). I'll do my best to let you know when it deviates too far from the folklore, in case you're like me and are the sort of person who's interested in that stuff.
It's also worth noting that there can be different versions of the folklore, so the ones recorded here aren't necessarily universal. Jack's witchcraft could also fit under this category, since it's a very personal craft and no two witches would see or practice witchcraft in quite the same way.
Kent Parson was becoming a problem.
True, he’d always been a problem for Jack, but now he was becoming a different problem. Again. Really, Jack’s entire relationship with Parse had been a list of problems that Parse had been for Jack, moving smoothly from one to the next as Jack continuously struggled to keep his life on track.
He’d been the first person Jack had ever kissed, and at that moment the first indication that Jack’s hockey narrative could never be what the media wanted of him.
He’d been the biggest threat to Jack’s chances of being drafted first overall.
He’d been the twinge of guilt whenever he drifted into Jack’s mind, lonely in Montreal, after he thought his career had vanished.
And now Kent Parson – former best friend and part-time thorn in the side of Jack Zimmermann – was becoming a problem of a whole other magnitude. Jack was one crisis away from hiring him a full-time goddamn babysitter.
No one had a greater talent for dying that did Kent Parson. This was the third time and Jack was internally planning the lecture he was going to yell at the man the next time they met.
If there would be a next time.
He was never quite able to be sure.
It happened like this; it wasn’t yet three in the morning when the call came through. Still mostly asleep, Jack didn’t fully register it as his phone ringing. It was a noise. It woke him up. He wanted it to stop. But when the source of the noise started to make a bit more sense, Jack fumbled for his phone and tried to remember how to answer it. He already had it to his ear, blinking blearily awake in the early morning darkness, before he realised that he hadn’t checked the caller ID.
‘Hello?’ he mumbled, hoping he wasn’t taking to some international sales person.
The response came in rushed French, ‘Jacques. I didn’t want to wake you but I thought I should tell you before you saw the news.’
He sounded stressed, and Jack was still asleep enough not to immediately comprehend his words.
‘I didn’t know if this should wait ‘til morning, but…’
There was something that he was avoiding saying. The clock showed the early hour and Jack felt his stomach drop.
‘What is it?’
A miniscule pause on the other end of the line, and then, ‘I heard on the news that Kent’s been in a crash. I spoke to some people who know more about it and all they said was that it’s not… it’s not looking good.’
Kent fucking Parson. The guy who treated screwing up as some kind of hobby.
His heart was pounding hard in the silence, and the hand not clutching the phone was curled into a fist in his blanket as he asked, ‘What do you mean “not looking good”?’
A few more moments of hushed tension, then, ‘Desolé, that’s all anyone knows right now. I just thought you’d want to… do you need anything?’
Maybe this is the time it’s permanent.
‘Non, je… j’sais pas.’ just breathe. This is normal. You can cope, ‘Merci papa.’
‘I’m sure he’ll be fine.’
The call ended and Jack was left holding his phone, teeth worrying at his lower lip. There was never any way of knowing if a death was really happening, and no reason why he could save some people and not others.
Physical and emotional proximity were the usual indicators, he reminded himself, and Kent was still important to him in one way or another. Besides, the first time Jack had to save his life, the distance between them had been even further.
Or maybe Kent wasn’t even going to die this time. Maybe he’d end up paralysed or with brain damage or in pain but alive. There wasn’t anything Jack could do about that; there were no degrees of his ability. Just a vague idea of his own possible futures and crystal clear premonitions of death.
This had to be treated like a vision until proven otherwise. True, there was no way to know exactly how to prove it otherwise; once, he’d had to get through a full three months before he got to fix things, so he couldn’t ever be certain it was real without knowing the time limit.
(True, that three-month vision had been a special case, but that fact didn’t help with the uncertainty).
His laptop was in a drawer on his bedside cabinet, so it was extracted and turned on with the lights still out. It was the only thing shining in the darkness, a ghostly white glinting dimly off half-obscured objects in his room. He had news alerts set up for Kent Parson, the reckless ass, so it didn’t take long for him to find the story.
It was pouring tonight in Chicago. The sort of rain that shone in the city lights as it falls, creating reflections of the buildings in the roads. It would have been beautiful, otherwise.
The media were reporting that he had been drinking after an overtime loss. His first instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt with all Jack’s experience in media inventions. But it was Kent, and Jack may wish that he wasn’t like this, but he was.
He ended up wrapped around a streetlight. At least no one else had been involved.
Jack was shaking again. Waiting for the world to right itself. Terrified that this was real, he still tried to memorise everything he could so he could stop it happening. Like a reverse banshee; that’s what Kent had called him once.
What sort of idiot drives drunk in a thunder storm?
Only once had Jack experienced an injury that refused to kill its victim. It wasn’t even likely to kill its victim, but he found himself wishing that it would. One of the defencemen in his team in the Q, the year after being drafted, bent his leg the wrong way in a game and ended up working in a shop. Without a death, there was nothing he could do to help.
Jack spent the next hour refreshing the page, waiting for an update.
Of course, even with a death it was never clear if he could help. There had been enough times where the days following a death had resolutely refused to show themselves as unreal, that every time something happened, he wondered if this time it was permanent.
The dawn crept slowly through his curtains, silvery grey to dim blue to the first hint that there’d be sunlight soon. Not for the first time, Jack wondered whose job it was to stay up through the night to report whatever news would spread before most of the journalists began their day. There were two more calls from his father that he’d ignored.
Kent hadn’t even made it to the hospital. He’d died in the ambulance, and the Aces released the news the moment they found the most PR-friendly way to phrase it over twitter. Any moment now-
Shitty was slowly opening the bathroom door. Mercifully, he was dressed.
Jack closed his laptop and placed it to the side, ‘Come in.’
This was surreal. This was the third goddamned time.
Shitty moved forward slowly, closing the door behind him, ‘How are you feeling?’
What do you want me to say, Shits?
‘Exactly as you’d expect.’ Jack replied, which was probably a lie but Jack had no idea how Shitty expected him to feel.
‘Do you need anything?’
One thing he’d learnt since he was nineteen was that most people, when comforting others, were more concerned about not feeling awkward than with actually providing comfort. Jack didn’t really mind; he always felt awkward receiving comfort anyway.
‘Can you, uh, run practice today? I’m… yeah.’
Shitty was nodding. He and his moustache looked miserable, ‘I’m so sorry, Jack.’
It was the only thing he could think to say at that point. He wasn’t good with words at the best of times, and Kent’s death never counted as the best of times.
Shitty was opening his mouth to speak again, but to the relief of both of them, Jack’s phone rang again.
‘I’ve got to…’
And then he was left alone to answer the call, his dad’s number showing up on screen.
Still, he hadn’t moved from the spot on his bed he’d been scrolling through news articles in.
‘Jacques, I guess you’ve-’
‘I’ve heard, yeah.’
I’ve got to stop saying “yeah”. I do this every time. There are a lot of other words available.
‘Right. How are you doing? I mean, obviously not great but… how are you handling this?’
It was a complicated question.
‘I don’t know yet.’ he said, honestly.
His father was almost certainly nodding nervously on the other end of the line.
‘Do you need to talk about it?’
You’d think by now he’d know how to handle these situations, but he’d never quite worked it out.
‘I’m not… really sure what to say just yet.’
‘I understand.’ his father assured him. There was a moment when Jack rejected that claim out of hand, but in the next moment he remembered with a bolt of guilt the way his parents had looked while he was dying in that hospital room.
Kent had shown up a few hours later, red rings around his eyes. But that was years ago, and now…
He thought of Kenny’s stupid face. The terrible jokes he used to make, and the way he always used to know exactly when to move into Jack’s accustomed personal bubble to bump shoulders and somehow make him feel more comfortable. If this was real-
But if it wasn’t real, then no one would remember any of this. It didn’t matter what he’d say.
He took a deep breath, leaning his head back against his bedroom wall, ‘I just always assumed that we’d end up being friends again, eventually.’
‘There’s always a space for you back here in Montreal,’ his father assured him, ‘people won’t judge if you miss one game in the circumstances.’
‘And if they do, it doesn’t matter. Just remember that hockey doesn’t always come first.’
God, he hated this process.
‘And talk to your therapist. Please.’
This was way too much sympathy for one day. When Kent came back to life Jack was going to yell at him for so long he was going to lose his voice. And then he was going to write the rest of the lecture down. In all caps. With copious exclamation marks. Underlined.
With his stupid face and his stupid accent and his stupid colour changing eyes that defied logic and science and was a magic power, probably. This was far from the first time that Jack had reached the very edge of regretting that he’d ever met Parse, but once again he drew back. Because that boy had no chance of survival without Jack around so, he supposed, he was stuck with him one way or another.
The papers were talking about warning signs, about how hard being in the spotlight could be, about drinking problems and mental health and how the League had failed Kent Parson. Jack still hadn’t woken up.
He was mentioned by name a few more times than he would have liked. He was another warning sign too. No one on the television went so far as to blame him, even partially, but the internet had taken it upon itself to pick up that particular slack. According to the blogs, Jack was some sort of Typhoid Mary of alcoholism and reckless behaviour.
Every time he wore this black suit he had to unpick the stitching from the pockets and the vents. Maybe he should take the time to get this done in a situation that didn’t follow another death, but it had become a superstition. Every time he wore the suit was the first time, but only because he’d managed to save the four people whose funerals he’d attended.
One day – not this time, he told himself, but one day – the stitches were going to stay unpicked and the person was going to stay dead.
For the second time, the Las Vegas sun was scorching through the black fabric as he made his way into the church. The contrast was enough that inside seemed grimly dark until his eyes managed to adjust. There had been an open casket last time, but this time Jack guessed that there hadn’t been much the undertakers could do after the wreck to make Parse look pretty again.
There was no new information in the news. Jack had memorised every detail he could. And any moment now he was going to wake up, and he was going to do his reverse banshee trick, and he could forget the image of Kent’s teammates carrying his coffin in.
God Kent was an idiot. A complete and utter moron and, yeah, Jack should be better at preventing stuff like this instead of undoing it because the media weren’t wrong about the goddamned warning signs.
But if he took any longer to wake up, Jack was going to have to hug him after he finished yelling.
Back at Samwell after the funeral, Bittle was being irritatingly nice to him. How the Haus had acquired an enthusiastic southern baker Jack still didn’t quite understand. But there were a lot of freshly-baked maple sugar crusted apple pies appearing in his general vicinity whenever he ventured downstairs, and all his friendly conversations were forced but well-intentioned.
If Jack ate more pie than his diet allowed, it was because none of this was real.
None of this was real
None of this
That was the evening that Jack had his first anxiety attack in nearly a year.
Two days later he was finally crying. He’d long ago mastered crying quietly, but it had hit so suddenly and with such force that he still had his back against the closed door of his room. There was no way he was going to be able to go back downstairs; even without a mirror he knew the familiar red blotches on his pale skin. The way his wet eyelashes would be clumping together. He’d been sitting on the floor for so long that there were pink indents on his palms from the carpet.
That was over now. Even the trembling had stopped. Mostly he felt sort of blank, a little cold, with his breathing evening out. Time had kept marching resolutely forward and then
He didn’t even blink. When the world reset he was finishing off a sentence, chatting idly with Lardo. There was never a big jolt like in the movies, just a few moments of normality and then a realisation of what had happened. After that it was just relief. It had all been another of his visions but this one had taken its goddamned time.
‘Spacing out a bit there, dude.’
Lardo was raising her eyebrows at him, but she was used to Jack acting weird and never seemed to mind, so this didn’t really matter all that much.
‘Sorry, I just remembered I have to make a phone call.’
He left her in the living room and settled behind the relative safety of his own door. The clock said that Kent would be too busy with the game very shortly, so Jack didn’t exactly have time for a full plan.
Those were the worse.
The first time he called, Kent didn’t pick up. The second time around the same thing happened. Third time, and Jack was mostly trying again so when he left a voicemail Kent would at least be able to see that it was urgent, he finally got through.
There wasn’t a hello. What there was was, ‘Zimms, I’d assume you’re buttdialling me but I didn’t realise you still had my number on your phone. Are you filing a lawsuit against me?’
‘No? Why would I be-’
‘Am I your phone-a-friend on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, because I’m a terrible choice.’
‘Parse, can you just-’
‘Are you phoning me to help establish an alibi for a crime?’
‘What are you doing?’
He’d always ended up tangled in whatever conversation Kent decided to weave, but today it was ridiculous how much it was just a relief to hear his voice.
‘I’m trying to work out why the heck you’d be calling me, since you haven’t willingly spoken to me since before I could legally drink.’
It was a cut, but it was one that Jack probably deserved.
‘Yeah, about the drinking… wait did you- did you just say “heck”?’
‘There are journalists around, now get to the point before I hang up.’
Warily, Jack tried to talk quietly enough that none of the journalists would be able to hear what he was saying, ‘Um…’ you better think of something really quick, ‘…I know your roadie’s nearly over. This is the last game. And you’re in the north, even though it’s Chicago, which admittedly is pretty far away…’ something you should have thought of before you started the sentence, ‘I was wondering if you wanted to… visit?’
There was an uncomfortably long pause.
‘Is this a ploy? Are you trying to kidnap me? Do you have a bottle of Amontillado in your basement you want me to taste?’
There was a special kind of confusion that came with talking to Kent.
‘I… don’t know what that last one means but… maybe I just want to see you?’
This was a pretty flimsy cover. Jack was starting to think that he should make contingency plans for things like this just so he didn’t have to think on his feet whenever his psychic goddamn powers decided to make him a little short on time.
Kent didn’t sound particularly impressed when he responded, ‘You’re full of shit, Zimms, and I’m about to hang up.’
Silence. Then, ‘You have thirty seconds. Why are you really calling me?’
One day Jack might actually be a good liar and he could have pulled this off. But today he resigned himself to saying, ‘Because of your apparent death wish.’
Old-fashion pleading it was, then.
‘Please come over to Samwell after the game. Please just don’t drink, or get in your car, or do this whole thing again because it doesn’t end well for you and I’d rather not sit through the same funeral twice.’
Another long pause, and Jack realised that he had absolutely no idea how Kent would respond.
When the answer did come, it was in a voice that Jack recognised as the one he used when he was shutting out whatever was hurting him, ‘Right. That’s why you’re calling, I probably should have worked that out.’
Priorities, he reminded himself, before adding, ‘I can’t make you come to Samwell, just don’t drink tonight. We’ve been through this before, you know I’m telling the truth.’
It didn’t sound very convincing.
‘Parse, you know what’s going to happen now. If you choose not to change it then your death won’t have been an accident.’
Kent had a promise to keep. This, Jack could only hope, was enough to make him less reckless for one night.
‘Fine.’ he said, coolly, ‘Now is there anything else you want? It’s just that I actually have a real hockey game to play so I can’t stop and chat.’
That was a little below the belt. Jack was tempted to remind his erstwhile friend that the reason he wasn’t playing “real” hockey was the same reason he was able to save Kent’s life three times over.
Every so often Jack got a spark of inspiration to be the bigger person, ‘You’re still welcome to come to Samwell after-’
The line went dead. Not that this was the first time that Kent had hung up on him in the time they’d known each other.
Well, he’d done his job. Kent may be reckless, but he wasn’t suicidal. He’d survive the night okay and Jack wouldn’t have to unpick the stitches from his suit for a while yet. But what a stressful hobby this was, if hobby was really the right word. He stretched his legs out and tried to relax a little after the awful week-that-didn’t-happen he’d just lived through. Not a hobby, really, a duty. In the same way that Kent’s death would change from misadventure to suicide once he knew it was coming, Jack’s foresight changed other people’s deaths to manslaughter at the very least.
Next he rolled his shoulders back, pressing his palms into the flesh below the back of his neck and dragging them forward, hoping to work out even a little of his tension. At least the autumn had been a warm one; the herbs lining his windowsill were still flourishing in the lingering warmth of the past season. Much of the harvest was still hanging from hooks, drying in the fragrant air. It was nice, in a way. Relaxing. And there was enough dried lemon balm for Jack to make tea tonight to help him get to sleep.
He’d been doing this sort of work since his early teenaged years, getting more practiced and finding it more calming as he learnt. It was a quieter sort of magic than the one that had been inflicted upon him all those years ago, in what he later realised had been Faber.
(He hadn’t even bothered to see the rink before he signed up. His decision had already been made and now he was there, stepping onto the ice for the first time and meeting his new team.
There was a wide window at one end, sunlight slanting in against the seating. It was so different from the shadows over glittering ice that he recalled from the last time he was here that he almost didn’t recognise it.
But then the penny dropped, and Jack realised that this really had been, after all, somewhere that would be important to him.)
Jack nearly jumped, which would have been undignified. He had been filling the kettle with water before he even noticed that someone else was there.
‘Bittle. Good evening.’
‘Gosh are you making tea? My grandma drinks tea like that as well – loose leaf or whatever it is – she says its better like that but I don’t understand the difference.’
Well, this sort of work was usually calming. Having nothing to say in response, he set a mug down and began shuffling around in the drawer.
Bittle continued, ‘What’s this tea made of? There looks like there’s little flowers in there, that’s so cute. Is it one of those fancy green teas that everyone drinks these days? I’m a coffee person myself, I need caffeine to get anything done-’
‘Have you seen the tea strainer?’ Jack interrupted, only remembering that he shouldn’t be rude in time to internally chastise himself.
But the frog didn’t seem to notice how impolite the question was, preferring to shrug cheerfully and say, ‘I wouldn’t know what one looked like.’
Why was he even here? He didn’t live here, and there were student kitchens he could use, surely? It wasn’t that Jack minded, per se, but he was starting to wonder how Bittle always managed to find his way in without a key or an invite.
‘It’s… like a tiny sieve?’
‘Oh!’ Bittle lifted the tea strainer from the bench behind him and waved it for Jack to inspect, dusting the floor with specks of fine white flour as he did so, ‘I was using it to make pastry, it’s so useful for making the flour all nice and even on the bench for rolling it out, but I didn’t know what it was for I’m sorry. I’m sure the flour will wash out.’
‘Thanks.’ Jack said as he took it, because thanking Bittle was still the polite thing to do even though Bittle had been the one to cause the problem in the first place.
‘So what’s in the tea?’ he continued, although for the first time he seemed to notice that Jack wasn’t exactly engaging in the conversation, ‘If you don’t- if you don’t mind me asking?’
A witch, Jack reminded himself, is always willing to share knowledge. He’d chosen this path for himself back before he had any proof that magic was actually real, back when it was just faith, and he’d stuck to it long enough that he couldn’t deny a request for information like this.
‘The flowers are chamomile.’ Jack said.
‘Oh, for sleep.’
‘That’s what the tea’s for,’ he confirmed, ‘but, contrary to popular belief, chamomile is actually best for stomach aches. I’ve never been sure why companies sell chamomile tea when lemon balm works better, tastes better, smells better, and is easier to grow. That’s what most of the leaves are, by the way. It’s actually harder to stop lemon balm growing, it’s a type of mint so you’ve either got to keep it in a pot or just let it take over your garden.’
That had been more words than he’d said to Bittle since they’d met, excluding those times he’d yelled at him in practice.
‘Can I smell?’ he asked, still looking uncertain.
‘Sure. The other herb in there is rosemary. The lemon balm predictably smells like lemon, although to be honest fresh lemon balm smells more like strong citrus cleaner, and the chamomile smells like apple. That’s actually the main reason I grow it, it makes my room smell much better than the rest of the Haus. When I buy my own house I’m digging up the front lawn and replacing it with lawn chamomile, because it has the same effect but it’s easier to maintain and smells like apples when you walk on it.’
This was rambling. But he had a lot of information to provide and, besides, Bittle was listening with even wider eyes that usual.
‘You grow this?’
‘Yep. Well, not the rosemary. It grows far too big for a windowsill so I dry lots back home for college.’
If Bittle let him speak any longer, this would be info-dumping. It was a habit that Jack had tried to avoid because apparently this was another thing that was supposedly rude.
Except there were more questions.
‘What’s the rosemary for in the tea?’
The kettle had boiled, and the flour had been cleaned off the tea-strainer, so Jack made sure to demonstrate how it was sat on the rim of the mug with a scoop of tea leaves inside, and the boiled water poured over it until the herbs were submerged, ‘Well, rosemary supposedly prevents nightmares,’ – he’d learnt to put the word “supposedly” in so people wouldn’t think he was weird – ‘along with a lot of other’ – he managed not to cringe on the next word – ‘superstitions. But the main reasons I use it is that I’ve got more of it than the other herbs and it makes a nice tea. The lemon balm is doing most of the work here. It’s good for sleep and stress.’
This was being a good captain, right? Not making one of the frogs actually think Jack hated him. It was certainly being a good witch, so that was probably something.
‘Is that a superstition too?’
The question wasn’t supposed to grate as much as it did. Absentmindedly, Jack hooked a finger around the silver chain he was wearing, but he didn’t pull the pendant out to show Bittle, and satisfied himself with saying, ‘Nope. A lot of herbs actually do the stuff they were originally used for. Scientists keep “discovering” these properties and writing papers about them, and there’s currently a suggestion that there might be something in lemon balm that could help people sleep.’
‘It’s all very exciting and new,’ Jack added, letting one corner of his mouth twitch up, ‘And to think all those primitive types centuries ago believed there were special calming properties in lemon balm, when scientists now think that there could be calming properties in lemon balm. Human knowledge has come so far.’
Despite what most people believed, Jack could manage sarcasm on occasion.
His tea should be finished by now, so he lifted out the tea strainer and located his hidden pot of honey.
‘My grandma uses herbs in her baking.’ Bittle was telling him, as Jack slowly stirred, ‘You can’t really taste the difference but she says it makes the food better. I was wondering, um,’ – Jack actually looked up at that, wondering what on Earth could make Bittle sound nervous – ‘I mean, if you have any extra. I don’t want to impose.’
Jack tried to arrange his face into an expression that people would interpret as encouraging, ‘What do you need?’
‘Oh. Gosh, only if it’s no trouble of course. She uses mint a lot?’
‘Easy. Common mint or…?’
‘Oh I don’t know the different kinds, I’ll have to look in the recipe books. Um. Something called dill?’ interesting herb for baking, but alright, ‘And some flowers sometimes, though I suppose-’
‘I’ve got violets, lavender, and pansies. Roses also grow too big, unfortunately. I don’t have much dill, if you want it fresh, but I’ve got dry stuff and the seeds.’
‘Oh. Wow. Thanks, I- I didn’t know you could eat pansies? I’ll have to have a look at the recipe books, but thank you so much.’
‘No problem.’ Jack said, thinking privately that any opportunity to talk about his interests was more a favour to him than an imposition.
‘Enjoy your tea.’ Bittle said.
‘You too.’ shit, ‘I mean. Enjoy baking.’ don't blush don’t blush don’t blush just try to leave the room without tripping over.
He was going to cringe about that to himself for the next month, minimum, but at least he had lemon balm to sooth his anxiety.
The dill on his windowsill was in flower, meaning he had one harvest left for the year. The stalks were still tall and proud, with the feathery leaves lending their scent to his fingers as he examined them. But soon the seeds would be ready to collect and the plants would wither. To the side, Jack plucked the young flowers from the basil to keep those plants from the same fate for just a while longer. There were very few seasonal plants in his room at Samwell, most being cared for back home where he spent his summers.
Somewhere, away to the east, Kent was losing in overtime to the Blackhawks. Jack extracted the iron pendant from under his shirt and traced the pentagram shape with his finger, wishing Kent had the same to keep him safe.
Chapter 3: “Peter asked one of the witches in what manner she ate children”
Okay, so half-wraiths aren't a thing in the folklore. Basically what happened is that I had this original story a while ago that was set in a paranormal type world so I just happened to have the universe all built already when this story popped into my mind so. Ah well.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He slept well that night, with the tea in his system and an amethyst under his pillow. By the time he woke – to his alarm instead of an urgent call – the world outside his curtains was already light. Still, he checked his phone just in case.
No messages. No news.
You’re welcome, Kenny.
The amethyst was slipped back into its little spot behind the curtain, finishing the square formed by the four little stones. A different one would be used the next night; stones that were charged by moonlight were inconvenient ones to aid with sleep.
This was fine. He’d be able to pay attention in his lectures much better than he had the first time he’d lived through this day. And he could get assignments done. And readings. And there was no reason to suggest that practice would go any less than smoothly. Today was a great day for keeping his head down.
Never in his life had Jack ever experienced a day so conclusively derailed by pancakes.
His first clue was Ransom, still in his dressing-gown, staring into the kitchen with the expression that Jack had often seen on his father’s face as he kept a vigil of a spider that was threatening to hide before his mother could trap it.
His second clue was Kent Parson, captain of the Las Vegas Aces, standing nonchalantly in the kitchen.
‘Mornin’.’ said Kent, looking over his shoulder with a smile.
Well, alright then.
‘Good morning.’ Jack replied, ignoring Shitty’s significant glances and Bittle’s (and why was he here?) scowl, ‘Are you um. Making pancakes?’
‘Yes.’ Bittle confirmed, sounding none-too-pleased about it, ‘He is.’
‘Okay.’ this, clearly, was Jack’s responsibility. Though he wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with it, ‘What type?’
In the silence that followed, Kent flipped a pancake.
‘Why are you here?’ Jack asked, before he could help himself.
Kent used the time to set the pancake on the plate to shoot him A Look, ‘You invited me. I showed up.’
You’re an idiot, Jack. Why do you ever open your mouth?
‘I meant Bittle?’ Jack said, as a way to cover it up, and turned to face the frog in question, ‘You don’t… live here…’
‘Well excuse me for wanting to keep y’all fed.’ and then, in an even grumpier voice, ‘I was going to make pancakes.’
‘Oh.’ Jack replied, ‘Well. We appreciate the thought.’
Bittle was still scowling, but it wasn’t quite so harsh now.
It was, quite possibly, the single most awkward breakfast Jack had ever had to suffer through. Maybe it was Kent politely apologising for having to break in, with the excuse that he didn’t want to wake Jack up. Or maybe it was the fact that Bittle blatantly had no idea who Kent was, except as the person who took his pancake-making job. Or maybe it was the point when Ransom finally gave up and asked for his autograph while Holster nodded ardently.
Jack focussed on eating his pancakes and avoiding eye contact. It wasn’t until he was halfway through that he realised that Kent must have brought blueberries with him in order to be able to make this meal.
Eventually, the plates were all cleared away, and Kent’s offers to clean up were waved off by Bittle in either a show of hospitality or passive-aggression. Either way, Jack was now clear to suggest that the two of them maybe take a walk.
They left in companionable silence, closing the door and strolling out into the autumn sunlight. As they passed the front gate, Kent asked, ‘So, how far away are you planning on getting before you start yelling?’
‘A little further yet. I was thinking two main sections of arguing with a coffee break between.’
‘Good plan. That way we won’t lose focus toward the end of the argument.’
Jack gave it until the end of the street.
‘Alright, good enough. Now what the fuck were you thinking?’
His voice was still low enough that the whole street wouldn’t hear; the tone, rather than the volume, was displaying his anger.
‘I don’t know!’ Kent protested, ‘It didn’t happen for me! For all I know you could have made the whole thing up as an excuse to yell at me!’
‘You were driving a vintage Mustang, is that proof enough? Also, side note: you were only spending a night in Chicago why the hell did you rent a vintage Mustang?’
Kent glared at him in defiance, ‘It’s a nice car.’
‘It ended up wrapped around a streetlight.’
‘Well then thank god you were here to save it! I’ll tell the owner what happened so she can send you a fruit basket, is that what you want? Or shall I see if Hallmark has a card that says “thank you for saving my life again”? Or do you just want me to declare that I’ll spend my life in service to you for the honour of being rescued, like they do in the movies? I would start a slow clap in your name but I can’t be sure anyone would join in.’
There was a reasonable chance that Kent had pre-prepared at least half of what he was saying.
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’
‘You. And your whole “duty” thing. I don’t know if you think I’m supposed to be grateful to you, but we both know you were acting for selfish reasons and I’m not willing to pretend otherwise.’
‘I’m not the one who got themself killed drunk driving! You want to talk about selfish? I could have not known it was going to happen! You could have hurt someone else!’
He could tell by the way his jaw was set that this wasn’t going to be an easy argument to end.
‘And that would have had nothing to do with you.’ Kent replied, swapping rage for ice, ‘You only call me when you’re worried about your conscience. You don’t care whether or not I die, you just don’t want to be responsible for it.’
The coffee shop wasn’t far enough away to really unpack what the hell Kent meant by that, so Jack confined himself to saying, ‘That’s not true, you asshole. It took a week for me to wake up this time! I spent a full fucking week wondering if I was actually going to wake up this time! I went to your funeral! Again! What, do you want me to beg for our friendship back the moment I see your smug face again? Are you being a reckless asshole as a trick to make me do whatever the hell you want?’
‘Of course not-’
‘Then don’t expect me to turn into goddamned Heathcliff every time you do something stupid!’
There followed a lull in the argument. Annie’s wasn’t far away and they’d have to pretend to be cordial to each other when they were ordering.
‘Wasn’t it Kathy who-’
‘Parse I have never read Wuthering Heights.’
‘Okay. Fine. You brought it up.’
They entered Annie’s in a stormy silence, Kent stretching his open hoodie down by his fists shoved into his pockets. It took all of three seconds for someone to recognise him.
‘Oh my gosh!’ she said, arriving so fast that is seemed as though she’d teleported, ‘Can you, um, sigh this?’
She had long, straight hair that swayed fluidly in a way that seemed wildly out of proportion with the slight movements causing it. For a moment, Jack was diverted wondering if it was an intentional trick she had developed over the years.
‘I’m going to… order my coffee…’
‘Can you order mine?’
Because he was in that kind of mood, Jack rolled his eyes, ‘What you drink is not coffee. It’s whatever weird syrupy stuff is on the specials menu.’
‘Well then you know my order.’
At this point it was easier to just not protest. So, feeling a little like a parent of a toddler who was never going to grow out of tantrums, Jack ordered filter coffee for himself and pumpkin spice whatever for Kent. By the time he’d paid, there were three other people asking for Kent’s autograph. This wasn’t even a huge hockey school, as ESPN had pointed out time and again whenever Jack had the misfortune to be brought up in their prolific but indistinguishable shows.
‘Chin up, Jack, don’t look so grumpy. You know it’s only because they’re used to you.’
There it was, that stupid half-smile he put on his stupid face when he was challenging Jack to a competition. Usually, the competition was something that Kent was much better at. He didn’t have a clever come back, so he settled for rolling his eyes again. In case Kent missed it last time.
Predictably, he wasn’t finished, ‘Aw come on Zimms, it’s just a bit of chirping.’ – here he paused to put a winning smile on his face for a selfie – ‘This is a college. I thought smart people were all about cutting wit.’
Talking to Kent was like talking to a generic James Bond knock-off written by a jaded action movie producer who only had a job by virtue of being white and male. Just a long train of smart-ass comments and not enough character development.
‘Yeah, you’re a regular Oscar Wilde.’
It wasn’t until Jack registered the satisfaction on Kent’s face that it dawned on him that he was now playing along. Either that, or Kent was just thinking about what else he and Oscar Wilde had in common. There was a joke there; not one that either could say out loud in public, but Kent quirked an eyebrow and let Jack know that he was thinking it.
Thank god for Annie’s quick service. Kent was attracting exactly the amount of attention he always did, and an uncomfortable amount of it was being reflected back his way with every pointless comment. It was a relief to have the coffees in his hands.
‘See?’ Kent was saying, ‘You are learning things at college, you’re making literary references and everything.’
Out of instinct, Jack wondered how many people in the café were now filming and/or tweeting.
‘Anyone else wanting something for reference if they ever need to forge your signature, or can we go?’
‘Yeah, hang on.’ – another selfie – ‘Any other novelists you want to use to insult me, while we’ve got the time? Sam Coleridge? That posh guy, Frost? Whoever wrote Malleus Maleficarium? I promise I’ll pretend not to be a dumb jock so you won’t have to explain all your brainy jokes.’
Technically, none of those people were novelists. What was infuriating was that Jack couldn’t tell if Kent knew that, or if he was completely oblivious.
‘Take your damn coffee.’
‘Okay, okay. I hope the caffeine cheers you up. It was an honest question.’
Kent Parson was a 5’10” migraine with blond hair.
At least the small crowd seemed mostly to be satisfied by now, dispersing enough that the two had a bit more privacy, ‘Fine. If you’re anyone, you’re Zelda Fitzgerald. You’re a drama queen.’
‘You’re… you’re the manic pixie dream girl of the NHL.’
‘Yeah well at least I’m in the NHL.’
Below the belt there, Parse.
Jack held out Kent’s pumpkin spiced mess with a glare and said, ‘Either drink the coffee or wear it.’
Finally, Kent took the cup.
‘Now hurry up,’ Jack added, leading the way out of the café, ‘Or I’ll sic the Samwell geese on you.’
They weren’t going straight back to the Haus this time. Jack lead the way in disgruntled silence towards Faber, with Kent grumbling next to him.
‘You realise the only reason we argue every time we talk is because you only ever talk to me when I’m dying, right? And I get it, you’re mad at me for being reckless or whatever. It’s a bit rich coming from you of all people, but I do actually understand. Maybe if you spent a little less time pretending I don’t exist, I might take your calls with a little more grace.’
Jack didn’t answer. Instead he focussed on drinking his coffee and trying not to shudder or make a face. It was strong and bitter and unpalatable, like alcohol, and he’d gotten used to it but he’d be lying if he said that he actually enjoyed it.
‘I miss you.’ Kent admitted, addressing the comment more to the stone he was kicking along the pavement than to Jack.
It was a surprisingly quiet day for this early in the year. There shouldn’t be that much time dedicated to studying in tense corners of the library, but very few people seemed to be wandering through the dying leaves.
‘You always say that.’
Then let me see you more often, Jesus. You’re in college, not exile.’
He’d already finished his coffee, throwing the cup in a bin as they passed. Jack followed suit with what was left of his cooling drink.
‘What? You haven’t made any friends in Las Vegas?’
Kent folded his arms tight across his chest, still looking dead ahead, ‘Nice, Zimms. Real classy. I can’t tell if you’re jealous or clueless but either way you’re being a dick. Has the thought ever popped into your thick head that I want to keep in touch with you, not because I’m lonely, but because I actually care about you?’
Jack suspected the truth was somewhere in between.
‘Not really.’ he snapped, ‘In all honestly I’m not sure you care about anything very much. What sort of person drives a car while drunk in the middle of a goddamn storm? What the hell is wrong with you?’
They were getting close to Faber now, but Kent hadn’t been there enough to be able to recognise the building.
‘What’s wrong with me? Sure, I fucked up, but at least I’m living my life! It’s easy to be responsible if all you do is work on your assignments and shut out the whole fucking world! I don’t know what you expect from me.’
Fuck it, Jack was minutes away from giving in and emailing him a bullet point list. Something that he could refer to over and over and not misremember next time they were having an argument.
‘To have some common sense?’ he suggested, ‘A little self-preservation? A therapist? A goddamned babysitter? Christ, Parse, you’re a living, breathing train wreck. How messed up does your life need to be that you need me to look out for you? Me? The guy who accidently killed himself with the meds he needed to try and make him less of a disaster. The guy who can’t talk to strangers without a script. The guy with four different anxiety disorders, and the executive function of a goldfish. I’m your model of responsibility and getting your life together?’
Once, Jack had thought that they’d have heart-to-hearts in hushed tones over the phone, late at night when tiredness condenses into honesty and they could help each other deal with whatever problems were arising. It was a romantic image, in more ways than one, but it had happened only once. These days their long pilgrimages to some sort of emotional maturity were mostly expressed through fighting. It was a weird sort of status quo, but in a way it felt truer than when they’d thought they were close but never really opened up. Those days Kent had never understood what was happening with Jack, and Jack played it all too close to his chest to really explain it. Now, he was wondering how little he’d understood about Kent at the time.
Or how little Kent understood about himself; he wasn’t speaking now, and Jack suspected that he’d hit some sort of nerve that neither of them realised was there. But eventually, in a quieter voice, Kent replied. ‘Doesn’t trying to make amends count as getting my life together?’
They’d stopped walking, alone at the corner of Faber. There was a sense that this argument ought to be quelled a little more before they stepped inside.
‘That’s what you’re doing? This is what you think “making amends” looks like?’
‘I’m trying. And Jesus, it’s not like I planned to crash that car. If anything, this is progress. It was a simple mistake.’
‘A simple mistake.’ Jack repeated, half incredulous, half cold.
‘For god’s sake, it’s not a big deal. Why are you looking at me like that?’
It was probably a good thing Kent didn’t go to college, given that he apparently needed to learn a lesson a thousand fucking times for it to even start sinking in. ‘You’re! A! Fucking! Idiot!’ Jack told him, emphasising each word with a minor punch to his arm.
‘Ow! Would you stop hitting me? I need these arms for hockey!’
‘Only! If! You’re! Still! Alive! To! Play!’ here he threw his hands up in defeat, ‘It could have been permanent! Or I could have been trapped in that vision for months, thinking you were dead! You could have not answered your phone, you could have hurt someone else, you could have tried to stop it from happening but failed! You could have injured yourself-’
‘No. You died. What would have happened if you ended up with brain damage? Or severely burnt? Or, I don’t know, paralysed? Anything? Bye bye hockey career, and there’s nothing I could have done for you. I don’t know if you’re so reckless because you know I can save you, or because that’s just who you are, but either way could you just realise how serious this is for once in your goddamn life?’
‘Okay okay.’ Kent said, cutting in before Jack could think of anything else to yell at him, ‘I was an idiot, you’re right. Though in my defence, I’m always an idiot.’
He wasn’t wrong.
‘Kenneth Parson in what universe is that a defence?’
Kent just shrugged half-heartedly, and they both wordlessly acknowledged that they’d said everything they’d wanted to and it was time to walk inside. As Jack tugged open the door, Kent added, ‘You know my name’s not actual-’
‘I don’t care. Next time you die I’m putting Kenneth on your gravestone in revenge.’
No one had booked Faber this morning; something Jack, as team captain, was well aware of and had to be talked out of taking advantage of by Shitty. Why he insisted the team have fewer practices than Jack would like, he had no idea.
They skipped most of the other rooms – the area that Kent used to refer to as “backstage” in the Q – in part because Kent already got the gist of hockey locker rooms, and in no small measure because he didn’t want to remind him how different playing for Samwell Men’s Hockey was to playing for the Las Vegas Aces.
‘Here’s the rink.’ he said instead, opening the door to Faber proper, where the autumn daylight filled the room and glittered off the fresh ice.
‘Yeah, I recognise it. I do, actually, watch your games on TV. Why are we here?’
They walked around until they were right at the edge of the ice, over by the benches where they could lean on the boards and not have the glass in the way.
‘Remember how I told you about the ice rink, back when I called you from rehab and you wanted to know how I knew what was going to happen?’
That was the first time Kent had died. The memory would no doubt stay with both of them for a while yet.
‘What about it?’
‘This is it.’ he told him, ‘The witch told me that it could be somewhere that would be important to me later, and I guess he was right. He was skating over there.’ Jack pointed to the spot where he’d first met the witch – Eric, his name had been – and explained the predicament he was in.
‘Is this your way of telling me that you like being in the NCAA? Because you’ve already made it pretty clear that you want me to back off.’
‘Yes and no. It’s also because I found out a bit more about what had happened later on. I ran into another witch a few years back. Which was. Interesting.’
‘They teach you much about your craft?’
Kent almost, but not quite, managed to say craft without the overt disbelief that most non-witches put into the word.
‘Unfortunately.’ Jack confirmed, ‘People keep doing that. It’s like “oh, you’re psychic? Here’s the Encyclopaedia Britannica of Things You Didn’t Want To Know Are Real”. They think they’re being helpful, like I wasn’t already freaking out about this sort of stuff.’
With no small measure of confusion, Kent replied, ‘But… you’re a witch?’
‘So? Half the people in this country are Christians, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to look twice if they run into an angel in the supermarket or something. There’s my sort of witchcraft, with herbs and gems and stuff, and then there’s…’ he waved his hand vaguely, in a way he hoped encompassed the entire concept of the supernatural and of other worlds.
‘Anyway. So, against my will, I learnt that I had been something called a “half-wraith”, which basically means that I wasn’t finished, I guess. Normally half-wraiths are doomed to spend eternity exploring the worlds and longing for the life that was ended too soon. They’re miserable little bastards. They’re, like, the victims of morality stories about not knowing what you have until it’s gone.’
‘So, it’s with a fair bit of experience that I am able to tell you, with all the authority of a paranormal being, and standing in the place I ended up when I was dead,’ here he put a hand on each of Kent’s shoulders and shook him gently to underline the point, ‘you really don’t want to die.’
He gave Kent a few seconds to really let it sink in before releasing him.
‘Yeah, I get it, that was… a hell of a pep talk.’
‘You’re welcome. When do you have to be back in Vegas?’
‘I’ve got a flight this afternoon. And don’t worry, I’m pretty sure the plane won’t crash or something.’
The walk back to the Haus was calmer than the rest of it, though no more was said on exactly where they stood with each other. Eventually, Jack figured, it was a problem that could sort itself out.
Up next: Jack doesn't know how to deal with the tiny southern freshman. And also life in general.
Chapter 4: “claims that she uttered those words not with the implied intention but in a vehement and womanish passion”
The second time he met Officer Erangi was slightly more awkward.
‘I was going for a run.’ Jack began, before Erangi had even sat down, ‘I, um, do that a lot.’
‘You were going for a run?’
‘At two in the morning?’
Really, Jack reflected, he should start planning his excuses in advance.
‘I… was having difficulty sleeping.’
Erangi eyed him suspiciously, arranging his papers in front of him, ‘Right.’
‘Yeah, that’s, really all there is. I saw this guy trying to set a house on fire, and-’
‘How could you see?’
‘How could you see that he was trying to set the house on fire? It was some way from any streetlights.’
For once, Jack actually had an answer to this that was true, ‘Well, I could see by the fire he was lighting. He had some matches and what looked like paper, I’m not really sure.’
Erangi nodded, prompting him forward.
‘So I confronted him, and he ran away, and I called the police.’
There was a long silence, filled only with the scratching of the officer’s pen against the paper as he wrote some notes that Jack couldn’t begin to guess at. Eventually, and with a tone of polite curiosity, Erangi said, ‘Do you make a habit of this?’
‘Of… running?’ Jack asked, ‘I’m a hockey player.’
‘Yeah, you mentioned. Never mind.’
Personally, Jack thought that Johnson didn’t have any excuse to be this weird. It wasn’t as if he was the only person who was psychic in the Haus, and Jack wasn’t even sure if he was psychic or if he just acted like it. Sometimes he wondered if they ever shared visions, since Johnson seemed to know more about other people than himself. Did he know when Jack saved someone’s life? Did he get those memories-that-haven’t-happened-yet, like sunlight on the blue house or the weird lonely feeling of sitting alone in an apartment while the rain poured outside? There were other places, too, places that he could well call home one day (and didn’t the Haus seem so familiar the first time he saw it?).
True, Jack was also weird, but that wasn’t because he was psychic. He was weird because the concept of “weird” was defined by allistics. If autistic people got to define the word, then Jack would be able to ask why they put time limits on talking about passions, and why they don’t like sticking their hands in containers of dry rice.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was that no one in the Haus seemed to mind that Johnson was weird.
What an interesting situation.
Jack knew for a fact that the weirdness occurred. The other members of the team also acknowledged its existence. Johnson was an archetype – if an archetype of this sort was even possible – of the category of weird.
If Jack were of a scientific bent, which he very much was not, he’d want to see if the data could be repeated. Instead, his area of study was the humanities. He’d learnt that the entirety of history was merely the cumulative decisions of individual humans in how they’d interact with each other and with the natural environment. From a humanities perspective, Jack, an individual human, was interested in how his interactions with other individual humans would change depending on his own decisions about interaction.
All this is to say that Jack wanted to know how weird he could be around his friends.
‘You okay there, Jack? Do you need anything?’
Bittle was looking over at him, the picture of openness, and Jack realised he’d been staring out the window for a few minutes now.
‘I wanted to know if you needed some herbs for this recipe.’ he invented, mostly because he suspected that growing herbs was one of his weird traits and it seemed a reasonably safe place to start.
‘Oh, um. I’ll check.’ Bittle replied, throwing Jack a smile as he moved over to his formidable stack of recipe books, ‘I don’t use the recipe much these days, I’ve been baking this since I was a toddler. But this is where grandma used to write in all her little additions. She gave me these books when I left for college, you know, said I had a “gift”. I think some of my cousins were a little annoyed, I’m not exactly the best baker in my family and Grandma’s books are prized. I was mostly just surprised and… here it is.’
Jack had sat patiently in wait while Bittle rambled. It seemed a fair exchange; if he wanted the right to be weird, he should be accepting of unusual traits in others.
The open book was slid across the bench in his direction, and he scanned the old biro scrawls in the margin. Most of it was writing. One…
‘What’s that?’ he asked, tapping his figure lightly against the page.
‘Oh? I don’t really know. It’s just a picture. Grandma always says the pie will taste better if you draw that in the pastry before you put the filling in. There are different ones for different recipes. I still do it, because I believe her even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense.’
It was a sigil, that much was obvious. What it was for Jack couldn’t possibly guess; there were some that were in common use and thousands more that were invented as needed and very rarely spread around. He scanned the other notes. The person who had added them had listed herbs to include, specific orders to place the ingredients in, even words to say while stirring. Bittle had just handed him a book of shadows.
‘Some of this would taste strange in a desert.’
‘Oh, you don’t add much. You shouldn’t be able to taste it in the mix. Just enough for it to work its magic, my grandma used to say. I don’t know if you’ll have these though, some of them are difficult to find. It’s why I don’t often follow her instructions. There’s one in another book that calls for something called “dittany of Crete”. I don’t think you can get that in a supermarket.’
‘Grows in Greece. But I think you can buy seeds online. This one needs sage, uh, burnet and… yarrow, is that right?’
‘It’s what it says.’ Bittle replied, with a shrug, ‘At least this one is easy, there were some that she said I could make when I was older, but she never got around to teaching me. I just avoid them now… like…’ he was flipping through the pages, ‘…this one.’
It was a perfectly ordinary recipe for shortbread, but next to the title read the note “for making amends”. It didn’t seem to make much sense why Bittle shouldn’t be allowed to make it, until he scanned the notes and frowned, reading aloud, ‘Herb-of-grace.’
‘I’m still not sure what that means.’
It means that it shouldn’t be in shortbread.
‘It’s a, uh, an old term for rue. It’s poisonous. I mean, not seriously so, people used to eat it just… in small quantities. Also arrowheads and flints of pistols’ – people don’t care about this, Jack reminded himself – ‘used to be dipped in its oil because it was supposed to make them more accurate. I usually keep a bit of dried rue under the tape on my hockey stick.’
Well, he’d certainly succeeded in being weird.
‘Does it help?’
‘I’ve no idea.’ Jack confessed, before backtracking on his openness a little by taking refuge in their shared subculture, ‘It’s just one of those sports superstitions, you know.’
Satisfied that Bittle had accepted his excuse, Jack turned back to the page and tried to ignore the voice telling him that that was spineless, that he should have been more honest. But that same voice was the one telling him that no one would accept his faith, so he called it a hypocrite and managed to ignore it.
The herbs were to be infused with the butter, like Jack sometimes did with rosemary to add to roasts, back when he was trying to convince his parents that there were perks to having a witch for a son and they shouldn’t… whatever it was he was worried they’d do. Rue, in moderation, but also bible leaf (and that was yet another old name, Jack internally translated it to costmary), rosemary, and marjoram. It was only at this point that the rue made sense; it used to be used in holy water to bless sinners and this, Jack guessed, was added for the forgiveness part of making amends. It was probably a nice gesture, though Jack personally thought it seemed a little passive-aggressive.
Bittle was a kitchen witch, though more by practice than intention. Accidental witchcraft. But Jack jettisoned that train of thought and asked, ‘What kind of yarrow?’
‘For your pie? There are different kinds. Some of it grows as weeds in grass so I could probably find some…’
Bittle flipped back over to the recipe. This one, squeezed in under the title, read “for preparing for battle”. Well, then. Hockey was close enough.
‘…never mind.’ Jack added, ‘The burnet will be enough.’
He slipped upstairs to pick some leaves. Sage was used for most healing purposes, but burnet was specifically for wounds from fights. Why this was something Bittle’s grandmother had a use for, Jack had no idea.
Besides practice, and their few exchanges in the Haus kitchen, the only time Jack ever really spent in the company of Bittle was the early-morning checking practices.
Neither of them particularly enjoyed the exercise.
The dawn was arriving later every day, and when they arrived at the rink the steel-blue sky was just beginning to light up the ice. It was pretty, but nonetheless Jack turned on the room’s industrial lights and the outside world suddenly seemed to have been plunged back into night.
Bittle was taking his time getting his skates on, grumbling, ‘Tell me again why I couldn’t have coffee first?’
‘Because when I woke you up in time to have coffee, you said sleeping in for five more minutes was more important to you.’
Jack was only ever treated to Bittle’s death glare in the hours before seven am.
‘I make you pie. You owe me. I don’t deserve this.’
He’d only laced up one skate so far. Jack began shuffling his feet impatiently on the ice.
‘I’m repaying the favour by teaching you how to handle a check. It’s this or we just duct tape a lot of pillows to you before every game so you can bounce of the glass. You’d look like the marshmellow guy in that ghost movie Holster made me watch.’
‘The sun isn’t up yet,’ Bittle replied, finally finishing with his skates and straightening up, ‘Anything involving pillows seems like a good idea.’
It was quite possible that poor morale could be bad for Bittle’s game. Sure, Jack had good reason to be tough on him. And true, the only reason he was this tired in the mornings was because he thought midnight was a good time to start baking. But a strong justification didn’t a good strategy make – as Jack had learnt many times in his sophomore year with some of the upperclassmen who didn’t think he should have gotten the C – and he’d spent enough time trying to keep Kent in line to know that sometimes more collaborative tactics were called for.
‘Alright, you’re making good progress, so I have a deal for you to consider.’
‘Does it involve you not telling me about how bad my baking is for my diet?’
Jack made a mental note to offer that later, in exchange for Bittle trying some protein shakes.
‘Does it involve including a nap break in practices?’
‘Fine, what is it?’
This conversation had already taken a good five minutes off their practice time, and Jack was beginning to suspect that this was intentional on Bittle’s part.
‘You get over your fear of contact,’ he began, ‘and when I can arrange some free time, I’ll let you try to teach the team figure skating.’
The way his eyes lit up, Bittle was already sold. But it was with caution that he said, ‘It needs different skates.’
‘We can rent some. We can make it one of those terrible PR videos that the college keeps trying to get its sports teams to make.’
And there was a smile, ‘Are… you going to be involved in the figure skating?’
Bittle jumped to his feet, apparently now wide awake and ready to go.
Jack was kept in the hospital for a while after the incident. He wasn’t really sure how long it ended up being; he slept a lot and stayed in his room and it wasn’t always easy to tell the difference between night and day. It was almost a relief to be stuck there. The doctors and nurses didn’t care about the draft, or his shattered career, they cared only about how he was doing and what risks they ought to be concerned about.
Kent claimed that he didn’t care about the draft, either. But he only visited that one time and he didn’t stay for long, and later Jack would deal with the burning guilt he’d never expected that memory to leave.
His parents spent a lot of time there, trying to keep the tone cheerful as they sat by his bedside. He’d been waiting for the “why didn’t you tell us”s and the “how would we feel if you’d died”s, but none of them came. His father seemed to have meant what he said when he told Jack that his safety was their responsibility, and somehow that made him feel worse.
They were trying, though. Mostly they were trying to shelter him from the worst effects of his overdose in the media, but there were other, less tangible things. Even at nineteen, his parents served as intermediaries between the doctors and him, translating the news into words that at all times made it clear that he was going to be fine. He was going to recover. He was going to get through this.
One day, his father brought him in a present, in a tiny bag of purple paper.
‘There was a fair on,’ he said, ‘and I thought you might want this.’
Obligingly, Jack shook the bag out onto his palm, finding a grey pentagram pendant on a cool silver chain.
The words got caught in his throat.
‘I don’t know much about witchcraft,’ his father was saying, ‘but this is for protection, right? I thought it would help… keep you safe… I don’t know, I got it cheap from a stall in a fair so I don’t know if it’s a proper one or, uh, I could get you a different one if-’
Jack shook his head. The star itself was made of iron, and in the centre it held a white gemstone with an opaline sheen. Moonstone, for protection, same as iron.
‘It’s perfect.’ he said, unclasping the chain so he could position it around his neck without disturbing the tubes still connected to his nose, ‘It’s- thank you.’
There was genuine relief on his father’s face as Jack felt the new weight of the pendant settle against his chest. He suddenly wanted to cry, but he held it back. It didn’t matter if he felt he didn’t deserve this; what mattered was that his father wanted to give it to him, and his father hadn’t deserved anything that had happened recently.
The third time Jack met officer Erangi was also the last time he remembered their meetings in the right order.
Erangi asked if he’d been going for a run and Jack, who hadn’t thought of an excuse yet, went with that story. They both knew it was a lie, but the officer seemed to be willing to let it slide for now.
They won the game.
Well, Bittle won it. Jack wasn’t really involved in the victory.
There were questions in his head now, like:
- How many times would Bad Bob Zimmermann have scored if he’d been playing this game?
- Was that what his father was thinking about?
- Was that what ESPN was thinking about?
- Why did it have to be this game that his father saw?
- How vindicated did those sports journalists who hate him feel after this game?
- How did Bittle score?
- How did Bittle score?
- And how did Jack not?
- Was there something he was missing?
- Was there something that he wasn’t good enough at?
- Needed to work on?
- Would never fix?
- And why Bittle?
- He was never that good at hockey…
- …Jack was the one who…
- Why’d he spend the whole game struggling if Bittle could score so easily?
- His father was talking about Bittle…
- The coaches…
He’d gotten through worse than this before, but there was something fragile in his recovery. Something predicated on his talent. He could tell himself that he could prove them wrong – that’s what his therapist said, that’s what those affirmations he was supposed to repeat said, prove them wrong – because he really was good at hockey. He worked hard to have his chance, to improve, to beat the odds and to achieve the dream he’d once thought his anxiety had ruined.
That was the story he was telling himself, wasn’t it? That was what he was supposed to believe.
It wasn’t until he was calming himself down in his room that he actually thought about Bittle. And that thought brought another gasp of self-doubt as he remembered that other part of his job on the team. He was a forward, true, but he was also a captain. Whatever he might be able to later tell himself about his ability as the former, tonight he had unequivocally failed as the latter.
It was a lucky shot.
Jack: You said you wanted to talk again
Jack: Can I ask for advice?
It was only after he’d sent those texts that he remembered Kent’s charge that he only ever got in touch for selfish reasons. Well, it was a night for feeling shit about himself, he might as well double-down by proving Kent right.
Kent: Heard about your game btw, nice win
The second text made Jack cringe a little, but at least he’d gotten a response. The hard part now was working out how to phrase the next text.
Jack: You’re a captain, how do I apologise to a team member if I’m wrong?
He really, really didn’t want to have to explain what he’d said to Bittle. Hopefully Kent would respond to Jack’s vaguely defined problem with a generic solution.
Kent: Wow. Okay. Um. You were /my/ captain once, so I sort of learnt the job from you
Kent: Also I’m really bad at apologising
Kent: I mostly just pretend like nothing is wrong and hope the other person forgets about it
There was a slight pause in the texts. Jack waited to see if Kent was finished.
Kent: wait pls don’t read too much into that last text vis-à-vis our arguments
Well, this conversation had been pretty useless by way of advice, but at least they were almost talking to each other normally. Not yelling. Or talking about how much they hate each other. Silver linings, he supposed.
Jack: any ideas?
There were other people he could ask, like his father and Shitty. They’d both know what to do if Jack could only bring himself to admit that he’d fucked up. His father would be disappointed, or worse, try to be understanding about Jack and his ever-troublesome mental health. And Shitty… Shitty would probably help, but Jack didn’t really want to let his friends know how much of an asshole he could be. Not even Kent, who’d been around longer than any of them and who had seen him at his worse. That one went the other way too; he and Kent had both seen each other at their worst.
Kent: Bake a cake?
Jack: Can’t. He’s a baker
Kent: Ooooh pancake guy?
Kent: That’s all I got, sorry
Of course, the other reason Jack didn’t want to bake Bittle a cake was because he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He didn’t even want to apologise, really, he wanted to have apologised. Past tense. So he doesn’t have to think of words and stuff and put all that effort in to making it seem casual and minor, but he also didn’t want to leave Bittle on that note with nothing more.
Jack: Thanks anyway
He resolved to follow Kent’s advice, regardless of how terrible it plainly was. What if, instead of admitting that he was wrong, he just acted nice to Bittle to make up for it? Would that work? Bittle always acted nice anyway, so if they both just determined to act nice to each other for a while, eventually it should sort itself out. Probably. Maybe.
Jack drew himself and his laptop so he was sitting on his bed with his back against the wall. It was getting late, and he should sleep, but there was one thing he could do first.
The costmary, he found under yet another name, alecost. The shipping was more than the seeds, even though the seller was in the US and customs wouldn’t be a problem, but Jack had never really had to think too much about money if he was buying something that he needed. In his world, the threshold for justifying a purchase was lower; his parents weren’t exactly billionaires and he wasn’t personally rich, but he had enough financial security that he didn’t have to worry that there may be serious consequences if he spent a little now.
Dittany of Crete was a little more expensive, but not by much. Regardless of how hard they were to find and how useful the plants were, seeds were still seeds. In the quantity Jack was ordering, shipping aside, he’d spent more money buying coffee for him and Kent.
Or he could give Bittle a whole lot of rue for baking and poison everyone.
Pushing that idea aside with the practiced ease of a lifetime of dealing with what his therapist referred to as “intrusive thoughts”, he bought some yarrow as well. Because there was some for sale, and he was that sort of person.
For a while he stared uncertainly at the page for anise, debating with himself. On the one hand, it wasn’t something Bittle had listed. But on the other, of course it was going to be in some recipe or another. Anise was one of the few herbs that would actually make sense in a desert. If not, it’s not like he didn’t want some himself. And maybe he could give Bittle a plant for his birthday or something?
Maybe it should concern Jack that the only thing he and Bittle had talked about outside of hockey, and not in the presence of any of their other friends who were more than capable of carrying a conversation, was herbs.
He bought the anise. The excuse he gave himself was that, if he should need some later, it would be much better if he didn’t have to go through the whole process of ordering and planting and waiting for it to grow. It wasn’t a very strong excuse, but Jack had practically turned his entire room into a greenhouse on a series of flimsy excuses.
Jack didn’t even manage a “good morning”, instead he caught Bittle’s attention with the sound of the glass jar against the bench as he slid it across.
‘Dill.’ Jack answered.
Bittle picked the jar up doubtfully and examined it.
‘Well,’ Jack amended, ‘mostly salt. You can’t really hang dill up to dry so it gets preserved like this. Just wash it before you use it.’
It was the first time Bittle had been in the Haus since the Yale game, and Jack was very aware that they had checking practice tomorrow. Time to act like everything is fine until it’s true.
‘Thanks.’ Bittle replied, still examining the thin bands of green packed between the white salt.
‘No problem.’ Jack replied, because he always liked it better than saying “you’re welcome”. The latter always sounded like he was congratulating himself for his own good deed.
‘I’ll have to make that recipe next time.’
He wasn’t being as talkative as usual, and Jack definitely did not want to ramble on about his own interest in herbs. So he stood there, willing himself to think of a more casual way to say “what are some things you’re interested in?” quickly enough that the silence didn’t become awkward.
‘What’s the dill for?’ he asked instead, ‘I mean, what’s the recipe? I already know it’s for baking.’
Bittle seemed surprised by every sentence that Jack willingly said to him.
‘Oh, um. There are a few. There’s this salted caramel pastry type thing that I still can’t make without the recipe because grandma has changed it so much.’
Ask polite follow up questions. Do it. Think of something.
‘Does your whole family do this?’
‘The baking? Or the recipe changing?’
‘Either?’ Jack tried.
Bittle turned back to what he was doing – something with a bowl and a wooden spoon and what looked like some alien paste which would presumably later prove to be delicious – with a frown that Jack didn’t know how to interpret.
‘Sorry.’ he said quickly, ‘I didn’t mean to. Um. Whatever I did.’
He was trying to stir the paste now. Or, at least, he was performing some violent action on it with the spoon that purported to be stirring, ‘Oh, hush. It’s nothing. In my family you either like pies or football.’
‘Or hockey.’ Jack pointed out.
‘Or that.’ Bittle agreed, still attacking the paste for reasons Jack didn’t understand, ‘But I was never good at football, so…’
He trailed of, giving up on whatever he was doing and trying to extract the wooden spoon that was now, apparently, lodged in the paste.
This conversation seemed to be running the risk of getting way more complicated than Jack had signed up for. Rather than making everything normal, somehow he’d deflected Bittle’s ire onto something else that he couldn’t figure out. Whether or not this was an improvement was unclear.
‘You’re good at hockey.’ Jack pointed out, hoping against hope that this was somehow the right thing to say. He wanted to add some qualifiers about his limited experience and fear of checking, but Bittle’s face lit up and he thought better of it.
‘Well… I mean… um. I’m not at your level.’
Internally, Jack agreed. Externally, he aimed for noncommittal as he said, ‘Well, checking practice is still on tomorrow, if you’re looking to improve.’
It seemed to work, and Jack was gratefully avoiding dealing with whatever emotion Bittle had been having.
‘Can I have coffee before we start?’
‘If you get up early enough.’ he answered, making a mental note to have coffee ready for him on the assumption that tomorrow he’d want to sleep in for five more minutes, as usual.
Chapter 5: “she should be lifted from the ground by the officers, and carried out in a basket or on a plank of wood so that she cannot again touch the ground”
Jack’s future involved hockey, that much he could be reasonably sure of. What was unclear was who he was playing for, at what level, how often, for how long. All the important questions.
He also knew that there was a chance that his future would involve a blue house, which he filled with all his favourite things and which he thought of as home. There were other places that his future could involve instead, and no way of knowing which decisions would lead him where, but he hoped he’d get the blue house.
It was one of those days when he didn’t particularly feel like getting out of bed.
He had lectures at noon, practice at three, and nothing demanding he spend the intervening hours between now and then being a responsible adult. Already, his alarm had been turned off three times, and was now entirely disabled. It wasn’t quite completely comfortable, with the firm mattress and the too-warm duvet and the sheets that started to feel a little scratchy when he moved. Nor was the light pouring in through the ineffective curtains conducive to sleep, even if he had still needed some. It’s just that any option other than lying in bed somehow seemed even less attractive.
If he stayed there any longer, Shitty was going to-
‘Bro! Dude! My man!’ Shitty and his moustache were clearly just on the other side of the bathroom door, choosing to address Jack through it instead of knocking like most people would, ‘I’m coming in now.’
‘Why…?’ Jack managed, though most of the sound was directed to the pillow that his face was largely buried in.
‘How is that comfortable?’ Shitty asked, after completely ignoring Jack’s response and bursting through the door, ‘You look dead.’
It wasn’t particularly comfortable. Jack’s right arm was trapped under his chest and one of the corners of his necklace was digging in around his collarbone. His neck ached, his legs had been staying still too long, and absolutely none of this was in any way Shitty’s business.
‘It’s comfy.’ he lied, ‘Why are you in my room?’
‘Smells nice?’ Shitty suggested, gesturing at the lush plant life that took up most surfaces.
He rocked slightly on his feet, ‘I thought your alarm might be broken?’
Shitty stuffed his hands in his pockets and at least had the decency to look abashed, ‘You weren’t up yet and I wanted to check on you.’
Despite the fact that he already knew it, this answer being admitted out loud gave Jack the opportunity to glare at his best friend, ‘You’ve checked on me, is that enough?’
He could practically see Shitty’s mind running through every possible excuse to get Jack out of bed.
‘Me and Ransom were going to get frozen yogurt. You should come.’
‘That was a terrible lie. If you already had plans with Ransom then clearly Holster would be included.’
This remark earned him a disapproving look that he interpreted as the least you could do is play along.
‘Of course Holster was included, I thought that was implied. Now get up, don’t force me to be an awkward third wheel to their bromance.’
It was like getting a wakeup call from an incredibly determined one-man improve group. Or a uniquely persistent but equally inept conman. Either way, Jack was buying none of it but he didn’t know how to make it stop.
‘Ask Bittle.’ he mumbled, still mostly to the pillow.
‘Doesn’t live here, bro.’
‘Doesn’t he? I thought he’d moved into the kitchen or something.’
Shitty took to nudging the mattress with his foot and whining, ‘Get uuuup.’
Silently, Jack cursed Lardo for being in Kenya and therefore inconveniently far away for his purposes at that moment, ‘Invite Johnson?’
Each kick against the mattress was getting slightly more forceful than the last. Jack was starting to bounce a little with each impact, and it was making it particularly difficult to maintain his grumpy posture.
‘Come on, Jack, Jackie, Ja-kwess, at least sit up so I can hug you until you give up.’
He kicked the mattress so hard that it bounced fully two inches to the side.
‘You need those feet for hockey.’ Jack reminded him.
‘Priorities, bro. Top of the list is froyo. Up.’
He rolled over instead, using the other pillow to bury his head entirely. This, it transpired, was a terrible idea. A few seconds of relief, and then he was abruptly being jolted up and down by the bed beneath him. He glared up at Shitty, who’d decided to climb entirely onto his bed and jump like a four-year-old child.
‘Would’ (bounce) ‘you’ (bounce) ‘stop?’
‘Not until you get up.’
‘Fine.’ he sat up, making a point to show that he was less than happy about it, ‘But you have to skate extra suicide sprints next practice.’
Jack climbed out of bed, thankful that he went for pyjama pants instead of boxers that night, ‘Alright, let me get dressed. And before you say anything that means get out.’
‘You think I wouldn’t respect your privacy? I’m hurt, bro. I’m really cut.’
‘Alright, alright. Don’t get your incredibly Canadian pyjama pants in a twist.’
He went back through the bathroom and Jack glanced down, only now registering that these pyjamas were printed with the logo for the Montreal Canadiens, alternating with cartoon hockey sticks. He’d provide a justification, but Shitty was already gone and, anyway, his only explanation was that his father had wanted to give him a leaving-for-college present and had thought he was being funny.
He always thought he was being funny.
Jack fished out his most inoffensive jeans-and-t-shirt combo and debated whether or not he should comb his hair. On the one hand, his hair was a mess. On the other, combing it would take effort.
He ended up running his fingers through it half-heartedly and laced up his favourite yellow sneakers. Cleaned his teeth. Replaced the amethyst on the windowsill. Tapped the window frame five times. Checked his phone. Switched the light on and off… on and off. Stepped out of his room into the hallway.
‘Mornin’.’ Shitty said, sounding unreasonably cheerful and leaning against the wall outside Jack’s room.
He shrugged on a jacket against the young New England winter and lead the way outside, not bothering to see if anyone was following. Shitty caught up at a half-run, with Ransom and Holster not far behind. They were chatting animatedly about the frozen yogurt they were anticipating, and entirely failing to notice the metaphorical storm cloud above Jack’s head.
It was fine. He could be silent.
If he were at home he’d have to put more effort in. It wasn’t his parent’s fault, it wasn’t like they intended to add all these tiny extra bits of pressure to his life, but since the draft they’d become perfectly attuned weather-vanes to his every shifting mood. They worried about him. And Jack, in turn, worried about them worrying.
Ransom and Holster seemed too oblivious to worry about anything much, and that was always something of a relief.
‘So,’ Holster was saying, ‘Jack. What’s the deal with you and Kent Parson? Are you friends now- ow!’
Ransom had just jabbed him in the ribs with all the subtlety of an air raid siren.
That was a hard question. He wasn’t particularly in the mood for hard questions. He wasn’t even in the mood for frozen yogurt, and yet there was the store, and there they were walking into it.
‘Well… we’re not… enemies?’ he replied, while trying and failing to think of a description that was slightly more specific.
‘Oh,’ said Holster, ‘swawsome.’
Having apparently decided that this topic was now less taboo than previously thought, Ransom added, ‘Dude makes great pancakes. But don’t tell Bitty I said that.’
The bell on the door jingled as they stepped inside, and Jack winced at the sudden noise. Next to him, Shitty had taken the opportunity to wax poetic about the virtues of combining pancakes with blueberries. The passion in his voice momentarily made Jack wonder if he’d been taking blueberries for granted all his life.
‘Oh,’ Shitty added abruptly, ‘I wanna remind you that Lardo’s back next semester. Jack, I know you’ll be pleased to have someone keeping the team together so we can laser focus on hockey.’
Jack felt the need to point out, ‘You don’t laser focus on anything, Shits, unless it’s somehow related to messing with the lacrosse frat.’
(‘Fuck the lacrosse bros.’ Ransom and Holster muttered, in unison.)
‘I know that was supposed to be a chirp, but I take by duties as lacrosse-frat-messer-with-in-chief very seriously.’
Jack just rolled his eyes, content to lapse back into silence as they bought their yogurts. Now Holster and Shitty were arguing good-naturedly about who actually deserved that title, and Jack felt his phone buzz in his pocket.
He was a little surprised by the name on the screen.
Parse: How’d your apology go?
This would be fine, right? Normalising relations… like when rival countries realise they’ve been bickering for so long that it was starting to get stupid.
Jack: I followed your advice
Parse: I didn’t give you any advice?
Jack struggled to eat the yogurt while holding his phone, before replying.
Jack: No, you didn’t give me /good/ advice. But I didn’t have any other advice so I decided to follow it anyway. It seems to have worked out alright.
Jack: Also the team says they loved your pancakes
This was normal, wasn’t it? It seemed normal. This is how normal people talked to other normal people they knew. True, Kent was a two-time Stanley Cup winning human train wreck, and Jack was a mentally ill psychic living in a haunted frat house, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t talk to each other normally. As if nothing at all was ever wrong between them; the least believable lie either of them had ever tried to tell.
‘I’m opening a Jack Zimmermann file.’ Erangi said, instead of the usual “hello”, as he entered the now-familiar room that Jack was waiting in.
‘I haven’t broken any laws.’ Jack objected, truthfully.
‘None that I can prove, at least.’
He took his usual seat in front of Jack, the pile of papers he was carrying now slightly taller than the last few times they’d met like this.
‘You could say that of anyone on the planet.’ Jack pointed out. What he was realising, slowly, was that his not-really-a-gift was likely to become a very serious problem very quickly. And to think that all he wanted to do was keep his head down. It wasn’t his fault that people kept almost dying. It was even less his fault that some of those deaths would have been the result of crimes, and every time he intervened in that particular genre, he ended up justifying himself (badly) to the police.
‘True,’ Erangi conceded, ‘but not everyone on the planet has ended up in my interview room on seven separate occasions, for preventing seven separate crimes.’
There wasn’t going to be an easy way for Jack to talk himself out of this.
‘Don’t you want crimes to be prevented?’ he tried, earning himself a look from officer Erangi that precisely matched the look high school teachers used to give before telling students not to talk back.
‘How do you know they’re going to happen?’
Somehow “the witch who resurrected me when I was nineteen also gave me psychic powers as a side-effect and now I can predict deaths in time to stop them happening” didn’t seem like the answer Jack should give. The fact that it was the truth didn’t exactly make up for the fact that it managed to sound even less believable than the train of stupid lies he’d invented.
‘I’m… very observant.’
‘And you somehow always happen to be in the right place at the right time?’
Okay, so maybe Jack understood how this looked. And maybe his terrible excuses weren’t helping matters. But he couldn’t think of any other options so he said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not always at the right place at the right time. Do you know how many crimes happen in this city every day?’
‘Yes.’ Erangi replied, gesturing pointedly to the badge he was wearing.
‘Right. Erm. Well, all I’m saying is that you’re looking too much into all the crimes I stop, without weighing that against all the crimes I don’t stop. It’s confirmation bias. Statistically these seven events are just an insignificant coincidence.’
‘Confirmation bias.’ Erangi repeated, voice betraying all his doubt.
‘Okay, assuming – for argument’s sake – that that is true, then why are you the only one in all of Boston who is in here so often.’
‘And don’t say you’re observant. That explains how you notice the crimes, not why you happen to be in the vicinity at those specific times.’
Jack tried for a casual shrug, probably succeeding only in looking as though his shoulders had developed a severe twitch, ‘All statistics have outliers? It’s just a coincidence.’
‘It’s one hell of a coincidence.’
Alright, time to try to put a stop to this conversation before he ends up saying something damning, ‘Do I need a lawyer?’
Erangi surveyed him for a long moment. Then, shuffling his papers, replied, ‘You’re entitled to one, but I’m only here to take your statement.’
‘For the seventh time.’
Jack blinked, hoping this wasn’t going to go anywhere, ‘A coincidence.’
‘At this point I could have a template prepared,’ he sighed, ‘please don’t try to tell me you were going for a run.’
Winter came suddenly that year, and that feeling was only increased as Jack travelled north to his hometown. The runway had been cleared, but as they touched down he could see the city he grew up in gently blurred into shades of white. The horizon was smudged by either distant snow or fog, so the new arrivals were given the impression that they were landing on a different, tiny world of its own.
These days he knew the airport like the back of his hand. The broad panes of glass framing the planes against the early winter frosting. The tourists taking their photographs in front of the aircraft, and how they could tell which was their own, Jack had never worked out. Maple leaves everywhere, in every way imaginable, from tasteful to tacky and – inevitably – three different brands of maple leaf shaped clocks. In many of the duty free areas, the familiar Fleurdelisé also graced ornaments and t-shirts.
His father was there as Jack formally entered the country, and somehow he could sense that nearby, on the other of the customs he’d just passed through, a number of jerseys of variable quality were being sold with his father’s name and number on them.
‘Salut papa.’ Jack returned, as his bag was taken from him. It was tempting to point out that he was a hockey player, far from retired, and more than capable of carrying his own luggage. But a life time of experience informed him that any “je suis un jeu de hockey” would be met with a “tu est mon fils” and an end of the debate.
‘How was your semester?’ his father continued, and the smooth transition to French was a little relaxing.
A difficult question. He weighed up the requirement for a broadly positive answer with the semester’s hard work and his general relief to be away from college for a bit, and settled on his usual answer, ‘Ça va.’
The airport opened up as they moved through it to the exit, and the few quick glances that flicked to his father – to both of them, but mostly to his father – bothered him a little less as the vast halls dwarfed all the people moving through. At the exit, the sky itself met the glass and the stinging air drifted in to meet them.
‘So, how was Samwell?’
‘Warmer.’ Jack offered, as they finally stepped into the carpark, and the sound and air around them changed. The snow wasn’t quite settling yet, but it was getting close, and the heavy clouds above seemed as though they were just waiting for their moment.
‘Feeling talkative, huh?’
It must be home; he was being chirped in French. Just like when he was growing up. Just like the things he used to say to Parse back in the Q, where he was surrounded by French yet managed to learn only the phrase “j’sais pas”. I don’t know. Apparently, it was useful a lot. It used to roll off his tongue nearly accentless, complemented by a perfectly Parisian shrug. Dick.
‘Samwell’s still Samwell.’ Jack offered, ‘Not much has really changed. I’m learning some more history, there have been some more parties, and the team is…’ he paused for a fraction of a moment with the word “fine” on the tip of his tongue, and remembered the frog Bittle, ‘…improving.’
‘What about that number fifteen? The short one?’
Oh Christ please don’t tell me there are two psychics in the family.
‘Bittle?’ Jack prompted, before immediately regretting it. However he may interact with the team back at Samwell, he was now seeing things how his father would. There was going to be a Talk. A special brand of Talk. A post-2009 Dad Bob Zimmermann Talk. In essence, a Talk that is made to seem like it’s not a Talk at all so that he has nothing to worry about but should also listen. It was a logical mechanism in a way; the Zimmermann parents had a lot they wanted to talk to Jack about but no confidence that they wouldn’t somehow make things worse.
‘Bittle.’ his father repeated.
This was a different car. The only reason Jack was even aware of it was because that was where his father stopped and, with a miniscule remote cradled in one palm, caused the trunk to open smoothly so the suitcase could be placed inside.
He’d only been gone a few months.
The new car was more sturdy than sporty, all comfort under glossy black paint so pristine that the whole machine seemed somehow insubstantial, a sort of chameleon in whatever environment reflected off its curves. Distantly, Jack remembered all the warnings his father had given him about retired sports stars wasting their money, and wondered if his parents planned well or if their funds would slowly dwindle as they aged.
‘What was it your teammates were calling him? Bitty, right?’
He should have seen this coming.
‘Yeah, I guess.’
The seats were leather, which meant that Jack would have to somehow try to ignore the friction that caught his clothing and created wrinkles of the fabric against his skin as he moved.
‘But you don’t? I know your teammates call you Jack, but I thought you used most of their nicknames?’
His father was trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to phrase this as a casual inquiry.
‘Well, yeah but…’ he only worked out partway through that sentence that he didn’t have a proper justification, ‘I mean, only my friends, really. I don’t… use nicknames that much, I guess.’
If he’d been graced with a normal life, he wouldn’t be having this conversation with a man universally known as Bad Bob Zimmermann. They were leaving the airport behind them now, and the skyline was drifting out of the snow or the fog. Montreal. Even here his father was still “Bad” Bob Zimmermann, but Jack nonetheless did his city the honour of translating it. More or less.
‘Really?’ his father queried, inclining his head a little towards Jack, but not quite taking his eyes off the road.
A two syllable word, somehow heavy with potential significance. The word “disbelief” has a literal and a figurative meaning – something was either seen as untrue or unusual – and Jack wondered which his father was using.
‘Well, I guess growing up with Mal Bob Zimmermann discouraged me a little from using nicknames.’
Mal, the most direct translation; evil, wrong, ill, bad.
They both knew he was dodging the question, but the corner of his father’s mouth turned up a little at the comment. Chirping, at least, was one aspect of the whole hockey thing that Jack actually managed to get right.
He shuffled his back against the leather as they drove on, struggling to find a comfortable position against the valleys caused by the seams in the back of the seat. More wrinkles in his shirt. The vinyl seatbelt against the exposed skin at his collar. But it smelt cleaner, and the humming in the last car had vanished, and Jack resolved to cope.
For some reason, that wasn’t the end of the Bittle conversation.
Dinner that evening, and his father decided to bring it up as some facsimile of polite conversation, ‘Our Jack was telling me about that new kid, Bitty, on the way home.’
“Our Jack” busied himself cutting his meat into pieces and trying not to glare at either of his parents on his very first day back in town.
‘That’s the blond one, right? Number fifteen?’
‘That’s the one.’
Méchant Bob Zimmermann, he thought to himself. Méchant; mean, evil, nasty, bad.
‘He’s fast.’ his mother commented, while Jack gracelessly attempted to drink from his glass of water without lifting his head up enough to make eye contact.
‘Nice, too. I met him at Samwell, remember Jack?’
Jack remembered. Vividly. In excruciating detail.
‘Yeah.’ he conceded, mostly addressing his roast potatoes.
‘So are you likely to become friends with this Bitty? Your father keeps telling me how important chemistry can be on the ice.’
Jack had been setting up in the living room to do little more than read a few more chapters of the book he was reading (Fracture; Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938) when his mother walked in and jolted him out of his train of thought.
‘Bitty. Number fifteen. We were talking about him at dinner.’
She was folding washing, which in and of itself was suspicious. His mother rarely expended much effort on housework, but when she needed an excuse to be in a room there always seemed to be washing to fold. At fourteen, over one summer, Jack attempted to keep track of the washing to uncover the conspiracy he suspected. It was of no avail; the last note in his diary for that investigation was simply a proposition that she bought new clothes in part to give her something to fold.
‘Oh. Maybe?’ – meaning no – ‘He is a frog, and I’m a junior so-’
‘Nonsense,’ his mother cut in, which was an objection Jack was sure she’d appropriated from mothers on the television, certainly it seemed out of place with her accustomed manner of speech, ‘I know for a fact that the hockey team will give you plenty of time to interact, if that’s what you’re concerned about.’
‘And if you’re worried about graduating before him, I don’t see how that’s any different than your other friends. It’s not like you’re all expecting to live in the same city anyway.’
‘Yeah, but…’ it was only after he started speaking that he realised he was running low on objections that his mother would accept, ‘…just because it’s not impossible to become someone’s friend doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s also not impossible for me to throw this book through that window, but it doesn’t mean that I should.’
‘Might as well,’ his mother grumbled, to herself as much as to Jack, ‘you and your father put enough pucks through it over the years.’
This was true. They used to have a blackboard in the kitchen for shopping lists, but around Jack’s seventh year it was moved into the living room and emblazoned with the words “NO HOCKEY IN THE HOUSE”. The fact that it was still there even after Jack had moved out could imply forgetfulness, nostalgia, or that his father still needed to be reminded.
‘Why do you want me to be friends with Bittle?’ he pressed, sensing that he might actually be winning on logic.
‘Chemistry on the ice.’ she repeated, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
It wasn’t long before Jack returned to their small rink, skating back and forth and wishing that the water nearby would freeze over already and give him a little space.
His father, of course, joined him. In the past Jack had assumed the motivation was for some of that father-son bonding he kept hearing about on family sitcoms. But as he grew older he began to suspect that, more and more, his father also wanted to test how well he still played as he drifted further into his retirement years.
‘So,’ his father began, ‘About your team-’
‘Ask about Bittle. I’ve no idea why you and maman keep bringing him up.’
His father managed to raise his hands in some form of surrender or claim of honesty, despite the hockey stick he was still clutching, ‘I wasn’t going to.’
‘I was going to ask when your manager is going to be back.’
The low rumble of blades over ice was, for a few blessed moments, the only sound in the room as they passed the puck between them a few more times. Jack braced himself.
‘But now you’ve brought up Bitty-’
‘-I’ve been meaning to ask if there’s a problem there? He seemed nice enough, I’m not sure why you dislike him.’
Jack allowed himself one deep sigh before resigning himself to answering his father’s questions, ‘I don’t dislike him. He’s nice. Talks too much sometimes and won’t stop making pies at ridiculous times of the night, but I’ve got nothing against him.’
The puck had stopped moving now, held by his father’s stick in what Jack interpreted as a warning that another Talk was coming.
‘Is it a captain thing?’
And there it was. Jack was painted into a corner. There only seemed to be two options here. Either it was personal, and he’d have to deal with how his parents reacted to evidence that their son was experiencing emotions. Or it was about hockey, and there was no way he could reasonably justify not asking for his father’s advice.
‘Yeah,’ he agreed, honestly, ‘he’s got a special talent for making my job harder.’
The expression on his father’s face made Jack feel like he should be lying on some long sofa in an office somewhere, embellishing his life story with some eloquent soliloquies and a few flashback sequences.
‘Need any advice?’
‘D’accord,’ he replied, without any obvious note of reluctance, ‘if you’ve got a solution. He’s- he’s a figure skater, right? And you’d think that that would be fine. Different skating style, maybe, that sort of thing.’
His father nodded politely, in case his previous incessant questioning somehow wasn’t enough to assure Jack that he was listening intently.
‘And he transferred to hockey, co-ed high school team. In Georgia.’ he said the state as though it were a bad word. But that was another effect of Bittle, he hadn’t formed any opinion of the place at all, until the limitations of learning hockey there were suddenly something that he had to deal with the aftermath of, ‘So the guy had never been checked before!’ despite not wanting to discuss this, he was now waving his hockey stick through the air with every emphatic gesture, ‘Have you ever tried to be the captain of someone who faints if he thinks someone’s going to touch him?’
‘It’s, uh, not a problem that I’ve faced, no.’
‘So what do I do about it?’
Now his father was scratching the back of his neck with his free hand, looking more than a little awkward, ‘Have you tried talking to him?’
The stick made a soft thud against the ice as Jack dropped his arm, ‘As opposed to pretending he’s not there? Acting like curling up on the ice all through practice is a perfectly normal thing to do? Of course I’ve talked to him.’
The hurried search for a miracle solution, written across his father’s expression, was almost painful to watch, ‘Well, what are you doing already?’
Jack explained the checking practices, Bittle’s slow improvement, and the obvious problem that a fear of contact was even worse when you’re 5’7” and every defenceman is comparatively a giant. And then, for good measure, he threw in some bitter comments about the entire concept of “pumpkin spiced lattes” and how they were a crime against both coffee and dental health. This last part was in aid of very little, but it made him feel a bit better to complain.
‘Well,’ his father said, after a long pause, ‘just keep doing that then. Seems to be working.’
‘You can’t think of anything.’ Jack translated.
‘Well, I mean’ – he cleared his throat – ‘You have experience as captain too. And it’s good for you to work these things out for yourself.’
At least Jack knew which side of the family he got his “terrible liar” genes from.
‘Raté Bob Zimmermann.’ he remarked, as the puck finally started moving again. Raté; failed, wasted, unsuccessful, bad.
A lot of people died in hospitals. It was something that Jack, himself having recently also died in a hospital, knew in the abstract sense. For him, the institution was marked more by the pervasive smell of disinfectant that overrode whatever taste the bland food might have had, and the cheap sheets that itched and affected his senses and made it difficult to get comfortable enough for sleep. But, in other rooms not too far away, people were experiencing that other side of hospitals.
The redhead was the first. To Jack, who’d never even learnt her name, she was little more than a training exercise. There were two facts that created the last, mundane story of her life. First, some people were allergic to penicillin. Second, those people who were allergic had to find out about that allergy somehow.
Jack had been moved out of a private room, into a ward that was almost, but not quite, part of the mental health ward. There they monitored his physical recovery and moved the curtains to, presumably, protect him from small talk with the other patients, and pretended that they weren’t keeping him on suicide watch.
The redhead was two beds down, and Jack never even found out why she was in hospital in the first place. But one morning she surprised everyone by dying, and that was how Jack found out those two facts about penicillin.
A few hours later, time shifted back three days.
It wasn’t as if this whole thing came with an instruction manual. He hadn’t even been given any warning. It just happened one day, and suddenly he needed to learn this new part of his life while events were rapidly occurring, and try to ascertain whether or not his mental health problems had just slipped into psychosis. Because, apparently, his life wasn’t confusing enough already.
The way forward wasn’t particularly clear, but the redhead was alive and Jack had spent enough time with his mild OCD that the concept of “this doesn’t make any logical sense but if you don’t do this thing then this other horrible thing will happen” was something he was familiar with.
The next time a nurse came along to fiddle with his IV drip and note down some incomprehensible readings she was getting from the machines, Jack tried to keep his voice causal as he said, ‘Does that redhead’s file say she’s allergic to penicillin?’
That earned a strange look, ‘I can’t provide other patient’s information-’
‘Because she is allergic, is all.’ – please don’t ask me how I know – ‘And I just thought that that would be important if you… if you didn’t know that.’
The nurse looked from Jack to the girl two beds down, whom Jack had never even spoken to, and said, ‘I’ll look into it.’ in a voice dripping with doubt.
He nodded, and soon he was left alone with the blue stripes in the curtains and the soothing lilac walls, telling himself that he’d done all that was reasonable in this situation, and that there was no such thing as precognition anyway, and that he should just relax and stop thinking about it.
Three days later, Jack learnt the first two lessons about his new power. First, that it was real, and he was just going to have to deal with it. Second, that he only ever got one chance to save a life.
The nurse was there again as the redhead was taken from the room. For a moment they met each other’s eyes, both of them with guilt, and they averted them in silent agreement not to say a word about their conversation.
The first sign of Lardo’s return was Shitty’s excited yelling as they entered the Haus together. It took a few moments for Jack to be able to see past the sudden flurry of movement to the short girl beyond. His ‘Oh, hey Lardo, you’re back!’ was swallowed by her and Shitty’s mirthful argument about her new hair cut.
A hug for Jack, an introduction for Bittle, and then she was asking ‘What did I miss?’
‘Oh man,’ Shitty replied, one arm firmly around her shoulders, ‘Like, a million pies. You’ve gotta try them, Bitty here is the best baker I’ve ever met. What else? Oh yeah, Kent Parson broke into the Haus and made blueberry pancakes, so that was interesting.’
At that comment, Jack and Lardo shared a look that he was sure he only half understood.
‘And no disasters happened in my absence?’
‘None.’ Jack confirmed, ‘Turns out your job isn’t that important after all.’
‘Funny, Zimmermann. You could at least say hello before chirping me.’
‘Hello,’ he conceded, ‘We all missed you.’
She smiled at that, ‘Yeah, you better have. Anyway, I can’t be bothered coming up with a clever chirp to respond with so I’m just gonna point out that your hair looks stupid.’
‘I’m serious about the pie.’ Shitty added, ‘Bits, are you baking? How long until Lards can taste your magnificent pies?’
‘About half an hour? It’s pecan, I hope you like it.’
Lardo grinned at Bittle and then turned to Jack, ‘Well then, you can fill me in on everything that I urgently need to fix. Or organise. Or freak out about. And then we can wonder aloud how you ever survived without me.’
‘Probably a miracle.’ Shitty suggested, with Jack nodding ardently in agreement.
She moved on into the living room, dropping down onto the green sofa with a proprietary air, and Jack dutifully took a seat at the other end.
‘So how’s everyone been?’
It was an extremely broad question. Jack wasn’t sure if he was supposed to answer person-by-person, or to go by averages for every week she’d been gone. But it seemed a casual enough inquiry so Jack resolved to answer it the way he’d been taught to answer most variations of that question.
‘Great,’ she deflected, with a slight wave of her hand, ‘And how’s Kent Parson been?’
If she really wanted to know the answer to that question, she could have just turned on Sports Center. So Jack went for some deflection of his own and answered, ‘He’s not on the team so that’s probably not relevant.’
‘Bro dodges questions like Bitty dodges checks.’ Shitty’s voice cut in. They both turned their heads to see him leaning against the doorway with a grin that suggested that Jack was about to be ganged up on, ‘Meaning gracelessly, and in a complete panic.’
‘Hey!’ objected Bittle’s voice, from deep within the kitchen.
Seizing his opportunity, Jack mentioned, ‘He’s actually improving. And speaking of Bittle, you’re all going to learn some figure skating for one of those PR videos Samwell is insisting on us making.’
Shitty stood up straight, expression changing from relaxed to outraged in an instant. Even Lardo looked panicked, until Jack assured her that she wasn’t going to be involved in the mess. She was very enthusiastic thereafter.
‘W-when were you going to tell us?’ Shitty spluttered, ‘Why don’t we get a say?’
Lardo, whose attempts to appear sagely were undermined by the fact that she was blatantly thrilled, said, ‘Do it for the vine.’
Jack’s turn, ‘Do it to prove that even male athletes can enjoy stereotypically feminine pastimes?’
Shitty folded his arms defensively, but said nothing.
‘Do it to give the world its only opportunity to see Jack Zimmermann looking uncoordinated on the ice?’ Lardo suggested.
His shoulders sagged, but his resolve, though shaken, held.
‘Do it because Bittle bakes you a lot of pies.’ Jack tried, playing the last card he had short of “do it because I said so”.
Finally, Shitty relented.
‘Alright fine,’ he said, ‘but I want a limit on how many times you can show me falling over in that video.’
It wasn’t much later that Jack was being informed that Bittle was suddenly on his line.
Because apparently the coaches hated him.
Or, maybe, whatever magical things were directly or indirectly responsible for his powers, they wanted to prevent him from actually making it to the NHL by whatever means possible. He couldn’t think of a reason for such a stratagem, but having Bittle on his line was nonetheless as effective a sabotage as if the NCAA suddenly declared that all players with a last name starting with Z must have their legs duct taped together at the knees for every game.
A few phrases from the justification stuck out, ‘…figured you wouldn’t be surprised… pretty apparent… you’re a better player when you’re with Bittle.’
Who else was it apparent to? His parents had no insight into the team practices, but they always seemed to know. And this suddenly made his entire Montreal winter make sense.
He threw a glance back at Bittle, mentally adding him to the list of people who were the major problems in his life. The tiny baker from Georgia now joined the ranks of Kent Parson, Officer Erangi, and Lord Stanley.
They won the game.
For the first time, Jack wasn’t sure if he was happy about that or not.
Chapter 6: “For then the devil takes natural wine from some vessel and fills their flasks for them”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The news was reporting a factory explosion in the industrial area, and Jack felt his stomach drop. If this were something he’d have to fix… seven people had died, but preventing it seemed impossible.
Give me time.
At least the time it took for the investigation to be complete, so that Jack actually understood what had gone wrong. A factory explosion could have been anything at all and he wasn’t keen to adlib that close to an imminent inferno.
The breaking news alerts came first. On Jack’s phone there were myriad apps for this purpose. Fox, CNN, RT, NBC, BBC, NYT, AJ, all the other acronyms that he could think of, and then the local news for any city he ever spent any time in, plus Las Vegas. If his phone buzzed more than four times in a minute, he knew something big was happening.
And then there was the evening news. Every day, with a religious zeal, he streamed it on his laptop in the quiet of his room so he never had to explain to anyone why he was taking notes.
Jot down questions for each death.
Memorise. You can’t bring the notebook with you.
The next step was, inevitably, hope that he wasn’t going to have to repeat a day or ten. But this one made Jack endlessly guilty in a way he could never possibly explain to his therapist. Hoping that it wasn’t a vision meant hoping that someone was permanently dead. And yet…
He wasn’t given the results of the investigation. He wasn’t even given more than two days before the explosion was due to occur. And yeah, it was almost certainly the explosion he was supposed to stop, but that didn’t prevent him from dialling one of the many numbers he had learnt by heart, to leave an anonymous tip about the murder in Austin. The train derailment in Oregon, he’d developed a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type strategy for this, so at the cost of that creeping feeling that he was going to end up arrested, he nonetheless reported a bomb threat he’d read somewhere just credible enough to be a concern.
Maybe he should say there’s a bomb threat in the factory. Certainly something was going to explode.
The night in question fell with the hush of drifting snow, and Jack laced up his running shoes – not his yellow ones, but the black ones that he liked less but made him feel less nervous that he’d get noticed – and slipped his window open to sneak out into the reading room.
The house had fallen silent, and Jack had more than enough practice at this, but this time there was something of a problem.
Shitty and his moustache were bled of colour under the sodium orange streetlights; ghostly skin, inky black jacket and scarf.
‘Shhhhh.’ Jack responded, without really thinking.
In a stage whisper, Shitty asked, ‘Why?’
There was no believable answer to that question.
‘…Why are you out here?’ Jack asked instead.
A pause. In the darkness, both their faces were difficult to read.
‘I asked you first.’
‘I’m your best friend, don’t pull rank.’
‘I’m…’ Jack was running out of reasons to dodge the question, ‘…taller.’
Shitty narrowed his eyes, something Jack was only aware of by the glint of his eyes being dulled somewhat, ‘I’m smarter.’
This was true, but not something that he was exactly willing to concede to a man who used “brah” as a filler word.
‘What does that have to do with anything?’
‘Just answer the question, Shits.’
With his eyes adjusting to the night, Jack could make out Shitty withdrawing into his winter clothes by the city lights burning into the heavy clouds above.
‘If you must know,’ he mumbled into his scarf, ‘I was sneaking out.’
‘Well so was I.’
A few seconds of silence. In the stillness, the odd distant tree shook in the smallest possible breeze.
‘I won’t ask you where you’re going if you don’t ask me.’
Jack lowered himself smoothly down one pole to the ground, then allowed himself a few extra seconds to observe Shitty lumbering clumsily after him.
‘Good job.’ Jack chirped, still in a whisper.
Shitty’s glare was obvious even at this hour of the night, ‘All I got from that is that you’ve had a lot of practice sneaking out.’
They went their separate ways at the gate, both trying to watch the other for as long as possible, both trying not to be observed as they headed in their respective directions.
At the corner, and finally out of sight, Jack broke into a jog.
There was a corner of his mind set aside for detailed maps of any city he lived in for more than a fortnight; sometimes things came up, and sometimes he couldn’t risk getting lost.
It was a two-hour jog. Even with the sense of urgency palpable as he reached the factory gates, part of his mind was calculating the effect of the exercise on his workout regime.
Here the streetlights were distant and dim, and few buildings were awake enough to cast their glow on this street. All he could see were heavy iron gates and, beyond, the daunting edifice silhouetted black against the bruised sky. It was a staunch, brick thing, imposed on the skyline from an era of more substantial buildings. There were windows, too, small but numerous, set deep into the brick like sunken eyes and only visible by the slightly darker shadows from inside the building itself. In the daylight, its classic smokestacks and its regular, precise angles would be a postcard picture of industry; Boston clutching to the romance of its manufacturing past. At night, it seemed to Jack more like a fortress.
He drew further into the shadows and slipped out his phone, cursing at the light of the screen.
Dialling… ringing… more ringing dragging on as Jack implored his friend to answer and silently condemned his own lack of foresight.
A groan, a tone of confusion, and, ‘Zimms? What the hell?’
‘Thank god, I need some advice.’
The response was slow, and in a fleeting moment of panic Jack thought that Kent had fallen asleep again, ‘It’s gone one in the morning here, why… I’m not dead again am I?’
‘No, you’re fine, it’s-’
The line went dead. Asshole.
Dialling… ringing… more ringing while Jack impotently sent furious thoughts across the country to a penthouse apartment in Las Vegas.
‘Parse, this is serious.’
‘Why… is it always serious with you…?’
He either really wasn’t awake yet, or he still didn’t understand a goddamned thing about Jack’s life, ‘Oh, you know, occupational hazard of being an agent of life and death, I suppose.’
‘And also you have no sense of humour.’
Even with the urgency of the situation, Jack allowed himself a few minutes to swear Kent out in internal French, before accepting that this would be the price extracted for assistance, ‘Sure. And also I have no sense of humour. Will you help me?’
The ‘I s’pose.’ was half swallowed by a yawn, ‘What do you need?’
‘I need to break into a factory,’ he said, suddenly mindful of potential eavesdroppers even though there was no one in sight, ‘you’ve got a knack for-’
There was a sudden rustle and a muffled but screeching meow, and Jack pictured Kent sitting up abruptly in bed.
‘Groseille.’ Kent cursed, and Jack had to force himself to stifle his laughter. A long time ago, back when Kent had been optimistic about picking up the language, Jack had taken it upon himself to teach his friend some useful vocabulary. That is to say, he’d listen random words and claimed that they were Quebecois slang. “Groseille”, meaning “current”, was here being used in place of “Jesus fucking Christ”. Even though Kent had long since learnt the corrections, some words lingered on as habit.
‘Groseille.’ Jack agreed.
‘Why are you always go big or go home? Contrary to popular belief, there is a middle ground.’
Says the person who ate fruit loops out of the Stanley Cup.
‘Seven people, Parse. Factory explosion. What would you have me do?’
‘Gros-fucking-eille. I need my beauty sleep, don’t put this kind pressure on me. How long?’
Jack looked at his watch, grumbled to himself about the darkness, and resorted to pulling his phone back from his ear to check the time.
‘Two hours.’ he said, adding the name and address of the factory for good measure.
On the other end of the line, there was a little more shuffling, then typing of keys, and finally Kent saying, ‘You know the NSA could probably catch me for this.’
That’s why I’m not texting, Jack thought, but that wasn’t reassuring so instead he said, ‘You’ll be fine. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.’
‘Okay first, next time you need this sort of advice, call me at the planning stage. Second, do you have a blanket for that barbed wire?’
‘Aaaaand this is why you should call me at the planning stage. Pick the lock on the gate. It’s a padlock it’s easy.’
Jack didn’t even bother replying.
Eventually, Kent ventured, ‘Do you have lockpicks?’
A heavy sigh, ‘Hair pins? Paper clips? Anything? How big is the padlock?’
Nervously, Jack stepped out from the shadow to investigate, ‘Large, old. I’ve got a paperclip and two safety pins?’
He could feel the glare crossing the entire Midwest to meet him.
‘Fine. Bend the tip of the safety pins at a right angle, one closer to the end than the other. Put some zigzags in the tip of the paperclip. We’re doing this the easy way because you are a goddamn nightmare.’
Jack did as he was told as quick as he could manage, and lowered himself onto his knees just to feel a little less exposed as he examined the lock. It was impossible to see in detail, but he could feel rust flaking off on his fingers.
‘Hold the padlock steady with one hand.’
‘Now, one safety pin is going to be your tension wrench. Stick the tip of the one where the bent bit is longer into the bottom of the lock, where the flat bit of the key should fit.’
‘Try and turn it a little. It should move slightly to one side in the direction that the key would turn.’
Jack did as he was instructed, feeling the tiniest give in the lock as he nudged it to the left.
‘Good. Now, with your other hand, put the zigzag bit of the-’
‘I only have two hands, Parse.’ Jack hissed into the phone he was holding between his shoulder and ears, ‘One’s keeping the lock steady, the other’s holding the safety pin-’
‘Whatever. Do you want me to levitate the paperclip? I see the future, I’m not a sorcerer.’
Kent’s sigh on the other end of the line was drawn out for effect, and Jack wondered if he understood the risky situation that he was currently in.
‘Hold.’ Kent instructed, with exaggerated slowness, ‘The lock. And. The tension wrench. In. The same. Hand.’
‘You only need to hold the wrench in place with your thumb.’
‘Jesus, Jesus. Alright. I’ve never done this before, you know.’
He could feel one of his legs threatening to cramp.
Kent was still sounding irate when he continued, ‘The zigzag thing you’re holding? That’s a type of pick called a rake. It’s good for beginners and idiot psychics who should have learnt this skill by now but haven’t.’
‘I don’t need the names, Parse-
‘Start with the other pick. Safety pin where the bent bit is shorter. Just… put it in the lock like you see on TV. Far back as you can go.’
It was actually harder that it looked. The point of the pin seemed to keep getting stuck on something inside the lock. But eventually he was confident enough that that was the end that he asked for the next instructions.
‘Alright. Shit, you should’ve asked me earlier so I could send you a diagram. Okay… most locks have tumblers, right? They’re those bits with the springs that are pushed into the mechanism to stop it turning. The end-’
‘Just tell me what to do.’
There wasn’t much in the way of movement available to Jack, who was trying to shuffle his leg enough that the cramp wouldn’t actually set in. Through the bars of the gates, one electric lamp showed the movement of what appeared to be a guard.
‘You’ll need to know this. Stop interrupting me. The end of tumblers are called pins. They’re not attached but they’re these little metal cylinders that the tumblers push into the lock. They should be fully inside the bit that turns, but the tumblers are half in and half out so it’s stopped from moving. Are you with me so far?’
‘Yes.’ Jack confirmed, through gritted teeth.
‘Good. Keys work because the pins are different sizes. The ridges connect with the pins and push them against the tumblers just the right amount that the point where they meet is in line with the edge of the bit that turns. Pins inside the turning bit, tumblers outside of it.’
A diagram really would have been helpful at that point, ‘Not clear why I have to know this.’
‘Because you have to do this by feel. Which means you have to understand what you’re feeling for. Now. The pins will all be at the same level when you start, but the shorter ones will be easier to nudge into place because the spring is longer and has more room to constrict, right? The longer ones will offer more resistance when you nudge them. Generally, you use one of those hook picks-’
‘The ones you see in movies?’
A sigh, ‘Yes. The bent safety pin one. Generally you use those to nudge each pin into place, starting with the shortest, and each time adding slightly more pressure on the tension wrench to hold them in place. The lock should move a little more to the side when each tumbler is in place. The pin drops down again, but it’s only gravity and there should be no spring acting on it. It’ll be easier to move. Got the basics?’
‘Good. Now, because you’re useless you’ll be using the rake. But first I need you to move the hook pick back out slowly, counting the pins and working out which are shorter and which are longer. Clear?’
Jack summoned his lifetime of sensory issues to come to his aid and focused. One; easy to move. Two; harder. Three; medium? Four; somewhere in between one and three. For the first time in a long time, he wished Kent was there with him.
‘Four.’ Jack said, ‘Short, long, medium, shortish.’
‘Finally.’ now put the rake in, ‘right to the end. Do you think you can manage?’
There was definitely a guard there, moving in and out of the sparse lights. Hopefully just the one. Hopefully going to round the corner again.
‘Ta gueule. I got it.’
‘Okay, this is the tricky bit.’ – putain, Jack thought, how have I not already done the tricky bit? – ‘Gently put a bit more pressure on the tension wrench, and as you do so move the rake up and backwards. One smooth motion. If you push the wrench too hard you’ll stop the pins from moving, too softly and they won’t stay in place. Gentle pressure, and if it moves then add a little more. Go.’
Jack had constructed a diagram in his mind, and he followed it studiously as he did as he was told. Now the darkness was a help not a hindrance; sight was useless for this anyway, and now his other senses were being forced to take the lead.
‘It didn’t unlock.’
‘Keep doing it. Tell me if the wrench moves.’
Up and back. Up and back. Try not to think about your comfortable bed. Definitely do not think about how your career will be over if you’re caught. Up and back.
He felt, rather than heard, a tiny click.
‘It moved? What now?’
All of a sudden, Kent had moved from annoyed to reassuring in his tone, ‘Now you’ve got the hang of it. Don’t loosen the wrench or the tumblers will fall again, just use the hook pick to work out which are in place.’
Easy. He might actually be able to pull this off. Steady hands… slow movement… there was no pressure against the first and third pins, and Jack told Kent as much.
‘Fourth one’s short?’
‘Alright, use the hook pick to try and push that one into place. Same drill with the tension wrench. You’re nearly done.’
Gingerly, Jack nudged the pin nearest to him, slowly lifting it up and-
He froze, ‘What?’
‘I forgot to say,’ Kent told him, a little guiltily, ‘If you lift it too far then the tension wrench will keep the pin stuck as well and you might need to start again.’
‘…You forgot to say?’
‘It’s a high pressure situation!’
‘Yeah, it is, Parse! That’s why you don’t forget to say things like that.’
Deep breath. Think about measurements. With no hands left to reach into his pocket, Jack visualised a key and thought about the sort of distance he should be expecting. A millimetre at a time was too much, so he broke that down to miniscule fractions. Even pressure on the wrench, slow movements, the directed will of a practiced witch, and-
Again, it wasn’t a sound but a feeling. The wrench shifted slightly again and the pin fell back into place independently of the spring.
‘Nice. Last one?’
‘Last one.’ Jack confirmed.
‘This is the long one, so you don’t have as far to lift it up. Just… take it slow. Keep your hands steady.’
That final instruction wasn’t easy with his heart beating loudly in his ears. That familiar adrenaline. The creeping fear that he could never truly ignore and instead had to somehow separate from his actions for just long enough to push through. Seven people.
This time the tension wrench pulled to the side and upwards fully a quarter of the circle.
‘What moved?’ Kent asked, entirely concern.
‘The lock. The thing. It spun? I can move it.’
‘Holy shit.’ came Kent’s response. ‘I think you actually did it. All you gotta do now is push the wrench further around until it unlocks. Just like a key.’
Jack slipped the picks back into his pocket first, so he had a hand free to turn the lock. At this stage, just using his thumb seemed far too risky.
‘It’s off.’ he breathed.
‘Oh my god. I can’t believe you actually did it. First time. Normally this takes people weeks, I’m actually impressed Zimms.’
Next time they met in person, Jack might actually kill him.
‘You’re telling me this now?’ he hissed, ‘I went through all that and you didn’t even think it would work?’
‘I didn’t want to panic you! You didn’t exactly have a lot of options.’
‘And besides,’ Kent added hurriedly, ‘I… had faith in you?’
‘You’re full of shit.’
‘And you’ve lost a quarter of an hour. Get a move on.’
For maybe thirty seconds, Jack remained in place. The padlock had been pushed to one side and the iron gate was held in his tense grip. Silence. Stillness. If there was a guard, Jack couldn’t see him.
‘What next?’ he whispered, pulling the gate just open enough to slip inside, and then settling it back in place as he ducked for the shadows of the thick brick walls.
‘Hang on, hang on.’ was Kent’s response. Now that the first drama was over, he was back to being irate, ‘This isn’t like it is in movies, Christ, I don’t have a detailed plan of the building on my fucking computer. I’ve got Google Earth, the company website, and a Wikipedia page on Boston factories from this era, don’t expect any miracles.’
Jesus Christ. He was going to go to prison. Officer Erangi was going to put the handcuffs on him personally. Seven innocent people were going to die and there was no way that Jack wasn’t going to be blamed with the situation the way that it was. He’d lose access to the news. He’d be stuck saving prisoners from each other. He’d never play professional hockey again. He’d-
‘Good news, they’ve got a terrible security firm.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because they didn’t tell the company not to write about what firm they’re using on their company website. Bad news is that there a big multi-national. That means standard operating procedures, internal policies, that sort of thing. The contractors may have cut corners on security but we’ve gotta assume they haven’t.’
Jack still hadn’t moved, but at least the cramp had vanished from his leg. It was something of a relief; he’ll be needing that to run away when he gets caught.
‘So what do I do?’
‘Fuck, I know this firm is big on putting up cheap warning signs instead of expensive alarms? They’d rather scare thieves off…’
‘That’s on the firm’s website?’
‘Actually – now don’t ask why – but I sortofknewthatalready.’
There was not enough time for Jack to inquire any deeper, so he filed that information away for a potential future where he’s not imprisoned, and began walking along in the shadow of the brick wall, ‘Any other fun facts that could be useful here?’
A miniscule pause.
‘Technically the definition of burglary is entering a place with intent to commit a crime inside. So you won’t actually be guilty.’
‘Also, it’s only trespassing after someone has asked you to leave. Although there may be an argument that the request is implied by the barbed wire-’
‘Kent, for fuck’s sake, as reassuring as this all is, I’m more concerned with how to get inside.’
If not for the need not to give away his presence, Jack would have yelled.
‘You are the worst sidekick ever.’
‘Yeah? Well you are the worse hero ever. You didn’t even know how to pick locks. You gave me absolutely no warning. You should be the sidekick. Just tell me when someone’s going to die and let me deal with it.’
‘I’m rich enough to be Batman.’
‘An hour and a half, Parse.’
‘I don’t know! Look, your only options are door, window, or fucking tunnel right on through the brick wall somehow. That’s it.’ But here Kent took a steadying breath and moved a little from anger to resignation as he suggested, ‘I can’t tell properly from here, but in some of these photos there looks like there’s a place around the back you might be able to climb. Higher windows are always best, blah blah blah.
‘Thank you, Batman.’
Now moving again, Jack focused on keeping his footfalls silent and staying in the darkest shadows. This was the longest possible route to the building, but every so often he saw movement suggesting a guard (‘There’s probably only two of them.’ Kent informed him, ‘They only need one, but having two means they can watch each other and won’t fall asleep.’) and froze.
‘Nearly.’ Jack whispered, turning away from the building as he did so in case even that minute phrase somehow carried.
‘Good. Next time get one of those douchey Bluetooth things to keep your hands free. Can you see it? Is it climbable?’
‘The shorter buildings at the back?’
‘I’m not fucking spiderman.’
‘I should hope not,’ was the only response, ‘He’s too young for you.’
‘Okay, sorry, you’re right. This probably isn’t really time for jokes, just. Shit, I’m not there I can’t see. Are there windows? Drainpipes? Shorter things close to the wall? Ledges? Cracks in the bricks? Anything?’
‘There’s a drainpipe?’
‘Don’t climb it. It probably won’t take your weight.’
‘Then why did you-’
‘Carpark.’ Kent said suddenly, ‘I disregarded it because everyone would be home, but there might be security guard cars?’
Still keeping to the fence line, Jack dutifully inched to the other side of the jutting building. And then, with no small measure of reluctance, he had to acknowledge the fact that Kent was actually useful. Two guards. Two cars. But…
‘Neither of them are close enough to the wall.’
‘So how am I going to use it to climb?’
When Kent next spoke, it was with a voice so condescending he seemed to have expected Jack to learn this at the same time he’d learnt the alphabet, ‘Unlock. Hand break. Push car. And try to park it neatly so if you have to leave in a hurry it doesn’t look like anyone’s touched it.’
Time was very rapidly slipping away. Even in the warm clothes he’d brought he was starting to shiver against the early morning cold.
‘Cliff notes for car theft.’ he said, concisely, ‘Also, what are the chances that security guards won’t have car alarms.’
‘They’re not well paid. Break window. No! Wait, too obvious. Um… do you have a coat hanger?’
The carpark was lit just enough to navigate at night, and Jack was painfully aware both that the security guards would be able to see him easier, and that his ability to peer into the darkness around the building was impaired.
‘Do. I. Have. A. Coat hanger?’
He tried to move as silently and rapidly as possible, before crouching down behind the car in question and begging for luck or magic to be on his side.
‘Can you try…’
He put one hand against the door handle, wondering if there was any way that this sort of lock could be picked.
Peering over the side with his heart beating loud and fast, he tried to scan for guards through the car’s windows. Just inside the glass, something caught his eye.
He tugged at the door handle.
Oh my god.
‘You might have to just break the glass, sorry. Just-’
‘He left the car unlocked.’ Jack muttered, half-caught on a sigh of relief.
‘That works too.’
‘I’m putting my phone in my pocket so I can use my hands. If the call cuts out, don’t ring back.’
‘Not an idiot, Zimms. Good luck.’
Gingerly, he pulled the door open and leant inside the car. The first thing he noticed was the thick scent of aging polyester and the ghosts of past takeout meals. Turn inside light off. Hand break. Simple. Just push it down and –
The hand break was sticky under his fingers, and for a moment Jack paused long enough to think I hope those seven people appreciate what I’m going through for them.
– rock forward. Dig feet into the ground. (Try not to think about fingerprints of shoe prints or any sort of prints that could be traced back to him). And slowly…
There was no way of knowing where the guards were, and if one looked up in time to see his car moving on its own, he was screwed.
Of course those seven people wouldn’t appreciate him, they’d hopefully never even know he was here. But he pushed on against the weight of the car, and breathed a little in relief as the brick wall came to meet him.
It wasn’t easy to close a car door quietly, but he somehow managed it.
Kent “Batman” Parson, eat your heart out, Jack thought to himself, as he crept up to the car’s roof and measured up the distance. Even positioned at the lowest point of the zigzagging roof, he was going to need every one of the three extra inches he had on Kent.
A guard was coming around the corner. Jack did the only thing he could think of and froze, one foot still poised to jump. Slowly… painfully… the guard moved on.
Now or never, he told himself, and jumped.
His hands grasped the metal ridges of the roof with a terrifying bang. Now wasn’t the time to freeze and hope no one sees him, he decided. Now was the time to scramble up the wall and get as far away as possible. Over one steel peak. A second. And now there were footsteps and a flashlight and Jack decided that this was the price of his luck with the car.
He slipped down into the next valley as a voice called, ‘Oi, June, was your car here when you parked it?’
A female voice now, replying, ‘No it wasn’t.’ and Jack pressed himself against the cold gutter between the two pitches in the roof.
‘You sure? There’s no one near it. Can’t think of a reason anyone would move a car.’
In all the heist films that Holster made him watch, this part was far less terrifying than in really life. Because Jack could think of one very obvious reason why someone would move a car, and if either of the guards thought of it then he couldn’t see a way out.
‘Hey! What are you- Get off my car!’
‘I’m just checking…’ the flashlight lit up the first signs of a drizzling rain, just above Jack’s hiding spot, ‘I bet you left your car unlocked again.’
Now… would be… a terrible time… for an anxiety attack. Jack tried to steady his breathing and remind himself of the legal requirements of burglary and trespass.
‘Shut up.’ snapped the woman named June, ‘I bet you moved it to prove a point. Now get off before you leave footprints.’
‘I did not move it!’ the man objected, but the flashlight disappeared, ‘This is just you forgetting where you parked.’
‘I remember where I parked, don’t treat me like an idiot.’
Their bickering voices slowly receded, and Jack began to breathe easier again.
‘Well then don’t accuse me of things, jeez.’
Their names weren’t written in Jack’s notebook at the Haus, but only because it hadn’t been real when he’d jotted it down. June Baxter, and Scott Vivian. Two security guards who’d tragically died in a blast due to occur a little over an hour from that moment.
He crept forward again, wincing at every creak of the roofing beneath him. When he got close enough to the main structure, he drew out his phone again and found the call still underway.
‘You there?’ he whispered, hoping like hell that Kent had the patience not to put the phone down or go back to sleep, ‘I’ve made it across the roof.’
‘I’m here. You’re gonna have to do some parkour, dude. I apologise in advance.’
That second sentence immediately made the top ten of Most Ominous Things Ever Said To Jack Zimmermann.
‘Well, as you’ve just proved, windows near rooftops are strategic weaknesses. There’s no way a building this old has all the windows alarmed, but I wouldn’t risk these.’
Jack scanned the building. On this side, the windows were set just as deep into the brick. But the space between them was as wide as the space above them was tall.
‘I’m going to die.’ he returned, mostly because he wanted than on record in case there was an I-told-you-so-moment for his half-wraith self when he inevitably haunted Kent Parson.
‘Won’t you just come back again?’
‘Don’t think so,’ he replied, before thinking that maybe there was some value in a lie to reassure Kent, ‘I’ve already experienced this day once, I don’t think that this can also be a vision.’
There was a nervous pause.
‘I’ll try to find you another witch?’ Kent offered, uncertainly.
‘Thanks.’ – one more deep breath – ‘So where am I heading?’
‘Two windows up. And one to the left, it’s darker that side without the carpark. Talk to me if you can before you get in, I’ll tell you how to look for alarms.’
Jack repeated the earlier warning and slipped his phone back into his pocket. Left first, he decided, so if he fell off then it wouldn’t be so far. Despite this little bit of safety, he could feel his hands shaking unhelpfully as he gripped the brick window frame. One foot planted on the sill. Reach across to the next window. Try not to cry from fear, it would only blur his eyesight.
He could reach just far enough to the next window that he could leave himself space for his other foot. The cost was that he couldn’t fix that leg against the frame to stabilise himself.
There was a secret to Jack’s hockey talent, it went like this;
Ice was harder than concrete, but you only realise that when you step on it for the first time. It was freezing, it was terrifying, and rather than the fresh white ground it seemed to be from afar, below the criss-crosses of earlier skaters it looked more like the surface of the moon.
He was scared of falling. Always had been.
And that was all there was too it, really. Everything he’d learnt, he’d studied carefully first. He’d worked out every movement required and judged the ease with which he could do it. When he didn’t trust himself, he broke it up into individual steps and practiced them one by one. It gave him some precious confidence, and it meant that he always knew exactly what he was capable of.
So here’s how this trick went; grasp the brick tightly under both hands. One foot on each ledge. Leave enough space for the second foot to land. Now, not too fast. If you pull across too quickly you’ll only swing out and lose your balance backward. The right foot should move halfway across the space, until you find purchase against the brick wall. You’re still relying mostly on your left hand – too much weight on your right foot and you’ll slip – but you’re stable enough to let go of the right window and let your foot fill that gap you’d carefully left. Brace yourself. Try to relax.
Jack was now perched, still trembling, on the next ledge over.
The building was old, so the windows were still relatively small. This one was just narrow enough that he could stretch his arms out and press hard against both sides. Good. Brace yourself again, and do the same thing with your feet.
He was trying very hard not to think about the fact that he now using only vertical walls and willpower to keep from falling.
Shift arms upwards.
Jump upwards with legs.
Repeat until you can reach the next windowsill up and-
There was no room for him to scramble up onto the ledge. His room to manoeuvre had all but abandoned him, and he wasn’t even sure if he could climb down from there. But that was immaterial. Seven people.
It’s no different to a chin up. If you don’t have the upper body strength for that then you might as well just give up on hockey altogether.
By the time he’d made it to the next level, he was about ready to throw up.
One more. Same movement. And then-
‘I’m here. I’m standing on the window ledge, what am I looking for?’
‘Wires. Check the corners. You won’t be able to tell conclusively that there isn’t anything there, but you’ll at least be able to spot it if it’s one of the older types.’
Jack flashed the light of his phone at all the corners as hurriedly as he dared. There was nothing visible, and now he was just telling himself over and over that he couldn’t back out now.
‘I can’t see anything.’
‘Okay…’ even Kent sounded terrified now, ‘you’ve got less than an hour. The windows in all their publicity photos have latches, so-’
‘It’s the same.’
‘Good. Stick your pocket knife in and shimmy it, like I showed you when you used to forget your keys.’
Jack didn’t say anything, he was too busy trying to calm the new shaking that came with the sudden stomach-drop at Kent’s words.
‘Jack? Do you have a pocket knife?’
‘Okay, first of all, literally why would you not carry a pocket knife? Second, use one of your rich guy credit cards if you have to.’
Okay. That was okay. He could do that.
‘This coming from the guy who called himself Batman not long ago.’
‘Less chirping. More breaking and entering.’
Sliding the window open was the easiest part of the whole endeavour up to that point. It almost seemed unreal, and for a few moments Jack braced himself for the inevitable alarm.
‘Okay, good. Now just get inside.’
‘Forty-five minutes to come up with a solution.’
Jack braved another flash of his cellphone light to try and make out his surroundings easier, and in doing so caught sight of his battery symbol.
‘Two problems. First, my battery’s close to dying. Second, this is the main factory floor, and I’m four stories up.’
More dreadful silence.
‘Kenny, you gotta help-’
‘There are no photos of the inside more recently than the forties. I’m… I don’t know how to help. Are there vent ducts?’
‘I can’t see a thing.’
‘Okay, shit… you’re going to have to hang up.’
‘You need the battery for the flashlight. Don’t point it at windows. Look for vent shafts or catwalks or anything, and if you get caught I’ll pay your bail.’
‘…okay. Okay… thanks for your help… I’ll just…’
‘Good luck.’ Kent said, and then the call ended.
For the smallest fraction of a second, Jack stood still in the darkness and wondered how on earth he kept getting himself into these situations. Bad luck. A bit of magic. The world’s most volatile friendship. And his useless phone battery that he wasn’t charging that night because he was far too busy breaking into a factory.
Then he got back into action.
Under his cellphone flashlight – kept away from windows, but still bright enough to make him nervous – the huge, hollow space was thrown into distant greyscale against deep black shadows. There was no catwalk at the level he was on, but the one below him was close enough that he could jump. He kept the light on for a few more seconds, watching the dull grey steel running close to the wall beneath him, and tried to memorise precisely where he’d need to land.
When the area was plunged into darkness once again, Jack dropped off his ledge before he could lose his nerve. There was nothing but relief when his feet hit the solid floor (bent knees to absorb both shock and sound) and his hands found the rails on either side of him.
From the details he’d memorised, this area was still in danger from the explosion. What had caused it, and how to stop it, remained mysteries.
A strange snapping sound, a thick buzz, and then the whole hall flickered to life under the sudden florescent lighting that made him squint his dark-adjusted eyes. He froze on instinct, silently thanking luck and Kent Parson and any gods he could name that he wasn’t still on the ledge. But this was the only saving grace; the factory was open, the workers were arriving, and Jack only had forty minutes left to save seven lives.
And get out, he reminded himself, don’t get caught.
Still three stories above them, Jack was relying heavily on none of them having a reason to look up. What was it that Kent taught him when they were still teenagers? Head high, posture relaxed, walk calmly. Act like you’re supposed to be there and no one will question you. He distinctly remembered being told that it worked “about eighty percent of the time”. Well, he didn’t have any other options.
Each step sounded loud to Jack’s nervous ears, with nothing to silence the catwalk underneath him. It would only draw attention, but if anyone looked up and wondered what he was doing there, no one had seemed to have said anything about it.
He still didn’t have a plan.
The end of the catwalk lead to third story offices, cramped and distinguished by the cheap ceiling tiles they all shared. That way didn’t offer Jack many options, but then neither did the terrifyingly open factory floor where he was sure he’d be caught before he could begin to look for the problem.
Worse, the office workers were arriving too, and there was no way that Jack’s “act like you belong there” strategy would hold up under any moderate scrutiny.
His mind split into two opposing sides; hide, and don’t hide you idiot you’re running out of time. But with no plan, and few other options, Jack gave up and ducked into the nearest nondescript door. He’d been hoping for a broom closet, but instead found himself in a storage closet. It seemed close enough, except broom closets didn’t have the layers of shelfing that storage closets had. He breathed in and tried to make himself small. Still, the door wouldn’t quite close, but he managed to pull it too enough not to raise suspicions.
Back in darkness now, all he could see were the people in cheap suits walking past him in both directions. This… this may be a problem.
He needed ideas. Or resources. Or a miracle. Something. Behind him were stacks of printer paper and staplers. Above, sellotape, boxes of pens, spare printer ink, labels. There was little that could aid any sort of criminal exercise. Next shelf up, all he could see from that angle were the spare ring binders and a small fire extinguisher. It would be useless against the explosion, but somehow it was reassuring to know that it was there.
Thirty minutes left, by the time on his watch. The hallway outside was emptying and he was stock still in the darkness, desperately trying to think of ideas.
What did he have? The element of surprise? The confidence that he could outrun anyone chasing him… office supplies… a fire extinguisher…
The entire concept of fire safety. The ceiling in the corridor beyond was adorned with a bright red sprinkler, and Jack was halfway to taking some of the paper behind him when he realised a problem. Without Kent’s voice on the other end of the line, Jack took it upon himself to demand why don’t you carry a lighter on you? If he ever got out of this, he was going to start making sure that he was always prepared.
Twenty-seven minutes, now. Not enough time to learn how to start a fire boy scout style, but that was far from the only way to raise the alarm. He pressed his ear to the crack in the door, listening to the silence outside long enough to assure himself that the place was empty, before pushing the door open.
It was just for a few seconds. Just long enough for him to scan that area for fire alarms to pull.
Well, then. Time for some more strategizing.
What he really needed – aside from everyone nearby to be well enough stocked with office supplies not to go looking for more – was to get the timing right. How long did it take to get everyone out during a fire alarm? How long until the all-clear is given?
No, wait. He’d missed a step.
How long between everyone leaving and the fire department arriving? They’d show up for an unplanned drill, and he couldn’t allow any fire fighters nearby when the explosion occurred.
Five minutes, he decided, reassuring himself that the area to be damaged was not near the exits and, anyway, the factory floor would be the easiest part to evacuate. Five minutes. He could do that. He’d just have to wait.
He was too anxious for patience, but he didn’t see a better alternative. So he remained in place, absolutely still, watching the hands of his watch slowly creep past the numbers. Twenty… fifteen… ten…
The only person who knew he was there was Kent. It was now gone three in the morning in Vegas, but Jack was sure that he wasn’t getting any sleep. This plan was cutting things a little fine, notwithstanding that it included the explosion going ahead unhindered.
Unless, of course, it was human error. The thought hit him with a sudden jolt. If the explosion was some worker’s accident then all Jack would be doing was delaying it.
It was too late to change his mind now. From the shelves behind him he took two ring binders and a stack of paper. Then, for good measure, he pilfered a stapler. It was the only way that he, standing there in black sports clothes under a thick jacket, could think to seem like he worked there.
Confidence. Head up. Relaxed posture.
A fire alarm shouldn’t be too hard to find, surely? But then, he’d never looked for one before, and all the walls he passed seemed blank and white, barring laminated instructions for a variety of things Jack didn’t understand in the slightest.
The laminated paper next to the stairwell said the word “fire” on it in red font. There was a map. Four minutes.
In case of fire… yeah, yeah. The dots represented fire alarms or extinguishers, and one appeared next to the drawn-on “you are here” arrow. He looked around. There was neither an alarm nor an extinguisher. Three and a half minutes, and he was starting to panic.
He turned back to the map, which was taped loosely to the wall by the top of the page. There should be something right where he was standing, even though the map itself was distorted somewhat by… the… bulge…
There was a slight bulge in the laminated sheet of paper. Jack, barely believing this stupidity, lifted up the fire safety guide to find a fire alarm underneath.
He pulled the alarm.
Now seems like a good time to mention that the next chapter is an intermission.
Chapter 7: Intermission; the Battle of Blair Mountain
This intermission exists for five different reasons, which I'm listing here as a justification because I know that some of you may not be happy to find that this latest chapter isn't actually a chapter. The reasons are as follows:
1) Because I'm cruel to my readers and I want them to have to wait for what happens next. In this, I'm like most writers.
2) Because it's really hard to write scholarly characters. I'm not a historian - my fields of expertise tend to orbit International Relations - but I know from experience that delving into an area of study for hours at a time is fascinating for the scholar and incredibly boring for the audience. What follows is a way to write this side of Jack's character without interrupting the story with miles of boring text about him reading books.
3) Also, because I'm one of those scholarly types, I'm a huge nerd who likes to make people learn things whether they want to or not.
4) This Jack studies the interwar years, and cinema from the interwar years had intermissions.
5) History - real history, not the dry, dismally serious and often patriotic stuff you get in classrooms - is so interesting that I'm actually jealous as a writer. In a story, you have to make everything seem realistic. History has the advantage of actually being real, so it can get away with all sorts of bizarre stuff that just doesn't work in fiction. I mean, I live in a city that was legitimately founded by a con artist who came up with the idea while in prison for kidnapping.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A historian could lose themself in the interwar years. It was an extraordinary, unsettled two decades. A microcosm of the entirety of human history, every classic epic condensed into this volatile era when the world was the largest it ever had been or would ever be again.
It was a terrible time to live.
Bookended by two wars, there was a sense that, really, it was nothing more than an elongated ceasefire. The peace was never stable, and in nineteen thirty-nine what occurred was less a new fight than the continuation of the old one.
It was a unique background for contested cultures to develop, be fought over, change with the seasons. Heavy in the air was a sense that civilisation was teetering on the edge of another abyss and there wasn’t much that anyone could do about it. But this background left another side effect, epitomised by a quiet corner of the Samwell library. The winding tale of history lingered on the twin disasters of the world wars, and the narratives told of the twenty years between were only ever defined by the great dramas surrounding it. Even the name; the interwar years.
But, looking past those infamous global-scale struggles, twenty dizzying, irrepressible years moulded the planet’s modernity.
A historian could get lost in the interwar years, and Jack willingly did.
A political scientist could also get lost in the interwar years, seeing in this strange past the erratic construction of their present. There was a wide consensus that something was wrong, but nothing more than battles over how to fix it. Fascism was unique to this era, and its would-be revolutionaries rivalled the height of socialism. Unions, eugenics, and prohibition all coexisted with the last gasps of anarchism and colonialism. Political debate narrowed rapidly as the century wore on, but if Jack had to explain how the limits of that debate were established, he’d point to the fights of the interwar years.
And fights they truly were. For the last time in civil society, bloodshed was still a currency as much as a crime. Nor did those fights occur in the places that historians and political scientists were accustomed to looking. In the years between 1919 and 1921, three of the strangest battles were fought in three tiny theatres of war.
In 1919, the small, largely Italian town of Fiume was seized by a poet and his trucks full of volunteers, intending it to be returned to Mother Italia. In 1920, a sort of war-in-a-tea cup broke out in West Virginia. On one side, poor miners allied themselves with the last western gunslinger. On the other, a classic film noir detective agency and, later, the US government fought as proxies for corporations. In 1921, before West Virginia achieved an armistice, Red Army revolutionaries lay siege to the island of Kronstadt. There, putting up a furious resistance, were other Red Army revolutionaries.
Only the first of these occurred without a true enemy, nor even a lasting cause. Fiume had been ceded willingly in the Saint-Germain peace treaty. The coup d’état, welcomed so warmly by the Italian locals, was met by a less than enthusiastic response by the Italian state. Put simply, Italy didn’t want it back. The poet and his men had entered the town in a fit of patriotism and dramatic flair. Denied the former, it was through the latter that Gabriele D’Annunzio – the poet – would leave his most significant mark on world history.
Having succeeded in taking the town, but failed in gifting it back to Italy, D’Annunzio was left in a slightly awkward position. So, on the fly, he went for option three; declare an independent micro-state. It helped that no one was particularly interested in the small harbour town. It helped even more that D’Annunzio had a taste for the spectacle.
He donned a uniform. He took the title Duce. He revived or reinvented the classical Roman salute of an outstretched arm, in an attempt to recall the grandeur of Italia’s long-fallen empire. He invented, in short, the aesthetics of fascism.
Fascism is unique in that it is, to Jack’s knowledge, the only political ideology where the aesthetic was conceived before the ideology itself. This ideology that was to play its starring role in the interwar years developed in the more mundane area of writing. Mein Kampf was relatively late to the party, but the American Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and – perhaps most significantly – Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Decline of the West) – gave shape to the movement. Eventually fascism took on its defined name and meaning through the efforts of one of D’Annunzio’s followers, Benito Mussolini.
D’Annunzio was far from the only patriot to feel this sort of betrayal from his country. It is a truism of political science that, at their respective extremes, left wing and right wing become indistinguishable. Certainly this held when Hitler’s fascism and Stalin’s communism – sworn enemies – found common ground about halfway into Poland.
Well, old-school communism went like this; 1) revolution, 2) install and safeguard communism, 3) law and the state wither away in the face of a completely equitable society that no longer needs them. Lenin, like most to follow, got stuck in a feedback loop between steps one and two.
In 1917 the revolution occurred. In 1918 The Great War ended. By 1921 communism had taken over and the navy were heroes of the revolution. The particular group of seaman that Jack was concerned with there were true believers. They’d helped defeat the Czars to give a better life to Russians. Presumably, this was why the Communist Party kept them on their ships at Kronstadt for so long; for fear of them seeing how that better life was working out in practice.
It couldn’t last long.
Eventually they were given leave and they dispersed to their various homes across Russia. They came back with stories of the same sort of oppression they’d fought against. Their response was what fascinated Jack about this story.
Their ships became a fortress, heavily armed and surrounded by great sheets of ice. It was an image that captured his imagination and he read deeply about the battle. How, faced with the choice of addressing these grievances or attacking, Lenin chose government over the people and brought an end to the collective dream. How soldiers were sent in across the frozen water and had the surface they were walking on shot out from under them. How the party pushed on, knowing that spring would melt the battlefield and free the renegade ships. And how the mutineers were eventually overwhelmed, many escaping across the ice to Finland as the siege was broken. Jack wondered what happened to them after that, but individuals were always hard to trace through time.
The point, any liberal political scientist would tell you, is that there’s no real difference between fascism and communism. This was philosophising, and this he left to the field of politics.
But what was, in Jack’s opinion, the most 1920s event to ever occur ignited in Matewan, West Virginia. It’s Sheriff, Sid Hatfield, was a bonafide gunslinger at the very end of the Old West. If he were known for two things, the first would have been his habit of scaring potential threats by throwing a potato into the air and destroying it mid-flight with a single shot from his pistol. The other, most lasting impression of Sheriff Hatfield was his support for the exploited miners in the area.
In the apparent heyday of US coal-mining towns, there had been a very efficient system in place. It was an adaption of the classic labour system, whereby an employee works and is paid by his employer. For miners, this was true in only the most technical sense. A prospective miner must first rent mining equipment from the company out of their own pocket, and then they are paid for coal by the wagonload. This payment is part in cash, and part in tokens that can be spent only at the company store, where prices are whatever the company wants them to be. Other necessities can be bought with the cash. For instance; miners and their families lived in houses rented from the company. Economically, it became effectively impossible to escape from an industry that, at one point, had a higher death rate than soldiers on the western front.
Free market exploitation was the first thing so archetypally twenties about the story. The second was the fact that the coal business was booming.
So there was money involved, and death. And where these two things coalesced in this particular era of American history, it was usually followed in short order by the Pinkerton detective agency. By this stage the legendary invisible hand of market pressures had lead them away from their Holmesian beginnings to their peak as something more akin to a private army. In mining towns, their job was to detect any suggestion of a union.
In fact, it was the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency that ended up being involved in the Matewan Massacre. In 1920 the detectives were in town to ensure that miners families were successfully evicted. Hatfield met them there. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but what is known is that the last western gunslinger was faster on the draw. With miners on the rooftops, armed and more than willing to lend a hand, seven detectives and three townspeople were killed.
In early 1921, Hatfield was acquitted against a backdrop of a miners’ strike and a police backlash. Unionising was still banned by these corporations, but the repression was becoming increasingly ineffective. This sort of civil unrest was brutal, dangerous, and – in the volatile interwar years – utterly workaday. Even the mass of imported strikebreakers had failed to quell tensions by the first of August that year, when an uncharacteristically unarmed Sid Hatfield was walking into a nearby town’s courthouse to face additional charges.
What happened next was, to a historian, more predictable than shocking. He and his friend were intercepted by Baldwin-Felts detectives. Guns were drawn. The two were assassinated on the courthouse steps. It was all very unextraordinary.
So, too, was it no genuine surprise when the killers were acquitted.
Instead, it was the response that made this spectacle so peculiarly interwar. Here the strikers ceased to be strikers in any modern sense of the word, donning weapons and red bandanas and swelling their ranks until they were nothing short of a full-scale militia. This era was, perhaps, the very last time in the cultural west that seizing a city could have been considered a legitimate thing for protestors to do.
The plan was to invade Logan, the seat of the neighbouring county, which lay just on the other side of Blair Mountain. An estimated five thousand miners were heading towards twelve hundred of whoever the Logan authorities could muster. But what these numbers don’t show is one simple truth of warfare; it’s never a good plan to march on a mountain. Perhaps this could be followed up with another truth of warfare, this time that any plan that invokes the ire of USA’s impressively heavy-handed army is a bad plan. Aircraft bombed the miners’ positions and flew reconnaissance missions, and in the fighting on the ground thirty troops and a hundred miners were killed before the end of August.
The first of September saw the end of the Battle of Blair Mountain, when President Harding called in the Army and nearly the entire miners’ force hastily surrendered. Only one conviction was handed down to a miner, but workers’ rights were again set back dramatically for another few years.
It was the sort of thing to make any liberal political scientist stop pontificating on the evils of fascism and communism for a few moments and bite their lip nervously.
It feels a little like hypocrisy, doesn’t it? There was a lot that could be compared between the three events. Probably, there were any number of lessons that could be learnt. What those lessons might be was the business of political philosophers, though Jack could tentatively suggest a few;
Don’t fight a battle up a mountain.
It’s not a good idea to trust a politician whose only plan is to put on a show.
That said, it’s not a good idea to trust an ambitious politician with grand dreams for society, if that politician happens to be your subordinate. This, presumably, was something that the poet only learnt in the afterlife. There is evidence to suggest that he was later assassinated on Mussolini’s orders.
And maybe don’t trust that Lenin guy. Actually, history strongly suggests that any revolutionary who puts themself in power shouldn’t be trusted. The most significant moment in American history – at least from a white perspective – was when George Washington chose to retire. That’s a rare occurrence among generals who take over countries.
But none of those lessons explained why those stories mattered so much to Jack. The reason, really, was that he looked at the interwar years and saw an entire planet inventing new identities for themselves in the bravest and most outlandish ways. Who could now imagine a union taking a town? Or a poet for that matter? Or, well, any of the mess that happened those cold St Petersburg months? The children of the Great War, that was who. The people who came of age to find that the world was a mess and that they did not fit into the space that was carved out for them by earlier generations.
Politics in the interwar years were an unholy mix of art and fearlessness and Jack – pansexual, anxious, autistic, witch, Jack Zimmermann, who never quite managed to be who he was expected to – he could understand.
A lot of this is from memory, so if there are any incorrect details, the only disclaimer is to repeat that I'm not a historian. For some of the details, Philipp Blom's Fracture; Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938 was relied on. It's a pretty good read, but don't take the more opinion-based statements completely at face value. Like, he largely blames the early commercial failure of Metropolis for the decline of the German film industry, but doesn't mention that the fact that it came out the same year as talkies and that much of their market didn't actually speak German was a pretty big part of it.
Anyway, I may be one of those scholarly types, but I never actually thought I'd be criticising the work of a historian in the end note of a fanfiction chapter. So I'm going to stop here.
Chapter 8: “and fifthly, we read many examples of men being possessed for their own heavy sin”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
His phone was completely dead as he made it back to campus, but the Haus was alive. It was past eight now, and Jack had the sense to throw his jacket – taken off during the jog back – up to the reading room before walking into the front door.
‘Mornin’.’ he said, in the direction of the pie smell. The presumption was that at least a few team members would be clustered around Bittle for breakfast.
‘Morning,’ Shitty responded, leaning into the corridor and taking in the sight of Jack with tired eyes. For a moment they both wondered what the other was going to say, but then, ‘did you have a good morning run?’
‘Yep.’ Jack responded with relief, adding, ‘Sleep well?’ because he couldn’t resist.
He vanished upstairs before any more questions could be raised, feeling exhausted from no sleep and too much exercise. His legs ached from running, his arms from climbing, and his whole head from too much fear for too long.
Before doing anything else, he put his phone on charge. In the time it took to retrieve his coat, he’d been alerted to seven missed calls from one Kent Parson. The sun wasn’t even up yet in Vegas, and Jack wondered if the kinder thing to do would be to let him sleep, but then he decided that he didn’t much care and if he were going to be sleep deprived then Kent would be too.
The phone was answered on the first ring.
The yelling started immediately, ‘Jesus fuck, Jack, next time you do anything like that make sure your fucking phone is charged, you- I’m getting you a portable charger. And a lock picking set. And a pocket knife. Two pocket knives. And you better carry them with you.’ – here he paused to gulp down some air – ‘What the hell happened? I saw the explosion on the news, but they’re not reporting any deaths, I-’
‘I pulled the fire alarm.’ Jack interrupted. Thankfully, the explosion proved not to be a result of human error, and he’d been able to slip the padlock back on the (now open, but if anyone had gotten suspicious then there was little he could do about it) gate, and return to Samwell.
A pause. Kent was audibly calming himself down.
‘Good. Okay. Good plan. You got out alright?’
‘You mean did I get caught? No, I’m fine. So are the seven other people.’
‘Well… thank fuck… but you’re a goddamned idiot Zimms. All those times you’ve gotten mad at me for recklessness, Christ.’
‘Yeah, I get it.’
He was too tired to argue that morning, but at least Kent seemed to be too.
‘Look,’ he began, ‘you hate your power, I know. But you’re stuck with it right now, and you’re helping people, so I really think you’ve gotta start working on it. Lock picks, pocket knife…’
‘Lighter.’ Jack added, thinking back to those minutes in the supply closet.
‘You don’t even carry a lighter? Well, I’m sending you one of those, too. You’re basically a comic book superhero at this stage, time to start acting a little more like it.’
‘By which I absolutely don’t mean make yourself a spandex costume.’
‘Just… be a little more prepared?’
‘Like you?’ he countered, ‘Now that things are a little less urgent, you have to tell me how you know all that stuff.’
‘All what stuff?’
Either he was full of shit or he genuinely didn’t realise how suspicious all his help had been, sometimes things like that were just difficult to tell with Kent, ‘Lock picking.’ he explained, slowly, ‘The laws about trespassing. How many guards to expect. Breaking into cars. Avoiding window alarms. Parse, is there something about you that I don’t know?’
‘Yeah,’ was the response, ‘I worked as a security guard one summer. Just because your life is one B grade mystery-thriller after another, doesn’t mean everyone else’s is.’
That irked a little, ‘My life story wouldn’t be B grade.’
‘I’ve seen the Haus, bro. It’s not exactly big budget. Your life is a made-for-TV movie at best.’
‘The Haus has character. It’s what you’d get if you used the best Hollywood set designers. If my life were a movie, it’d be a huge blockbuster, directed by…’ he cast around for one of the directors Holster was always talking about, ‘Quentin Tarantino.’
‘There’s that much blood?’ Kent asked, and Jack could almost hear the raised eyebrow.
‘…I don’t know anything about Quentin Tarantino.’
‘I’m shocked. Now, I’m going to get some well-earned sleep. Just remember that you really have to be more prepared for this stuff.’
Jack agreed. He’d already learnt that lesson today without having to be told, ‘Thanks for helping me,’ he added, ‘you saved some lives last night.’
‘Yeah, because I’m the best sidekick ever, no matter what you say.’
He conceded the point, but only because most other sidekicks were fictional, and because he would later be able to use it against Kent if he ever objected to being called a sidekick. ‘I gotta go. Sorry that we only ever seem to talk when there’s a crisis.’
‘Yeah,’ Kent agreed, ‘me too.’
Pale sunlight was streaming in through the high windows, cutting through the dusty air in the room, and throwing warm rectangles against the threadbare carpet. Jack was entranced by the image. Every tiny speck of dust that swirled through the light, sparkling for a fleeting moment, and vanishing back into shadow. Inside and around the sharp contrast, people that he only knew by their face were all lost into their own private worlds. But somehow, in some feat of human socialisation, their independent activities merged into a single, extraordinary mechanism. He was itching to photograph it, but there was etiquette here, and he didn’t want to break it.
These were artworks in progress, these were the intellectual labours of some of the most fascinating people that Jack would never have the chance to know. In this space, Lardo occupied that sphere outside of hockey, which seemed so ambiguous and foreign to the Haus and its inhabitants.
Jack was a guest here. He took his spot on the floor, back against the corner of the room near Lardo and her art, and slipped into unobtrusive silence. It was the most relaxing space that Jack had found, and somehow Lardo understood Jack enough to let him in.
Today he had books, notebooks, his laptop if necessary. He had time to fall back comfortably into the past, and leeway to come back out of it for a few moments to watch the artists at work.
Today, he was reading Keynes/Hayak; the Clash that Defined Modern Economics.
‘Any of those on art?’ Lardo asked him. The silence wasn’t an absolute rule, more the product of intent, individual work. Jack offered a noncommittal sound in response.
‘Anything I can use for my essays? This major isn’t all painting, you know.’
‘Lots.’ Jack answered, ‘Though not in this book. What are you writing about?’
Lardo shrugged in response, before adding, ‘Haven’t made it up yet.’
They had very different approaches to college work, but Jack nonetheless made a mental note to lend her some books – with helpful postit notes already in place – that would be enough to make it seem as if she’d actually done some research.
They returned to their little worlds again; Lardo to her next great work, Jack to the obscure technicalities of political economy. He’d ended up there from the Great Depression, and found himself as riveted by the characters as he was ambivalent to the issues themselves.
Jack: Any chance you could explain Keynes to me in less than three sentences?
Holster did economics, he’d know.
Holster: Dude. DUDE.
Holster: Is this a rabbit hole you want to go down? You start talking Keynes there’ll be fistfights
Holster: Economists can get passionate, bro
Holster: I’ve seen some shit
Well, at least it was nice to know that one great battle of his current favourite era was still alive. Nothing said the interwar years like intellectuals fist fighting.
Keep your head down, he reminded himself, and decided that he’d stray no closer to something apparently so political. At least with fascism he could criticise it without being accused of being partisan.
‘What’s up with Shitty?’ he asked, a few paragraphs later when Lardo’s concentration on her work seemed to be slipping.
‘What about him?’
It was a testament to Jack’s lifelong incompetence at deception that he hadn’t expected the tables to turn so suddenly. It seemed a natural enough query, but it was only when he’d been asked to volunteer information that he realised he should have been treading a little more carefully.
‘Just,’ he began, despite having no idea what to say next except that he wasn’t going to betray even the accidental confidences of his friend, ‘…a general inquiry.’ he finished lamely.
‘Really?’ she asked, unimpressed and not even attempting to hide it.
‘Well… I mean… I’m his captain, I’ve got to know how things are going, you know? And you’re manager, you have contact with the team… it seemed reasonable… to… ask.’
Lardo was still levelling a rather disconcerting look at him, and he shrunk infinitesimally further into his corner.
Eventually, she said, ‘Bitty’s doing alright. I think he’s falling behind in his studies, but he doesn’t seem too stressed about it. Let’s see… he’s a little concerned about the state of the oven, but he still bakes a lot. He’s very enthusiastic about meeting next year’s frogs. And, uh, if I could think of any issues, it would be that the practises and stuff all end up being scheduled at the same time as baking stuff he wants to go to.’
‘Other than that, he’s good.’
‘Lardo, what are you doing?’
She gave a shrug that was clearly intended to seem innocent, and replied, ‘You’re team captain, you gotta know how things are going. It seemed reasonable to tell you.’
One day, he liked to believe, he might actually acquire something approaching subtlety. When that day arrived he’d stop walking into things like this.
‘Okay, point taken.’
He went to open his book again, but Lardo interrupted with, ‘Ransom’s doing alright too. Not as stressed as usual, but we both know that that’s going to increase as the semester continues-’
‘Lardo, how long are you going to do this?’
She threw a smile that could almost, but not quite, be described as evil. Jack cursed himself for being polite enough to wait until she wasn’t focused on her painting. Now, of course, she was procrastinating, and Jack had just given her an opening.
If Jack were a good friend, he’d let Shitty have his secret, and wouldn’t inquire into where he’d been sneaking out to that night.
On the other hand, Jack was almost certain that Shitty was attempting some research of his own.
Press silence wasn’t always a solution.
There was this thing that happens when different, competing media outlets became almost identical. There was ESPN, there was Fox Sports, there was ABC, and there was an endless host of other sports programmes. Yet, if it weren’t for their logos (and, in the case of ESPN, the endless stream of advertising that earned them the epithet Extreme Self-Promotion Network), even Jack would have difficulty telling them apart.
The thing went thusly;
- An event occurs. A sensation, really. Any less would not suffice. Say, for instance, a hockey soon-to-be superstar is rushed to hospital after a reported overdose.
- None of the constellation of cloned networks have enough information to satisfy their audience. That is; perhaps the family of the hospitalised prodigy is respecting his privacy. Perhaps his erstwhile best friend also won’t be drawn. The rules of the free market dictate that, wherever demand outstrips supply, the price is raised. Except it would be a mistake to think that news broadcasters of any sort were in the business of selling news. The news isn’t their product; the audience is. Their clients are the advertisers; the entire mass media television edifice exists to lure in organic, free range media consumers to market to anyone who has something to sell. So, when demand for a story outstrips supply, they can’t merely raise the price. They need more to give to their audience or they’ll be deserted for their competitors.
- And now there’s a problem. News has to be new. But finding sources for that news – or worse, actually investigating – take time. Not to mention money. And on top of that, the claims of these sources have to be verified. There is a good deal of literature arguing that the Iraq War happened because media outlets used only “official” (governmental) sources or other news outlets who, in turn, were relying on those sources. But that isn’t relevant here. What is relevant here is that the quickest way to get information in this day and age is to google it.
- This is where Twitter comes in. Journalists don’t lie, they can’t outright claim a falsehood. No reporter could stand in front of a camera and say ‘Jack Zimmermann was using cocaine.’ But they still need a story, and what they can do is say ‘Many on Twitter are suggesting that Jack Zimmermann was using cocaine.’ Which would be true, especially as the term “many” is not defined, and a researcher could likely get away with tracking down maybe ten tweets.
- Only one outlet needs to do this. What happens next is inevitable. If there’s one thing the Iraq War demonstrated, it’s that journalists rely heavily on other news outlets as sources. They’re just that much easier to find. So, one outlet is reporting Twitter, and another is reporting that outlet. At this stage, the phrase becomes ‘[sports network] has reported rumours that Jack Zimmermann was using cocaine.’ This is true; there are such rumours, and that sports network did report them.
- Now it’s a story. Now the pattern is ready to snowball. Whoever is trying to catch up with their competitors is now in a position to say ‘Multiple sports networks are reporting that Jack Zimmermann could well have been using cocaine.’ It’s still equivocal. He could well But it’s a little more believable than ‘ten people on twitter are theorising.’
- This could take days. It could take hours. And then, there’s ‘The Zimmermanns are refusing to comment on suggestions of their son’s cocaine use.’ or ‘No one sought to deny that Jack Zimmermann was using cocaine.’
- Enter the pundits. They’re allowed to have opinions. They’re allowed to say things like, ‘Everyone knows he was most likely on coke, I don’t see why they can’t just tell the truth.’
- Pundit comments, of course, can’t be supported by objective and balanced news. But they can most definitely be reported.
- Years down the line, all that’s needed whenever Jack Zimmermann’s name arises are a few phrases like ‘allegedly’ or ‘while he has never commented, most accept that’ and then they can talk about cocaine all they like.
So, as Jack had once learned, press silence wasn’t always a solution. The problem was that he didn’t really have much in the way of an alternative, and he had absolutely no interest in spilling his soul for the sake of the spectacle.
He let the thing happen.
He played hockey.
He tried to keep his head down.
The college didn’t quite seem to believe that it was his idea. Not when he sent them an email that began with the words “I have an idea…”, nor when he assured them that he was responsible for its inception while standing in their office and answering questions, nor even when they agreed with their reservations still hovering tangibly on the air.
When told, Coach Murray’s first words were, ‘Did you lose a bet?’
Coach Hall, nodding, had then added, ‘And this… includes… you?’
Nonetheless, and with no small help from Lardo, all sorts of technical minutiae were soon finalised and Jack was given the dubious honour of informing those in the team who didn’t already know.
‘So.’ he began. End of practice. Changing rooms. Holding the Captain’s Court with the team eyeing him tiredly, ‘As you’re all aware, Samwell is engaged in a big marketing push and they’ve asked – erm, required – the sports team to get involved.’
‘You mean make a fool of ourselves on camera.’ Shitty translated, unhelpfully.
Jack shot him a look, ‘Depends on the person. Some are more naturally able to make fools of themselves than others.’
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Bittle tweeting. Because of course.
It was Ransom’s turn to derail the announcement next, ‘This had better be the bit where you declare mutiny and we’re all saved from having to explain whatever video it is to our future employers.’
Still tweeting, Bittle nonetheless managed the smallest possible smile.
‘Well…’ Jack said, ‘…not exactly…’
There were a lot of people watching him now. Very few of them looked happy.
Holster’s turn, ‘What do you mean “not exactly”? What’s the point in being Captain Jack if there’s no mutiny?’
There were a few “here here”s in varying levels of cartoonish pirate voices, and he had to resist the urge to fold his arms and say “I’ll wait” like a middle school teacher.
‘We’re doing it.’ he told them, in a voice that brooked no argument.
‘Please save us!’
‘There’s no singing involved,’ Jack reassured them as some sort of consolation (‘Oh thank fuck.’ said Ransom, and the same moment that Holster said, ‘Why not?’), ‘and it even takes place on the ice. This is a hockey team, if you’ve got some objection to being filmed while on the ice then I’ve got some bad news for you.’
‘He definitely does,’ Wicks mumbled, ‘the bad news is whatever we’re expected to do while on the ice. That’s why he hasn’t told us yet.’
It was difficult to disagree, given that that was Jack’s entire strategy.
‘We’ll be skating.’ he informed all the worried faces in front of him, ‘That’s all. Just… skating around.’
Bittle still hadn’t said anything, nor had he raised his head from his phone.
Ransom was staring at Jack with a puzzled expression, ‘Okay, I believe that that was your idea for this thing. I don’t believe that the college decided to go along with it.’
‘We’ll be in figure skates.’ Jack explained, as offhandedly as he could.
Five separate hockey players abruptly rose to their feet at the same time, all complaining, all talking over each other, and with a whole orchestra of objections being thrown in from those still seated. Eventually it was Holster who managed to make himself heard, yelling ‘Wait, WAIT! Are you going to be in figure skates too, Jack?’
Sudden silence. It was almost creepy.
‘Of course I will be. Why does everyone keep asking that?’
‘Just wondering.’ Holster lied, ‘I’m in.’
Bittle was definitely laughing now, which seemed a little rude given that he was the reason for this.
It was connection. That’s what Jack eventually figured. The people he could save were the people connected to him, either through life or through mere proximity. Still, it seemed a little scattered, a little too based on chance, and there were always the ones that showed up now and again whenever Jack stayed in a town long enough. Maybe it made sense. Maybe he’d passed them on the street, opened the door for them, maybe there was a connection that Jack couldn’t quite trace that somehow sparked a vision.
But then there were other times, like when he heard that one of his old teachers had died of an allergic reaction, and he’d waited patiently to be taken back. The connection was weaker than it was with people like Kent, sure, but it was there.
But nothing had happened.
He started learning the rules as he got used to his new… issue, he would call it. Responsibility. It usually occurred one to three times a month, and the redhead had been the only lesson he’d needed to take it seriously. In a tiny, messed up way that he never really wanted to admit to himself, he was grateful to the redhead for dying. There was guilt there, too. But if he had to fail anyone, he couldn’t get rid of the feeling of relief that it was someone he didn’t even know the name of.
Kent’s first death occurred barely a month later – at a time when Jack still thought it had been a one-off and was trying to cope with a shock he’d thought was real – but this time it worked out. He’d only ever failed to save one person.
By the time Kent died the second time, he’d learnt the ropes.
What sort of moron, two years after a near-death experience, crosses the road without looking? What a pointless death. What a dismally mundane way to go.
This was the first time that Jack actually made it to his friend’s funeral. Last time, he’d been in rehab when it happened, sitting on his bed with his arms wrapped around him and wondering why. This time he could make the trip down from the uncertain, pitying eyes of the upperclassmen at Samwell.
Somehow, miraculously, the funeral directors had managed to smooth down his cowlick. His hair was neat for the first time Jack had ever seen it and, in some irrepressible way that he didn’t understand, he hated it.
One of the strangest and most persistent regrets that stayed with him was that he didn’t ruffle it just enough to bring the cowlick back.
Kent’s eyes were closed, of course, so Jack couldn’t see what colour they were. And the makeup had almost managed to cover up the freckles that had shown up in the Las Vegas sunshine.
A goddamned idiot.
His father was there to keep him company, one hand on his arm as they sat side by side, as though to keep him there. Or to stop him from shaking. Jack stayed frozen to the spot with his eyes fixed straight ahead until the service was over.
At least this sort of thing was easy to prevent. It was the first time he’d spoken to Kent since his last death, and there was a hollow echo of that conversation as they spoke.
‘You should call Kent.’
Jack glanced up from the book he was reading to find Shitty, in only shorts and his moustache, leaning into his room from their shared bathroom.
‘You and he are friends again, right? Get him to come figure skating. It’d be funny.’
For a few brief moments, Jack allowed himself to visualise the image. What a beautiful concept.
Bittle was baking again when Jack wandered downstairs. Because of course he was. Because half eleven at night was a perfectly normal time to bake a pie. At this point he’d started wondering if Bittle ever slept.
‘Need any herbs for this one?’
‘Oh! Hi, Jack. I was going to use some of that dill for this.’
Jack leaned over to examine the orangey goop that Bittle was prodding with a wooden spoon as it simmered, ominously, on the stove. Despite knowing that it would realistically be far too hot, he couldn’t help but think that it looked like it would feel great to shove his hands into.
‘It’s salted caramel.’ Bittle supplied.
‘Oh, right.’ Salt, dill. Fairly understandable combination for the kitchen witch that Bittle apparently doesn’t know he’s being.
He slid the book over and tapped the page for Jack to examine. There was another sigil there, this time instantly recognisable. Four delicate, intertwining curves, crossing each other and forming four sharp points. And through the thin petal shapes this left, a perfect circle intersecting it all.
‘That… is a witch’s knot.’
‘A witch’s knot.’ Jack repeated, before realising that Bittle had probably heard him fine and was actually asking for him to elaborate, ‘It’s an old sigil for protection. A lot of the stories about it say that it was originally protection against witchcraft, but that seems ridiculous, since drawing a sigil for protection clearly falls under the umbrella of witchcraft. Most likely it was intended as protection against malevolent witchcraft.’ – god dammit, Jack scolded himself, try to make this seem like something you learned in history class so you seem less weird – ‘In England, for instance, witchcraft itself was never illegal. It was only against the law to harm someone via witchcraft. And they only ever burned ten witches there, most were hanged. Scotland, however, was an entirely different story. In law in Scotland, a witch got her powers by a deal with the devil. It still seems kind of strange to me that they’d be so against magic considering their deep connections to the Old Gods…’
Jack trailed off, aware that he had probably been speaking too much.
Bittle was frowning at the page, ‘So… this was intended as protection against witchcraft?’
‘It mostly came to mean protection in general.’ Jack added, in an attempt to be helpful, ‘Like salt. And iron, which was once specifically for fairies. And dill, in fact, which was also protection from witchcraft.’
Bittle nodded, though he didn’t particularly seem like he was following. ‘Well, salt and dill are also in this recipe. Are you saying you think grandma is scared of witches?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Jack replied, mostly because he’d been working on the theory that Grandma Bittle was a witch. A kitchen witch. A skill she’d apparently passed on to her oblivious grandson.
It was only then that he remembered that he’d come downstairs to make some tea, and he switched the kettle on a little sheepishly. It was to be lemon balm and rosemary again tonight; issues of hockey and friendships and finals were now mixing in with Officer Hemi Erangi and his obviously growing suspicions. Jack had been at the police station again that week, and Erangi had added a whole new list of questions for him to deal with. They both knew he was lying.
‘Can’t sleep?’ Bittle asked, nodding at the kettle.
‘Something like that.’ Jack replied, before turning his attention to the salted caramel now being lifted off the stove by Bittle’s careful hands, ‘You?’
‘I told myself I couldn’t bake anything today until I did some studying.’
They both glanced briefly at the oven clock, telling them in friendly orange digits that it was a quarter to midnight.
‘Busy day then, huh?’
‘Yeah, let’s go with that. You don’t have a herb that helps with procrastination, do you?’
‘Coffee?’ Jack suggested.
‘Already thought of that one.’
He scooped out a spoonful of dried leaves into the tea strainer as Bittle worked away, a little lost in thought before murmuring, ‘I’ll consult the books.’
‘You have books about it?’ Bittle asked, all bright interest as Jack flushed furiously, ‘Could I borrow one sometime?’
‘Ummm…’ Jack fumbled for an excuse as Bittle looked crestfallen, ‘Well they’re mostly not in English.’
And all of them were handwritten. And they weren’t just about herbs. And he didn’t particularly want to explain the term “book of shadows” to anyone who didn’t already know – and didn’t mind – that he was a witch.
‘I can find you something in English if you want…?’
‘No, don’t worry, I wouldn’t want to trouble you.’
The kettle finally finished boiling at that point, and Jack was glad to have something to do other than stand around and look awkward.
‘It’s an interesting hobby for a jock to have.’ Bittle said, with the distinct air of someone fishing desperately for conversation topics, ‘Growing herbs, I mean. Especially herbs that aren’t illegal.’
‘This coming from the baker.’ Jack pointed out.
Bittle conceded the point by expression rather than words.
It was something Jack had actually thought about several times, because one day he wasn’t going to be playing hockey for Samwell anymore, and he didn’t know what his next team would make of him.
‘Then again,’ he added, ‘there’s Holster and musicals.’
‘And Shitty the feminist.’ Bittle added.
‘Ransom and excel spreadsheets.’
‘Johnson and… being Johnson.’
Jack scooped the leaves out of the mug with a soft chuckle, ‘That’s true. I also know for a fact that Kent Parson practices lock picking.’
Bittle laughed in surprise, ‘If I were that rich, I wouldn’t need to break into a building. I’d just buy it.’
‘He’s an athlete, he’s not Bill Gates.’
‘Well I’m a poor student who can’t tell the difference. Here, try this.’
Suddenly, Jack was tasting warm caramel off the spoon Bittle was holding. He’d never fully understood how amazing salted caramel was until that moment. The salt and the sickly sweetness cancelled each other out, leaving only warmth and texture and the flavour caramel itself.
‘That’s amazing.’ Jack assured him, without really thinking about it. Bittle, a little taken aback, stuttered his thanks as Jack busied himself stirring honey into his tea.
‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘I should-’
Jack slipped out of the kitchen and back up the stairs, more aware of the presence of a soft smile on his face than of the reason why it was there. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised to find that Bittle was actually nice company. And now that he was improving at hockey, whatever resentment Jack had held was melting away. He sipped his tea – a little regretfully as it cleared the lingering taste of caramel – and pushed the unwitting kitchen witch from his mind as he settled down for the night.
Jack dreamed of the blue house. He knew that was where he was, even though he couldn’t see the dusky blue weatherboards from that spot in the darkened living room. The layout was as familiar to him as his childhood home. The bay windows in the living room, the high ceilings, the original dark wood floors that would come up a treat once he pulled back the carpet.
He’d never seen the furniture like this, though. A harsh leather sofa in midnight black. A coffee table of glass and metal. A bookshelf shoved unceremoniously against one wall. This was the blue house without Jack living there. This was how it looked if it wasn’t his home. This was-
There was movement down the corridor and Jack, still protective of a place that wasn’t truly his, followed through the darkened house.
There was the front door, with its coloured glass and its leadlight window. But the further he crept into the house, the weaker was the streetlight glow that could reach him. He ran one hand lightly along the wall of the wide corridor and moved on towards the kitchen.
On this side of the house the moonlight flooded in through the wide windows framing the garden. For a moment there was irrational relief as Jack took in the scene. That was the old, sturdy dining table that his parents had given him, right there where it belonged. The silver and shadows of the garden outside resolved themselves into the familiar outlines of his home. And the kitchen-
It was his kitchen, but there was someone standing in it.
Male frame. Blond hair. Tan skin. And shoulders that quivered with silent sobs. The man had his back to him, hunched over the bench with the windows a picture before him. The convulsions of a deep, shaky breath, a hushed whimper, and a hand flying up to cover his mouth. Even in the darkness, Jack recognised him instantly.
It came out more of a whisper than he’d intended, but Kent jolted upright, flashing his eyes back towards Jack with nothing but confusion and fear all over his face. Jack took a step forward, automatically reaching out an arm, and maybe that was hope there now but in an instant it was gone.
Jack was alone again, slowly lowering his arm in a dining room that was no longer his own. The furniture, the appliances, the garden outside the widow were all different now, just like the living room had been. This wasn’t the way that this usually felt. In fact, he never really experienced visions about his future at all. If it wasn’t about a death, then it took the form of memories. He remembered the layout of the blue house, he never remembered actually standing in it.
Movement again, this time from the other kitchen door as it swung open and Jack held his breath. Then, to his complete surprise, a young girl of maybe twelve walked out, all dressing gown and slippers and tired, shuffling steps, and headed for the sink. As she drew out a glass from the cupboard under the sink to slowly fill with water, all Jack could think was that’s not where the glasses belong.
‘She can’t see you.’
The voice came from behind him. He spun around on instinct and there, leaning casually against the corridor doorway, was a woman Jack had never seen before. She seemed excessively casual for this situation. With her scuffed boots and skinny jeans, and the Bowie shirt under an unzipped hoodie, she looked as though she’d almost certainly be wearing a baseball cap to finish the high school senior look she’d apparently been going for, if not for the hijab draped artfully around her face. And she was texting. Jack threw a glance back at the young girl now putting her glass down – who, as promised, didn’t seem to notice the two of them – and back, thinking that he may not know what was going on, but he was pretty sure that this seemed like the sort of situation where cellphone coverage would be patchy at best.
‘Um.’ said Jack, because apparently he was always terrible at thinking of things to say to strangers, ‘What?’
‘You’re projecting, dumbass. It takes a lot more practice than you’ve ever put in to actually make yourself visible.’
‘Oh… as in…?’
‘Astral projection.’ she supplied, looking up from her phone to shoot a disdainful look in Jack’s direction, ‘The thing you’re doing right now. How are you not aware of this?’
That seemed an unnecessarily rude way to explain things. A little defensively, Jack replied, ‘Oh, I don’t really go in for that kinda thing.’
There was magic seething just beneath this woman’s skin, and Jack wasn’t sure how he could tell but he just could. She was the sort of witch who seemed to make things more complicated than they needed to be. The sort of witch who knew things that Jack had no interest in learning. An impossibly thin silver thread trailed off from the back of her neck and out of sight. Pivoting just enough to check- yes, Jack had one too.
So this was travelling. The only time he’d done it was when he was dead, and he’d had no wish to repeat the experience.
‘I… had rosemary before bed.’ he objected, illogically.
‘That only works on nightmares.’ the woman pointed out, ‘This isn’t that.’
Jack was inclined to disagree, ‘But what about-’ he waved his arm lamely in the direction of the kitchen, hoping to encompass the changing setting and Kent, crying at the sink.
‘The girl? She lives here now. Whatever connection you have with this place, I’m guessing it’s in the future.’
‘No, I meant…’ he trailed off at the sight of her raised eyebrows, guessing that she didn’t actually know about Kent’s strange cameo.
‘Don’t look at me.’ she replied, ‘This is your place. You’re the one who’s gotta take responsibility for anything weird going on in it. I’m just here for business.’
That sounded ominous. Jack took a step back and asked warily, ‘What kind of business?’
She scoffed, ‘Don’t look so nervous, damn. I can tell you’re wearing moonstone, why would I try to harm you? You act like you don’t know what it’s for.’
Her phone buzzed then, lighting up her face in the ghostly electronic glow from below as she frowned down at it, typed out a message, locked it again. He waited politely for her to be done before continuing the conversation.
‘It’s for protection.’
‘I mean, you’re not wrong. But do you ever pick up a book now and then? It’s called the traveller’s stone for a reason. You’ll be mostly safe while you’re travelling.’
She drew out a pendant on a silver chain from under her shirt. The pale stone caught the moonlight perfectly, a pointed moonstone pendulum with complex Celtic knots holding it in place.
‘Mostly…’ Jack repeated.
She shrugged, ‘Just don’t piss off anything too powerful. It’s not that hard. Now, can we get to business, or do you want me to explain what the pentagram shape’s for as well?’
This sort of thing was uncalled for. Jack had no idea what she meant by “business” and, anyway, he was supposed to be getting some sleep not chatting with a witch in a house that he might own one day. So he put on his best mild-mannered Canadian voice and asked, ‘Why are you being rude? We only just met, and you said you wanted to discuss business.’
To his surprise, she conceded, ‘You’re right.’ and held out a hand, ‘I’m Assi. Sorry, I’m a little stressed. Trying to pay for American college is terrible.’
The longer she spoke, the more aware he became of her Australian twang. It was similar in some ways to Erangi’s accent, but somehow also very different.
‘Jack.’ he replied, shaking her hand, ‘Nice to meet you. Now, why am I here?’
‘I didn’t summon you if that’s what you’re asking. I just…’ she looked a little shifty, ‘followed you? And, maybe, made it a little easier for you to travel accidentally.’
She said that last bit in a rush and Jack narrowed his eyes, ‘What do you mean-’
‘Nothing dangerous!’ she assured him, ‘I just wanted to talk, and this seemed more convenient. It’s not like I took you to another world or anything, I could have-’
‘Stop right there.’
‘I’m trying not to learn too much about “other worlds”. I was a perfectly happy eclectic witch, mostly a green witch, I didn’t want to know all this stuff. It’s a religion but it’s… I’m a hockey player, right? There’s being a witch and then there’s’ – here he gestured widely to encompass anything strange in his life – ‘It’s like. It’s the difference between being a Christian and being a Priest, I guess. Just because I’m a witch doesn’t mean I’m going to give up hockey and start exploring other worlds and… going on quests…’
‘Are you Christian?’ Assi asked suddenly.
‘I just wanted to know if you were one of those Golden Dawn types. Not that I have anything against the Golden Dawn.’ she added in a rush, ‘Or Christian witches in general. I’m Alawite, so I know about witchcraft’s position in other faiths and, um.’
‘There was that Aleister Crowley.’ Jack prompted.
‘Yeah. They were uncomfortably cult-ish. But that’s to do with the leaders, not the actual beliefs, erm.’
In the small, uncomfortable hush that followed, Jack took the time to reflect on how strange his life was. Once upon a time he played hockey shoulder to shoulder with the sort of people who thought girls who didn’t like them were lesbians. Or laughed every time a sitcom rehashed that joke about accidently hooking up with a drag queen. Now, he was not only best friends with a feminist who liberally cited his sources, coming to terms with the fact that he and Kent had roles to play in queer history in athletics, and living on a campus where being “woke” was less a self-congratulatory descriptor and more a prerequisite for a social life; now he was awkwardly trying not to say anything offensive to Christian witches while asleep and chatting with a witch from Australia.
‘Business?’ Jack tried again.
‘Right. I want to buy something off you.’
‘No.’ he answered.
‘Wait, you didn’t hear me out!’
‘You’re right. Go ahead.’
Assi put on what she must have imagined was the classic salesperson smile, and began her speech, ‘I’m a jack too, as it happens, or training to be. I’m an apprentice jack of passage, I’m learning the art of travelling without astral projecting-’
‘Teleporting.’ he translated.
‘Hang on, let me finish. I’ll also be studying journalism next year, if I can get enough cash to pay for college. And when I graduate-’
‘Let me guess. You’re going to save the world with your ability to report on any story, anywhere. Breaking news, unearthing corruption, that sort of thing?’
‘Yeah, that’s it! Now, as you know, jacks of passage are mostly merchants,’ (Jack did not, in fact, know this. But he was flattered that her script assumed that the audience wasn’t ignorant, and let her continue) ‘which is what my master is, and how I’ll be making enough money for college.’
‘And this worthwhile cause you just pontificated about, it’ll be helped if I sell you whatever it is you’re after?’
‘Yes!’ Assi replied, but her enthusiastic gusto seemed slightly punctured.
Jack sighed, resigned, ‘What is it you’re after?’
‘Nothing major,’ she assured him, ‘nothing you’d miss too much. Just a few cookbooks with some notes in them.’
‘They’re not even mine to sell.’ he told her, in the firmest voice he could.
Assi was back to scowling now, leaning against the doorframe once more and returning to her insolent posture as if her friendly veneer had been exhausting to maintain.
‘But Bittle’s mundane now. He’s not exactly easy to contact.’
Jack, patently unimpressed by this plea, returned, ‘Have you tried sending him an email? There are easier ways to get in contact than dreams, especially for a would-be jack of passage.’
‘Come on,’ she whined, ‘he doesn’t even know what they are! It’s not like he could miss them too much.’
He was pretty sure that Bittle would weep if he found any of them missing. And once he was finished weeping, he’d spend the rest of the month sniffling morosely and looking upset and playing terrible hockey.
‘But you don’t even know what I’d trade!’ she objected, ‘It’s one of the most valuable things a jack of passage can give.’
Despite himself, he was actually curious, ‘What?’
‘A favour.’ Assi told him, all solemn gravity, ‘Standard terms and conditions. I’d say it’s a get out of jail free card, but it’s more a get out of anything free card. To be called in any time you deem fit. It’s the universal currency.’
See, he shouldn’t have asked. Because now he knew something about the business activities of magical people. He knew that trading something for a favour was a perfectly reasonable exchange. At that stage, he’d give his right arm to return permanently to the world where the universal currency was Visa.
‘Not interested.’ he responded, cutting past her towards the front door on the instinctive assumption that that was the way back to consciousness.
She was following, ‘Could you talk to Bittle?’
And say what, exactly?
‘Tell him I could get him his magic back in exchange for the books.’
‘No.’ Jack repeated, then. ‘What?’
Assi’s eyes were suddenly wide, ‘Oh wow.’
‘Oh… wow. You don’t know who he is?’
Don’t bite don’t ask you don’t want to know. Curiosity kills the Jack.
‘…Who is he?’
A small smirk, a raised chin, and then, ‘Trade me the books and I’ll tell you.’
Jack walked out the door.
Folklore time: As previously mentioned, this fic takes place in a universe I came up with ages ago for an entirely different story, because I'm lazy. Jacks of passage aren't in the folklore. I also got a little creative with the exact process of projection. However;
The silver thread is present in a large number of accounts of projection. Also, the Golden Dawn was a Victorian era secret society for teaching ceremonial magic. They weren't actually witches; in fact, they disliked witches because they thought they used magic for selfish things instead of for worshiping God. Aleister Crowley was... well, he's hard to explain. Look him up, his life story is wild. Let's see... herbs and gemstones are accurate to the best of my knowledge, so is the witches' knot, but I have no idea if I spelt "sigil" right because spellcheck appears not to have heard of the word at all.
Chapter 9: “Three ways in which men and women may be discovered to be addicted to witchcraft”
Les oiseaux… he thought, before his sluggish, tired mind struggled with the end of that sentence, …sont des trous du cul.
It took a few moments for him to remind himself that he was supposed to be thinking in English. The more he allowed himself to think in French here, the more he’d struggle to focus on what everyone else was saying. Time to try that again, en Anglais this time.
Birds… are assholes.
There they were, in the fresh, grey dawn slowly brining his room into view like a photo being developed. They were singing. Being cheerful. There was no call for it.
From his position, lying flat on his stomach with his head turned to one side so he could breathe, Jack could feel the seam from his pillowcase etching a red line into his cheek. Why did he always wake up like this? Normal people woke up on their backs. Normal people didn’t have an aching neck every morning.
Then again, there were a lot of things that Jack did that normal people didn’t.
He blinked a few times and rolled over, staring at the ceiling now. It was a Wednesday. Early lecture. Assignment due Friday. Afternoon practice.
Beyond his curtains, another bird swooped down to perch on his windowsill, open its dumb beak, and let its song travel through the young green leaves and the looming spring.
Les oiseaux sont des connards, he thought. That, too, meant “birds are assholes”, but in much stronger terms. The birds deserved it. They were assholes.
‘BEEP.’ his alarm informed him, urgently, ‘BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.’ – pause – ‘BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.’
He reached over and hit the clock a few times, until it fell silent. The tone was nowhere near as pleasant as the default Samsung tone that he’d never gotten around to changing, but he’d bought himself a separate clock for junior year, with his tests in mind. Nothing in particular had gone wrong to prompt this change, but his very first test freshman year had kick-started the usual OCD mechanisms into action. It worked something like this;
<input id=“pre-exam warning” class=“important”>Before we start, make sure all your phones are switched off and in a bag at the front of the room, and that any alarms are also turned off. If you need to check, please do so now. Failure to do so will be classed as misconduct.</input>
<anxiety class=“unrealistic translations of perfectly innocuous things that you can’t ignore”>If your alarm goes off you will fail this test and the course and you’ll be kicked out of the NCAA for not having high enough grades.</anxiety>
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
No, I haven’t. I don’t have any alarms set for this time of day.
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
<compulsion class=“urgent”>Check your alarms are off.</compulsion>
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
<compulsion class=“urgent”>Check your alarms are off.</compulsion>
It’s going to be fine. No alarm is going to go off. Even if one does, how will they know it’s mine?
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
<compulsion class=“urgent”>Check your alarms are off.</compulsion>
Jack took the opportunity to walk back to his bag, fish out his phone, and switch it on. At least he wasn’t the only one double checking. At the back of his mind, he wondered how many had similar anxieties, and how many were just forgetful people.
There were no alarms on. See, he thought, and powered off his phone again.
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
<compulsion class=“urgent”>Check your alarms are off.</compulsion>
I’ve just checked, he told himself, as firmly as he could. I don’t need to check again. They’re off. How many times do I double check something that I’ve already just checked, and how many times does it actually help? I don’t need to do this, shut up.
<obsession class=“urgent”>You’ve left your phone alarms on.</obsession>
<compulsion class=“urgent”>Check your alarms are off.</compulsion>
Jack gave in and pulled the battery out of the back of his phone. The device itself was returned to his bag, but he slipped the battery into his pocket so he could tap it and prove to himself that he had, in fact, taken it out.
From that point on he’d removed his phone battery before every test, and kept it in his pocket so he could be sure. But he’d got a new phone for Christmas, all flat and shiny, and the back now no longer came off.
So he’d done the rational thing; he’d bought himself an alarm clock and flatly refused to use the alarm on his phone.
‘BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.’
It was faster this time. He must have hit snooze instead of off. The only silver lining he could think of was that, with no small measure of luck, the grating beeping noise would be enough to scare off les oiseaux diaboliques from outside his window.
Get up, he told himself, if you can’t handle getting out of bed in the morning, then you can’t handle the NHL.
He sat up, and immediately hated it. But now he’d made progress and his morning routine might seem like a lot of work but he could break it into tiny steps to make it less overwhelming. Remove the cover. Stand up. Ignore the cold, you’re Canadian, dammit.
Amethyst on the windowsill. (Tap the frame onetwothreefourfive). Teeth. Shower. Clothes. Check phone.
He had a text from Kent, and suddenly that night’s dream came flooding back.
And now he had a mystery that he didn’t particularly want to solve. Worse; multiple mysteries. Multiple, poorly defined mysteries with no explanation about why they were important. In cop shows, he reflected bitterly, it was always “find out who killed this guy”. A very clear mystery with equally clear parameters.
Parse: Did you get your presents yet? They should have arrived overnight.
Jack narrowed his eyes at the text in suspicion. The light outside his now-open curtains had changed to clear blue and gold in the time he’d been getting ready for the day. If anyone else in the Haus got up soon, they could be the first to find the package, and if it were in anyway obvious what was inside then Jack was going to have questions that he didn’t want to face.
Jack: What time is it where you are? Shouldn’t you be asleep?
Parse: Haha yeah
Well, at least Jack wasn’t his captain anymore. And then, with a jolt, he remembered that Kent was his own captain. How the hell was that complete mess actually managing to do his job?
Slowly, as quiet as he could manage despite the noise that the birds insisted on making, he crept downstairs. Peeking into the kitchen, he noted that at least Bittle had retired for the night. On through the hall, towards the door-
‘Oh! Uh. Hi, Shitty. You’re up early.’
‘Don’t change the subject.’
Jack frowned, ‘…from… what?’
‘You’ve got a package.’ he announced, revealing a plastic courier pouch with something approaching glee, ‘And it’s postmarked Vegas. What’s inside?’
‘More Aces merchandise, I’m guessing.’ Jack invented, ‘He thinks he’s funny.’
He held out his hand expectantly, and Shitty – with visible reluctance – handed it over.
Jack: Got it
Jack: Also Shitty says hi
Jack: More or less
‘So why are you up so early?’ he inquired, as casually as he could.
Shitty’s response was an emphatic, ‘Brah.’ and a solemn nod, with his hands on his hips. Then he said, ‘Anyway, I hope Bitty’s put something in the fridge for breakfast, I’m starved.’
For a moment Jack was distracted remembering the salted caramel, but then he got himself together to respond, ‘Shits, you didn’t even answer my question.’
‘Do you think Bits’ll mind if I eat the last of this pie?’ he called back, sounding as though his head was inside the fridge.
Just once, Jack would like a friend who wasn’t also a part-time headache.
‘Probably not.’ he responded, by way of surrender.
He returned to the relative safety of his bedroom and, refusing to let himself fall back onto his soft bed, took a seat at the desk and tore open the package.
The box inside was stuffed with a small collection of objects he’d never admit to anyone that he now owned. The first, a nondescript leather folder about the size of his palm and twice as long as it was wide, was already making him concerned what Erangi would make of it if he found it under a search warrant. Or worse, on Jack’s person next time he ended up at the police station.
He unzipped it gingerly, as if it were somehow about to explode, and found a pristine silver lock picking set inside.
Parse: So what do you think?
Jack: If I end up in prison I’m blaming you
Parse: Relax, none of this stuff is illegal. I checked.
Setting the lock picks to one side, the next item he drew out was labelled “practice lock”, and was made of a sort of clear plastic that showed off the pins and tumblers inside.
Jack: It’s still very suspicious
The next item was a Swiss Army knife, and he took the time to thoroughly examine every clever instrument attached before moving on. Now he was looking at another knife, this one in no way Swiss. A little longer than his index finger, the blade was matte grey and deadly sharp. It was thin, too, but strong, and folded neatly away into a wooden handle so dark it was almost black. He pictured Kent picking it out, looking for the prettiest and most dangerous weapon he could find.
Parse: But it’s useful. And cool
The last item there was a flashy silver thing, a zippo lighter, because of course Kent was never going to get him a cheap plastic one. On one side a black spade symbol was etched into the metal, almost innocuous but for the number 90 inside the logo. Kent’s number.
Jack: You’re ridiculous.
Jack: But thank you
Parse: Just making sure you still have my back next time I kick the bucket
Jack had his first lecture soon, so he slipped the Swiss Army knife and the zippo into his pocket, and spent a little too long making sure that the rest of Kent’s gift was well hidden.
Jack: You could always try not dying
Kent’s only response was a stream of Japanese characters in the shape of what appeared to be a cartoon man shrugging. Idiot.
He left the Haus while the air was still chilled, and marched resolutely on towards his lecture.
Parse: Anyway, how have you been?
Jack was partway through typing “fine” when he got the second text.
Parse: I’ve noticed a lot of YouTube videos from Samwell sports teams
With the cold biting at exposed skin, Jack shoved his hands – and phone – deep into his jacket pockets. Students actually had things to do. Kent was just going to have to wait.
By the time he’d got to the lecture theatre and got himself set up, his message alerts were well on their way to a full novel.
Parse: I was wondering if the hockey team was going to be involved
Parse: I’m sure a lot of people would find that entertaining
Parse: Wait are you ignoring me now?
Parse: Come on, be fair
Parse: You know if the roles were reversed you’d never stop chirping me
Parse: This is very childish, Zimms
Parse: Adults don’t give other adults the cold shoulder
Parse: Okay, two can play at that game
Parse: (These blank messages are me ignoring you)
Parse: (It’s really hard to show someone you’re ignoring them over text)
Jack: Did you get any sleep last night?
And there was that cartoon man shrugging again. Jack was customarily early to class, but the other seats were filling up, and the lecturer had just walked in.
Jack: I’m in a lecture I’ll have to stop talking to you soon
Jack: But, while you’re conveniently sleep deprived, I’ll let you know that we’re putting the hockey team in figure skates. Me included, before you ask. Shitty said I should ask if you want to be part of the video?
By now Kent should have learnt not to stay up all night. It made him talkative, and a little too honest, and much more willing to make impulsive decisions.
Parse: Count me IN
Jack: You sure you’ll show?
Okay, so that was a leading question. But, on the other hand, Jack didn’t feel guilty about it in the slightest.
Parse: You have my word
The next day, at a more reasonable time of the morning, Jack received a follow up text.
Parse: You used my tiredness to your advantage
There was no denying this, even if he’d wanted to.
Jack: You gave me your word.
And he copied and pasted Kent’s cartoon shrugging man and sent that off as well.
Third period. Aces up 5-4 against the Devils, empty net. Kent Parson was on the ice and Jack, not all that far away from New Jersey, was watching along on his laptop. A nice pass on the Devils’ part. Both teams congregating in the Aces’ zone. Jack flicked his new lighter open and lit the flame, snapped it shut again with a minute flourish of his wrist.
Kent was already on the scoreboard for an admittedly beautiful wraparound shot at the start of the second period. That, and two assists, meant this was an impressively high scoring game for him.
Flick. Light. Snap.
The Aces’ goalie was doing a great job against the determined attackers, while Kent seemed to be hovering on the fringe of the fray. Then a rebound, a quick flash of a defenceman’s stick, and the puck was sent to the captain.
Kent was fast, and prepared for this. He was away before most of the other team realised what had happened.
He wasn’t stupid enough to risk a slap shot. It was all speeding up the ice now, keeping his pace.
A pass. But only because no one was really expecting it. Kent had crossed over to the Devils’ zone, and Jack already knew what was going to happen next. The puck flew to Kent again and this was all too easy. Empty net.
Flick. Light. Snap.
There would be no hat trick for him today, but nor would there be overtime. Two goals, two assists; Kent strengthened his hold on that number one spot for points. The best forward in the league, ask anyone.
The lighter hit the floor before he registered it slipping from his fingers. Shit. This was stupid, he thought, selfish. Jealous. But it was happening and he pushed the laptop safely onto the duvet before he let himself slide to the floor. Dimly, he tried to muster enough concentration to remember those breathing exercises that his therapist had shown him.
Breathe in for seven seconds.
His body was screwed up as small as he could manage, with his forehead pressed so hard against his knees that he could see tiny lights appearing behind the lids of his closed eyes. He’d wasted all those years. Kent had already won the Stanley Cup twice, and he was trapped in the NCAA. There was no way he could possibly make up for all that lost time.
Hold for four seconds.
That was if he’d even make it to the NHL, something that was still up in the air. Meanwhile Kent had long since become captain and was busy cementing the future retirement of his jersey number. They used to be equals. They used to be friends.
Breathe out for eleven seconds.
It wasn’t working. He couldn’t feel himself shaking so much that he could feel the friction between his back and the bed behind him. What he wanted, more than anything, was to be the sort of person who could drift coolly out of nowhere like Jay Gatsby and take them all by surprise. To build his life with his talent instead of his name. His father had had that chance. Kent had that chance. All Jack had was expectations and judgement.
Breathe in for-
He’d lost track of his breathing. The only thing for it was to tie himself to the mast and wait for the storm to pass.
The rest of the attack was little more than a rush of sickly fear, too strong and swirling through his head too fast for him to latch on to any coherent thoughts. Just a caricature of his past failures and a deep sense of impending doom, and then…
These days the worst bit of an anxiety attack – in Jack’s opinion – wasn’t the attack itself. These days it was the moment after where he ardently wished, at some instinctual, deeper level than his conscious mind, that he still had his meds. If there were any right there, he knew he’d take them. He’d forget any consequences for the time it took to just take this impossible tightness in his chest away.
And then, slowly, that feeling receded.
The lingering adrenaline kept him shaking. But now it was the weak, queasy sort of shaking like when he hadn’t eaten in too long or if he’d had too much caffeine. This always took some time to fade, but when it did he’d be able to sleep.
In the meantime, he lifted the lighter off the carpet and ran a thumb over Kent’s number in the cold metal. Maybe later he’d convince himself that this twisted jealousy he sometimes seemed to drown in was just the illness. But for now, for a few bleak minutes, he hated himself.
Then that dissipated too, and all he felt was drained as he pushed himself through his bedtime routine. For the dregs of that evening he no longer wanted the media’s respect or the Stanley Cup; all he wanted was sleep.
That night didn’t quite manage to sap all of his exhaustion. The next morning, while Bitty was bringing a pot of water to boil for eggs (stick your hand in it, his intrusive thoughts prompted him, half-heartedly), he wondered with no real intent whether removing anxiety counted as a favour that jacks of passage could do.
Hockey was stressing him out. Assignments were stressing him out. The slight creaking outside his window from Shitty’s late-night escapades were stressing him out. And, not to be ignored, magic was also stressing him out. That is, at least the magic that occurred outside of his witchy sanctuary, where he tended to his young dittany of Crete and all his other herbs.
At that precise point in time, however, Officer Erangi had managed to supersede all that with his innate talent for stressing Jack out.
‘You’re not one of those weird fake superheroes are you?’
Erangi was sitting across from him, resting his chin on his hand in a resigned sort of way, while the growing pile of documents relating to Jack’s frequent visits lay innocuously next to his elbow.
‘Y’know, one of those people who wear masks and costumes and, like, try to be comic book characters.’ he explained, ‘It’s a new thing to Boston, but I’m telling you, it’s those New Yorkers who brought it here.’
‘I’m not.’ Jack said, apologetically.
‘Not that I can prove, at least.’
It was an intriguing theory, and Jack was almost flattered that this officer was putting so much imagination into working out what was going on. But mostly it made him anxious.
Everything made him anxious.
‘Well, I’m never wearing a mask when I’m brought into the station.’ he pointed out, ‘or a costume. I’d have to be pretty terrible at keeping a secret identity, all things considered.’
Erangi titled his head to one side, ‘That’s right, you’re sort of famous aren’t you?’
It was an extremely awkward question to try to answer without either lying or sounding arrogant. He settled for, ‘I guess. When did this come up?’
‘I googled you.’ he admitted, without a hint of embarrassment, ‘I’m being honest, there wasn’t a lot of investigating I could really do with this case. Let’s just move on to this evening. You… assaulted someone.’
Incredulous, Jack opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off.
‘No, you technically did assault someone. You applied force to their person when you pulled them back. It’s just that the law tends to justify this type of assault because you did it to save her life. Fair?’
‘Now, my only question is; how’d you know the bullet was going to hit her? You couldn’t even see the shooter from where you were.’
‘This is America, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that there’s a shooter nearby.’
A few long, dreadful seconds of silence. Jack internally berated himself for the filter on his mouth that seemed to become defective sometimes when he was nervous.
Eventually, Erangi returned to his papers with a stern, ‘I’m going to let that joke pass because I’m from New Zealand and you have a point, but for this interview it would be best if you just assume that I have no sense of humour.’
‘Good. Now, could you answer the question…?’
Jack’s mind chose that moment to go completely and utterly, treasonously, blank.
‘It… was instinct?’ he stumbled, ‘I just, I mean, I did it without thinking.’
This didn’t seem to impress Erangi very much, ‘Okay, but why was it instinct? What caused you to do that? You were… I’m just going to go ahead and guess that you were going for a run. You saw this woman in front of you. And then you pulled her backwards. Why? Did you have reason to suspect she was going to be shot? Was it a well-timed kidnapping attempt? What?’
‘I… saw a reflection.’
‘Yes. Of the shooter. On the, you know, show window. The lights were off so I could…’
‘See the reflection.’ Erangi repeated, doubtfully.
The only comfort Jack could take was that he’d thoroughly researched the scene and knew that at least the evidence wouldn’t disprove his claim; it was entirely possible – at least as far as the angles were concerned – for him to have seen the shooter’s reflection in the shop window.
He didn’t, of course. He’d just waited until she’d got to the scene of the crime they’d showed on the news, and then pulled her out of harm’s way. It was more efficient.
‘Would you sign a statement to that effect?’
Beneath the man’s calm façade, Jack was almost certain he could perceive him grinding his teeth.
Kent’s roadie brought him steadily closer to Boston, and Jack found time at breakfast to offhandedly mention the promise he’d extracted from him to Shitty.
Shitty, naturally, repeated the information loudly enough for the whole table to hear, in a voice that could only be described as delighted.
‘Really?’ Ransom demanded, while Holster spluttered some other phrase to the same effect.
‘Really.’ Jack confirmed.
Lardo now, ‘Have you talked to the college about this?’
‘I don’t think they’ll mind too much.’
‘No pancakes.’ Bitty warned, with an uncharacteristically intense glare.
Jack gave a noncommittal sort of shrug, thinking that Bitty seemed about to bend his fork in half, ‘No promises.’
Maybe he should warn Kent that there was a real possibility that Bitty might try to decapitate him with the blade of a figure skate. He’d probably succeed, too, now Jack thought about it. He’d watched Bitty’s audition tape, he knew what kind of spins the kid was capable of.
Shitty was still wearing an expression that suggested he was thinking the phrase “it’s a Christmas miracle!” over and over again. Lardo was grinning, half to herself. Ransom and Holster seemed to be bouncing so slightly and rapidly that it was more akin to a sort of vibration. Meanwhile Johnson, per his usual character, was merely attempting to exchange significant glances with Jack. What the significance of those glances actually was, he was none the wiser, but at least Johnson seemed approving.
They had a game that evening, but at least it was at home. There was practice to run and pre-game rituals to observe. But between these commitments, Jack had enough time to make it to the city and back, clutching his small but surprisingly expensive purchase.
Keep your head down.
He was rereading the essay he’d written. By now it was his fourth time going through it and he knew that he should be getting some sleep after the game, but his mind was still alive from the exercise and the time between then and the last time he’d read it was long enough that it was like taking a fresh look at the thing.
Keep your head down.
It was a simple goddamned mantra, wasn’t it? It was half of what he needed to do to get his life back on track. And yet…
It was twice the maximum wordcount, and at the phase Lardo referred to as the “kill your darlings” phase. What he should be doing was cutting out anything unnecessary to make sure it was concise. What he absolutely shouldn’t be doing at that stage was deciding what his essay was even about.
Keep your head down.
He hadn’t listen to Holster. Nor had he listen to his own number one rule. He’d listened to Keynes, of all people, and now he was trying to tell himself that he was a hockey player rather than a historian but he was losing conviction.
The interwar years were split in half, with the seam being November 1929. The Wall Street Crash. Gatsby on one side, the little orphan Annie on the other. It was the continuity that Jack was trying to write about; it had fascinated him how people – more than that, how those exciting and dangerous ideologies they held – adapted to the sudden change. True, activists from all sides could use it as proof of the grievances they had identified, but they suddenly had less ability to organise and advertise. Art changed in places, but more striking were the ways in which it didn’t change. Subsisting in this environment were the newly cosmopolitan ilustrado who wrote the ideas in their many books.
With his first, controversial, book published in 1919, the Cambridge-educated economist-among-artists John Maynard Keynes, whose life’s work was built on discovering the causes of the Great Depression, was the ultimate interwar character.
Except for the slight fact that he was still political.
The two pieces of information that he’d gained from Holster – other than the information given in the form of confusing graphs – were that a) from the thirties to the present, capitalists were divided into Keynes’ camp and Hayak’s, and b) the moment he picked a side was the moment he was sucked in for good, and he was just going to have to deal with the fallout.
Keep your head down.
The essay was littered with Keynes, but not through any intent on Jack’s part. He may be able to safely assume that the NHL and assorted media wouldn’t have access to his college essays, but that didn’t mean that he wanted to leave college with that most troublesome of afflictions; political opinions.
Keep your head down.
He attracted enough negative press as it was. His major had never been intended to convert him into the sort of student he always heard about in political news, he just wanted to be a mild-mannered historian who could give quick fun facts about the twenties and thirties in between his main occupation of skating around on the ice. Sports people didn’t like politics. In fact, sports people were hostile to any suggestion that politics might drift in their general direction, as though it were a wave of typhoid.
Well then. He was a hockey player first. Under no circumstances was he to develop an interest in Keynes.
And he cut down his wordcount by deleting those sections about the man, but not before he’d saved the original copy under a different name.
Thursday evening, and Jack stayed up just late enough to watch the Aces claim a well-deserved overtime victory against the Islanders.
Friday morning, and he had a text.
Parse: The green sofa looks suspicious but you’re probably asleep so I can’t really ask you if it’s okay and I’m fucking tired so I don’t really care
Maybe they should get a deadbolt for the Haus. And locks for the windows. Their current security system was more or less just letting it seem as shabby as it truly was, so any potential thieves would consider it worthless and rob the lax frat instead.
He showered quicker than usual. Replaced the amethyst (taptaptaptaptap on the frame). Flicked the lights on and off. Moved downstairs with all the caution and trepidation of a soldier sneaking up on the enemy.
It was Bitty, greeting him from the kitchen in a voice that was only pretending to be respectfully quiet, but was nonetheless sufficiently loud to wake up light to medium sleepers.
‘Um.’ Jack said.
‘He’s on the nasty green sofa,’ Bitty supplied, turning back to the bowl he was stirring ‘still unconscious.’
‘Not anymore.’ complained the sofa. Turning to the source of the sound, all he could see were his friend’s feet sticking out behind the back of the chair, ‘Wha’s wrong with the sofa?’
‘Nothing!’ Bitty promised, sweetly.
Jack walked to the sofa and bent over the back to greet Kent, ‘Morning. You’ve slept in a bit.’
‘Tough game.’ Kent groaned, rubbing at his eyes a little melodramatically, ‘But I’m gonna make breakfast, hang on.’
‘No you’re not.’ Bitty called out, in the same spun-sugar tone, ‘I’m already making pancakes.’
Kent shot Jack one of his trademark looks, before sitting up with exaggerated reluctance and replying, ‘At least use the chocolate chips I bought.’
In a fit of friendly helpfulness, Jack searched through Kent’s bag for the chocolate chips – rich, dark chocolate and unnecessarily expensive – before passing it to Bitty with a silent plea to actually use them.
‘Fine.’ he mouthed.
Jack mouthed ‘Thank you.’ back, tapping his fingers to his chin and inclining them forward like he was shown when he was younger.
Bitty just glared as he slowly took the offered bag of chocolate chips.
The rest of the Haus would be up soon, so Jack took the short window of relative quiet to move back into the living room with the item he’d bought from the city tucked safely in his pocket.
Kent was now resting on his arms, folded along the top of the sofa, ‘What do you think of the presents?’ he asked, with a grin that was only slightly annoying and a hushed tone that Jack was grateful for.
He moved around the other side and braved the green sofa, sitting on Kent’s ersatz bed, ‘Lock picking is weirdly relaxing? I like it. It’s probably going to be used as prosecution evidence right before I go to prison, but I like it.’
With that, he was treated to a long, surveying look, ‘You’re a real glass-half-empty type, aren’t you Zimms?’
Deadpanned and dull-voiced, he replied, ‘It’s all the dying. Starts to get you down after a while.’
‘You’ve only died twice.’
‘I wasn’t talking about just me… anyway, I got you something. It’s kinda stupid, but it’s good to have. You might… need it?’
He handed over the little paper bag, folded at the top and in a tasteful pale pink. The girl in the store had asked if it were for a girlfriend, because even people who sell gemstones and incense believe in gender norms. When he didn’t answer the question she’d taken that as a yes and began inventing lots of love-related properties that the stone had. She wasn’t a witch, and Jack was, but he’d already decided what he wanted before she’d started talking so he didn’t bother calling her out.
Kent shook the pendant out into his palm, followed by the slowly coiling silver chain. If Jack were already a professional hockey player, he probably would have bought it in white gold. Not because white gold was in any way more magical that silver (it wasn’t), but because it just seemed like a Kent Parson sort of metal. Regardless, the silver was nice enough, forming a quaint teardrop shape around the pearlescent white stone.
He didn’t tell Kent that the last time he’d seen him was while he was projecting, nor about the blotchy red of his eyes when they met Jack’s. Instead, he said simply, ‘It’s moonstone. The traveller’s stone. It’s supposed to be charged in moonlight but you should probably not take it off before bed so maybe just take it out from under your shirt sometimes when you’re out at night. That’s what I do.’
And he tapped the spot where his pentagram sat with his index finger, while Kent looked down at his gift in mild bewilderment. There seemed to be a lot of meanings behind that expression, but Jack could read none of them. Save, perhaps, a quiet scepticism. Kent knew for a fact that magic was real; not Jack’s kind of magic, but Assi’s kind of magic. But knowing about the more tangible magic didn’t mean that his approach to gemstones and herbs wasn’t akin to the grateful but unaided reaction of an atheist being told that a neighbour would pray for them. A kind, loving, ultimately useless gesture, that helped the atheist more by the knowledge that that person cares than by belief that an all-powerful God does.
Kent’s voice sounded strange as he stammered his thanks, and he slipped the chain around his neck just as Ransom trotted downstairs. His fingers lingered on the pendant for a few extra moments before they were no longer alone in the living room and he tucked it beneath his shirt.
‘Morning Bitty.’ Ransom was saying, ‘Morning Jack. Morning Kent Parson of the Las Vegas Aces.’
Holster wasn’t following. Meaning that Ransom had a reason to be up early that wasn’t shared by his de facto soulmate. Meaning a test, because he had lots of those and it was the only thing he didn’t do with Holster.
‘Test this morning?’ Jack asked.
Ransom nodded, ‘That’s right. I’m impressed you remember my schedule.’
‘It’s my responsibility as captain.’ Jack assured him, seriously.
It was actually kind of impressive that they’d gotten dibs in sophomore year. A rarity. They’d both worked for it, but Jack suspected that the only reason they’d succeeded was because no one could think of anyone else for the bunkbeds.
By now the slanting morning sun was withdrawing across the room, warmer and brighter as it retreated to the front windows. Upstairs, Jacks herbs would be enjoying the light. It was nice, even if Kent clearly would still rather be asleep. From the kitchen came a soft sizzle of oil and batter, and then the smell of pancakes gradually began filling up the Haus. Soon enough it would bring the others down.
‘I saw your game, by the way.’ Jack commented, ‘It was amazing, the way you managed to skate around without taking a life-ending hit to the head or being decapitated by a skate. You’ve really improved your not-dying this season. Keep it up.’
‘Unless this invite was just a ruse to save my life without telling me.’ Kent yawned, ‘What was it? Serial killer? Snake bite? Assassination? Please say it was something cool.’
‘No inside jokes in the shared area, bromigos.’ Shitty said, instead of announcing his presence in any normal way.
‘Sorry.’ Kent lied.
Jack allowed Shitty to get side-tracked by the promise of pancakes before muttering, ‘Autoerotic asphyxiation.’ in an undertone.
‘No way, I have class. If I choke while getting off it’s gonna be on a dick.’
He narrowly missed spluttering in response, and also avoided glancing around shiftily by a hair’s breadth. Internally, he hoped that if anyone were eavesdropping they’d at least read in a “no homo”.
‘Murdered by your cat.’
A shrug, ‘Plausible.’
‘Your sunglasses finally got so dark that you couldn’t see and accidently walked into traffic. Again.’
‘Nuh uh.’ Kent said, shaking his head as though he’d only just worked out how to perform the motion, ‘No chirping until I’m fully awake, you gotta give me a fair chance to hold my own.’
The way he was shaking his head made his stupid cowlick sway from side to side like a reed in a light breeze, and Jack scolded himself for noticing.
‘Fine. Since you live in Vegas, your name got called up in the weekly CSI draft and you have to be the victim. I’ve come to warn you about the person you least expect.’
‘She’s the person I least expect,’ Kent explained, with a shrug, ‘So she must be the murderer.’
A conspiratorial whisper and a significant look, ‘Perfect cover if you want to commit a murder.’
‘Breakfast!’ Bitty called, and the rest of the Haus appeared rather than arrived downstairs, ‘Pancakes. You can thank Kent… Parson for providing the chocolate chips.’
The slight pause was no doubt Bitty wondering if they were on first name basis. The mild smirk on Kent’s face was equally certainly him thinking that it would be more fun to let them stumble that to say “call me Kent”.
Jack took the initiative to offer a helping hand, ‘He goes by Kenneth, if you’re not sure what to- ow! Kenneth, don’t kick me. Weren’t you ever taught how to behave as a respectful guest?’
‘Kent.’ he told the group in a slightly louder tone, ‘Like the place. Please don’t listen to Zimms, he can’t be trusted.’
‘Zimms.’ Shitty repeated, in an awed undertone.
They all held their plates out for Bitty to flop fresh pancakes onto as he finished them. Out of an unexpected bout of kindness that he knew he’d regret later, Jack made his secret maple syrup stash available to all.
‘I still call you Kenneth.’ he said, watching Kent draw a cartoon cat on his breakfast with Jack’s maple syrup. It was passed on to Holster next, who began an artful caricature of Ransom.
‘Ooooh.’ Kent replied, sarcastically, ‘Ouch. That put a real denneth in my ego. A true masterpiece of chirping, ladies and genneths. Zimms must have some penneth up rage to have senneth that chirp my way. I can’t believe you wenneth there. I sure hope you venneth some of this anger somewhere else.’
Jack narrowed his eyes, ‘That sounded practiced. Is that a comeback you prepared earlier?’
‘Don’t be mean, I have some wit.’ – here a pause – ‘Also half my team calls me Kenneth when they’re annoyed. The other half alternate between Parsley and Parsnip.’
The only reason Jack managed to avoid snorting was because he’d thrown a hand to his face to stifle his laughter. Apparently not quite finished, Kent lowered his eyes to his pancake as though recounting some minor tragedy before adding, ‘One person just calls me Kentucky Fried Chicken.’ in a long-suffering voice.
Jack gave up trying not to laugh.
‘Yeah, give it up, Invader Zim.’
Ransom, who had taken the maple syrup bottle and was now drawing his interpretation of Holster – apparently just a huge pair of glasses and a nose – inquired, ‘Anyone ever call you Malibu Ken? Just… curious.’
Even Bitty snickered, but he covered it up with an unconvincing cough.
‘Yes.’ Kent admitted, grudgingly.
Lardo, just arriving, must have heard enough of the conversation to cut in with, ‘How about Pasta?’
‘Well, let’s see…’ came the response, and Jack was shaking from suppressed laughter, ‘I’m Italian, so yeah.’
Shitty’s maple syrup art didn’t make much sense from Jack’s upside-down perspective, but he seemed to be working intently on one of the many swirls even as he allowed himself the distraction of saying, ‘Parsec?’
‘Huh?’ Holster asked, voicing the general concern.
‘It’s a unit of measurement.’ Kent sighed. He was explaining science of some description, but he was doing so with the air of someone entirely resigned to his fate, ‘The length of a parallax measurement between the Earth and a star where the position of the star relative to more distant stars has changed by the angle of one arc second over a six month period.’
Complete silence. Even Shitty looked lost. Eventually, he admitted, ‘I just got the word from Star Wars.’
Jack had never seen anyone look so dispirited by knowing a fact, so he guessed, ‘Your little sister got into that astronomy programme she’d been talking about, huh?’
‘Yep.’ Kent answered, shoulders sagging.
‘So I have been called Parsec, yes. She has the same name as me you’d think she’d leave it.’
Except he didn’t seem to care all that much, other than for show. There was no doubt in Jack’s mind that Kent was paying for the programme.
‘Starry Night.’ Shitty said, and for a moment Jack wondered what that had to do with Kent’s name, before realising that he was showing Lardo his pancake. An unreasonable amount of Jack’s maple syrup had been spent on creating a dreadful facsimile of Van Gogh’s work. Lardo took the maple syrup and drew a dick and balls.
Bitty finished with the frying pan and now joined them for breakfast. On his second pancake, Jack drew a nice, even spiral with the maple syrup. Because he wasn’t a heathen. Bitty drew the ice skate emoji.
After that they ate in easy silence; a nice contrast to the tension that Kent had brought with him the last time he was there. He even helped stack the plates when they were done. Because, as he explained, he “wasn’t born in a tenneth”.
Chapter 10: “a certain honest labourer spoke roughly to a certain quarrelsome woman, and she angrily threatened him”
This feels like a really weird ending for a stand-alone story, it sort of doesn't have a proper resolution, but that's because it's the first part of a four part story.
It's also because this fic was pretty much entirely accidental and is therefore, I'm willing to admit, pretty weird. This fic started as a mechanism for stories that I wasn't planning on writing where I could kill off characters without actually killing them off; ie, I could have angst and still have a happy ending. I made a tumblr post a while back that basically listed my main AU ideas for Check Please to see what people would want me to write. Fun fact: my OCD makes me not like the number six for some reason, so when the list went up to six I added a seventh just to make me feel better about the post. This AU was the seventh. It won, though, so I made it my NaNoWriMo fic, which in turn resulted in the story ending up much longer than I'd first thought. So if you're thinking "That's weird, I wonder why the writer decided to do that", just remember, there was no decision making at all involved.
Trying to do anything with Kent in the same town was like trying to type a paper with a cat nearby. It always ends the same; the cat wants attention and the paper either isn’t completed or is finished off with an ineloquent string of characters where the cat had walked across the keyboard.
Kent spend the rest of the day metaphorically walking across Jack’s keyboard.
‘Shitty and I have a morning lecture.’ Jack told him after breakfast, without much hope that this would make any impression.
‘I’ll crash it.’ Kent replied, with a shrug, ‘What’s it about?’
This was very obviously going to go badly, so Jack tried to make it sound as dull as possible, ‘It’s a history and polsci paper on the development of conservative thought. Special topic. Two hour lecture. Three hundred level paper.’
‘So, it’s history then.’ he replied brightly, I was alright at that in high school, this’ll be fine.’
Half an hour later, Jack was patiently taking notes. On his right, Shitty was playing Tetris while listening. On his left, Kent was now slouching so much that he seemed to be very slowly melting.
Jack had chosen seats right at the back for once, out of a prediction that anything else would end up annoying others in the room. Sitting there with the lecturer dwarfed by the rows of auditorium seating that curled around her, he liked their spot for an entirely different reason. There was little he had that could compare to Kent’s career, but this cavernous hall with its dark wood tables and its general air of knowledge would be enough to impress him.
‘Jesus Christ what is she talking about?’ Kent whispered in Jack’s direction, ‘I don’t know who Spengler is and I used to think that the only people who actually talked about Plato were fake intellectuals in sitcoms.’
Jack, scrawling a rough venn diagram of The Republic and Decline of the West, didn’t fully grasp how Kent could fail to understand what this lecture was about.
‘Dictatorships.’ he hissed back, ‘She said that at least five times. It’s the title of the lecture. This is a lecture about dictatorships.’
He turned his attention back to the lecturer and jotted down a few more sentences.
‘I didn’t think Plato was a dictator.’ Kent eventually whispered. He’d been the same in high school, Jack reflected, just entirely incapable of thinking about what the teacher wanted him to think about.
‘He wasn’t. He was a philosopher.’
‘But I thought this lecture was about dictatorships.’
‘He philosophised about dictatorships.’
‘Right. I get it.’ Kent muttered, slouching fractionally more in his seat.
A few more minutes of peace.
‘It’s scary that this makes sense to you.’
Jack ignored him and tried to focus on his notes.
‘This is your real superpower.’
‘Would you shush? Please?’
This time the silence lasted, but that didn’t mean that Jack was safe from distraction. As he tried to keep his mind on the lesson and nothing else, it was becoming steadily harder to ignore the movement out of the corner of his eye.
‘Stop. Balancing. That pencil. On your nose. The lecturer can see you.’
A little sullenly, Kent let the pencil fall from his face.
‘Don’t know why I’m friends with you.’
‘You’re lucky you’re cute.’
It wasn’t long until the hall was filled with the sounds of ruffling movement and chatter. Kent looked up with something comically similar to hope, and asked, ‘That it? Is it finally over?’
‘Ten-minute break.’ Jack responded, and he watched as his friend’s whole stature deflated a little, ‘There’s another hour left.’
‘Right.’ Kent said, and promptly left.
On Jack’s other side, Shitty had given up Tetris and turned to 2048. The assumption was that he’d simply absorb what the lecturer was saying. Jack knew that Shitty was going to be borrowing his notes in the not-too-distant future.
‘You think he learnt anything?’ Shitty asked, his eyebrows and his moustache simultaneously communicating his amusement.
‘That college is hard?’ Jack suggested.
But apparently they hadn’t given him enough credit because, to Jack’s utter and unveiled surprise, Kent returned before the ten minutes were up.
‘Bought a book.’ he explained, showing Jack the title. An Introduction to History; for ages 11-13, ‘So I’ll have something to do for the next hour.’
There was something new that Jack found out about Kent; he had no reservations about in-app purchases. Whatever was useful for his numerous and varied cellphone games, that he flicked through whenever there was a pause between events, he didn’t think twice about buying.
He had the patience of a small child on a long roadtrip.
Lunch was at Jerry’s where Jack said he’d pay and Kent had looked mournfully at all the food items before mumbling something about already having had pancakes that day. It took little prompting for him to give in, just a few comments about how he needed his carbs at this point in the season, and how he wasn’t truly experiencing the Samwell culture.
Only Bitty and Lardo were free to join them, though the latter pointed out that Kent should take into account how much he looked like Kent Parson.
‘I’ll wear sunglasses?’ he suggested.
It was Jack who stopped that train of thought in its tracks, ‘All that’d do is draw attention to you and make you look like marginally douchier Kent Parson.’
In the end they decided to take the gamble that hockey wasn’t actually that popular and no one would particularly care, which more or less worked when Kent only had to sign three autographs. One of those was for the waiter, which may have been because he was a fan or may have been a subtle hint that he knew how rich Kent was so the tip had better be good.
A conversation topic failed to materialise. Jack felt that the responsibility fell to him in this situation, but could think of little else to remark on than the weather. Which was mild.
Bitty saved the day by asking what Kent thought about Samwell.
‘It’s nice.’ he responded, ‘There are… a lot more geese than I’d expected… and they seem a little more vengeful than normal geese… which is a pretty high standard. But other than that-’
‘You’ve been out of my sight for maybe a half hour total today.’ Jack pointed out, ‘Are you telling me that you somehow managed to get bitten by a goose in that time.’
‘There were two of them.’ Kent mumbled, to his plate.
‘They’re just welcoming you to Samwell.’ Bitty consoled him.
‘Yeah,’ Lardo agreed, ‘they can sense if you’re an outsider.’
After that the four of them began to discuss the spite-filled birds in general, and comparing the relative malice of the local populations in their own home cities. At the point that Jack mentioned that at least they didn’t sing outside people’s windows at dawn, a fully-fledged debate erupted around the question of whether or not all birds were assholes by nature. Jack found support in Lardo, while Kent and Bitty – the traitors – began espousing the virtues of birds that are not geese.
He levelled an accusatory glare at Kent, ‘You only think that because the only birds you see are helpless, injured things your cruel cat is toying with.’
‘Yeah, well’ Bitty interjected, ‘Lardo, did you forget that ducklings are birds too?’
For a few moments it seemed as if she’d ignore this logic, but then she turned to Jack with a shrug. ‘Sorry dude,’ she told him, in a spectacularly unapologetic voice, ‘He’s got a point. Ducklings are great.’
‘Three against one, Zimms.’
‘Well then three people are wrong.’
‘Penguins are birds too.’ Kent pointed out, smug as ever, ‘Do you think Sidney Crosby is an asshole? Mario Lemieux? Your dad?’
All Jack had to say in response was, ‘Ducks.’
Las Vegas wasn’t all that far from Anaheim, and with the Sharks and the Kings becoming ever more antagonistic toward each other, the Aces were left with the Ducks as their current main rivals. What Jack knew – what he’d found out within five minutes of meeting Kent – was that if it were up to him his team’s main rival would be the Blackhawks. Everyone’s main rival would be the Blackhawks.
‘Hawks are birds too.’ Jack added.
‘Okay fine I’ll concede the point.’
They had a real attempt at hockey practice beforehand, but Kent tagged along anyway because he had nothing else to do and Holster insisted that it would be funny.
It was, as it turned out.
Coach Murray decided to bring out the camera a little early when Shitty organised a race between Bitty and Kent. By the time they made it to the other end of the rink, the two in their Samwell hockey gear (in Kent’s case, specially made by a certain art student with a sense of humour) were distinguishable only by the trivial difference in height.
Bitty turned earlier than did Kent, and the gap was even greater when they arrived back to the rest of the team.
‘Why is he faster than me?’ Kent asked, as though it were a conspiracy or a magic trick.
‘You’re getting old.’
‘We’re the same age.’
‘I’m a month younger.’
That earned a glare, while the rest of Jack’s traitorous team were obviously trying not to laugh in the background.
Changing tact, Kent said, ‘So we’ve learnt something about you, huh? You play hockey best with a fast, blond, American right wing on your line.’
‘Don’t forget short.’
‘We’ve been through this. I’m average height.’
‘Not in the NHL.’
The only response was another glare and a punch to the arm that was softened by Kent’s glove. It achieved little but causing Jack to laugh.
‘Alright,’ he continued, when he finally got his breath back, ‘We’ve got a bit of practice left, I’m thinking shinny.’
‘I’m on Zimms’ team.’ Kent said quickly.
‘Fine,’ was Ransom’s response, ‘But only if you’re not getting any other players.’
‘Not even a goalie.’
Jack and Kent shared a glance. Jack’s glance was meant to convey “let’s just play on opposing teams”, while Kent’s clearly meant “I think we can take them”. Somehow, Kent won the silent argument.
‘You’re taking the faceoff.’ Jack muttered to him darkly, ‘And you had better not mess it up.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll protect your pride.’
‘I’m not a two-time Stanley Cup winner, it’s your pride you should be concerned about.’
He genuinely seemed to think about that for a moment, before responding, ‘Just keep the puck away from Bitty.’
Jack didn’t need telling twice. Already he was regretting giving his accustomed face-off role to Kent. Still, he skated into position with his stick held firm in his hands and his eyes fixed on the centre of the circle. A burst of movement. The flash of refined reaction times and determination. And Kent had won; the puck was flung out to Jack and now it was just doing what he was supposed to do best.
Skate. To the opposition end. Dodge check. Protect puck. (Avoid Bitty). Pass.
Kent’s puck. That was the easy part. Johnson was in goal and Ransom and Holster were forming some sort of guard of honour, like they’d abandoned all established hockey strategy and just wanted to mess with the two of them.
Kent waited until he was almost at the net itself, the other team’s eyes all fixed on him, before flicking the puck back to Jack at the last possible moment.
Don’t think. Just shoot.
There was a gap in front of the net, bought with Kent’s play. Jack sent the puck through the air before anyone would have time to notice the issue. He watched it sail past Holster. Bounce of Johnson’s glove. Fall back to the ice with Kent on damage control.
Bitty got to it first. A fleeting instant, then Kent stole it back with the deft movement of a professional. He ducked behind the net and Jack followed on the other side to meet him at the middle.
It was natural.
A sleight of hand. Keep them guessing. The puck slipped from Kent’s stick as they crossed each other, and Jack took it like a pick pocket.
Now, for anyone not watching close enough, it was impossible to see which of them had the puck. There was no time for the opposition to investigate. They split up, half blocking Kent and half blocking Jack. And Johnson, all this happening in such a difficult area for him to see, could only be guessing.
Too bad. He guessed right. By the time Jack had found enough of an opening to attempt a wraparound, Johnson had that side of the goal sealed.
Hockey was nothing more than keeping your balance and thinking fast. Not even thinking in its purest sense; the highest levels of thought just took too long. Jack gave the puck all the speed he could and fired it across the goal to Kent.
Ransom was there, but Kent was out of his league in the most literal sense of the term. They both went for the puck, but the final tap came of Kent’s stick. He didn’t even need to hit it hard. There was no way that Johnson could have got there on time.
Goal. And it felt good. Jack caught Kent’s eye and they exchanged private smiles, both of them just remembering.
‘You two are making us look bad.’ Shitty complained.
‘The moustache does that for us.’ Jack chirped back, earning himself a death glare.
‘I’m hurt, bro. I think Parson’s a bad influence on you.’
Kent, the little shit, just winked.
‘Somebody has to be!’ Lardo interjected, leaning over the boards by the benches, ‘You noticed how boring he is? This guy does nothing but read all the time.’
Shitty nodded, ‘If you have to be a bad influence, at least get him some adventure.’
Jack was forced to keep the curious glance he threw to Shitty (What sort of adventures are you having when you sneak out all the time?) short, so he could catch the amused expression Kent was treating him to (The two of us have plenty of adventure).
‘Practice over.’ Jack announced, watching as the humour was snuffed out from his team’s eyes.
‘I’ll get the figure skates.’ Bitty responded cheerfully.
Kent sidled over towards him, looking comically as though he were floating with the smooth, slow movement of his skates, ‘Zimms…’
‘You gave me your word.’ Jack immediately responded.
‘You tricked me.’
‘That’s beside the point.’
The only reply that comment gained was a dark scowl. But, since Kent’s two settings were scowling or smirking, it didn’t have much effect.
‘Lace up.’ Jack said, in the same captain voice he used to use in the Q.
‘What if they don’t fit? Is that a good enough excuse?’
‘I still know your skate size, Parse. I did think this through.’
‘Of course you did.’ Kent groaned.
This little exchange was caught on video. So, too, was Bitty saying, ‘Relax, it’s not so hard.’
In the final edit, that assurance was immediately followed by a crash cut to a wide shot of absolute chaos. Ransom and Holster had apparently decided that four skates were more stable than two, and clung to each other like drowning men clinging to lifeboats. The only result was that one of them toppling over inevitably dragged the other down. Nearer to the camera, Shitty’s movements closely resembled those of a new-born giraffe learning to walk. Parse stumbled at left of frame and proved that the ice was well cared for by sliding an impressive distance and finally stopping hallway down the rink, where only his feet were still in the right side of the frame.
Tentatively, Jack put one foot on the ice.
This was… not so bad. It was different, with the long tail supporting him at the back and making turning seem difficult. One push forward, fluid as ever. Smoothly transitioning into another stride. This didn’t seem so-
He hit the ground so fast that he didn’t even have time to realise that he was falling.
Ice was harder than concrete. The padding of his hockey gear was enough to save him from any damage, but the air was knocked from his lungs with such force that for a few seconds he was left lying there trying to work out how to start breathing again.
‘You alright?’ Bitty asked, skating up to him with a little twirl.
Jack frowned up at him as he moved into a more dignified sitting position, ‘What happened?’
They both turned their attention to the blades of Jack’s skates, the front of which were adorned with a short, jagged row of teeth.
‘There are spikes on my skates.’
Bitty laughed, which Jack didn’t much appreciate, ‘Those are toe picks. They’re for jumps.’
Finally, Jack clambered to his feet, ‘They seem evil.’
‘They’re useful.’ Bitty claimed, ‘See, I’ll show you.’
And he skated off to an empty area of the rink, all unrealistic grace, until he suddenly pressed the devilish teeth into the clean ice and launched himself into the air. The spin was a nice flourish, even if it seemed a little unnecessary.
‘So this is your fault!’ Kent called out from the other side of the rink, where he was now clutching to the boards as his feet failed to remain under him. They splayed out like a spider as Jack struggled to keep himself from laughing. Nearby, Shitty’s own toe pick caught on the ice and caused him to fall and end up spinning like a top.
‘Nice breakdancing.’ Holster chirped, immediately before Ransom took them both out.
‘Don’t get injured,’ Jack warned them, ‘We’ve got the rest of the season to play.’
‘Noted.’ Ollie assured him, from where he was crumpled with Wicks and two other frogs Jack couldn’t identify piled on top of him.
This was a terrible idea.
Kent lost his grip on the wall and flopped down, sliding away from the boards for a few feet in a defeated sort of way. ‘My coaches don’t even know I’m doing this.’ he admitted, into the glove that was holding his face off the ice.
‘Y’all are just being dramatic.’ Bitty told them, whilst skating smoothly backwards with one leg held aloft in a statuesque stretch behind him.
Kent was shooting Jack a glare as if this were somehow his fault. Which… okay yeah it was a little bit his fault.
Somehow he made his way across the rink, half skating, half stepping as though pretending he wasn’t on ice, and helped Kent to his feet. Instead of thanks, Kent’s response was, ‘You walk in those like I walk in stilettos. I’d stick to hockey skates.’
‘I have questions.’
‘I lose a lot of bets.’ Kent explained, with his immaculately Parisian shrug, ‘And also gender roles are as dead as the generations that cling to them soon will be and stilettos make by calves look great.’
This was one of the small things that Jack had missed from his friendship with Kent; those little comments he made. The ones Jack was never sure were jokes but knew on some instinctual level that, either way, there was some challenge in there to the world in general. It wasn’t so much that Kent didn’t care what people thought of him – on the contrary, Jack knew that the flaws that had help damage their relationship were something that he was deeply ashamed of – it was more that he hated the things people treated as normal. It was the sort of confidence that Jack figured he could use some of.
‘I’m sure your calves are just fine the way they are.’ Jack told him, patting him companionably on the shoulder, ‘You don’t need stilettos to make them look nicer.’
‘Thanks bro.’ Kent returned. His eyes were sparkling in a way that had always meant that, should he allow himself to laugh, he’d somehow lose the exchange.
Jack cracked first, with a smile and a small chuckle. Victorious, Kent grinned back a few moments later; just enough time to establish that he’d held out until Jack’s forfeit. Their few moments of laughter were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of someone else hitting the ice.
‘I’m gonna get you back for this, Zimms.’ Parse informed him, cheerfully. By mutual accord, they each put a hand on the other’s shoulders and hoped that that would stabilise them as they ventured out onto the ice once more.
‘I think we’re getting it.’ Jack said.
‘Speak for yourself. I’m wondering if I can walk by going on tiptoe with these toe picks.’
And he gave it a shot. Jack had the sense to remove his support from Kent’s shoulder so as to avoid being dragged down when he, predictably, toppled over.
‘Traitor.’ Kent accused, glaring up at him from the ice.
Jacks laughter was cut short by Kent kicking out and taking Jack’s skates from under him. He hit the ice with a less-than-dignified oof.
Now Kent was laughing, which didn’t seem to be helping him much in his struggle to find his feet again. After a distressingly long time, he managed to make it into something close enough to a crouch that Jack decided that then was the ideal time to knock him over again. The blades of his skates bit deep into the ice and, as the snow was scraped up by the movement, Jack figured that the rink would be flooded pretty soon after this exercise.
They were now both laughing so hard that breathing was difficult. It had been a long time since Kent was ever this unsteady on ice and, for Jack, this was something he was too young to remember ever experiencing.
Jack’s turn, only he’d barely risen out of sitting position when Kent sent a rough shove his way. Feeling ludicrously like a turtle trapped on his back, Jack took a little longer than he’d have liked to right himself. And by that time there was Kent, standing above him with a smug expression, managing to remain upright just out of Jack’s reach.
Jack did the only rational thing; he distracted his friend in the only way he’d learnt ever works – pointing was too predictable, but a mildly confused expression with eyes fixed on something in the distance never failed to make people turn their heads – and used the time to scoop up the snow from their skates and mould it into a neat, if small, snowball.
Kent turned his head back in time to catch it in the centre of his face. Most of it burst outwards and scattered, but a few shavings caught on the upturned point of Kent’s nose. Not for the first time, Jack itched for his camera.
But the moment passed when Kent swiped as his face with his gloved hand, and the last of the glimmering snow dissipated. There was a memory there, if Jack could place it. It was something from long ago and, as he staggered unsteadily to his feet, he recalled the image of a teenaged Kent Parson helping them decorate the Christmas tree. Somehow he’d managed to shake some glitter lose from the baubles and get it attached like tiny pinpricks of light to his face.
He hadn’t changed much, really.
Then someone called out for Bitty to show them all how it was done, and their attention was diverted.
Grinning and blushing at the same time, Bitty found an open space at the window end of the rink and stammered something about being out of practice. Not that it mattered particularly much, considering that a room full of hockey players just struggling to keep their balance weren’t exactly in the best position to judge.
He began by skating smoothly around, picking up a little pace, and then he was in the air with a little spin. Skating backwards. Holding out his arms like a John Singer Sergeant painting and pivoting on the tiny curve near the front of his blades. It was objectively amazing, and Jack joined in the cheers and applause.
It was another jump, the gold of his hair beneath the light of the window, the circles etched on the ice beneath him, and Jack knew.
It’s somewhere that will be important to you one day.
What did the boy say his name was? Could it have been Eric? He said he never remembered his dreams, and Jack’s memories had been a little foggy due to surrounding events. But it had been a figure skater, and a witch, and Bitty did have those cookbooks.
Lit by the daylight instead of the silver moon, the image wasn’t quite the same. And yet, at some level that he’d never fully interrogated, Jack would never really forget that day.
He started. Kent must have noticed that Jack was distracted, because he’d drawn up next to him and nudged him lightly with an elbow.
‘You alright?’ he asked, in a low voice.
‘Sorry, I just…’ he was hyperaware of the cameras around him, ‘…I’ll explain after.’
Kent made a “hm” noise in the back of his throat while Bitty landed a particularly tricky jump and decided that that was the end of the show. Jack waited until they were all finished cheering before mumbling, ‘What?’
‘Nothing.’ Kent lied, ‘It’s just that being mysterious is a good look on you. Goes with the cheekbones. You should keep it up.’
‘Well, hey, I’d try a bit of mystery too, but I can’t really pull it off with the cowlick.’
Jack just shook his head and skated off – carefully – in Bitty’s direction. By the time he got there Ransom was already energetically inventing possible plays that could incorporate figure skating.
He stopped in front of them, opening his mouth for some compliment before immediately being cut off by Bitty.
‘Looking to give it a go?’ he asked, every cadence of his voice communicating that this was a chirp.
‘A few jumps?’ Bitty suggested, with a smile, ‘Since you’re so good with toe picks. Or I could teach you how to do some of these spins.’
‘I’m… not sure how useful that would be for me?’
Kent’s voice, never far behind, ‘You could use it as a distraction, Zimms. Make the other team so confused they don’t notice your line mates heading for the goal.’
‘Brilliant.’ Ransom agreed.
Jack clapped his gloved hands together and announced, ‘Right. Sounds like we’ve got a volunteer. Bitty, go ahead and teach Parse some of those moves.’
Kent blanched in perfect proportion to Bitty’s blush. They both stammered out their objections as Jack grinned benignly down at them.
‘I’m not even on the Samwell team!’ Kent pointed out.
‘You’re an honorary member.’
For a flicker of a moment, Kent looked more pleased than worried. But he pulled his features back under control a moment later and grumbled something about what his coaches would say.
It wasn’t enough. Jack won the argument entirely through polite patience. His prize was a front-row seat to Bitty, and his long-perfected poise, trying to teach sublime movements to a man who could no more figure skate than fly.
Kent did, however, seem to be a natural at flailing.
In the background of this madness, a real snowball fight was breaking out with considerably greater ferocity than their brief prelude. Jack stayed where he was, enjoying the display, until the two of them threw their hands up in resignation and decided to call it quits. The rest of the time was a relentlessly Samwellian enterprise, as the team became more and more their chaotic selves over the once-pristine ice turning ever more to snow. By the time they decided to call it a day, Bitty was traversing the rink with Lardo attached to his back, and Ransom and Holster had invented – and promptly introduced Shitty to – a new form of go-home-stay-home with Kent as the unwilling designated home. Jack diligently ignored his appeals for help.
That was probably enough footage for a comic little YouTube video. The faculty had had their doubts, but Jack knew his team all too well and figured there would be ample material.
The rest of the season passed, as seasons are wont to do.
Jack watched as Bitty finally overcame his fear of checking, and then as the price of this was revealed in the form of a concussion. The game was won for Samwell, but in the private of his darkened room he found himself texting Kent.
Jack: I don’t suppose you’ve worked out how to apologise to a team member yet?
He’d caught himself hovering worriedly at the door as Bitty was being examined. It had been a stupid plan. It had worked, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a stupid plan. Back at the Haus, Jack had untied the first feverfew harvest from where it was hanging in the warm, dry air. This he sealed in a jar, with a label printed in his careful hand explaining “feverfew; for headaches” followed by recommended dosage and a list of the potential side effects and interactions. As an afterthought, he added, “but don’t worry, I promise it will be safe”.
Kent: Is this about the concussion? I saw it online
Kent: Sometimes these things just happen
It wasn’t a particularly reassuring thought, no matter how it had been intended. Jack left the minor sanctuary of his room to seek out Bitty and, at the exact moment he found him, promptly forgot the entire script he’d planned out to seem casual and ended up pressing the jar roughly into his hand.
‘It tastes terrible.’ Jack informed him, before realising that Bitty had almost no context for that comment and adding, ‘…but it should help.’
Bitty, still inarguably nonplussed, said something in the vague region of “thank you” and Jack took that as an opportunity to immediately retreat back into his room.
Soon enough, they were all leaving Samwell for the year. Jack boarded the plane with some strange feeling filling his chest that had nothing to do with end-of-year grades and everything to do with the unanimous vote for captain. There was pressure there, certainly; the pressure to live up to what they all presumably saw in him. But there was something much lighter mixed in that told him that this… this was okay. He had friendships that he could believe in without constant overthinking and double-guessing.
With classes officially over, he’d told himself to shelve his exploration of the interwar years just for a little, and settle into some of his other interests. So, with the shimmering city of Boston finally vanishing from view below them, and the late afternoon sunlight sliding sideways in through the small windows, he drew a book of folklore out of his bag.
It was through this portal that he’d first become a witch; something in folklore that the major religions never quite had for him. It was the tenacity of belief, the way it survived all kinds of persecution and learnt from other religions as it grew until it was never so clear what was witchcraft and what was, for instance, Christianity.
Like, here, the magic that attached to church bells. The old English belief that children born within the chime hours could see ghosts. In most areas this meant midnight, whereas Jack himself was born on a sunny early afternoon with nothing mystical at all happening. Strange how that turned out.
But the thing was that, as a general rule, the church never really approved of witchcraft. For centuries the British Isles – and any number of other places – were filled with people who would leave iron near their children to protect them from fairies whilst taking offence to any suggestion that they condoned witchcraft.
But in those days it wasn’t witchcraft to use iron for protection, nor to hang up dill, nor even (in some places) to read the future in the stars. It became witchcraft when it was forgotten by society and left to the witches to preserve. The historian in Jack always saw witches, himself included, as a living store of nearly-forgotten human knowledge.
But the question now was how much of that knowledge Bitty held. If he knew that he was a witch, he seemed to be hiding it well. Certainly Jack couldn’t tell anything magical about him in the way he could with Assi. But there were those books, and the night Jack’s life was saved, and the only thing for it was to try to forget all about it and avoid any risk of being sucked into this mystery.
He was supposed to be keeping his head down. But for all that, there he was, reading about English folklore and wondering how much of it he’d actually encounter.