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What the Water Gave Them

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//

 

Time it took us
To where the water was
That’s what the water gave me
And time goes quicker
Between the two of us
Oh, my love, don't forsake me
Take what the water gave me
~What the Water Gave Me, Florence + the Machine

 

How the Waters closed above Him
We shall never know —
How He stretched His Anguish to us
That — is covered too —
~Emily Dickinson

 

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.
~Loren Eiseley

 

//

 

FALL

 

//

 

of all the pain
here to us given;
finely divisible
falling as rain.
~Autumn Rain, DH Lawrence

 

//

 

When Bitty dreams, he dreams of water.

He dreams of drowning, of going under for the second, third, fourth time. He dreams in vibrant colour. He dreams of fists and feet and bruises that bloom the colour of summer ripe berries on pale pale skin.

He used to love the water in all its variations, its calmness, its serenity, its ability to both conceal and soothe. His favourite lake, Oconee was his refuge, his place to retreat to, after school or after a demanding practice. Once upon a time, Before, water was his saving grace.

Now it’s his recurring nightmare.

 

//

 

Bitty’s plane touches down on a Tuesday afternoon in late August.

From his window seat the tarmac and the surrounding area looks like any other place in the world, he figures, even though he’s only flown within the United States, for family vacations, for skating competitions. Toronto, he supposes, peering out the small window, could be anyplace at all. But, it’s not. It’s not Georgia and it’s not Seattle or New York or Toledo. It’s another city and another country and he’s further from home than he’s ever been in his life, both physically and metaphorically.

He tugs his backpack from the overheard compartment and shuffles his way along the aisle with the other passengers. He realizes as he makes his way down the covered passage that he’s started to sweat. His T-shirt is plastered to his back between his shoulder blades and sweat drips down the back of his neck and gathers along his hairline. The airport is cool so he doesn’t know why he’s sweating exactly. He shifts his backpack from one shoulder to the other and back again. He’s chewing on his bottom lip and his fingers are trembling against the strap and he can’t stop sweating. He finds his way down the escalator to the baggage claim and waits and waits for his big black suitcase, the one that he’s taken on so many trips he’s lost count and the conveyer lurches and starts moving and the bags start appearing and he waits some more, peering over his shoulder at the doors and his new life just beyond. He wants to get going because the longer he stands here the longer he has to think and remember and those two things are the last two things he wants to be doing right now.

Fuck.

He remembers his mama’s arms tight around him hours ago at Madison’s Municipal Airport, Coach’s face looming over her shoulder, face caught somewhere between a frown and something else. An expression Bitty had never seen before, not even when —

Well we won’t think about that.

“It’s going to be fine, Dicky. You’ll see. Everything will be just fine.” The way her voice went up at the end made him wonder if it was a statement or a question. He didn’t reply. “Lenore will be waiting at the airport. If she’s not there, you have her number and you have our number too, of course.” She laughed, weakly, and Bitty wondered if she might cry. He didn’t want her to cry.

Coach clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed so hard Bitty had to try not to wince. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, then paused and closed it again and Bitty smiled and hugged his mom again, turned around and walked away.

Now he grabs his suitcase and stumbles towards the sliding doors and he sees her immediately, waiting, poised and white-faced and anxious on the other side. She doesn’t look like his mother, but he knows this because he’s seen photos and they’ve talked on the phone and she’s only her second cousin anyway, but there’s something about her, something in her stance and her nervous twitches and the softness of her face when she sees him that reminds him of his mom so suddenly that he wants to weep.

Lenore smiles wide and questioning as Bitty approaches. She’s small, like his mom, and sturdy with short dark hair with a shock of pink in the front, black-framed glasses and a big smile. She grabs his suitcase from him and holds it tight, like she’s not sure if she should touch him. She nods and smiles instead and Bitty is overwhelmingly grateful.

“Eric,” she says, and Bitty flinches just a bit. “You made it.” She says this like it’s still slightly surprising. “How was the flight?”

“Good,” Bitty says. They stare at each other for a moment and Lenore nods again.

“Ok. Good. That’s good.” She takes a deep breath. “Well, I’m parked in the garage, so.” She inclines her head and Bitty nods and follows her across the busy road to the looming parking garage, up two flights in the elevator to a small, beige Honda where she tosses his suitcase in the trunk — “Your mom told me she’s having the rest of your stuff shipped next week” — and they get in and go.

“It’s about an hour drive, so get comfortable,” she says as she merges onto the highway. It’s huge, he thinks, eight, ten lanes? “You can choose the music. Oh, and I don’t have air conditioning, sorry.” She glances over. “This car is like, 12 years old and the A/C conked out last summer. Hondas, though. You can drive them forever.”

“It’s ok,” Bitty says as he lets the late August wind blow over his face, smelling of highway air from anywhere, gas and asphalt and heat and glass. He pauses. “Thanks, Lenore, for—”

“Len,” she says immediately. “You can call me Len. I forgot to mention it on the phone, but it’s what. Well, it’s what my friends call me, and you and I are going to be friends, so.”

She nods resolutely and Bitty can’t help but smile a bit. He can’t remember the last time he had anyone he called a friend.

“Len,” he agrees. “And you can call me Bitty then. If we’re going to be…friends.”

She nods too, smiling, and she punches the button for the radio and they drive.

It’s hot, is the first thing he thinks. Not Georgia hot, but still. It’s goddamn hot, sticky and humid and not at all what he expected but he didn’t really know what he was expecting, did he? All of this is rather beyond his control at the moment and aside from putting one foot in front of the other he’s on autopilot. The scenery is mainly strip plazas and brown grass, brilliant blue sky with wisps of clouds, cars and businesses, overpasses, on and off ramps. Anywhere, he thinks. I could be anywhere I’ve been before. But I’m not. I’m here.

The sudden overwhelming exhaustion hits him out of nowhere. He hadn’t slept on the plane — he’s never slept on a plane ever in his entire life — and now he’s so tired he could cry. He glances at Len who is watching the road, hands clamped knuckle-white on the steering wheel — and he lets his head rest against the doorframe and the back of the seat, lets the rumble of the little car on the highway lull him, lets the sticky hot air wash over his face and through his hair as they drive and drive. His eyes close and he breathes and tries not to think or remember or, especially, dream.

 

//

 

He awakes with a gentle jolt and sits upright, eyes wide and, for a moment, uncomprehending. He’s in a car and he’s hot and sweaty and there’s a small, neat house in front of him. There’s a porch and a big front window, a riot of wildflowers and a trellis with ivy. There’s a huge leafy tree in the middle of the lawn. The door is red.

“We’re ho—” Len stops. “We’re here.” She smiles, tentatively, then gets out and lets the door close behind her.

Here is Edenvale, Ontario. Bitty’s home — place of residence — for the next year. He stares at the little house, at the colourful flowers and brown brick and red door. He likes that door. The front lawn is small and mown neatly around the tree, brown patches in the dry summer heat. He takes a deep, steadying breath and opens his own door, follows Len up to the narrow path and inside.

There are rough wood floors and throw rugs. The walls are bright, painted in sunny yellows and deep crimsons. There’s a lot of artwork — some of it looks original — and comfy chairs and couches. Bitty knows, from his mama, that Len is a university professor and freelance writer, an only child whose parents died years before. There are two dogs, Bitty already knows from previous discussions. “You ok with dogs?” “Yes,” he was. He was more than ok. He can hear them, faint, frantic barks from somewhere and he wonders if Len shut them away so they wouldn’t overwhelm him when he first arrived.

“Your room’s just down here,” Len says and he follows her down a short hallway past a bathroom, past a small office, past a bedroom painted yellow and green and filled with books — dozens of framed photographs, mostly black and white and of Len smiling with her arms around another woman, on the blue walls — to a small but cozy space right at the end, painted a light blue. There’s a small desk and a double bed, a window, closet, a braided rug on the floor. There’s a fan rotating on the bookshelf and everything is neat and tidy. Len is watching him, he realizes, waiting for his reaction. He nods and tries to smile.

“It’s lovely,” he says. “Ya’ll made it look really nice.” He pauses and tries to impart meaning into it. “Thank you.”

Len smiles, relief on her face. She clears her throat. “The other boys will be downstairs. They’re arriving in a few days.”

Ah, Bitty thinks. The other boys. He’d almost forgotten. The Hockey Boys, as he referred to them in his head. Len had been billeting OHL hockey players from out of state — province — for almost 10 years, which was one of the reasons she’d so readily offered to take Bitty in, too, this year, and why his own parents agreed, he supposes.

“You’ll have built-in friends, Dicky!” his mother had said, hands clasped together. “And they’re skaters! How lucky is that?”

“Hockey players, mama,” Bitty had said, dull and bitter. “Not figure skaters. They’ll probably want to kick my ass as soon as they lay eyes on me.”

Suzanne had blanched but hadn’t said anything, not even to reprimand Bitty for cussing. She let a lot of things go now, After.

Now Bitty places his backpack on the bed and looks at Len, who is hovering in the doorway, unsure.

“Bitty,” she says. “I just. I want you to know that I’m happy you’re here. Not for the reason you’re here, of course. I don’t know the whole story —”

Bitty flinches.

“But I want you to feel like this is home, even for the time you’re here, ok?

Bitty gives her a tiny smile. “Yes ma’am.”

Len grins at that. “That will take some getting used to,” she says. “But I can’t say I don’t like it.”

The howls and barks increase in volume and intensity and Len rolls her eyes.

“Come on,” she says, beckoning. “You can meet my kids.”

The “kids” are small and furry and fast blurs of black and brown and the best things Bitty has seen in months. Shirley and Raymond (“After my favourite writers,” Len says, cheeks pink, “Shirley Jackson and Raymond Carver”), are both fluffy and excited, winding around Bitty’s feet and sniffing his legs and looking at Len with a mix of bewilderment and pleasure, like Who is this is he here to stay can we keep him?

Bitty kneels down and lets the dogs do their thing, licking and jumping and pawing, and when he looks back up at Len with the biggest most genuine smile he’s had on his face in months, Len has her hand in front of her mouth and it almost looks like she’s blinking back tears but she turns and moves to the kitchen before he can tell for sure.

 

//

 

In general, water represents the unconscious, the place our minds go and the thoughts we have when we’re not paying attention. If you are underwater in your dream, this might indicate feeling drowned, overwhelmed, or swallowed up by unconscious thoughts, emotions, urges, or memories.
~From 10,000 Dreams Interpreted

 

//

 

When Bitty dreams he dreams of water.

His first night in the house — home — he lies awake for hours, taking in the unfamiliar sounds and colours and lights. He’d talked to his parents briefly after dinner, heard his mother fighting back tears and his dad’s gruff You be sure to help around the house and take out the garbage and mind your manners, and he wandered around his room debating about whether to put away his belongings or not and finally decided on not yet, not quite yet. He dug his pajamas out of his bag and brushed his teeth and splashed water on his face and said goodnight to Len and climbed into a bed that smelled nothing like home and nothing like he’d ever smelled before.

Then he tried to sleep.

He had pills, two bottles full, tiny white pills just for this, for sleeping, for fighting off the dreams, and while they worked for the most part, they also made him feel distant and sluggish, like he was looking at himself from across the room, like a stranger in his own skin, so sometimes they stayed in their yellow bottles and he battled sleep on his own. Like tonight.

There are strange shadows in his room and strange noises in the house and he rolls back and forth under a sheet that isn’t his before finally waking up hours later in the dark and the stillness to the sound of his own breathing and stuttering heartbeat and a noise of distress half-caught in his throat.

He lies there sweating and shaking and trying to catch the tail end of the dream because he’s supposed to. He’s supposed to remember, according to his shrink. Therapist. Simra. And he’s supposed to think and analyze and remember even when it’s the last thing he wants. He reaches over and pulls his battered brown notebook out of his backpack, rests on his side on one elbow and reads and writes by the light of his phone.

Drowning — This is a fairly common dream symbol that suggests internal emotional turmoil. One might be afraid of aspects of getting too deep on an emotional level. This is the clinical description he finds in his Dreams Interpreted book and he has to bite back a laugh, like always. Emotional turmoil. Ok.

He writes, in shaky pencil scrawl, images, some random, some familiar — water, panic, fear, pain — then closes the book and puts it back.

He rolls and shifts and finally pads to the dimly lit kitchen for water, where he finds Len.

“You ok?” she says, lines etched in her brow. “I heard.” She stops. “I thought I heard something.”

Bitty pulls a glass from the cupboard and fills it at the sink, drinks from it with only slightly shaky hands.

“I have nightmares,” he says, voice low but clear. Don’t be ashamed, Simra had said. It’s totally normal. He’s not. He’s not ashamed. He’s just very tired. He’d like to sleep through the night. “I know mama told you. I hope I don’t disturb you.”

“Oh Bitty, it’s not that,” she says and he believes her. “I just. Is there anything I can do?”

Bitty finishes his water before answering. “Just let me know if I’m bothering you I guess,” he says and laughs a little, too loud in the quiet kitchen.

Len shakes her head and looks like she’s moving to hug him, an aborted move held back at the last minute. Bitty clutches the glass tight in his hands.

“Let me know if I can help. In any way,” is what she says finally before turning around and walking away.

Bitty rinses and dries the glass and puts it back in the cupboard and stand there in the strange kitchen with the stove and the oven and he thinks, oddly enough, of pies. How long has it been since he’s baked anything, he wonders. Months. Months and months. Before he can analyze that too closely, he turns and walks away, too.

He lies in this strange new bed in this strange new house — home — and stares at strange new shadows on the ceiling and takes big breaths, willing his toes to relax, his feet, his calves, knees, thighs. He works his way up his taut body, demanding very bone and sinew and muscle, the blood and bones to relax, to give way to sleep. He uncurls his fists and closes his eyes. This year, he thinks, will be different. It will be different because he is different. And nothing and no one will hurt him like that ever again.

 

//

 

Len’s fiancée Jude is tall and skinny with long blonde hair that she likes to contort into interesting shapes around her head. Bitty knows this because he’s seen many photos of her on Len’s Facebook. Jude works in the library at the university where Len teaches, which is where they met. Jude is divorced, from a man, and didn’t really realize she was bisexual until she “dove back into the dating pool.”

“I took one look at Len and realized, Well hell, Jude. You are not straight. Not at all.”

She and Len grin at each other across the dining room table, where the three of them are eating a late dinner of potato salad and sliced cucumber from the garden in the dim light with a big fan blowing on them from the floor. It’s too hot to cook. Jude has an apartment across town but sometimes sleeps at Len’s place, Len admitted almost shyly to Bitty earlier. Bitty wants to tell her it’s fine with him but he thinks that might sound weird, or presumptuous. It doesn’t matter if it’s fine with him or not. This isn’t his house. His opinion means nothing.

Today Jude’s hair is in two high ponytails on top of her head, tied with bright green elastics. She’s barefoot, bony ankle entwined with Len’s under the table as they eat. She’d given Bitty a warm hug when she met him, bending down to do so and said she was glad he was here. She even sounded like she meant it.

Len and Jude are getting married next August, right here in the backyard of Len’s house.

Bitty can’t imagine wanting to marry anyone.

He can’t even imagine next August.

 

//

 

The boys, two of them, arrive on Saturday afternoon. It’s another blistering hot day, air thick and heavy with rain in the forecast. Bitty has spent the morning helping Len weed her extensive vegetable garden — everything’s almost gone now, except the tomatoes, starting to go soft, and overripe, large cucumbers, a few green beans and snap peas, but there’s one small pumpkin, still green, that Len is ecstatic about — and Bitty is hot and sweaty when they’re done.

He and Len are sitting on the front porch drinking ice tea, sweet, with slices of lemon floating on the surface, thunder rumbling in the distance, faint and low.

The Boys, Bitty thinks as he presses the cool glass to his cheek. He’s thought a lot about them but he and Len haven’t talked about them at all, other than the sleeping arrangements and the amount of food they’ll be consuming.

“Do they know about me?” Bitty had asked suddenly, earlier in the garden. He’d been aiming for casual but his voice broke in the middle. Do they know about me. Not, What happened to me, not, Why I’m really here. Just, Do they know? Len had looked up at him, squinting in the sunshine. Bitty knows the bare minimum about The Boys: aka Brian “Shitty” Knight, and Jack Zimmermann, son of a famous player that Bitty has never heard of. They’re both 18, like himself, and also, like himself, are returning to school — Grade 12 up here — to finish high school and move on with their lives, whatever that means for the three of them. Other than that, they are literal strangers to him.

“They know the basics. They know you missed half a year of school. They know you’re from Georgia. They know.” She stopped.

Bitty licked dry lips. He waited.

“This is their third year with me,” Len said and her voice was faster and higher than usual. “They’re both lovely boys, Bitty. They’re good people, good human beings. Two of the best I know and I love them both like they’re my own. I think, I hope you’ll all be good together.” She paused, cradling a tomato in the palm of her hand. She swallowed and looked back up at Bitty. “They know you were hurt and that you and your family decided you’d like to finish your schooling with a fresh start. The rest of the details are up to you to share, if you choose.” She paused again. “And, I should tell you, too. Jack had his own…difficulties last year, too. He—”

But whatever she was about to say was interrupted by the back screen door smashing open and Shirley and Raymond bounding down to the garden and slamming into Bitty’s legs, butting and scratching and sniffing until he relented and bent to pet them and he and Len were both laughing and any deep and meaningful words evaporated into the still, hot air.

Now they’re on the porch with a summer storm gathering and the wind picking up and Len tapping on her phone — “They should be almost here,” she says — and Bitty biting the inside of his cheek and jiggling his knee and sweating under his sleeveless T-shirt and he’s just about to get up and go inside for a glass of water or a pee or a long nap when a blue car, a Nissan Maxima, pulls smoothly into the driveway.

Len lets out a cry of joy and relief and jumps up, followed by two hysterically barking dogs at her heels. The doors open and two big, bulky men unfold themselves from their seats, stretching and laughing and talking and the dogs are barking and the wind is blowing and everything so loud and Bitty is stupidly nervous, even more than when he first stepped off the plane less than a week ago.

He stands up and wipes damp palms on his jean shorts and takes stilted steps down the porch when Len turns and beckons to him and he’s finally face to face with Len’s Boys.

The shorter one, with long flowy hair and kind brown eyes and very earnest attempts at facial hair steps forward right away, hand extended, smiling wide but gentle. He takes Bitty’s limp, wet hand in his and shakes it once, twice.

“Hey Bitty,” he says and keeps smiling and Bitty can’t help but smile back. “I’m Shitty. We like, rhyme, man.”

“Hi Shitty,” Bitty says. “Pleased to meet you.”

Shitty grins wide and open. “I’m so glad you’re here this year, you have no idea. You can help me keep this wild animal in line,” he says, gesturing to the Other Boy hovering just a bit behind him, arm still slung over Len’s shoulders. “Jack, where are your manners? Get over here and say hi to our new roomie.”

Bitty dimly registers a large, muscular body, dark hair and facial scruff and the bluest eyes he’s ever seen, moving forward, smooth and liquid like a stream, tilting his head and studying Bitty just as hard as Bitty is studying him and—

Wow, Bitty thinks. Holy shit, Bitty thinks.

Who is this? Bitty thinks.

Then, he thinks, I think I’m in trouble.

 

//

 

When Jack dreams, he dreams of ice.

Jack dreams in black and white. He dreams of ice and snow, landscapes of his youth. He dreams of vials and silver needles, silver skate blades. He dreams of water, too, but it’s frozen and unforgiving.

He dreams of silver faucets and smooth porcelain, white and sterile and unforgiving under his fingertips. He dreams of a cold that permeates him, digging right down through his skin and muscles and sinew, right down through his blood to the bone and beyond that, the marrow. Some days he wakes up gasping and panting, shivering in his bed beneath a pile of blankets. Sometimes he’s in the ice and sometimes he’s under it and usually he’s sure he’ll never feel warm again.

 

//

 

Jack heaves a sigh of relief when the car crosses from the QC-20 in Quebec into the 401 in Ontario, his foot finally easing off the Nissan’s gas pedal just a bit.

“Only five and a half more hours, give or take,” says Shitty, lounging in the passenger seat, seat back, sunglasses on, fingers tapping on his thigh.

“You nervous?” Shitty asks, like he doesn’t already know the answer, like they haven’t discussed it at length over the summer at training camps, during late night texting sessions, during their days off from summer jobs.

“About?” Jack is playing dumb. Shitty knows he’s playing dumb which is why he rolls his head and gives Jack a Look that Jack can’t decipher behind the sunglasses.

Jack’s Incident is five months old. There are things they talk about, and things they don’t. Jack isn’t sure which category this falls under.

They pass the exits to Belleville and Brighton, Cobourg and Port Hope, Bowmanville. They make rest stops and fill up on all the junk that will be banned as soon as real training starts next week. Jack shoves a handful of Pringles in his mouth, takes a bite of a Twinkie and washes it down with a can of Sprite.

“Chemicals, man,” Shitty says, belching loud and long. “Gonna miss all the goddamn chemicals. Gotta overdose on them now while we still can.”

His mouth snaps shut and glances over at Jack who only smiles and slaps Shitty on one thigh.

“Well, if you’re gonna overdose on something, it might as well be high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, yeah?” He swallows and grimaces. “Because they taste so good.”

Shitty sighs in relief, tilts his seat back further. “Wake me in Toronto and I’ll take over, ok?”

Jack tightens his hands on the wheel and presses harder on the pedal. In the distance, he can see storm clouds growing.

 

//

 

Jack’s heart is climbing up his throat when he turns onto Sherwood Drive and the house that he loves moves into view. The tree, the flowers, the red door, it’s all there, all the same, like he knew it would be, but seeing it for himself relieves a pressure in his chest he didn’t realize was there.

Then he’s out of the car and Len’s strong arms wrap around him and he hugs her back without thinking, leaning way down to do so. They talked on the phone after the Incident, more than once, mostly just so Len could reassure herself that he was really all right, but they haven’t seen each other since June. When she finally releases him, she’s crying or about to and Jack sniffles once, hard, and blinks hard too.

“Welcome back,” is all she says. And then, “I’m so happy you’re here.”

She hugs Shitty, who lifts her way up in the air to make her laugh while Jack gets his bearings. Same house. Same driveway, same patch of grass in the front, same big tree. Same porch. But now there’s a boy standing on it, hesitant, blonde and slight, hands twisted together in front of him. They stare at each other.

“Bitty,” Len says. “Come say hi to your new roommates.”

Bitty, Jack thinks. He remembers Len telling him her cousin’s son was going to be with her for the school year, and something about an incident at his own school in Georgia the year before, but he could have sworn the kid’s name was Eric. But, maybe he just got mixed up, or forgot. It happens now, sometimes.

The kid — Eric/Bitty — looks, Jack thinks, both young and old at the same time and this realization knocks Jack off balance. His eyes are wide and brown, soft and guarded, same with his mouth. His nose is upturned and his hair blonde and tousled. His hands are at his sides, rolled into fists. He’s cute, Jack thinks. Then he wonders how many times the kid’s been referred to as cute in his life.

Jesus. He’s not a kid. He’s the same age as Jack and Shitty, which knocks him all off kilter again.

Shitty sticks his hand out immediately, of course and the kid (Bittle. Bitty!) reaches out slowly, with reluctance, like he’s rethinking every life choice he’s ever made. Jack watches his small hand engulfed by Shitty’s and that does something to his stomach again. The boy is pale with a smattering of freckles across his cheeks. His neck is slender. His feet are bare, grazed with dirt and Jack knows without a doubt that he and Len were gardening not long before and this thought makes him smile.

Bitty’s voice is quiet and soft and round, his accent unlike anything Jack has ever heard before in person.

Who is this? Jack thinks. Then Bitty turns his big, brown-eyed soft-steely gaze directly on him and Jack’s heart misses one beat and his stomach flutters and he thinks,

I think I’m in trouble.

 

//

 

Jack and Shitty’s rooms are the same as last year, side by side in the basement, each with a single bed, a bookshelf, dresser, small closet and big window well. They share a common area with a TV and couch and chair, a table for homework, a bathroom down the hall. The walls are pale yellow and the floor is scuffed wood with throw rugs. It smells like apple cinnamon, Len’s favourite scent and one that will forever remind Jack of her and this time and this place. It’s comforting. It’s happy. It feels like home. He closes his eyes and focuses for a minute.

There are tentative footsteps on the stairs behind him and a knock on the wall partition.

“Everything look ok?” Len says, peering around the corner.

“Yeah, it’s great,” Jack says smiling because he means it. He’s here, he thinks, he made it.

Jack unpacks to accompanying raucous music from Shitty’s room, mind on autopilot. Clothes here. Shoes here. Books there. Hockey gear in the common area, neatly beside Shitty’s mess. He sits at his desk, takes out his notebook, opens it, makes his nightly list. Lists are what keep him calm. Lists keep him steady in a storm of jagged thoughts. Lists, he’s realized, through time and therapy, are his lifeline. He has an entire notebook devoted to his lists, page after page of things scribbled down to keep him sane, keep him safe, keep him here in this world.

Unpack, he writes, neatly, in pencil.

Clothes.
Shoes.
Hockey equipment.
Text mom and dad.

Then,

Sleep.

He lies on his back on his bed, studying his list and chewing his pencil. He thinks and thinks before he finally adds,

Don’t dream.

 

//

 

They all fall into a routine so easily Bitty doesn’t even notice at first. Shitty and Jack slide into the house and his life so easily and quickly and smoothly that he doesn’t have time or the energy to feel nervous or annoyed. Shitty is loud and friendly and puts Bitty and everyone at ease without even trying. Jack is quiet, quieter than Shitty, but not as quiet as Bitty, and he tells funny stories about his summer job training youngsters at the rink and often searches for the right word in English. Len and Shitty, and sometimes Bitty, suggest random words to help until they all dissolve into helpless laughter.

The boys are:

Big.
Hungry.
Frenetic.

Bitty, these days at least is:

Small.
Not hungry.
So tired he can barely drag himself out of bed most mornings.

There are five days left until school starts and practice starts. Five days together in the last of the August sunshine, hot and sticky with floor fans and tabletop fans running through the house because Len hates air conditioning. They eat on the back deck and Jude often joins them. She and Len are easy with each other, holding hands, smiling with their eyes, kissing each other on the mouth before Jude heads home to her apartment. Bitty watches them and feels a twist in his chest that he’d rather not analyze, thank you very much.

He thinks about all the words in his chest that are gathering up, building up and up and squeezing up his throat and making him choke with their fullness. He wonders what would happen if he let them all out here. He used to talk, with Simra. He never shut up, in fact, all those words about the people who did what they did to him, and even though they were punished, he still had to see them around town sometimes, knew they were still there. He can still hear their voices and feel their hands and sometimes in the middle of the night he can smell the lake water and the brackish thick of it trickling down his nose and throat, keeping all those words he’s not saying shoved down inside.

He dreams, but he doesn’t allow himself to speak.

 

//

 

Then it’s September. It’s September and school and practice and it’s serious. Jack tells himself this every morning, every night. No messing up. No messing around. No drugs. No slipping. No disappointing anyone, ever again if he can help it.

There’s a routine now and routines are his friend. His notebook is also his friend.

Lists are also his friend. Lists keep his world ordered, keep his thoughts in check. Keep, for the most part, the black days a little less black.

Today’s list goes like this:

5 a.m. Up. Go for run.

5:30 a.m. Eat.

6 a.m. Practice.

7 a.m. Homework.

8 to 2:30 p.m. School.

Practice.

Home. Eat. Sleep.

Repeat repeat repeat.

And this is it, he thinks. His nice ordered tidy world filled with a routine that if he follows without question will keep him out of trouble, no matter how tempting the parties, no matter how savoury the smells, no matter how brown the eyes, no matter how blonde the hair, no matter how pressing the questions, no matter how great the want.

He has his yellow vial of white pills for the dark days that still crowd his head.

He practices his deep breathing and his mindfulness. He skates hard and sweats harder. He runs his routines and passes and scores and counts down the days until the first game. He won’t mess up. He won’t let his guard down.

He won’t let anyone in.

 

//

 

In dreams, water is often associated with emotions and their expression. The surface of the water represents the dividing line between the consciousness and the unconscious. The type, shape, motion, and other characteristics of the dreamed water express the dreamer's conscious or unconscious emotions.

 

//

 

Bitty awakes in a cold sweat, sheet twisted around his legs, shirt stuck to his chest.

He digs his dream dictionary out and thumbs the well-worn pages, dog-eared and wrinkled. He reads: Brown/Murky — If you are unable to see clearly it might suggest emotional difficulties. Your thoughts might be controlling how you feel about the situation. Try to be more positive.

Positive, he murmurs to himself, then laughs, a little huff of air that only he hears in the quiet of his room.

He lets his head flop back against his pillow, then rolls on his side and scribbles in his journal. He puts the book away. He punches his pillow a few times then once more, hard, for good measure, rolls on his side and doesn’t sleep.

 

//

 

The high school is big and brown-bricked and imposing: it looks like any high school anywhere, he supposes. Bitty is the new kid this year, though, and he’s not just anywhere, he’s a Special Case. He’s not called this specifically, but he feels it when he meets with the guidance counsellor and the vice principal and the principal herself. They have all his records from Georgia spread out on the big wide desk between them, his grades, his absences — months and months of those — his tutoring sessions, his homeschooling courses, notes from the court case and the newspaper articles. Bitty sits in the plastic chair and tries hard to not fidget. Len had offered to come but Bitty had said no, no, he wanted to do this himself and she hadn’t pressed.

He ignores their compassionate pitying looks and keeps his chin lifted and his hands twisted in his lap and his backpack at his feet.

“Anything we can do to make this year, this transition, as easy and smooth as possible,” Ms. DiSantos the principal says, and she sounds sincere, so Bitty nods and thanks her.

“My door is always open,” adds Mr. Michaels the counsellor. “Anything, anytime.”

It’s exhausting, like it always is, and Bitty nods and nods and thanks everyone until his throat is dry and finally they let him go, show him the school and his classrooms — Writer’s Craft, Math, Philosophy, Com Tech — and he’s on his own.

He sees Jack and Shitty once on the first day. They pass him in the hallway, coming towards him, and Bitty is sure they don’t see him, he keeps his head down, but he chances a glance up at the last minute, and Shitty has his hand up for a high-five, and Jack is looking right at him with a little smile and nod that does funny things to Bitty’s stomach.

Gosh it’s warm in Ontario in September.

 

//

 

“It’s the Ontario Hockey League, aka the OHL,” Shitty is explaining over dinner. It’s for Bitty’s benefit, he knows, because Len is an old-hand at this now. “There are 20 clubs playing a 68-game unbalanced schedule, which starts in the third week of September, running until the third week of March.”

Bitty nods like he cares and pushes his chicken around his plate. Shitty and Jack are already on their second helpings.

“Ninety percent of OHL games are scheduled between Thursday and Sunday so we don’t miss too much school.” Shitty sounds like he’s reading from a manual and Bitty nods. “Then when we get to the playoffs, which we obviously will, there’s the J. Ross Robertson Cup, which we obviously are going to win.”

“Obviously,” Len says, nodding and smiling.

The boys, Bitty knows, play for the Edenvale Eagles. He knows this because hockey talk pervades every pore of the house, seeps into every conversation, every argument, every debate. They practice every day and will play games both here and away every week. The house reeks of hockey and when they’re not playing it, they’re talking about it, or waiting for the NHL season to start next month.

“Bitty skates, don’t you Bitty?” Len offers out of the blue, to be helpful, he thinks, to include him in the conversation, he suspects, so he’s not just sitting there like a lump. Shitty and Jack look at him, curious and more than a bit skeptical.

“Hockey?” Shitty says carefully, taking in his general appearance.

Bitty swallows, throat dry and sore. “Figure skating,” he says, and his voice comes out raspy. He waits for the derision.

“Cool,” Shitty says immediately, nodding, a smile at the corner of his mouth, like he likes this fact about the boy who doesn’t talk about much of anything, including himself.

“I can see that,” Jack says, head tilted, voice thoughtful, eyes warm and serious, not mocking, not mean. “Figure skaters are tough.”

“Tough as hell,” Shitty adds.

“He’s won medals, too, a lot of them,” Len says, oblivious. “Championships, too, am I right? Your mama said—”

“Not anymore,” Bitty says, harsher than he means to but he can’t help it. Stop it, he thinks. Stop. “I don’t. I don’t skate anymore. At all.”

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things. Oh Simra, he thinks. Please leave me alone.

There’s silence around the table and Bitty feels terrible, like he should make amends but dear, sweet Shitty picks up the slack of course.

“Well, you can still cheer us on, right?” He winks exaggeratedly. “Approximately 20 percent of players on active rosters in the NHL have come from the OHL, so you could be watching future stars in our very own arena.” Shitty goes on, shoving Jack with one hand. Jack frowns and looks down. “And our man Jack here is actively being scouted.”

“He is?” Bitty says.

“He is indeed,” Shitty says proudly. “The Marlies are very interested, and they’re the top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, baby. And when he’s playing for the Leafs, I’m going to be his personal attorney. Helping with endorsements, commercials, clothing lines. The whole shebang.”

This makes Jack laugh. “Ok.”

“You won’t be in the NHL too?” Bitty asks, genuinely curious.

“Nah,” Shitty says. “I’m just having fun right now. I’m applying to university for next fall and then law school eventually. I know where my strengths lie. And it’s in litigation.”

“Well, I will be sure to procure your services, should I ever need them,” Bitty says. “And save me some tickets and I’ll come watch you play,” he says to Jack. Jack looks startled, then flushed, like he’s choking on something and Shitty pounds him on the back way harder than necessary.

“We can sit together,” Len says, looking at Bitty for forgiveness. Bitty sighs in relief.

“And bring signs,” he agrees, smiling. “Embarrassing ones.

This makes Jack blush again, and for some reason, Bitty counts that as a win.

 

//

 

The routine goes like this:

Jack leaves with Shitty for early morning practice at 6 a.m. Len leaves at 7 for her drive to the university in the neighbouring city. Which leaves Bitty to either walk to high school or take the school bus.

The school bus.

So, most mornings he walks, half an hour on sidewalks through pleasant, tidy neighbourhoods with big leafy trees like the one in Len’s yard. He listens to music and thinks about boys and life and how different it is here, and how far away his old life feels and how, for the most part, that’s ok.

School here is the same as anywhere he supposes, but better. Better here, definitely, if anyone asked. And people ask. His parents ask, during their almost daily texts and bi-weekly phone calls. Len asks, gentle but curious at the end of the day, and he can hear Simra’s voice in his head, One day at a time, Bitty. Give yourself a chance, and give others a chance, too. They might surprise you.

You might surprise yourself.

He sees the boys in passing at school — they have no classes together this semester, and, unlike Bitty, they have friends from the previous years — big and broad-shouldered, usually together, usually surrounded by adoring girls and some boys, Shitty holding court with stories and jokes with Jack always nearby, amused but not nearly as open. He always, always, seems to know when Bitty is around or passing by, though, somehow. Bitty isn’t sure how he does it, but their eyes will always lock and Bitty will always swallow and Jack will tilt his head and nod and give that tiny little smile and his eyes will go suddenly soft.

“See you after school,” he’ll say, if Bitty is close enough to hear, and Bitty will nod, because they give him a ride home when they can, if they have time before practice. He waits in the crowded parking lot filled with shouts and honks and squeals for them to emerge and they all pile in, Bitty in the back, and they drive home for a quick snack before they’re off again with goodbyes to Bitty and Bitty has the house to himself for a few hours before Len gets home.

He’s not lonely, he tells himself. He’s trying, he tells himself.

He writes that word down in his journal, Trying. It seems to be a big one right now. He circles it, underlines it.

He tries, he thinks, as he drifts from class to class, takes notes and listens carefully. He tries to smile at his classmates, but he gently rebukes their attempts to draw him out.

He holds himself closely and carefully, arms at his sides, eyes on the ground in front of him, walking carefully, like he might crack apart at the slightest jolt.

But he’s trying.

He really is.

 

//

 

Jack gets up at the same time every morning no matter what time he manages to fall asleep, which sometimes means he’s functioning on two to three hours at most. His body, he knows, is a machine that needs care and feeding and rest. He knows this logically, as an athlete, but when the sleep doesn’t come, he can’t give himself respite, because then the spiral follows, and that scares him more than stumbling around like a zombie.

Or a robot.

Robot is the term his friends back home starting using after everything fell apart and he came back different. The distance, the withdrawing from social activities and the partying that almost ended everything. He remembers his parents’ faces most vividly of all, pale and wan and tear-streaked at the hospital. Desperation and despair and fear etched in every line. He pushed his own guilt and fear down and vowed to never let it happen again, even if it also meant pushing down every other emotion that might bubble up in the meantime. Emotions. Like, humans tend to have.

Focus focus focus.

Robot.

Robots are watchful though, he thinks, taking in their surroundings and recording their observations, and Jack has time now to notice a lot more than he used to. He notices how happy Len and Jude are. He notices how dedicated Shitty is to his schoolwork, to scouring university pamphlets for next year — U of T is top of the list — and he notices the newest addition to the house this year, more than he notices pretty much anything else.

He doesn’t examine why, just quite yet.

Bitty’s quiet, Jack notices. He’s watchful, too, not at all like Jack thought he would be, when he had bothered to think of him at all. Bitty holds himself close, guarded, eyes wide but guarded too. He watches everything and says not a lot. But he watches, eyes on Shitty as he shovels in mouthfuls of eggs at breakfast, on Jack as he does his 100 sit-ups in front of the TV at night, on Jack’s back when he’s hunched over homework at the kitchen table.

He can feel Bitty’s eyes on him a lot.

He notices Bitty noticing him. Bitty, the boy, is small and holds himself still. He makes as little noise as possible and speaks only when absolutely necessary. He seems most comfortable with Len, giving her his smile the most often. Jack finds himself looking forward to seeing those soft, slanted smiles.

He refuses to examine the why of that.

Because focus focus focus.

Because robot.

 

//

 

Like the years previous, Len has rules and they all follow Len’s rules. Curfew is 11 p.m. on weekdays, 2 a.m. on weekends, although they rarely take advantage. Quiet time in the house falls between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The boys’ chores include keeping their rooms tidy, cleaning their bathroom, and taking out the garbage. And one night a week, on a rotating schedule, they each have to make a meal, taking into consideration allergies (Len can’t handle lactose) and personal preferences (Shitty will eat anything, anything at all, Jack doesn’t like the texture of tomatoes and Bitty hates peas, but hasn’t said anything because how many recipes call for peas anyway). So far, Jack has prepared broiled chicken with potatoes and a tossed salad, Shitty has made a huge vat of soup with all the remaining vegetables in Len’s garden, Len has barbecued and provided chili and cornbread. Tonight Bitty presents a huge pot of macaroni and cheese accompanied by a garden salad with some kind of dressing Jack can’t quite identify.

“Balsamic,” Bitty says when Jack asks. “I made it.”

Then he blushes at the groans that both Jack and Shitty emit when they dig in to the macaroni, watches in abject amazement as they load their plates a second and third time.

“My goodness ya’ll eat a lot,” Bitty says. He says this often when watching as Jack and Shitty pile their plates with eggs and bacon and cheese and bowls of porridge and protein drinks in the mornings before school, when Bitty himself is picking at his scrambled eggs and single piece of toast, stomach churning.

“We burn them all off in like an hour,” Shitty says, mouth full of food. “And we’re 18.”

Bitty nods like he agrees and eyes Jack’s shoulders and chest and arms and blushes even more when Jack looks up and catches him.

“It’s good, Bitty,” Jack says now, and Bitty smiles and looks down, looks away from those blinding earnest blue eyes while trying to squash what Jack’s accent does to his head and his breathing.

“It was pretty easy,” he says, but in his head he’s repeating thank you, over and over and over and over.

 

//

 

Dark Blue — If the water is very dark it suggests unconscious emotions that could be heavy and deep. How you feel being in the water shows how comfortable you are with your emotional depth.

 

//

 

The Eagles have their first win against the Halton Hurricane at home and Bitty hears all about it one night at dinner. Jack and Shitty are both so animated and excited he can’t help but get drawn in and when Shitty turns to ask if he’ll come to watch their next game, he can’t help but laugh and say yes. And he’s instantly happy when he sees the look on Jack’s face.

He’s starting to realize he likes seeing Jack smile and he likes being the one to put a smile on Jack’s face even more.

Oh dear.

They have their first away game against the Galt Bulldogs, and Bitty receives text messages and happy photos of them with their arms around each other, sweaty and red-faced. Bitty finds himself scrolling through the Eagles’ Facebook page and Twitter account to find mention of the boys — Jack is leading in goals so far — and can’t help the tingle of excitement he feels when he reads their praises.

He’s proud, he realizes.

He misses them, he realizes.

Oh dear.

And not for the first time, he realizes he’s in trouble.

 

//

 

Tonight Jude is barbecuing chicken on the back deck. Shitty is entertaining her with stories from his summer at home, which seems to include a lot of bad behaviour and near misses with his parents. Jude’s laugh, low and throaty is floating across the deck through the screen door and into the house, making Len smile in response where she’s checking on a pan of muffins in the oven.

“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” Jack admits, ducking his head like he’s embarrassed and making Bitty’s breath catch. “Except for maman’s butter tarts, I guess.”

“Just about the sweetest dessert on the planet,” Len says, rolling her eyes.

“It’s a childhood thing,” Jack says, blushing and Bitty has to look away. Lord. “I used to help her make them at Christmas. And Thanksgiving. And my birthday.” He laughs.

“Bitty here is a pretty fantastic baker, from what I’ve heard,” Len says and everything good in Bitty’s head goes white and still. He can feel his cheeks heat.

“Really?” Jude says, marching in with a plate of chicken, catching the tail end of the conversation. “I love to bake. You and I should—”

“Oh,” says Bitty, waving a dismissive hand. “I don’t really do that. Anymore.”

Len frowns and looks at him, confused.

“Your mom says you love to bake. She pretty much ordered me to stock up on six kinds of flour. Said you practically live in the kitchen.” She pauses. “Or, you used to?” It’s a question, a gentle one and Bitty’s eyes burn.

“Yeah,” he says, more to his placemat than anyone near him. He laughs. “There’s a lot of things I used to do.”

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things.

After that, there doesn’t really seem to be much to say and he blinks hard, and smiles when Jack nudges him and hands him a plate of food he really really doesn’t want to eat, no matter how gentle Jack’s eyes are, how soft his gaze is. But no one asks him to elaborate and the conversation ebbs and flows around him and when Jack’s arm brushes against his occasionally as they eat, it really doesn’t affect Bitty in the slightest.

Fuck.

 

//

 

If you’re lost at sea, it relates to you floating around in life without any sense of direction. If you’re lost at sea, it suggests an inability to find your way in life as well.

 

//

 

Insomnia, it seems, follows you from place to place and refuses to let go. Insomnia looks like dark circles under the eyes, and sounds like jaw-cracking yawns. It smells like six cups of coffee followed by jittery hands, and sluggish practices. It looks like haunted faces and three-hour afternoon naps.

It looks like this, too:

Jack kicks his blankets down to the foot of his bed and sighs, throwing his arms wide. He turns side to side. He pulls his journal out and scribbles a list down, illegible in the dark he knows, but just the act of writing helps calm him. In the morning it will read:

Practicjk.

Eatr.

Scribblescribblescribble

He pushes out of bed and pads up the stairs to the kitchen to find Bitty already there, still and silent in the quiet, stirring something in a pot on the stove.

“Warm milk,” Bitty says when he notices Jack, and Jack nods. Bitty seems completely unsurprised to see him, and even offers him a little, knowing smile. He pours a mug for each of them without a word. They sit across from each other at the table and sip in the glow of the stove’s clock and streetlights spilling through the kitchen window. They don’t speak. When their mugs are empty, Bitty rinses them and puts them in the dishwasher.

“Night, Jack,” he says.

“Night, Bitty,” Jack says.

It also looks like this:

Bitty shoves his journal into the space between his mattress and box spring and watches shadows play across his ceiling. He counts his breaths, his heart beats. He wiggles his toes and closes his eyes.

He slides out of bed and pads down the hall, quiet quiet.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Bitty drawls when he stumbles into the kitchen at 2:34 a.m. The cool blue fridge light is spilling across the tile floor. Jack straightens, clutching a jar of pickles in one hand, eyes wide.

“I was.” Jack waves the jar around and shrugs.

Bitty nods. “Can’t sleep?”

“No.” Jack breathes deep and lets it out, slowly. “No. Not well.” He pauses. “You?”

“Pretty much never,” Bitty says and lets himself smile.

And insomnia also looks like making a new friend.

Jack’s different in the middle of the night, Bitty thinks. Tired, of course, quieter, more than usual even, but open and unguarded, too. They sit at the table two or three nights a week, eating sliced pickles or drinking warm milk. Jack talks in hushed tones about the day’s practice and Bitty talks about homework, about wanting to join the LGBTQ club, his eyes cutting up to Jack’s to gauge his response to that. Jack just nods, like it’s a good idea, like he approves, and Bitty exhales. He watches Jack while he speaks, watches his generous mouth and bright blue eyes, sleep tousled hair, broad shoulders under his T-shirt. He thinks about those things when he returns to bed, warm and happier than he can remember being in so long

As the weeks pass, he finds himself thinking about a lot of things that relate to Jack.

Jack, Bitty realizes, always speaks to him in a quiet voice, quieter than usual even and he always waits patiently for Bitty to speak. He doesn’t interrupt him. His eyes are wide and quiet and watchful. If he does tease it’s gentle and unthreatening in a way that never feels condescending. Bitty doesn’t feel like Jack is being careful around him. He’s just being…well, sweet. He doesn’t roughhouse with Bitty the way he does with Shitty, the two of them casually bumping shoulders, bumping hips, shoulder punches, sometimes full-on grappling on the floor.

Bitty wonders why he doesn’t.

And then he finds himself wishing he would.

 

//

 

List:

Practice.

Homework.

Focus.

Call home.

Buy pickles and milk.

 

//

 

Jack has known he Likes boys since he was 12, had even kissed one once when he was 15, a quick, shy peck on chapped lips in the back of a car in the dark with Michael, who was moving to Sweden the following week and never contacted Jack again. He’d known he didn’t Like girls like that, but he knew he had to play the game because that’s what you did, right? He didn’t know anyone who was gay, at least not openly gay, and he had no idea how to go about any of it. He stumbled through school holding girls’ hands and kissing girls and flirting with girls while all the time jerking off to images of the boys in his class, Nick and Olivier and Alexandre, naked and hard and wanting for him.

And then there was Kent, and he can hardly bear to think about him now, tall and muscled and blonde with soft eyes and hollowed cheeks and a loud, easy laugh. Kent at hockey practice, Kent on his team. Kent on the ice and after practice, sweaty and exhilarated. He’d kissed Kent once, twice, tilting forward with the thrill and stomach twirls and Kent had kissed him back, hard, harder and they met after practice last year, walked to Len’s house, slamming the door shut behind them with a whoosh and a laugh, pulling at each other’s shirts and grinding into one another with soft, explosive breaths and Jack thought, this. This is it. This is love and lust and everything I want and then one Tuesday he turned the corner at school and Kent had Tessa up against the locker, kissing her senseless and the floor fell out beneath Jack’s feet and his face fell too and when Kent looked up he only sneered, What? Faggot. Fuck off, yeah?

And Jack did.

 

//

 

Len’s new schedule is posted on the fridge every week, held in place with a rainbow magnet reading “Behold the Gay Agenda.”

“You can just text these things to us, you know,” Shitty has pointed out more than once. “You know, on our phones.”

“I could,” Len agrees. “But then I wouldn’t be able to put this beautiful magnet you bought me last year to good use.” And Shitty groans, every time.

“What is this?” Shitty asks now, leaning close and tapping the new sheet of paper with a long finger.

Bitty leans in, frowns, leans back.

“Family Game Night?”

“Huh.”

Barring any unforeseen circumstances or disasters, Wednesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. are now reserved for games, participation mandatory for anyone in the house. Len has a sizeable stash of games that she hauls out and puts on display, complete with a rotating schedule — of course — of whose turn it is to choose.

There’s Monopoly and Life, Jenga and Trouble, plain decks of cards for Crazy 8s and Blackjack and Go Fish, and Uno and Boggle. Tonight it’s Cards Against Humanity, and Jack’s lack of a completely firm grasp on the finer points of the English language has led to some truly spectacular miscommunications.

Bitty laughs so hard he’s crying and Jack throws his cards down and laughs too, loudly, cheeks bright pink. Bitty realizes this is the first time he’s heard Jack laugh. Like really laugh. He wants to bottle it and carry it around under his shirt, close to his skin. He wants to drink it. He wants to bake with it.

He wonders idly what Jack’s laugh would taste like when Shitty yells,

“Enough of this. We should play strip poker!” He announces this at the exact moment Bitty and Jack catch each other’s glances, eyes wide and open and unguarded, and they both blush furiously and look away, quick, and Bitty’s not sure which is making him blush harder, the idea of Jack’s naked anything or the fact that Jack was blushing harder than him at the same thought.

 

//

 

It’s a home game and the boys have been hounding Bitty all day, all week, because he promised.

“Signs and everything!” Shitty says, slamming a fist down on the table.

“Yes,” Bitty finally agrees, making a show of rolling his eyes while they eat Jack’s unfairly delicious tourtiere at an early dinner. “I’m coming. I promised, I said yes and I’m coming. Me and Len and Jude will be there cheering ya’ll on like it’s the Stanley Cup or something.”

“J. Ross Robertson,” Jack and Shitty shout in unison, which makes Bitty roll his eyes harder, even as his heart stutters in his chest.

He has agreed, but he realizes, belatedly and with a sick churn in his gut, that it’s his first time setting foot in an arena in almost a year and the visceral reaction he has surprises him more than he anticipated.

The air of the arena hits him like a sledgehammer, and he has to blink and curl his hands tight at his sides as he follows Len and Jude up the slate grey steps to find some seats. The smell, the cold, the lights, the loud, the heaters red and angry above their heads, all of it both familiar and as alien as anything he can imagine. He settles between Len and Jude, hands on his knees, heart triple beating behind his ribs until the teams pour onto the ice and he spots Jack right away (why why why?) and Len hands him the poster board sign he painstakingly made hours before, and he takes a huge breath and lets it all out.

 

//

 

“There they are,” Shitty says, lifting his chin and Jack follows the line straight to Len and Jude with Bitty sandwiched between them like proud moms and reluctant son.

Jack feels the flush along his scalp under his helmet while Shitty grins and gives a wave beside him. Len and Jude wave back enthusiastically and Bitty seems to shrink a bit in his seat, but even from here, Jack can see the smile. The Bitty Smile, the one that does stupid things to his stomach.

Then he holds up the sign, white rectangle with big bold black magic marker on it, written in Bitty’s hand, he supposes.

GO 2020 STANLEY CUP CHAMPS

And Jack laughs and feels the blush of it run from his chest up his neck to the tips of his ears and Bitty sees him laugh and laughs, too and.

Oh.

Merde.

 

//

 

Bitty is nervous, he realizes when he approaches the boys in the basement. He pads quietly down the stairs to find Shitty Facetiming his mom while Jack is in his room, door open, notebook and pencil in hand, seemingly deep in thought.

“Bitty!” Shitty yells and Bitty ignores the way Jack’s head snaps up. “Say hi to my mom!”

Bitty waves at the small, blurry face with awkward fingers. “Hi…Shitty’s mom.”

“Now go say hi to Jack. He’s being too serious.”

“No I’m not,” Jack says from his room.

“He is,” Shitty says conspiratorially, like Jack can’t hear and they’re sharing a secret. Bitty stands in Jack’s doorway and looks at Jack’s dark, bent head, long fingers curled around his pencil, his eyelashes and high cheekbones, and thinks, Jack is beautiful. Then he thinks, it’s been a long time since I’ve found anything, anyone, to be beautiful.

Jack looks up and smiles.

“Hey,” Bitty says, chewing his lip like it tastes good, clasping his hands in front of him. “Can I get a ride with ya’ll tomorrow?”

“A ride where?” Shitty says, eavesdropping.

“A ride to uh. The rink. When you go.”

Jack stares at him. “You want to come with us at 5:30 in the morning? To sit in a cold rink? And watch us skate?”

“Well yeah. I’m usually awake anyway. And I’m tired of walking to school. And taking the bus.” It sounds reasonable to him, anyway.

And Jack smiles and nods.

And that’s how it starts.

Riding to the arena in the pitch black morning, Jack and Shitty in front and him in the back, quiet and drowsy, watching unfamiliar streets slide by, streetlights still on, in his warmest sweatshirt, backpack at his feet filled with textbooks and pens and paper.

He sits high in the seats, high enough that they wouldn’t even know he was there if they hadn’t driven him themselves. He props his feet on the seat in front of him and folds his arms and watches. He tells himself he’s going to do homework, but he knows the minute he sees them on the ice, it’s all a great big giant lie.

They move like liquid. Muscles moving under jerseys, Shitty and Jack making perfect passes, skates cutting ice and snow arcing in the cold air, moving in tandem like they’ve been doing it for years and Bitty sees what he’s been missing out and it’s so beautiful, the sound and the smell and the cold that he blinks back hot tears that no one else can see.

 

//

 

Halfway through October, the air is suddenly, almost dramatically, cool. Crisp. Bitty leaves his window open at night and asks Len for extra blankets. He takes his jacket out of his suitcase, the only warm thing he packed, although Len warned him he’d need a warm coat for winter here. Along with mittens. Scarf. A toque, whatever the hell that is.

The leaves of the giant tree — a sugar maple, he learns — in Len’s front yard are changing daily, from green to yellow to orange to a red so deep it breaks his heart.

Jack catches him staring up into the branches one morning and joins him, head tilted back. Bitty looks over and Jack is smiling a little.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says and Bitty and nods and thinks yes. Yes and looks away before Jack can see what he’s actually looking at.

 

//

 

List:

Practice.

Eat.

Homework.

200 sit-ups.

Sleep.

Pickles.

 

//

 

“Thank god for long weekends,” Shitty yells as they pull out of the parking lot on Monday, throwing his bag down with disgust, in a way that Bitty knows he’d had a particularly challenging math test last period.

“What?” Bitty asks.

“No school this Friday,” Jack says. “Or next Monday, either.”

“Why?” Bitty asks, wondering what he’s missed this time.

“Thanksgiving!” Shitty crows.

Bitty laughs. “No it’s not.”

But it is, apparently, at least in Canada, and Bitty because feels he has to check, he asks,

“Ya’ll still have Christmas on December 25 though, right?”

And the answering, blinding grin he receives from Jack in the front seat makes his knees weak, even though he’s sitting down.

On the Thursday afternoon before the holiday weekend, Bitty is alone in the house and restless and fidgety. He keeps thinking about friends and food and giving thanks. He’s thinking about home and his family and his new family here. He wanders the empty house for half an hour, wondering if he should clean all the bathrooms or vacuum before he loses his damn mind when it hits him. He straightens his shoulders and marches to the kitchen and opens and closes every cupboard. He makes a list, pulls on his shoes and coat and locks the door behind him.

 

//

 

“Your turn, Shitty,” Len says.

“Uh,” Shitty says. “I’m thankful there’s no school or practice today.”

It turns out Len is big on people not only being thankful, but voicing it as well.

“Nice,” Jude says, giving him a high-five.

The table is laden with food and Jack just wants to eat as usual, not talk, but Len isn’t letting anyone off easy.

“I’m thankful for food,” Jack mumbles finally.

“Also good,” says Jude. “And I agree.”

Len and Jude are both thankful for each other, and for the boys, which makes Shitty groan, but grin, and then it’s Bitty’s turn.

“I’m thinking of joining a club maybe,” Bitty says, eyes down.

Len raises an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”

“You play chess now, Bitty?” Shitty says, grinning.

“The LGBTQ Club,” Bitty says, casual as anything, looking everyone right in the eye.

“I wish there’d been something like that when I was in school,” Len says, smiling softly. When Bitty catches Jack’s eye again, Jack smiles right at him, just a little.

“So yeah. That’s what I’m thankful for. That I can do that. Here.” Bitty finishes abruptly and shovels turkey into his mouth, enough that he can no longer speak.

When the food has been consumed and the plates cleared and dishwasher loaded, Bitty appears with a foil covered plate in his hands, which are trembling slightly. He thrusts the plate at Jack who takes it and stares down at it, dumbfounded. He peels up one corner to see.

“I made more. For everyone,” he clarifies, “but these are for you.”

Butter tarts.

“If you don’t want them—” Bitty starts at the exact same time Jack says, “These look incredible—”

“And delicious,” Jude adds, grabbing one of Jack’s and taking a big bite and moaning. Jack looks up at last to see Bitty’s face, open and earnest, flushed pink to the tips of his ears. He swallows.

They both stop and smile. Bitty tries again, “I looked the recipe up online—” Right when Jack says, “How did you know they’re my—”

This time Bitty laughs. His laughs, his actual real laugh is sweet and high. Jack thinks he’d go to the ends of the earth to make him laugh like that every single day.

“You said it yourself, mister, not a month ago.”

And so he did.

Len and Jude exchange glances that he really doesn’t want to interpret.

Merde.

 

//

 

“You celebrate Halloween in Georgia?” Shitty yells from the front of the car. Jack sees Bitty roll his eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Yes, Shitty.”

There’s a party, a costume party for the team and a lot of high school students, and Jack and Shitty are invited, so Bitty is invited by extension. Halloween is on a Thursday this year and when Jack and Shitty arrive home from practice, Bitty is already dressed and ready.

Bitty is dressed, Jack sees, as a hockey player. A sexy hockey player. He has black grease paint smeared under each eye and he’s wearing tiny black shorts and a cropped hockey jersey. He’s wielding a hockey stick. Jack’s extra hockey stick. Good god.

“Looking good,” Shitty crows, gaze flitting between Jack and Bitty, who’s looking unsure.

“Really? I don’t know.” Bitty looks down at himself, biting his lip like he might go change or something, and that just won’t do.

“It’s good,” Jack says, voice raw and looks away when Bitty looks at him, pleased and pink-cheeked.

They pile into Jack’s car, Shitty dressed as a green crayon, and Jack as a pirate, same as last year. The house is big and bright and they can hear the music thumping from the curb when they park. Jack wipes sweaty palms on his sides as he follows them through the open front door. He can smell the alcohol immediately, like a slap in the face and Shitty looks over, concerned even though they’d already discussed it, and Jack nods, I’m ok. I’m fine.

He breathes in shallow breaths and smiles at everyone he knows. He can do this. He can.

He’s fine.

Robot.

 

//

 

Most of the boys from the hockey team are there, Bitty sees. He’s learned their names — well nicknames — over the past two months, Chowder and Ransom, Nursey and Dex. And Kent, who watches Bitty with an expression that Bitty can’t quite decipher, especially through the haze of alcohol that’s kicking in. Kent’s eyes sweep up and down Bitty’s body, but his expression isn’t appraising exactly. His eyes are very dark and his mouth is tight and knowing. And when his gaze moves to Jack, just behind Bitty, his face does something that makes Bitty’s insides twist.

But the others welcome him at least, with shouts of recognition and warm claps on the back, the shoulders, and there’s music and dancing and beer and laughing and for the first time in a long time Bitty doesn’t feel that clench in his gut being surrounded by a group of people he hardly knows. It’s ok. It’s better than ok. It’s fun. And if a big part of the fun comes from being out with Shitty and with Jack, then well. He’s not going to dissect that any more than necessary. He has friends now. They’re friends.

That’s all.

He dances and laughs and drinks and watches Shitty dancing and talking all night with a girl he learns is called Lardo and watches how the two of them look at each other. He sees Jack leaning against the wall, steady and steadfast, holding a red plastic cup of soda — pop — and watching everything with his bright blue eyes, watches Bitty as Bitty moves around the room, on the tiny dance floor in his cut-off jersey and his little shorts.

But it doesn’t mean anything, Bitty tells himself over and over. They’re just friends.

That’s all.

 

//

 

Jack watches. He watches and he hovers and stands close to Bitty for the three hours they’re there. Bitty is nervous, understandably, but then he relaxes, slowly, as Jack introduces him again to everyone he knows, teammates and schoolmates, and they slap Bitty’s hands or give him big warm, semi-drunken hugs. Bitty’s eyes flick up to Jack’s, making sure he’s close by, Jack supposes, and each time Jack smiles to let him know yes, I’m here. It’s ok. Bitty joins in games, and he dances and he drinks. Of course there’s drinking, and Jack knew there would be, but still. This is the first time he’s been confronted with it head on in months and months and his stamina is shot by the end of the night. No one presses him or questions him — they all know what happened back in Quebec — but he still feels uncomfortable. Watched.

Bitty drinks beer, it turns out, mouth a soft round O around the lip of the bottle and Jack looks until he has to look away, especially when Bitty catching him looking.

Jack’s waiting on the front porch when Bitty and Shitty emerge at 10 minutes to 11 p.m. — Len’s weekday curfew still stands, even on Halloween — having taken a breather when everything got to be too much half an hour ago. Bitty is glowing, grinning, leaning against Shitty’s side, pink-cheeked and loose-limbed.

“Are you drunk?” Jack asks, mildly amused.

“I had four drinks!” Bitty says, holding up five fingers.

“He did,” Shitty affirms. “He’s a lightweight.”

“And some shots,” Bitty says, and Shitty rolls his eyes.

“I must have missed those.”

“I’m a lightweight,” Bitty says, grinning wide and blinding right at Jack, whose heart skips. “Not drunk.”

Still, Jack helps him get into the house quietly, and when Bitty says he wants to come downstairs with them until he completely sobers up, because no one wants to make Len mad, ever, Jack doesn’t argue. He should argue. He doesn’t argue because a warm, soft, smiling Bitty in his arms is pretty much impossible to argue with. He helps Bitty down the stairs, he makes sure Bitty gets to the bathroom and when Bitty pushes his way into Jack’s bedroom, Jack still doesn’t argue. He should, but. Just until he’s sober, he thinks. Then I’ll take him back to his room. Len will never know. He turns away when Bitty strips off his jersey, when Bitty slides into Jack’s bed with his tiny black shorts on. Jack lies next to him, on top of the covers, and they lie on their sides and look at each other in the dark.

“Did you have fun?” Bitty asks, licking his lips.

Jack shrugs. “It was fine. It’s just not really my…thing anymore. But the costumes were cool and the music was good.

And you were there.

“I’m sorry,” Bitty says and he sounds like he means it. “I just. I don’t usually get invited to these types of things.” He smiles wistfully and Jack’s heart cracks a little. “I’d always hear about them, afterward, but never got to experience them firsthand.”

“And?”

“It was fun,” Bitty admits, a little shyly. “But good lord I could never keep up with them. Wouldn’t want to.”

Jack laughs.

“I wish you’d enjoyed it more.” Bitty’s fading now, voice going softer, accent going stronger.

“It’s ok,” Jack says quietly. “I knew there’d be alcohol there. And drugs. I didn’t go in blind.”

“You don’t.” Bitty swallows. His eyelashes flutter. “You don’t drink? Or. Do other stuff?”

Jack smiles and shakes his head enough for Bitty to see. “No.”

“Ever?”

“Not anymore.”

Bitty’s eyes widen a bit at that and he looks like he might say something, or ask something, but he just nods and Jack’s heart swells at that.

“I’m just gonna sleep for a bit. That ok?”

No, Jack thinks. A sleeping Bitty in his bed is not a good thing, but he can’t say it. Bitty lying there, half-naked under Jack’s covers is. Well it’s obscene. And weighty. And beautiful. So, he says,

“Yes.” Of course he says yes.

He rolls over then, stares at the wall, feels Bitty move behind him, move close enough to touch Jack and Jack shivers.

“Thanks, Jack,” Bitty whispers into Jack’s back. He probably thinks Jack is asleep. That’s why he probably says it, Jack tells himself.

I could kiss him, Jack thinks, his traitorous heart thudding away. But, no entanglements, it tells him, no attachments, no distractions.

No weaknesses.

But, his heart says, you could kiss him.

He should leave, he thinks. He really should. He should slide out of his bed and go sleep on the little couch in the common room, or pad quietly up the stairs to Bitty’s room. He could sleep on the floor.There are about seven different things he should do and he ponders and discards each and every one he closes his eyes and falls asleep.

He awakes to weak autumn sunshine streaming through his window, pooling on the empty space beside him. He breathes in and out and wonders if everything that happened last night was a dream, some kind of hallucination. But then he sits and rubs his eyes and sees. The only evidence Bitty was there at all is the faintest scent of beer and black grease paint smeared across the top of the pillow.

 

//

 

Bitty awakes, hazy and half-drunk, half naked in Jack’s bed and slams his hands over his heart. Jack lies on his side, facing away, snoring lightly. He’s not even under the blankets and that does something to Bitty. He slides out of the bed, grabs his crumpled, beer-soaked jersey, and stumbles up the stairs to bed, quietly.

It’s intense, he thinks, curled under his own blankets. It’s intense what he feels for Jack. He thinks about writing in his journal, about documenting this for future dissection, but the thought of putting those words to paper is too intense.

October slides into November, and Bitty realizes, with something like horror, that so much time is now filled with Jack and his slow, deep, accented voice and his soft skin and red lips and his hair and oh god his everything, permeating days and nights until Bitty can’t take a breath without thinking about him.

Give people a chance. They might surprise you. Oh Simra. She also used to say, Nothing stays the same. Things change. Sometimes for the better. Bitty laughed at that one. He’s not laughing now.

Things do change, he realizes, hockey puck to the chest, and not always for the worse. Nothing stays the same, not even the bad stuff. Shitty and Lardo are a thing now. Bitty baked. Jack smiles. Regularly.

He realizes, out of the blue, that he likes being here. He likes Len and Jude. He even likes school. Mostly. And he likes them, the boys. He likes them, and he can’t remember the last time he liked anything, or anyone.

Shitty is warm and funny and so easy to be around. He makes Bitty laugh and his teasing is never mean. And Jack. Well. Thinking about Jack in any capacity, in any of the many versions of Jack Bitty has encountered, creates some issues that is completely different kind of like.

Jack in the kitchen. Jack returning from a run heaving and sweat-soaked. Jack on the ice, muscles working, chin set in that determined way he has, gliding with long, powerful strokes around the rink like he was born to do it, working in tandem with his teammates, with Shitty.

Jack at the kitchen table, bent over homework.

Jack reading in the green chair in the corner.

Jack, rolling happily on the floor with Raymond and Shirley nipping and barking.

Jack, quiet and sincere, bathed in half-light at the kitchen table at 3 a.m., just the two of them, voices low and honest.

Jack. Jack.

Jack.

 

//

 

List:

Sleep.

Homework.

250 sit-ups.

Pecans.

Brown sugar.

Corn syrup.

Pickles.

 

//

 

It smells like snow, Bitty thinks. He’s walking home from school. He’s late because there was the LGBTQ meeting, and new people to talk to, new events to plan. They’re talking about planning prom, of all things, and a clothing and food drive for the holidays, and when Bitty spoke up and suggested a bake sale, he could hardly believe it was his voice filling the small warm room, or the excited response it received.

He’s thinking about asking his mom to email his old recipes for tea cakes and his famous brown butter chocolate chip cookies and he’s thinking about how all the air around him smells like snow. He only knows this because Jack told him that morning when they fell out of the car and Bitty breathed deep and smiled and said, what is that smell?

“Snow,” Jack said, beaming.

He’s hot and out of breath when he reaches the house. He pulls off his mitts and lets his fingers cool in the air.

Something smells good, standing there on the windswept porch and he wonders idly whose night it is to cook and what they’re making.

When he opens the front door he knows. He can smell turkey and stuffing and pecan pie and sweet potatoes. He kicks off his shoes and peeks around the corner to the kitchen, which has suddenly fallen suspiciously silent.

The table is full to bursting and they’re all there, grinning like idiots, Len and Jude and Shitty and Jack, gathered around the frighteningly crowded table, looking in turns pleased and nervous and downright scared.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” they say.

“Even though it’s way too close to Christmas,” Shitty adds.

“Ya’ll did this for me?” Bitty says quietly.

“Yep,” Len says, looking so proud she could cry. “It was they boys’ idea, really. They told me about it weeks ago and I said as long they planned it all I’d help.”

“And me,” chimes in Jude.

Bitty’s backpack hits the floor at his feet and he swallows a few times before he can speak properly.

“I don’t know what to say,” he says, and he doesn’t know where to look either, so he focuses on Len, the safest, followed by Shitty.

“Then don’t say anything! Sit and eat. I’m starving,” says Shitty, clapping his hands. “We practiced for three solid hours today.”

This time their thanks come easier, words tumbling out of mouths without thinking. Len and Jude for each other, as always, and for their future together, and for (so far) smooth wedding preparations. Shitty for all the games they’ve been winning and for the food sitting right in front of them, rapidly getting cold.

Jack takes a minute, though, face creased in concentration.

“I’m thankful for health,” he says at last, ears going pink. “Even though it’s something my 80-year-old aunt says every year.”

Everyone looks to Bitty. He thinks, and then smiles, because it’s so obvious, all at once.

“Change,” he says, like he’s known all along. Then he slips Raymond a slice of turkey under the table.

Plates are cleared amid much groaning and stomach-clutching, but oddly enough everyone has room for dessert, which includes two kinds of cookies and three kinds of pie.

“Ya’ll are really trying to spoil me here,” Bitty says around a mouthful of pecan pie, his second slice.

“How do you like that pie, Bitty?” Jude asks, a strange grin on her face.

“Why are you smiling like that?” Bitty says, peering at her.

The pie, in a word, is fucking divine, and Bitty had a difficult time not moaning when he put it in his mouth. But he decides to go for cool.

“Jack made it,” Len says. “His first effort, apparently, but I’m inclined to not believe him, based on the results.” She winks.

Bitty turns to Jack, whose face is bright red. “I did a little research,” Jack says, stabbing his plate with his fork. “For southern desserts. You know. To make you feel more at home.”

“Well, it’s fucking amazing, pardon my French,” says Shitty loudly. “I mean, is there anything you can’t do?”

The talk goes on and on, around and above him, but Bitty hears none of it, sitting and staring at Jack, mouth slightly open, wondering not only how to process this information, but exactly where to file it when he’s done.

 

//

 

After dinner and dishes, the boys take the garbage and recycling out to the curb, and stand on the porch in the cold November wind. Len’s tree is almost bare now, the last stragglers hanging on for dear life, rattling raggedly against one another. Bitty crosses his arms over his chest and shivers.

“Oh this isn’t cold, Bitty,” says Shitty. “You haven’t felt cold until you feel Ontario-In-January-Cold.”

Bitty looks at him. Oh dear. Shitty nods the nod of the wise.

Jack thinks Bitty is beautiful in the cold, with his fair skin gone all rosy and wind-whipped, and Jack thinks, Mon dieu. What am I doing?

“This?” Shitty continues, oblivious as ever, throwing his arms out wide. “This is nothing.” He narrows his eyes. “This is child’s play.”

Bitty groans. “Thanks for the warning.” He rubs his stomach. “Now I need to go take a nap or something. I feel like I swallowed a brick.”

“We could go for a quick walk around the block,” Jack says, motioning between himself and Bitty. He has no idea where these words came from. He’s horrified with himself. “I mean, if you want. I know it’s cold, but we always did that after a big meal at home. It helps. With digestion.” Shut up shut up.

“Sure,” Bitty says, tilting his head. “Sure. We can do that.” He looks to Shitty. “You coming?”

Shitty gives Jack a look that Jack tries not to decipher.

“Nah. I’m not that much of a masochist. I’m going to fall asleep on the couch and then I’m going to get up and fall asleep in my bed. You two kids go have fun.”

Jack can hear him laughing as they head down the sidewalk.

 

//

 

Bitty and Jack make their way around the dark, windswept block, heads down, hands shoved in their pockets, talking about nothing in particular, about skating and school and the upcoming holidays, about the shopping they both need to do. They keep walking and Bitty forgets about the cold.

“Thank you,” Bitty says when they get back to house, like it was a date or something and good lord he can’t control his mouth around this boy. “I mean, for everything. The food. The pie.” He can feel his face heating. “I had fun.” Shut up he thinks. Shut up shut up.

“Me too,” Jack says, and he’s blushing too, Bitty sees and before he can stop himself, he stands on tiptoes and throws both arms around Jack’s neck, pulling him in tight. He can feel Jack’s shoulders under his arms, the strong muscles of his back moving as he returns the hug. Bitty, brave in the dark and a stomach full of pie, presses cold lips to Jack’s cold cheek and holds them there, one, two, three, before pulling back and opening the door to the warm rooms beyond while behind them, leaves keep falling.

 

//

 

Below the Water — Usually what is hidden deep below the water represents hidden aspects of our emotions that will come to the surface. Sometimes you might be attacked in the water that symbolizes a fear of what you repress emotionally.

 

//

 

He’s drowning again, but it’s not quite the same as usual. There’s a light, just above his head when he twists his neck up to look.

Bitty jolts awake.

It’s raining, he realizes. It’s pouring rain, beating against his windows, rattling the house. He lies there still and startled in his bed, feeling his heart shudder against his ribs, sheets and blankets clutched in his fingers. He thinks about getting his dream journal out and writing it down, but it’s already fading. He imagines Jack lying in his own bed, beneath him, directly below him, his body, big and muscled, smooth and solid and gasping. He imagines miles of Jack’s warm skin under his fingers, Jack’s mouth open under his mouth.

Lord help me, he thinks. His hand slides down the front of his pajamas. He’s hard, because he’s thinking of Jack now, and he strokes himself once, twice, then stops.

Because now he imagines telling Jack everything.

 

//

 

It’s still raining when he taps on Jack’s door.

It’s not completely closed, the door, so it squeaks open a tiny bit with the pressure of Bitty’s fingers.

“Bitty?” Jack whispers, hoarse in the dark. Bitty nods, then flushes when he realizes Jack can’t see him. “What is it? Are you ok?”

“It’s raining,” Bitty says dumbly. “You promised me snow. Why is it raining?”

“Probably freezing rain,” Jack says helpfully, to make up for the disappointment.

“Of course it is,” and Bitty sighs, and nods like he understands.

Bitty stands in the doorway, hovering, half in and half out, heart thudding against the backs of his ribs wondering what the hell he’s doing.

“You ok, Bitty?” Jack asks again. He’s sitting up now, blankets gathered around his waist. He’s wearing a worn T-shirt, collar torn and his hair is standing up. Bitty wants to touch it. He wants to touch everything on Jack. “Did you want something?”

Fuck.

“I’m.” Bitty starts and stops. “I want.” He wants so much he doesn’t even know where to start. So he starts at the beginning. “I want to tell you a story.”

Jack nods like he understands and lifts the blankets.

 

//

 

They’re lying in bed together. It’s late, it must be almost 3 a.m., Jack thinks. His body is bone weary and there’s a game tomorrow and he knows he should sleep, but not now, because Bitty, usually so quiet, is talking, low and steady and unemotionally about things Jack isn’t sure he has any right to hear, things that make his heart hurt and his fingers clench. He wants to wrap Bitty up in his arms. He wants to never let him go.

“They bullied me for months and months,” Bitty says, his voice clipped and detached. There’s no emotion there, nothing in his voice or his eyes to give anything away. He could be reading a news report. “I talked to the principal and the vice principal. I talked to my teachers. I even tried to talk to them.” He laughs a little, and it sounds wrong, not like Bitty’s laugh at all. “They shoved me in lockers. They tripped me in hallways. They called me homo and fag and fairy because I figured skated, because I baked, because I existed. I had some friends, a few, who tried to help, tried to protect me, but they weren’t always around, you know?”

Jack nods and realizes he’s holding his breath.

“There was a party. Just this dumb impromptu thing. Lake Oconee.” He blinks. “Everyone was going. We weren’t even invited, me and my friends, but we went anyway, because we were tired of being left out of everything. It wasn’t even my idea. It was late and it was dark and everyone was drunk. I’d been drinking but nothing bad. I had my wits about me. Good thing too, cuz I’d be dead by now, most likely.”

His hands, which are now entwined with Jack’s, tighten almost painfully and he swallows. “They found me, grabbed me, dragged me into the water and tried to drown me. They took turns pushing me under. They were laughing. They kept doing it until I lost my breath and everything was going dim. I passed out. Woke up in the hospital. And here I am.”

Jack’s face is wet. He’s crying. He doesn’t remember starting to cry. Bitty’s eyes are dry and hard. “That was my favourite lake.” He says this like an afterthought, like he just realized it.

He goes on, in that cold, hard voice, about the hearings and the sentencing, the juvenile detention. The stares and whispers. The endless rumours. Bitty refusing to return to school. He sees Jack’s tears, puts one fingertip on Jack’s cheek and squishes it.

“I just wanted you to know,” Bitty says, voice gone so quiet Jack can barely hear. “I don’t tell people. I mean, I don’t tell just anyone.”

Jack wants to thank him. He wants to say, I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry, Bitty. He wants to hold him and make everything better. Instead, he talks, too.

“I was taking medication for my anxiety and something else for depression,” Jacks says. He keeps his voice low, careful. He’s not sure how much to reveal but for Bitty he realizes, he’d lay himself bare. “Sad days, dark days. But it wasn’t helping like it was supposed to anymore. I got. I got careless. And we were at a party back home. We won the cup two years ago, eh? I partied here, but not. Not out of control. I was cocky. We came in second last year and I went home. My friends at home are different. They’re. Wilder. I was taking a lot of different things. Drinking a lot of different things. Everyone was.” His voice, he realizes, is like Bitty’s was, hard and detached. “I passed out. They tried to revive me. I was turning blue, they told me after. They panicked and threw me in a tub full of ice and beer. That’s where I woke up, surrounded by paramedics.” He laughs, once. “They told me I died. For a minute. I think about that the most, I guess. That I was dead and didn’t even know it. And if I’d never come back, I still wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t be skating or at school or with my family or friends. I wouldn’t be here, with you.”

And now Bitty is crying, for him, Jack sees. And maybe that’s okay, crying for each other instead of for themselves.

“After that, I didn’t feel anything for a long time,” Jack whispers.

“And now?”

“You make me feel things.”

Bitty stares. “I haven’t belonged anywhere for a long time,” he says.

Jack looks at him. “And now?”

“You make me feel like this is home.”

Jack lets himself smile, lets his hands find Bitty’s hips under the blankets, the small of his back.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Bitty says, arms sliding up, tight around Jack’s neck, Jack’s arms around Bitty’s waist, tear-slick cheeks against each other.

“You, too,” Jack says. “Me too, I mean. And you. You too.” And Bitty laughs, a real laugh, and kisses Jack on the mouth, soft and sweet, and they’re both kind of snotty, but they keep kissing while outside the ice rain keeps falling.

 

//

 

List:

250 sit-ups.

Homework.

Practice.

Sleep.

Dream.

Feel.

 

//

 

The package is waiting for him on the kitchen counter when he gets home from school on a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in December. The boys are away for two days playing the Sudbury Lightning but due back tonight, and Len is still at work and the house is quiet and still and warm and his, the same as always.

Except for the package.

It’s innocuous and brown, his name and address clear on the front in familiar printing, written in his mother’s neat hand. Return address his old home in Madison, foreign numbers and letters in his brain. He wonders why on earth she’s sent him anything when he’s heading home in less than a month. It’s too small for a coat, too heavy for baked goods. He gives it a gentle shake and opens it in his room with trembling fingers because he knows, suddenly, what it is.

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things.

And that’s where Jack finds him, hours later, having walked in the door and gone looking for him immediately. Curled on his bed with his old skates clutched to his stomach, tears still drying on his face.

“Bitty,” Jack says. He smells like outside and he smells like snow and his fingers are cold on Bitty’s red, overheated, slightly sticky cheeks. “Oh, Bitty,” is all he says, taking in the skates, scarred and worn, clasped in Bitty’s fingers. “Are you ok?”

And Bitty nods because he realizes, yes. He actually is.

 

//

 

The last Saturday before their flights home dawns grey and cold and still. Jack and Bitty board the GO Train in Edenvale and ride it for an hour into the heart of Toronto. There Jack leads Bitty to the bustling cold of the packed city streets, shoppers out in full force. They walk up Yonge Street to the Eaton Centre, decked out in its holiday finery, trees and lights. They visit Queen Street and see the boutique shops and when Bitty is preoccupied with something Jack buys him his Christmas gift, an impulse buy. The hold hands, mittens clasped together as they walk, cheeks bright in the wind. They eat at the Warehouse, cheap and good and loud, ankles twined under the table before making their way back to Union Station for the ride home.

They stare up at the CN Tower tall and imposing in red and green holiday lights and Jack asks him if he’d like to go up.

“Like up to the top?” Bitty says, craning his neck as the elevator makes its way up the side like a bug. “No. No thank you,” he adds.

Bitty slumps against Jack in their seat on the ride home, head resting on his shoulder, fingers clasped. Jack looks out the window at the dark, at the trees and houses and railway crossings rushing by, and sees his own reflection looking back at him.

That’s me, he thinks, taking in the expression. I look happy. He presses his lips to the top of Bitty’s head, the soft soft hair, the clean scent of him and he realizes yes.

I’m happy.

 

//

 

They all help Len drag boxes up from the storage room in the basement, totes filled with tinsel and decorations, wreaths and red ribbons. Jack hauls the fake tree up in three pieces and puts it together in the corner where Len points. Bitty puts the lights on but can’t reach the top and tries not to blush too hard when Jack lifts him up to put the star on the top.

Len puts on music and they stand back to admire their handiwork, the greens and blues and reds, the silvers and golds twinkling and reflecting around the small room, and Jack and Shitty and Len standing there makes Bitty’s heart actually hurt. Len hands out egg nog and cookies and orders Shirley and Raymond for the fourth time to leave the ornaments alone.

After dinner they pile into Jack’s car and drive through the quiet, dark streets of the neighbourhood, oohing and aahing at the decorated houses, brilliant in the night air and when Jack reaches over the middle console to take Bitty’s hand in his, things go quiet behind them, but Bitty is sure he can hear them smiling.

 

//

Water is Boiling/Hot — Means your emotions are running high and you need to let of some steam. You might have reached your boiling point in a current situation. If you are burnt by the water it means that you are going to suffer if you boil up your emotions. You must relax and take your time.

 

//

 

They’re alone and it’s late and the tree is twinkling and it’s quiet but for the faint whir of the furnace as it clicks on and off with the falling temperature. Bitty is curled at one end of the couch with Jack next to him, arms and legs entwined and Bitty is sleepy and warm and thinking about going to bed soon when Jack moves and jostles him.

“Hey,” Bitty says.

“Here,” Jack says, shoving the package at Bitty rather unceremoniously. The twinkling lights of the tree dance around the room and Bitty holds the small, clumsily wrapped package in his hands. He stares at it dumbly. “It’s for you. It’s nothing,” he adds quickly and bites his lip. “But I hope you like it.”

Bitty looks up at him and grins, tears the wrapping off.

“It’s a hat!” Bitty exclaims, holding the knitted cap in his hands. “It’s beautiful — thank you!”

It’s blue, like Jack’s eyes, Bitty thinks. Cornflower blue, to be exact, like Georgia’s own Bachelor's Button that Bitty grew up alongside, dotting the roadsides and the fields of his childhood. It’s perfect.

“It’s not a hat,” Jack says and he’s suddenly shy, cheeks gone pink. “It’s a toque.”

“Toque,” Bitty says. “I’ve heard of such a thing. It still looks suspiciously like a hat, though. Is that like, a Canadian thing?”

Jack rolls his eyes and takes it from him, pulls it down over his head and leans back.

“Yeah,” Jack says, appraising, eyes gone soft. “I thought so.”

Bitty’s breath catches in his throat, painful, hard like a stone. He moves then, awkwardly but with purpose, swinging a leg over to straddle Jack, sitting down hard on his lap, knees on either side of his thighs.

“Thank you,” he says, leaning down to press his lips to Jack’s forehead. “Thank you.” A kiss on each cheek. “Thank you.” One on his chin, then the tip of his nose. “Thank you,” he breathes, pressing his lips against Jack’s, light and testing, mouth rubbing back and forth and Jack groans and responds, grabbing Bitty’s hips and pulling him down and closer at the same time. Bitty grabs Jack’s shoulders and hangs on, kissing and kissing him, grinding down through layers of soft pajamas, rough and needy, Jack pushing up and Bitty pushing down. Bitty can feel how hard Jack is and groans into Jack’s open, panting mouth. He reach down and strokes as best he can along the cloth of Jack’s pants and Jack bucks up, fingers digging into Bitty’s hipbones until he goes still, head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open, before falling limp on the couch.

Oh, Bitty thinks, and he’s done for. He finds Jack’s mouth again, and the kisses are slower now, lazy, and there’s so much tongue and teeth and when Jack regains his presence and places one of his big hands over Bitty’s dick, even through the clothing, it feels like he’s touching Bitty’s skin.

Oh, Bitty thinks again. Oh Jack. And he comes.

He rests his sweaty face against Jack’s neck and breathes. He licks at the tendons there and Jack trembles, hands going around his back and pulling him even closer. Bitty pats the top of his head.

“Kept my toque on,” he says. Jack shakes beneath him and when Bitty pulls back a bit, sees that he’s laughing.

Jack looks up at him, eyes gone hazy and dim, crinkled at the corners, mouth slack and red and wet and says,

“Thank you.”

 

//

 

It’s the last practice of the season, not mandatory as half the team has left already for the holiday break, but Jack is there of course, and Shitty and a handful of others.

Focus is minimal, but it feels good to stretch and move the length of the rink over and over, using muscles that won’t be used again for a couple of weeks. Bitty sits in the stands bundled in his winter coat and his blue toque, alternately watching and reading a book, his backpack at his feet. Every time Jack looks up and catches a glimpse of his round face, of that flash of blue on his head, he feels the ice beneath his feet dip and he has to catch himself from stumbling. Every time.

When they’re done, he hurries to change and wish everyone a good break, tells Shitty, who always takes his sweet time, he’ll meet him at the car, then goes back down the long, echoing hallway to the rink where he knows Bitty is waiting. The arena is empty now, half the lights off, the Zamboni getting ready to clean and the rink should be empty.

But it’s not.

He stands still by the door to the ice and tries to process what he’s seeing. There’s a lone figure on the rink, small and sure, moving with quick, easy strokes, back and forth, spinning, leaping, arms curved in a graceful oval above his head, back arching, white skates and blue toque a blur as the skater moves like water to nonexistent music. They’re the only two left in the cavernous arena, full of echoes, light the colour of a silver sky. There’s a certain taste to the air that Jack can never fully describe and right now it sits heavy on his tongue.

Bitty is spellbinding.

Jack can almost hear the music that Bitty is skating to, flowing over and across the ice like a silver river. He lets himself listen and watch and tries to imagine this Bitty, the Before Bitty, full of joy and hope, winning competitions and never knowing the feel of metal of lockers pressed against his skin or the slick of black water in his throat. But this is that Bitty and he’s beautiful.

Bitty finally stops spinning, head thrown back, arms at his sides, chest heaving, a smile on his face Jack has never seen before. He skates slowly over to where Jack is standing and stops, waiting.

“Bitty,” Jack breathes, his name enclosed in a white cloud. Bitty’s eyes are wide and his mouth slightly open, cheeks pink and he’s still breathing hard.

“Gracious,” Bitty says, tilting his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite this speechless. I mean, I know you’re quiet and all, but this?” He waves a hand that’s slightly shaking in Jack’s direction.

“Bitty,” Jack tries again. How does he put it into words that Bitty will understand? He knows what he would say in French, but maybe not even then. He can’t find the words in either language to describe what Bitty looked like and how it made Jack’s chest swell and swell and swell.

Bitty leans over and lets his lips brush against Jack’s, very lightly, hardly touching at all. Bitty’s eyes flutter shut, against his will. He feels Jack’s breath warm against his cheek, feels Jack’s hand on the back of his neck, lightly, just holding him steady there. He tastes sweet and warm. Bitty’s tongue flicks out to lick at Jack’s lips before he realizes what he’s doing. He feels Jack smile against his mouth, then pull back.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” is all Jack can come up with and curses the English language, but Bitty seems fine with it, because he takes Jack’s cold hand in his and lets him help him to the benches to untie his skates.

 

//

 

Bitty awakes to find Jack jostling him gently, Shitty hovering behind him and behind him there’s Len. They’re all dressed in pajamas and socks and slippers, hair tousled and faces sleep-creased.

“Get up!” Jack whispers.

“Why are you whispering?” Shitty says. “We’re all awake.”

“Because it’s nice to be polite,” says Len.

“What’s going on?” Bitty says, sitting and yawning. “Is it some weird Canadian Christmas tradition?”

“Come on!” hisses Shitty, impatient as ever.

They usher him onto the back deck, Bitty swearing and shivering until he sees.

It’s snowing.

“Oh,” Bitty says, hands clasped, face upturned. “Finally! It’s so pretty!”

“Yeah, we’ll see how you feel about it in March,” says Shitty and Len elbows him.

The snow is that particular kind of December snow, flakes so tiny it’s almost invisible, white and silver, fine as dust, slowly coating Len’s deck, the hard grass, the long dead garden. Bitty breathes in and breathes in snow. It lands on his cheeks and nose and eyelashes and he laughs, delighted.

“Oh Jack,” Bitty says because he can’t help it. “It’s beautiful.”

And Jack looks at him and takes his hand and looks like he wants to say something back, but instead just squeezes and nods and looks back at the snow covering the ground.

 

//

 

The night before he leaves, Bitty dreams of drowning. But this time, there’s someone just above him, just out of reach, trying to pull him back up.

 

//

 

The day Bitty leaves is cold and lead grey, mid-December, bare black branches scraping at a low grey sky. The world feels very big and very small at the same time and it hurts to breathe too deep. It’s quiet and still just now, but the wind is rising, just behind the bank of skeletal trees that line Len’s street. Snow is coming to stay, soon.

Jack pulls his shoulders up inside his jacket which is too thin for this weather, but he grabbed the wrong one in his rush to get Bitty to the airport on time. Should be wearing something warmer, he knows, can hear his mom’s sweet, exasperated voice in his head: Oh Jack. You never learn, do you?. It’s lined, the jacket, with something white and soft, but it’s not keeping the chill out and his blue-veined hands tremble as he waits in the driveway for Bitty to emerge with his suitcase. He stamps his feet on the ground once, twice, toes gone numb, brain gone numb.

They drive in almost complete silence. Halfway to the airport, Jack reaches over and takes Bitty’s hand in his and Bitty lets him.

Jack pulls up to the curb and stops the car and they sit, breathing together.

“I’m terrified,” Bitty whispers, hands clutching Jack’s. Jack can feel them trembling. Jack pulls him close, closer, presses his lips to the top of Bitty’s soft, warm hair. “I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to see anyone or anything. I want to stay here, with you and Shitty and Jude and Len. I want tourtiere and 5 a.m. practices and Game Night and I want this, Jack, this right here.”

Jack kisses him. Bitty’s mouth is still moving under his, soft and sweet but it stops, breathtaking and then he’s kissing him back. They stare at each other. Jack swallows. Then he gets out and grabs Bitty’s suitcase from the back seat, waits for him at the curb. Bitty throws his arms around Jack and squeezes him tight.

“I’m gonna miss you,” he mumbles into the front of Jack’s coat.

“Me too.”

“Text me. When you get there, ok?”

Bitty nods and looks away.

“Anyway.” Bitty shuffles his feet against the icy ground. Their breath billows around their faces, mingling and dissipating.

“I’ll talk to you.”

“Soon.”

“Really soon.” Jack smiles. He shoves his hands into his armpits because he’s freezing because his coat is wrong. Bitty bites his lips. Jack leans forward and kisses his cold cheek, quick.

“Have a good holiday.” Bitty’s up on his tiptoes, mouth pressed against Jack’s cold cheek. Then he turns with a little wave and disappears with a whoosh into the sliding glass doors.

 

//

 

List:

Sleep.

Exercise.

Try not to miss Bitty.

Ha ha

 

//

 

WINTER

 

//

 

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land — by the Oceans passed.
Transport — by throe —
Peace — by its battles told —
Love, by Memorial Mold —
Birds, by the Snow.
~Water, is taught by thirst, Emily Dickinson

 

//

 

Red — This symbol suggest anger or passion. This is a very strong colour that brings out the dreamers inner feelings.

 

//

 

“Hi,” Bitty whispers.

“Hi,” Jack whispers back.

It’s Christmas Eve, late, close to midnight and they’re in their respective homes in their respective bedrooms, doors closed, lights out. Bitty grins like an idiot at the sound of Jack’s voice on the phone.

“It’s snowing here,” Jack says. “It’s like something out of a movie, something you find in a painting or a postcard.”

“It was 70 degrees here today,” Bitty says.

“I have no idea what that means,” Jack says and Bitty laughs.

“It means it’s way warmer here than in Quebec.”

“Quelle surprise,” says Jack.

“I know what that means,” Bitty says and giggles. “I think.”

They lie quietly in two different countries in two different beds and Bitty’s heart is beating so fast.

“So,” Jack says. “What did you ask Père Noël for?”

“Who?”

“Santa,” Jack says and laughs a little, so far away. “What did you ask for?”

“Hmm,” Bitty says, rolling onto his back, T-shirt pulling up and baring his stomach. He rests a hand there, warm and soft, before sliding it down just beneath the waistband on his pajama pants. “I asked for warm clothes for Canada. And a better backpack. And…my own skating rink!”

He hears Jack make a soft snorting sound.

“To be delivered to where, your backyard in Georgia?”

Bitty hums. “Wouldn’t that be something, though?”

They’re quiet for a moment.

“I’m freezing,” Jack says suddenly, not adding without you here, but Bitty can hear it in his voice. “I’m wearing very thick socks right now.”

Bitty hums again, hand slipping lower. “Really? And what else are you wearing, Mr. Zimmermann, besides thick socks?”

“Oh,” Jack says, like he’s just catching on. Bitty can hear him shifting. Bitty’s hand slides lower, grasps his dick, now hard, hears his own breaths rasp in his ears. He can hear Jack’s breathing now, too, heavy ragged pants in his ear as Bitty’s strokes are faster and more urgent too. He turns his face to his pillow, sweat beading along his hairline and dripping slowly into the fabric.

When Jack comes, he groans a few words in French followed by, oh lord, Bitty’s name. And that pretty much does it for Bitty, who follows him over the tipping point, coming hard, gasping against his curled up fist and panting into his now damp pillowcase.

He looks at his bedside clock.

“Merry Christmas, Jack,” he whispers.

“Joyeux Noel,” Jack whispers back.

Oh Jack, he thinks, not for the first time, and not for the last. I think I’m in trouble.

 

//

 

A few nights later, Bitty is dozing, late, when his phone buzzes on the bedside table.

Can I call?

No. I have three little cousins sleeping on my bedroom floor. We can text though! Are you still cold?

No

Good

No thick socks tonight

Ha ha. Did you have a good day?

It was ok. Busy. Too many people!

Hahaha

Bitty closes his eyes, phone sliding in his hand. He pictures Jack’s face and smiles.

You falling asleep?

Sorry. So tired

I’ll let you go

Bitty pauses, then types:

wish you were here

He’s just about to drift off when his phone pings.

Moi aussi

 

//

 

And the next night:

Jack lies back on his bed, shifts and tries to get comfortable, tries to think of something to type. He’s never been good at texting.

knock knock

Hi Jack

KNOCK KNOCK

Who’s there lol

Cargo

cargo who?

NO cargo BEEP BEEP

oh my god

:)

Jack. Seriously

Jack rolls on his side and stares at the string of multi-coloured lights strung haphazardly around his room. It’s all so beautiful he could cry. He hits the call button.

“Is it wrong that I miss you?” he says as soon as Bitty answers.

Jack closes his eyes, listens to Bitty’s quiet breaths on the phone.

“I miss you, too,” Bitty whispers. “So much it makes my bones hurt.”

“Yeah.”

They wait again.

“You make me feel happy. I’d forgotten what that feels like,” says Jack and wonders if Bitty can feel him smiling on the other end.

 

//

 

When the photo comes through it’s Bitty, of course, wearing the blue knitted toque and an ugly Christmas sweater, sleeves pushed up, holding a glass of champagne and grinning. His cheeks are flushed bright pink. His eyes are only slightly unfocused. Jack touches the image on his tiny phone screen with a finger, tracing the round cheek, the slope of his nose.

“My cousins are here,” Bitty says when he calls. “Again.” Jack can hear a lot of noise in the background. “I just wanted to. Well. Happy New Year,” he says.

“Bonne annee,” says Jack. His parents are out for the night and while he was invited to a party with his old friends, he declined. He imagines Bitty with his family, celebrating, safe, he hopes, and happy, he hopes.

He can feel black rolling, rolling around his head but he breathes and stares at Bitty’s photo instead, at his bright smile, bright eyes, at his grin, easy and brighter than he’s ever see, and imagines it’s aimed right at him.

 

//

 

Bitty returns on the coldest day of the year, so far. Len picks him up from the airport, alone, and if Bitty is disappointed, he doesn’t say. He knows Jack and Shitty returned yesterday because he’s received about a thousand texts and photos of them unpacking, eating, eating, playing with the dogs, and sleeping.

The landscape is blanketed in white and Bitty watches it pass by the window, his face bathed in its bluish light, smiling and humming along to the radio, because he can’t help it.

Len helps him with his bags and Shitty meets him at the door, loud, warm, wrapping him up in a huge hug and a spin around twice. Bitty laughs, stoops to pet Raymond and Shirley who sniff and nip and lick, then Bitty wanders the house, dear and familiar and missed, looking for Jack.

“He’s outside,” Jude says, without looking up from her book and mug of tea.

“Who?” Bitty asks innocently and Len snorts. Bitty moves to the back window and peers outside. Jack’s out there all right, bundled in a puffy black jacket and big black boots and gloves, a hat with earflaps on his head. He’s holding a garden hose. A garden hose, in January. He’s standing in the middle of a large, rectangular structure, bordered by two-by-fours, stretching 20 by 10 feet maybe, if Bitty was guessing. There’s a blue tarp under his feet, and he’s spraying it with water.

“What on earth is he doing?” Bitty asks, hands on hips. “He knows the garden is long dead, right?”

Shitty joins him, his face strangely smug. “Jack’s been a busy boy,” is all he says.

Len looks up at last, grinning in that way she does when she knows something that someone else doesn’t. Bitty tries hard to not find it endearing.

“Why don’t you go see for yourself?”

Bitty slides on his new, heavy coat complete with hat — toque — and heavy boots to tromp out in the snow. It squeaks under his feet. His breath billows around his face. Jack looks up, face breaking into a wide, blinding smile that hits Bitty right in the chest and Oh lord he’s missed him. So much.

“Hi,” Bitty says, breath pluming around his face.

Jack nods. “Hi.” He pauses, motions around, keeps spraying. “Sorry, I can’t stop. If I stop it won’t freeze properly, will be bumpy and uneven and it needs about seven layers so.” He shrugs and swallows and Bitty takes a moment, keeps looking at the shape of the structure, the low wooden sides, the tarp, the spraying water under Jack’s boots. He glances up at Bitty almost shyly as Bitty stands and stares and breathes white plumes, bare hands in balled in cold fists at his sides.

“Oh.” Bitty breathes out, a single sound “Oh.

It’s a skating rink. Jack Zimmermann is building a skating rink for him. He looks up and looks directly at Jack, who is looking at him as he walks and sprays, back and forth, back and forth. He nods and bites his bottom lip and shrugs a little, like No big deal and Bitty could cry. He might be crying. He can’t tell because it’s so fucking cold.

“I want to hug you Jack Zimmermann,” he says, moving close to the edge of the rink, toes up against the plywood. He pitches his voice lower, attempts to look sexy. “I want to do more than hug you, actually.” He pauses. “Later.”

Jack stumbles and soaks his boots and the bottoms of his sweats and Bitty giggles all the way back inside.

 

//

 

Hi Bitty texts. The reply comes almost immediately, lighting up Bitty’s face.

Hi

Bitty pauses. What are you doing

Trying to sleep? A pause. Like you should?

Bitty rolls his eyes. No game tomorrow

No

Bitty waits.

Early practice though

Like always Bitty’s fingers are trembling. Too late for a visitor?

He waits and waits. Sees the text bubbles appear then disappear. Appear again. He tries to steady his breath. This is ridiculous. Jack is ridiculous. They’re both ridiculous and if Bitty is falling in love, it’s no one’s fault but his own. Well, and Jack’s.

Never too late for you

Bitty slides into Jack’s bed half naked and half hard. He slides his hands up and down Jack’s bare chest, listening as Jack’s breath catches and hitches in his throat as Bitty touches his collarbone and the hollow of his neck, the slope of his shoulders, his arms, his nipples, down and down over the planes of his stomach to the waistband of his pajamas.

“What’s all this then?” Jack asks, voice low and dry, like he’s swallowed sand.

“You built me a rink,” Bitty says against the span of Jack’s warm warm skin. He breathes out. “You built me a skating rink.”

Jack nods, kinds of wildly as Bitty presses open-mouthed kisses here and there.

“Please, Jack.” Bitty doesn’t recognize his voice, the throatiness, the desperation. He hasn’t wanted anything for so long he doesn’t remember what it feels like. Wanting. His fingers are trembling. Jack’s whole body is trembling. Bitty looks up and sees Jack is nodding instead of speaking. He pushes Jack’s pajamas down over his hips, cock catching on the waist and Jack’s breath catching again in his throat. Bitty pushes against him, his whole body, presses his lips to Jack’s throat, kisses him over and over as Jack’s hands move up and down Bitty’s back, cupping the wings of his shoulder blades and down to the dip of his back, the bottom of his spine, down to his ass over his pajamas and then slipping beneath, the skin of his palms against the skin of Bitty’s body. Jack pulls Bitty close, so their dicks are pressed together and they both groan and then laugh and then groan again. Jack is so wet, Bitty thinks. And then, He’s wet because of me, and he almost loses it right then. He wriggles out of his own pajamas and surges back, their bare dicks rubbing together under the blanket in the dark of Jack’s room. Bitty can feel the words spilling up his throat, threatening to burst free and he bites down on his lip hard enough to hurt, then kisses Jack some more to make up for it. Their lips are soft soft soft against each other, with the hard teeth behind them. Jack’s hand reaches down and touches Bitty, tentative, then braver, gripping him and Bitty’s head drops forward against Jack’s shoulder. He bites Jack there, low on his neck and Jack gasps so Bitty does it again. He reaches for Jack then, holds him hot and slick and heavy, slides his hand up and down, hoping it feels good, then bites Jack once more and Jack jolts and his hips buck and he’s coming between them, groan long and low against Bitty’s mouth and that’s pretty much it for Bitty. His own dick is sliding in Jack’s come and he thinks, That’s Jack’s come, and then he’s coming, too.

He doesn’t mean to fall asleep. He really doesn’t. But it’s late and he’s exhausted and it’s Jack and he curls himself into Jack’s chest with Jack’s arm heavy over his middle and he closes his eyes and he’s gone.

 

//

 

He doesn’t dream.

 

//

 

When he opens the door ever so quietly at 5 a.m., Len is standing there, arms crossed, face arranged in an expression that Bitty can’t decipher. Shitty hovers behind her, eyes wide and slightly panicked and he shrugs like, Sorry, I tried.

“Uh, Jack?” Bitty says over his shoulder, waits until Jack appears, wild-haired and sheepish.

Len fixes them both with a look.

“Ok,” she says, arms crossed, gaze level. “You’re both adults. So, technically, I don’t have a say in what you’re doing. But, I’m still your house mother, to both of you, and I’m responsible for you while you’re living here.”

They all stare at each other. Bitty’s not sure he’s ever felt quite so mortified.

“Are you saying you have a problem with this?” Jack asks. “With us being together?” His voice is light and questioning and Bitty bites back a smirk.

“No, Jack. I don’t have a problem with you being together. I’m just. It’s a dilemma.” She runs her fingers through her hair, making it stand straight up. “I didn’t have kids! I didn’t go through any of this! I don’t know what’s proper and acceptable and.”

She looks at both of them, and Bitty feels like she’s seeing them, really seeing them. “I love both of you so much. You know that, right?”

And god Bitty does. He does know that. He reaches over and takes Jack’s hand. Jack startles, but accepts it and squeezes it hard.

“And we love you,” Bitty says. Jack nods.

“And,” she continues. “I know what you’ve both been through.” She stops, voice caught in her throat. She blinks a few times and looks down, then back at them. “Life is difficult. It’s painful. And there are no promises and no guarantees and you both have learned that way earlier than you had any right to.” She sighs. “So, I’m just going to say, as your kinda real pretend mom, don’t let me catch you. Please.”

She sighs and shakes her head, mutters something about being late for work and leaves, feet pounding on the stairs.

Shitty starts laughing so hard he doubles over, clutching his stomach.

“Oh my god,” he wheezes. “That was epic. You shoulda seen the look on her face when she realized where Bitty was.” He starts laughing again. Bitty kind of wants to punch him.

“Well,” Bitty says. “I guess the cat’s outta the bag.”

“Do you mind?” Jack says. “People knowing?”

“Len and Jude and Shitty aren’t people. They’re.” He pauses. He’s not sure what they are. Family he thinks. Friends. His best friends.

“I’m people,” Shitty says, offended.

“Yes, you are,” Bitty soothes. “I just meant I don’t mind you knowing.”

“Just don’t let me catch you, either.” Shitty shudders.

Bitty ignores him. “We can tell people,” Bitty says to Jack, realizing it’s true. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

“I told my parents at Christmas,” Jack says in a rush.

“You did?”

Jack shrugs. “Well. I told them there was this boy.”

Bitty grins. “I may have, as well. This one boy in particular.”

“And we can tell other people, too,” Jack says, grinning and shaking his head. “I don’t mind either.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

And that’s that.

 

//

 

Waves — Waves make it difficult to move through. They can be dangerous. Waves can be created by your own personal pent up emotions or outside troubles might be crashing to the surface.

 

//

 

The new school semester starts and Bitty and Jack share an arts class. Bitty decides to tackle clay sculpture and pottery, while Jack tries his hand at photography. Something new, Bitty thinks, because things change, and sometimes for the better, and that’s ok. He’s thinking about a lot of new things these days, things he hasn’t thought about in a long time. Some days he can hardly recognize himself.

He finds Shitty pouring over university calendars and admission guides on his laptop late one night and sits next to him, watching, observing. He starts asking questions and Shitty turns and listens, one eyebrow cocked.

“I was thinking,” Bitty says, slowly, still unsure. But the question, the idea, has been building in his gut, because he could try, couldn’t he? He could try to build a life here.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, I love baking. I love cooking. I could. Apply, right? To some schools. See what happens?”

Shitty nods slowly, thoughtful. “I could help you, if you want. Get your transcripts together. Application shit. Set up your online account. Send out applications to local colleges. There are some really good ones around here, I’m sure.”

Bitty nods and clasps his hands together. He could try. He could take a chance, right? Because not all change is bad. And he nods again, resolute.

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things.

“Ok.”

He’s thinking about a lot of things like that. The future. And things like relationships and sex. He thinks about sex a lot. Good lord, he’s thinking about prom. He’s baking cookies and bringing them to the team after their practices, after their games, win or lose. He figure skates every day on a rink his boyfriend made just for him, a boyfriend that he kisses and touches and who kisses and touches him back. Some days, it’s all just too much to take into his brain.

One bleak Tuesday afternoon Bitty pushes into the Eagles’ changeroom and finds Jack amidst a dozen boys in various states of undress. He tries not to look at anyone but Jack.

“What are you doing here, Bitty?” Chowder asks above the din as Bitty holds out his gigantic tin of snickerdoodles.

“Oh, I just brought these for everyone.”

The team rush him, hands grabbing.

“How do I get myself a Bitty?” Dex moans around a mouthful of cookie.

“Find your own,” says a voice that sounds suspiciously like Jack’s. “This one is taken.”

The whole room goes silent except for Shitty who is laughing like an idiot. Eyes slide between Bitty and Jack with expressions ranging from curious to knowing to confused to one, mildly disgusted.

“We’re dating,” Jack says, as if he’s talking to a room full of toddlers which. Well. He looks at Bitty like, ok? And Bitty looks back like, ok.

They grin.

And that’s that.

 

//

 

If you dream of walking on the frozen surface of a lake and the ice breaks, and you fall into the cold water, this is a warning message for your psyche. It refers to your inflexibility in life and the danger such an attitude can bring you. It also means you are very unaware of whatever happens around you, and you probably isolate yourself from others.

 

//

 

And Jack has his dark days. Bitty knows this, has known this for a while. Jack had told him as much, months ago now, that night in the dark, skin against skin. The days when everything is black and he doesn’t want to talk or listen or eat or skate or be.Those days are worse when the hockey is bad. Or, the hockey is bad when the days are bad. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which comes first.

Jack is preoccupied with hockey, and with every win they get they get closer to making the finals. Bitty watches him from a distance, not daring to get too close these days, scared of making him startle or scaring him off. Shitty, who takes it all a lot less seriously, tells Bitty in confidence that Jack gets like this every year the closer they get to the end.

“It’s not personal,” Shitty says, like that will help, like Bitty can’t help but take it all right to heart, but Bitty nods wisely, like he understands.

Jack has a bad day, followed by a bad game, followed by another. He runs and skates and goes to school and skates and eats and goes to his room. He barely speaks. He doesn’t make eye contact, not even when Bitty offers to do things to him. He’s broody and distant and Bitty remembers when he used to do this months ago and how Bitty didn’t care to find out why. Now he wants to take Jack apart at the seams, dig into his brain and fix all the hurt and upset.

Instead he commandeers Len’s kitchen and bakes cookies for six hours straight, shortbreads and chocolate chip, gingerbread and peanut butter. He makes two dozen butter tarts, with and without raisins, until Jack emerges from his room, bleary eyed but interested.

“Are those?” he asks, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the cooling tarts. He meets Bitty’s gaze and one side of his mouth curls up. Bitty brings him a tart, kisses his mouth, puts it in his outstretched hand, and wants to take Jack to bed and curl around him, pet him and hold him and and and.

He just wants all the time, these days.

His blood is all mixed up, thinks Bitty when he looks at Jack. It’s mixed up, travelling back and forth in his veins, pumping in the wrong direction every time his heart beats. They’re alone in the house when Bitty takes Jack to his bedroom, locks the door, pushes Jack down on his quilted bedspread, pulls Jack’s sweatpants down. He’s bare underneath and Bitty closes his eyes because he feels suddenly dizzy. He kisses Jack, who tastes butter tart syrupy and sticky. Jack pants into his mouth, soft and sweet and his big hands cup Bitty’s face. Bitty kisses down his chest, over his worn T-shirt, down to the hair on his stomach, down. Pushes down on Jack’s twitching hips.

Bitty takes Jack in his mouth and everything stops.

For a while.

 

//

 

When Jack was little, he and the neighbour kids played Crack the Whip on the outdoor community rink every year. One person stood in the middle, skate blade firmly planted, and held onto the hand to the next skater, who began skating around them. Another skater joined, then another and another, all skating around the centre skater, with each additional skater flying wider and faster in a widening circle. Each skater who joined would be whipped around faster, laughing and frightened and terrified that one member of the chain would let go and everyone would fly off the ice into the snow banks.

For the past year Jack has been the centre skater, the anchor, holding on tight, feet planted, solid. Never moving, holding on to everyone and keeping them in check.

But now with Bitty, he’s on the outer edge of that circle, flying so fast and out of control, wind in his hair and against his cheeks and risking flying up up and away, careening off into nowhere every second of the turn.

 

//

 

Bitty gets a failing mark on a math test and feels like crying and Jack can tell the moment he lays eyes on him that something is wrong and without even asking he wraps his long arms around him hard, presses his lips into his neck and just holds him tight and Bitty hangs on like a drowning man—

Bitty falls down an icy step and twists his ankle and texts Jack from the principal’s office and Jack’s heart stutters in his chest because he just wants him to be all right all right—

They wrap themselves up in blankets and watch old episodes of Friends for two days straight and Jack doesn’t get tired of Bitty’s loopy laughter, not even once—

They debate music and movies and TV and the meaning of life and actually listen to each other’s opinions and Jack has never had someone actually listen to anything he’s said like that ever ever

“I like kissing you,” Jack breathes. “I like hugging you. I like being around you. I like you.” He sounds out of breath and useless and so far gone it should be embarrassing but it’s not. He doesn’t even care because it’s true, all of it.

Bitty presses against him hard, hands digging painfully into Jack’s back. “I like kissing you, too,” he says, then kisses him. “And all the rest of it, too. All the stuff you said. I like it all.”

“It’s possible I like you too much,” Jack whispers in the dark, sweat cooling on his skin and semen cooling on the sheet beneath them.

“No,” Bitty whispers back. He kisses Jack on the mouth, sucks at his bottom lip and Jack gasps. “Not possible because I like you even more. I like you best. I want to be with you all the time.”

Jack laughs, but something cold and hard settles in his chest then, without him even realizing it. Later, much later, he’ll remember this moment, and realize what it means, that it’s good, it’s so good, it’s too god, all of it. And it scares the shit out of him.

Because it can’t last.

Everything ends.

 

//

 

Jack parks his car and Bitty waits patiently as he and Shitty haul their 3,000 pounds of gear out of the back of the trunk. It’s cold, of course, because it’s February in Ontario, and Bitty stamps his feet and pulls his cornflower toque down over his ears a bit and tucks his hands into his armpits.

He follows the boys into the arena, brightly lit and almost as cold on the inside. They pause at the dressing room doorway, where Shitty lumbers inside to a raucous roar of cheers but Jack waits, smiling down at Bitty in that way that makes Bitty’s toes curl.

“Good luck, sweetheart,” Bitty says grinning because he can’t help it. “Give ‘em hell.”

Jack leans down and Bitty leans up and they press their lips together and are interrupted by a round of hooting and hollering from down the long, grey hallway, calls ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. It’s Chowder and Ransom, and Holster and Kent and three or four others who Bitty still hasn’t been able to keep straight yet, all tromping towards them, cheering their display. Bitty bows and waves his hand gracefully, making Jack laugh behind him. Then they’re surrounded, lots of big, loud bodies pressing in close, trying to talk to their captain and push into the change room and Bitty is lost is the crush smiling and trying to extricate himself when he feels a mouth, hot and dry, right at his ear.

Kent leans down close to Bitty’s ear, conspiratorial and quick, and before Bitty has a chance to react, to pull back, there’s that word, harsh and unforgiving, inflammatory, familiar but old and never forgotten, against the side of his head, hissed.

Faggot.

And then Kent is pulling back and he’s gone. Bitty’s face, he’s sure has gone white and he’s standing stock still, literally unable to move.

He knows bodies keep moving and he knows what his face must look like but there’s a rushing ringing in his ears and his face is rippling heat and he really needs to. He needs to do something, but he’s not sure what.

Bitty.”

Someone is saying his name over and over and there are hands on him, familiar ones, and a face in his vision, a familiar one.

Jack. Jack is saying his name and Jack’s face is in turns frightened and frightening, fingers tight on Bitty’s arms and he’s staring right at Bitty.

“What did he say? What did he say to you?”

Bitty tracks and focuses and blinks once, twice. He’s shaking his head without realizing.

“Nothing. Nothing. He said nothing, sweetheart.” He’s talking low and, he hopes, comfortingly.

It’s a word muttered under his breath, a word he hasn’t heard in a long time, certainly not aimed at him, and it slams into him like a sledgehammer.

“What did he say?” Jack leans close, close enough that Bitty can feel the barest brush of lips against his ear. He shivers. He can’t help it.

“Nothing,” Bitty says. “Nothing. He said. Nothing.” He looks up at Jack, eyes big and wide and pleading. “Please, Jack. Don’t worry about it.”

Jack straightens up to his full height slowly, his face gone tight and blank.

“I’m going to go find Len and Jude and let you get changed. Good luck. Good luck!” Bitty trips away on rubber legs and concrete feet all the way down the long, grey, echoing hall.

 

//

 

He pastes on an acceptable rah rah expression by the time he slides in next to Len and Jude, and they’re none the wiser he thinks. Everything is fine, he thinks. He thinks this as they teams crash onto the ice, music thrumming, fans cheering, banners flying. Bitty’s throat is dry when he manages a few encouraging cheers but his face is frozen, stiff and unnatural and his skin feels thick and plastic when he touches it.

It’s okay, he thinks. It’s fine. Everything is fine.

Until it’s not.

“Oh dear,” Len says beside him, hands tightened in fists on her lap. Jude reaches over and covers them with her own.

“What? What’s going on?” Bitty sits up straighter, craning his neck to see. Everything looks the same as always, big guys skating around and passing and shooting, racing up and down the rink.

“Jack is.” Len seems at a loss for words. “He’s distracted. I’ve never seen him like this before. Ever.”

“He’s not distracted,” Jude says. “He looks pretty focused to me. Just on the wrong thing.”

And then Bitty sees. He sees Jack pushing up to Kent, yelling in his face, pushing him back, back into the boards. He can see angry mouths moving and big hands shoving. Then helmets are off and jerseys are being tugged, fists are flying and everyone is on their feet.

“But. They’re on the same team,” Bitty says stupidly. His voice is coming from far away. His mouth feels numb, tongue too big.

Punches are thrown and blood is spilled and Jack and Kent are marched off the ice. Bitty doesn’t seem him again until an hour after the game has ended, long after everyone else has gone. Len and Jude and Shitty have gone home, eyes sad and expressions questioning, and Bitty lingers in the long, grey cold hallway outside the players’ changeroom.

Finally, finally he emerges, head down, hockey bag slung over one shoulder.

“Oh Jack,” Bitty says and his voice is sad and his eyes are sad and Jack can’t even look at him.

Kent’s been benched for two games and will get mandatory counselling for using a homophobic slur. Jack’s suspended for one game and has a bruise on his cheekbone and skinned knuckles and a split lip, but a glint in his eye. Bitty just presses his lips to Jack’s fingertips and takes him home.

Bitty slides into his bed after midnight, curling up behind Jack’s prone, still body.

“Are you ok?” Bitty asks against Jack’s shoulder blade, jutting out under his T-shirt.

Jack huffs out a breath. “I don’t know.”

Bitty rubs hands up and down his back, up over his shoulders and back down until Jack finally relaxes and turns toward Bitty, face damp as he presses it into the curve of Bitty’s neck. He’s crying Bitty realizes, and something wild unfurls in his chest, curling up through his limbs. He wraps arms and legs around Jack

“I’m sorry,” Jack whispers. “I’m so sorry Bitty.”

Whether he’s apologizing for Kent or for starting the fight or letting his team down or getting suspended Bitty’s not sure and he doesn’t ask.

“Oh, sweetheart,” is all he says as he strokes and strokes, from his hair down his back, down his arms, over and over, as Jack trembles and trembles before finally falling into sleep.

 

//

 

If you experience the fear of freezing in a landscape, this suggests that you probably are in situations in which you not only feel your close relationships could freeze or even come to an end, but also that you might have a hidden fear of life or failure, especially in regard to your love affairs.

 

//

 

When Jack dreams, he dreams of ice.

 

//

 

Tsunami dreams indicate that you’re at your emotional capacity on how you might deal with an upcoming situation. Sometimes this can be a force that is out of our control, and you have to brace for protection.

 

//

 

When Bitty dreams, there’s water in his mouth and his throat, and he’s clawing for the surface.

 

//

List:

Win the next game.

And the next. And the next.

Kiss Bitty at least twice a day.

No distractions.

Except Bitty.

Buy toothpaste.

Sleep.

 

//

 

Then the snow comes, finally. The real snow. It’s the end of February and they’ve been warned, repeatedly, online, on TV, on the radio, the storm is coming. Buy salt. Buy candles. Buy non-perishables. Buy batteries.

“They always say that,” Shitty says, waving a dismissive hand. “Watch. We’ll get, like, two centimetres. They won’t even close the schools, but they’ll cancel the buses. Mark my words.”

Then it starts snowing. And snowing. And snowing. It kicks up lightly at 3 p.m. on the Thursday and keeps going long into the night, overnight and is still coming down Friday morning, hard, heavy. Everything is closed. Shitty is too overjoyed to care about being wrong.

“One time!” he yells. “Once. Write it down on the calendars.”

Bitty is mesmerized. There’s a foot now, there has to be. Jack is in the backyard shoveling off the rink and Shitty is in the front helping Len with the sidewalks and driveway. Bitty is pulling on a pair of too-big, second-hand snow pants, jacket, heavy mitts and boots, his cornflower toque. He wraps a scarf around his neck and marches proudly into the back yard. Jack looks up and grins.

“Hello handsome,” he says and Bitty does a twirl.

“An entire day. In the snow,” he says.

“It’s called a snow day. Literally,” says Jack, leaning on his shovel.

“It’s perfect,” says Bitty.

He helps Jack finish clearing the rink, then helps Shitty finish the sidewalks. Everything is still and white and quiet, no cars on the streets, no honking horns. Children start to emerge up and down the street, excited, shouting to one another, dragging out sleds, throwing snowballs. The snow keeps falling.

They dig out old sleds from Len’s garage — The dogs like them! she says — and Jack pulls Bitty around the rink fast as he can, Bitty laughing loud in delight. He lies flat on his back and makes a snow angel while Raymond and Shirley pounce on him and try to eat snowflakes. They attempt a snowman in the front yard, but the snow is still too fluffy, not good for packing, Jack says seriously, staring down at a mound of it in his gloved hand. He seems disappointed in the this, that Bitty isn’t going to experience real packing snow today, but Bitty could care less. He pushes Jack onto his back and straddles him, kisses him where anyone could see and Jack looks up at him, eyes striking blue against all the white.

They walk to Tim’s and get hot chocolate and Timbits and later make their way to the public school and park with the small but usable hill which is teeming with tobogganers. They take turns on the sleds, Bitty and Jack, Jack and Shitty, Shitty and Lardo, even Len and Jude take a few turns. On the last run, Bitty climbs on behind Jack, frozen hands clutching around his waist and Jack pushes off. They go flying down the hill, Jack’s body protecting Bitty from most of the cold air and flying snow. They hit a bump at the bottom and tumble, Bitty planting face first in snow and Jack frantically pulling him up. Bitty laughs and laughs, breathless, until Jack kisses right there, right in front of everyone.

They make a second attempt at a snowman in the back yard with marginally better results, and then a snow fort in the front which promptly falls apart.

Jack and Shitty shovel Len’s driveway and sidewalk again as the light starts to fade, and then go around the neighbourhood shoveling everyone else’s, too.

They hold an impromptu hockey game on the rink, with everyone from the neighbourhood who wants to join in, even Bitty, who wields a hockey stick like a weapon and skates circles around everyone, including Jack.

Jack gets his camera out and when Bitty isn’t looking, while he’s sailing around Jack’s rink, the rink that Jack made for him, He sits on the snowy steps of the deck and takes photos of him, a whirl of button blue, spinning and sailing.

When the sun is setting and everything is bathed in a pale blue light, already getting dark, Bitty tilts his head back, catches snowflakes on his tongue. Beside him, Jack makes a strangled noise, eyes wide, camera trembling in his hands.

It’s the best day Bitty can ever remember.

 

//

 

Leaking water in dreams represents a leaking of emotions or loss of power. Dreaming of a leak that you can't stop might symbolize an emotional situation in waking life that seems to be out of control.

 

//

 

They stand together on the mat just inside the back door, stomping their boots and clapping their mittens together, peeling off soaked jackets and pants and dropping them at their feet. Bitty can’t feel his fingers.

“I’m freezing,” Bitty says, showing Jack his chattering teeth just because. Jacks clucks his tongue, gathers up all their sopping clothes and takes them down to the laundry room while Bitty strips off the rest of his clothes and runs the shower down the hall.

Shitty is walking Lardo back to her house, while Len and Jude brave the now-plowed roads to go to Jude’s apartment for extra provisions and when the shower is running full hot, Bitty slides under the scalding spray and can’t help but groan as the water hits every inch of his frozen skin. There’s a light knock at the door and Jack is there with extra towels fresh from the dryer and Bitty peers around the shower curtain with a look that is unmistakable.

“You sure?” Jack says, cheeks flushed, but he’s already pulling off his sweatshirt and pants, slipping in behind Bitty and there’s a lot of naked skin and nowhere to go.

“Very,” Bitty says, hands sliding over long expanses of pale muscles and bones that slide enticingly beneath his thawing fingers.

It’s the first time Bitty has ever shared a shower with another human being, and he figures this human being is the best one he could have chosen.

Len makes stew for dinner and they all stuff themselves and settle in to their evening routine on reading, watching TV, playing games and finishing up homework. At 8 p.m. the storm picks up again, wind gusting, and the power goes out and everything goes silent with the rush of the TV shutting off and Shitty yells, “Oh fucking fantastic!”

“Shitty!” Len says, then laughs.

The cold creeps in and descends quickly and they pull on extra sweaters, Len lights candles, gathers flashlights and extra blankets from the closer.

At 9 she and Jude say goodnight, pad down the hall to Len’s room, and Jude yells,

“Shared body heat is great for generating warmth,” and the door shuts firmly behind them.

“Was that…permission?” Bitty whispers loud enough for Shitty to hear. Shitty groans, wraps himself in the biggest blanket and flops down on the couch.

“I’m staying right here for the night, so whatever you two degenerates have planned, please keep that in mind.” He pauses. “That totally did not come out right.”

Bitty starts giggling, there’s no other word for it, as Jack’s fingers press and find his most ticklish spots. They twist and roll together on the floor at Shitty’s feet, gasping and squealing until he sits up in a tumble of twisted blankets

“Shut up!” Shitty groans.

Bitty’s room is warmer, but Jack’s room is further away. His bed sheets and blankets in a tumbled mess. Bitty stands at the side, unsure, arms crossed over his chest, watching Jack as he makes a half-hearted attempt to straighten the sheets before laughing quietly and climbing on top of them. Still, Bitty watches. Jack swallows, audibly. He holds out a hand. Bitty takes it and Jack pulls him onto the bed. They lie like that, still and warm, until Jack turns on his side and Bitty kisses him. It’s soft at first, tentative, like they’re out of practice, but they remember quickly, of course they do, because they were so good at it, and it was so easy and natural then. They both lean in then, fast and eager, lips sucking at lips and fingers tangling in hair and legs twining and knees bumping. Jack moves his hands down, tugs Bitty’s sleep pants down as low as he can before grabbing his cock, already half stiff, and holding it in his hand.

“Oh Lord, Jack,” Bitty says and his voice is like gravel. “Can I…can I too…”

Jack moves down the bed, awkward and tangled before laying his forehead on Bitty’s taut, tight stomach, nosing and mouthing at Bitty’s cock, then licking, one long stripe up and Bitty twists and groans.

Jack pushes his own clothes down so they’re lying half-naked together, up close against one another, leaking and hard and trembling. Jack holds their cocks together as they bump and slide and gasp into each other’s mouth. Bitty comes first, as usual, and Jack almost laughs, but then he, too, is coming, shuddering against Bitty’s slick stomach and then falling back. He keeps his eyes closed, afraid to waken from this and realize it’s all a dream. But then Bitty is moving against him again, nose pressed into the side of his neck, breath hot on his collarbone.

The whole time Bitty is talking, murmuring quiet words of encouragement, happy sounds, praise, and Jack’s name over and over again. And when they’re done and the two of them entwined together on tangled sweat-soaked sheets trembling fingers tracing lines and bones, contours and shadows. Bitty keeps talking, the dam opened, water flowing, his voice low and slow, telling endless stories or asking why Jack’s heartbeat feels like rabbit’s feet under his fingers (What are talking about? Jack says in the dark and he can’t help smiling. You know, Jack says. When you hold a rabbit and it kicks its feet into your palm. That’s what your heart feels like. I had a bunny as pet, when I was 10. I’m a serious authority on this. Ok, Jack agrees, and kisses him, hard, harder. Ok ok ok ok ok)

His boy can talk.

And this, Jack thinks. This this this. You can have this.

He wonders how he fell so far so fast.

He wonders when he started thinking of him as his boy.

 

//

 

SPRING

 

//

 

I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
~Spring, Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.
~ Rabindranath Tagore

 

//

 

“Wow,” Bitty says one Sunday afternoon in March. “Look at that. It’s snowing.”

“But you love snow,” Shitty reminds him, dry as dust. He’s sprawled on the couch with Lardo watching Tik Toks on her phone.

“Well yes,” Bitty says. “But, enough is enough already.” He pauses. “So, question. Does it actually ever stop snowing here?”

He’s is standing at the front window, nose against the glass, despondent but trying for upbeat.

“It’s March. In Ontario,” Shitty intones. “I told you I’d check back with you about your insistent love of snow. So, how’s it going?”

“Ugh,” Bitty says. He thumps his head against the window and groans.

“Come on,” Jack says, sighing like it’s a huge deal but he’s smiling that smile, the one that means something good is going to happen. “Get dressed. Warmly,” he adds. “Mittens, coat, toque, everything.”

“Where are we going?” Bitty asks as he’s already shoving his feet into boots at the front door.

“It’s a surprise,” Jack says.

The surprise is an hour west, past rolling snow-covered fields, rivulets of water running along the gravel roadside, potholed-roads filled with dirty water. Bitty sits quietly, humming to himself and watching everything with wide eyes.

“What is a maple sugar festival?” Bitty asks finally, reading the signs as they pass, looking at the long line of cars waiting to turn left.

“Exactly what it says.”

Bitty rolls his eyes, but doesn’t ask any more questions, just follows Jack, hand in his, amid the throngs of people with snow-suited children in wagons sucking on brown lollipops, at wagons pulled by huge-hoofed Clydesdales, at miles of bare maple trees gathering dripping sap in silver buckets. He takes it all in. He can’t stop smiling.

Jack has his camera with him slung around his neck like he often does these days when he has time, working on his final assignment due in a few weeks. He has his favourite subject matter close at hand today and he plans to take full advantage.

He gets a photo of Bitty sticking his finger under the stile, sucking clear, sweet sap into his mouth.

Bitty’s face, clear and bright, upturned into spring sunshine, weak and white over his cheeks and upturned nose.

Bitty laughing at the horses.

Bitty eating maple candy.

Bitty smiling right at him so hard and pure it makes Jack’s fingers tremble against the hard case of the camera.

Bitty coming closer and closer in the frame, grinning, giggling, until Jack has to lower the camera and relent, because he’s helpless when it comes to Bitty and he kisses him and kisses him, while the bare branches Maples scrape against the cloudless pale blue March sky above them.

 

//

 

There are three more games to win.

They win them.

And that’s it. They’re in the finals.

 

//

 

Bitty thinks about maple trees. He thinks about cloudless too bright skies the colour of Jack’s eyes. He thinks about the stretch of his skin when he moves and when Jack moves against it. He’s thinking, right now, about the soft, wet skin of the inside of Jack’s mouth as it takes Bitty’s dick in, sliding and sucking and kissing, too. He thinks about how Jack’s hair feels against the taut skin of his stomach, strands of dark, silky and fine, spreading over his skin as he moves with purpose and determination, intent on doing a Good Job. When he comes with a shout muffled into the palm of his hand, Bitty thinks of syrup and licking his finger and how Jack just stood and watched him, so sweetly, so intently like he was the only person in the world.

When Bitty slides down Jack’s long, solid body to nose at his hard cock, he breathes in all of Jack’s scents, his clean sweat, the detergent they all smell like now, all mixed together with their own personal scents, and he takes Jack in, sweetly and softly at first, using his hand, too, just to hear Jack’s noises, trying to be quiet like always, but Bitty knows what he likes now and he knows how to make Jack let go, just a bit.

He likes making Jack let go just by using his mouth.

Jack’s fingers in his hair, pulling and then patting because he’s worried he’s hurt him. Jack’s hips bucking, his knees knocking into Bitty’s shoulders, Bitty pulling off when Jack warns him in his hoarse whisper and finishing him with his hand so he can watch Jack fall apart.

He likes watching Jack fall apart.

Sometimes, he thinks, laying his head against Jack’s trembling thigh, you meet someone, and you know somehow that you belong together. Like a dream or a memory, you know this person is going to be your friend or your lover, passing through or making a more permanent mark, but you know somehow, on some level, that they’re it. Even if you try to deny it, or fight it, you eventually can’t avoid it, and you just have to accept it because it’s inevitable, and really, there’s no point fighting it.

It’s there, below the surface, waiting to be scratched. Bitty presses his lips to Jack’s hip, then moves up with great effort to lie against Jack’s side, sweaty head on Jack’s sweaty shoulder.

“Okay,” Bitty says quietly. “Here’s a story. Once upon a time there was this boy. This funny quiet wild stubborn beautiful boy who stormed into my life and turned it upside down. I fell head over heels for him, and I think he liked me, too, but he was determined to be unhappy for some reason. I don’t know why. Did I mention he was stubborn? Because he was. And then one night—”

“Is this a long story? Because I’m tired.”

“The moral of the story,” Bitty continues, scowling only a bit, “is that it has a happy ending.”

Jack turns on his side, rests his dark head on the crook of his arm. “Does it?”

Bitty looks right at him, places his hand on the side of Jack’s face and swallows hard.

“Yeah,” he says. “It does.”

 

//

 

Rivers symbolize your journey in life whether physical or spiritual. If the river water is flowing fast it can mean rapid changes might occur soon. It’s also possible that you feel out of control in your life and need to slow down. If the river is calm and peaceful it means being comfortable with the changes in your waking life.

 

//

 

The cold weather breaks and the snow gives way to rain.

It’s raining on the Last Day, one day before The Finals. Late March rain, slapping cold and colourless against the windows. They’re naked and wrapped in layers of blankets, their own heat mingling and radiating Jack’s skin is covered in a fine sheen of sweat even though all they’re doing is lying together, still and silent, limbs twisted around each other. It rains and rains, because late March is like that, unforgiving, sad and grey.

Jack can’t sleep and every time he closes his eyes he hears the tree branch outside his window scrape against the pane. Instead he holds Bitty and is there and aware and conscious of every moment for once, not an ounce of alcohol or drugs in his veins. He is present and it hurts. He thinks about later today, tonight, tomorrow morning. He thinks about next week, next month, next year, where they’ll be, what they’ll be doing, if they’ll be doing any of it together because. Because. Yeah. His laugh catches in his throat. Bitty stirs.

He thinks about this time last year, going to the finals, losing, going home, overdosing. He thinks and thinks and can’t stop.

“Wha?” Bitty says. His voice is thick, sleepy slow.

“Nothing.”

“Don’t believe you.” Bitty moves closer, if that’s even possible, maybe he’s trying to actually weld his skin onto Jack’s, twins conjoined at the groin. Jack laughs again, competing with the rain. This boy. He loves this boy so much.

“How did I ever find you?” He whispers this into the top of Bitty’s head. He can feel Bitty’s breath hot against his collarbone.

“Meant to be,” Bitty says, his voice looping. He’s almost asleep again, voice thick, almost reluctant. His fingers twitch against Jack’s ribcage. It tickles and Jack squirms a bit. Bitty does it once more, on purpose. Jack pinches his back, but it’s all for show.

“You think? You believe in all that? Serendipity? Fate? I mean really. Do you really think that?” The question, and the answer are suddenly more important than Jack realized. He holds his breath. It takes forever for Bitty to answer.

“Never really thought about it before.” Bitty goes still again, then shrugs, slowly. Eyelashes on Jack’s shoulder, breath on his chest. “But yeah. Yeah. If it brought me to you then yeah. Ok.” He pauses. “Ok.”

“You’re going to be okay sweetheart,” Bitty says. “You’re not the same person you were a year ago. You’re still you, but you’re different. You’re more.” He holds on fiercely.

You too, Jack thinks. You too Bitty.

He exhales.

The rain keeps falling.

 

//

 

List:

Pack for finals trip.

Win the cup.

Kiss Bitty.

Sleep.

 

//

 

The trip to Sault Ste. Marie is a solid seven hours on the bus and even though the seats are roomy and there’s movies playing and songs being shared, it’s tedious and cramped and annoying. Jack can’t stop fidgeting and Bitty can’t help him no matter how hard he tries, no matter how many dumb knock knock jokes he pulls out of his head, no matter how gentle his fingertips on Jack’s arm, no matter how many distractions he offers, so eventually he resigns himself to Jack’s leg twitches and tight jaw and gloomy expression.

Jack leans back and Bitty pulls the scratchy blanket up over their laps and they drowse in fits and starts.

It’s a blur, Bitty thinks later, when he tries to remember it all, the bus, the barely contained nerves, the quiet verging on panic of all the players waiting. The waiting is the worst, he realizes. For them, but for the supporters, too. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so nervous about anything in his entire life, and he’s had some experience.

Bitty’s stomach is tied in knots as he watches, sitting between Len and Jude, who drove up on their own behind the bus. The three of them sit bolt upright, viscerally reacting to every movement down on the ice, every hit, every pass, every miss, every goal. It’s a blur of colour and voices and music and screaming. Bitty is sure he spends three quarters of it on his feet, cornflower toque yanked down and up in a frenzy of frustration, fear. This is what it feels like, he thinks, to want something so badly for someone else and to have absolutely no control over the outcome.

“You finally a fan of hockey?” Jude teases, nudging Bitty as he jumps and yells and curses with the rest of them.

“I think he’s a fan of Jack’s,” says Len and Bitty can only nod because well. Yeah. He really is.

And then it’s over, and they win in a wave of screams and shouts and names announced and Jack is MVP.

They win the goddamn cup, not the Stanley Cup, but still. Bitty is so proud he could burst.

Watching Jack hoist that big championship J. Ross Robertson cup over his head is doing things to Bitty. And when Jack looks up and meets Bitty’s proud gaze while Bitty proceeds to scream himself hoarse and dance around like an idiot, well he’s just excited and trying to fit in with the rest of the screaming idiots. That’s all.

And Bitty may never truly understand the game, not to the extent the true fans do, but yes, he’s a true fan of Jack Zimmermann, and he understands the importance of moving up and has a vague concept of drafting and affiliate teams and when, several weeks later he comes out to a parking lot to find a Shitty by the car with no Jack in sight, he has an inkling.

“What’s up?” Bitty says. He realizes he hasn’t heard from or seen Jack since getting to school this morning and he feels suddenly nervous.

“Uh, well.” Shitty rubs a hand through his hair. He looks frazzled. “Jack got called in to a meeting with Coach Wolfe.”

Which can only mean one thing really. That Jack’s been drafted. Or is about to be drafted. Or is being kicked off the team, which seems highly unlikely.

And in the end it is, because when he arrives home an hour later, he’s pale and shaky and the newest draft for the Toronto Marlies, the top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He says this in a shaky, unsure voice and before he even finishes he has an armful of Bitty hugging him and kissing him, his entire face, and then his mouth, repeatedly.

“I’m so proud of you,” Bitty says amidst the celebrations, Shitty cheering and Len crying and Jude hugging and pounding him soundly on the back.

And this all means more change, Bitty realizes, because they’ve talked about it before, what might happen, what could possibly happen down the road for them and between them. And now Jack will be here, living and working and playing in Toronto and Bitty truly wonders about serendipity when, two days after Jack’s big announcement, he receives his own acceptance to George Brown College, and he stands there stunned and silent until Jack asks him what’s wrong and Bitty shows him the email and there’s more celebration and more shouts and more tears and more plans to be made and Bitty wraps his arms around Jack’s broad, shaking shoulders and lets himself be kissed until his lips hurt.

 

//

 

Sometimes, when Jack is very far inside his head, he’s reminded, quite jarringly, that he is missing important things right in front of his face.

In the middle of April the weather turns almost hot and Jack sleeps uncharacteristically late on a Sunday morning, his sleep filled with dreams he can’t decipher and he’s still muzzy and confused when he makes his way upstairs, his nose pulling him towards coffee. He pads outside to the back deck to find Len and Shitty lying on chairs hastily pulled from the garage, dogs splayed on their sides in the early spring sunshine. Bitty’s there, too, and.

And oh. Oh lord. Mon dieu.

Bitty is there all right. He is very there. He is, in fact, lying flat on his back on the worn wood of the deck. He’s wearing. Well, he’s not wearing very much. It’s just a tiny shirt and tiny shorts and all the pale pale skin exposed to sun and Jack stops short, coffee spilling hot and stinging onto his fingers. He makes a sound and everyone looks.

Bitty slides his sunglasses up just enough to peer and squint at Jack and he smiles, low and slow. He even shifts his hips a little. Jack coughs and excuses himself with the excuse of needing to refill his cup to the low and knowing laughter that follows him all the way to the kitchen.

 

//

 

Although ponds contain emotion, they are natural bodies of water and often represent the quiet, tucked-away emotions and unconscious self that has been present all along but not yet fully explored.

 

//

 

There’s a fight late at night and there’s a door slamming harder than it should. So hard that it startles Bitty in his room where he’s finishing up homework. He debates for a moment, then shoves his books aside and makes his way out to the kitchen. Len is there, slouched at the table, head in her hands, wedding paraphernalia splayed around her. She’s been crying, he sees immediately, but she’s stopped now, mostly. Bitty pauses, unsure.

“Are you…okay?” Bitty asks, voice small and quiet.

Len looks up and nods and wipes at her face. “Yeah. Yeah I’m ok. It was just a dumb fight.” She pauses. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Sorry,” he says. Then, “Aren’t they all dumb?” Bitty says, head tilted, lips tilted.

Len laughs. “Yeah. They sure are.”

Bitty slides into the chair opposite her. “You want to talk about it?”

Len sighs, wetly. “It’s nothing. Well, not nothing, obviously.” She laughs, indicating the place where Jude should be sitting and isn’t. “Jude and her ex-husband. Well, they had money. A lot of money. They were rich, I guess. So, Jude has a lot of money and sometimes we just fight about how much she wants to spend on things as opposed to how much I can spend on things and this wedding has just.” She sighs again. “Yeah. It was dumb. Really dumb. I said some shitty things I shouldn’t have.” She groans and drops her head again. “Relationships, Bitty, take a lot of work. All the time. Communication and patience and understanding. All of it.”

Bitty nods. “Yeah. I’ve been learning a lot of about that this year.”

She looks at him. “I know you have. You both have.” She reaches over and takes his hand in hers. “If I haven’t told you, both of you, I’m really really proud of you. You. You’re really good for each other.”

Bitty blushes and ducks his head. “I think so, too. I mean, I hope so.”

“You are,” she says, squeezing his fingers hard. “I’ve known Jack for a few years now, and trust me when I say I’ve never seen him as happy as when he’s with you. That means something.” She studies Bitty’s face in the light. “And you, too, sweetie. The Bitty I met last August is miles away from the one sitting here right now.”

Bitty tries to remember that Bitty, the one stepping off the plane, the one holding himself tight and hard, the one who didn’t speak and didn’t feel and didn’t want to feel. The one untethered and adrift. It doesn’t feel like him, anymore. He’d like to tell her all this, but says instead,

“You need some help with this?”

Len nods. “Yeah. Sure, thanks. I just need to call my fiancée first and apologize for being a goddamn idiot.”

 

//

 

In retrospect, Bitty supposes his face probably looked plenty surprised. He knew it was his birthday, of course, and he knew pretty much everyone else knew it, but walking into a room full of very excited people still held an element of shock and surprise for him, so there wasn’t much acting taking place.

And there are presents and music and food and Jack has baked him a cake.

And Bitty takes a fingerful of chocolate icing and very carefully licks it with just the tip of his tongue when no one is paying attention. Jack is mesmerized. Then Bitty puts a bit more on his finger and holds it out for Jack. Jack obligingly takes Bitty’s finger in his mouth and sucks.

“s’good,” Jack mumbles, face going red.

“Yes. It’s very good, if I say so myself,” Bitty declares, licking his lips. “Think you did a pretty damn good job, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack nods.

“Indeed,” Bitty says as he kisses Jack again. “Happy Birthday to me.”

 

//

 

Later, much later, Jack is snoring lightly curled on his side, party hat still askew on his head. Bitty lies on his back, spread out, sated.

It’s all going so fast, Bitty thinks suddenly, blinking blearily up at the ceiling, sated and sweaty. Time is speeding up, everything is ending, everything is changing and he can’t hang on. He thinks back to the fall when he first arrived, the plane trip and drive, the fear, the sick roiling stomach, how he dreaded arriving and counted down the days until it was over and now, now he can’t imagine it ever ending, ever going back to where he was.

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things.

 

//

 

Storms in dreams can represent a deterioration of the past experiences or relationships. Storms represent a bad situation that we are in emotionally. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad symbol because every storm will pass and there will be sunshine ahead.

 

//

 

Sometimes when Jack does manage to get out of his head, he makes some pretty questionable decisions.

“But why?” Len is saying.

“Because tradition!” Shitty crows.

“It’s lunacy,” Len and Jude say together, then laugh.

“What is?” Bitty says, confused as ever. “What’s lunacy?

“Camping! Outside! At this time of year!” Len is shaking her head. “Are you determined to kill this boy or something?”

“Tradition,” Jack says, like this means something.

“Tradition!” Shitty echoes, loyal friend.

“May two-four is notoriously horrible weather,” Len says. “It’s like, known. By anyone who has lived here for more than a year.”

“Which is why we’re going,” says Jack and Bitty can only nod, although he has to admit, he feels more than slight trepidation about the whole sleeping outside thing.

“So, let me understand this,” Len says. “You’re going to drag poor Bitty on a two-hour drive, set up a tent, light a campfire and sleep outside even though it’s forecasting sleet?”

“Yes?” Jack says, like he doesn’t understand the question.

“It’s the experience,” Shitty adds.

“A really crappy experience,” Jude says, laughing. “Why don’t you just pitch a tent in the backyard and when it gets cold — which it will — you can hustle yourselves inside where it’s warm and dry.”

“Because experience,” Jack says.

“Experience,” Bitty adds and smiles, hopefully.

 

//

 

“This was way more romantic in my head,” Jack says, sighing, and Bitty laughs against his chest.

There’s a tent and there are sleeping bags and extra blankets, and a small campfire sputtering uselessly against rain that is almost snow and Bitty is trying really hard to be upbeat and positive and get into the “experience” because it seems to mean so very much to Jack, but he’s fucking freezing. They’re huddled together and they’ve tried and failed at sex once already and Bitty would very much like to get back into Jack’s car and drive home already, but it’s an experience and he’s having it. No matter how long it takes his toes to regain their feeling.

He leans up and presses cold lips to Jack’s and Jack sighs, and kisses him back.

“Sorry,” Jack breathes as the tent rattles and Bitty giggles and pulls Jack close.

They try again, gamely, and this time there’s room. There’s room to move and there’s room for Jack’s fingers in the space he made before and this time when he slides in it’s on Bitty’s arch and gasp and even in the cold they kick the sleeping bag and blankets down enough so Jack can maneuver Bitty’s legs and they heat between them is more than enough.

Bitty awakes once in the night, sweaty and panicky, like he’s done so many times before, sitting half up in the tent, hands grasping and patting. One lands on something soft, something warm. Jack. Jack’s head, his tousled hair. Bitty forces his breathing to calm but he leaves his hand where it is. Jack stirs.

“What? What is it?”

It’s cold and the sleet is flying sideways and they’re shivering and it’s a perfectly horrible night in northern Ontario and Bitty looks at Jack, the curve of his cheek, the slash of his brow, his tousled hair, and he just says,

“You know I love you, right? You know that.” Bitty says it fast before he loses his nerve. “I love you.”

Jack smiles. Even in the dark Bitty can see the curve of his lips. “Yeah. I know that. And I love you, too.” He takes Bitty’s hand and presses it to his lips, then presses it to his chest, then pulls Bitty down and pulls him close. “I love you.”

Jacks thinks it should surprise him, how easy it is, not just loving Bitty, but telling him too. But everything about loving Bitty is easy and they lie there smiling and staring like idiots and Jack leans over and kisses him, the warmth of their lips in the cold. He can feel Bitty smiling, can feel him mouthing, I love you so much.

And that’s that.

 

//

 

He’d almost forgotten, it had been so long. Then one warm afternoon in May he looks out the back window, open to the freshening breeze and sees.

He joins Len in the backyard, bent and dirt-smeared, spade at her feet, hand cupped and filled with tiny white seeds.

“You’re planting,” Bitty says.

“It’s time,” Len says simply, and Bitty nods and gets to work.

 

//

 

SUMMER

 

//

 

“You swam in a river of chance and coincidence. You clung to the happiest accidents—the rest you let float by.”
~David Wroblewski

 

“The places where water comes together with other water. Those places stand out in my mind like holy places.”
~Raymond Carver

 

//

The briefest season in Ontario, Jack thinks, and then, how far we’ve come. The shortest time here, June, July and August. Maybe part of September. There will be heat, and humidity, as always, and the days and weeks and months will fly by, because summer is so brief.

 

//

 

List:

Buy Bitty corsage.

That blue. That particular shade of blue.

Cornflower. Blue Button.

Bitty’s Blue.

 

//

 

It’s prom, Bitty thinks. I’m at a goddamn prom and I helped and I’m with someone I love and it’s all so beautiful I could just faint.

And it is beautiful, really. The hall is glorious, decked out in all the colours of the rainbow, literally. Bitty and Jack dance and laugh and hug and dance. They take photos with their friends. They kiss each other. In front of everyone.

Bitty can dance with his arms wrapped around the person he loves most and no one will care. No one will point or laugh or make disparaging remarks. On the contrary: everyone looks so proud of him they could burst. They’re his friends, he realizes. His best friends. The people he loves more than anyone else, the people who will be in his life for years to come. And the music plays and they dance and laugh and kiss.

“Smile!” Len had said earlier, holding the camera, pointing it at Shitty and Lardo, Bitty and Jack, arms around each other, corsages in place, hair and makeup meticulous, and they all did, and later when Bitty sees the photos, his smile is the biggest and the brightest of all.

 

//

 

“We don’t get caps?” Bitty says. He might never recover from this grave injustice. It’s graduation, for goodness’ sake. There should be caps. With tassels. It’s just how’s it done.

“Sorry, Bits,” Shitty says and he really does. Sound sorry, that is. They’re all standing around in their long, black gowns and serious shoes, waiting for their turn to cross the stage where Len and Jude sit, anxious and proud as parents. And their own parents are there, too, all six of them making the expensive but not-to-be-missed trip for the weekend to see their sons finally graduate.

“But, everyone throws their caps in the air on TV and movies and everything.”

“Maybe that’s an American thing.”

“We had them for our photos, though!” Bitty sighs, but is resigned. His parents didn’t fly all this way to see him pout and he supposes he can deal with this unfortunate oversight if it means their visit is worth their while.

Bitty walks across the stage like he owns it, accepts his diploma and shakes the principal’s hand and when Jack and Shitty and a bunch of the teams yell his name and clap and cheer, he turns predictably red, then does a fancy little twirl, his gown billowing out around him.

Afterwards they join their families on the lawn outside the school, diplomas in hand, and after hugs and tears, Bitty slides his hand into Jack’s and looks up at him.

“Congratulations, Bitty,” Jack says, leaning close so just Bitty can hear.

“Congratulations, Jack,” Bitty says, smiling shy and sweet. “We made it.”

 

//

 

And then it’s over. The last day, the last hour, the last class of high school.

Bitty meets Jack and Shitty under the tree and they hug and Shitty hollers and they clamber into Jack’s car and drive moderately fast and Bitty has the window down all the way, warm June air rushing over his face and through his hair and he thinks, I’m happy. And he looks at Jack and smiles and Jack smiles back and Shitty is singing loud and off key in the back seat and Bitty takes Jack’s hand in his and thinks, happy.

 

//

 

As with all symbols, lakes can refer to something very personal to the dreamer. Perhaps this was a place you would vacation with family when you were younger for instance. In this case, the lake could represent fond childhood memories or a retreat to the security of the past.

 

//

 

Their graduation present, it turns out, is a weekend in Muskoka, at Jude’s cabin north of Toronto. She and her ex have joint ownership and take turns using it during the year. The four of them pile into Jude’s SUV loaded down with food and bedding — I’m sure Dave hasn’t changed the sheets or done laundry in months, is all Jude says — and they set off on a bright, warm Friday afternoon.

It’s a solid three hour drive with traffic and when Jack soon nods off, head against the window, Bitty plugs into his music and watches the passing scenery, changing from six lanes of highway to four, to two, cityscape disappearing behind them to give way to slate stacks carved to make room for road, green bristly pines, scrub, bright skies. Even the air moving through the open window smells and tastes different on Bitty’s face. He can hear, just over his music, Len and Jude talk and laugh and sees them occasionally clasp hands on the bolster between them and when he looks over at Jack’s peaceful sleeping face he thinks his heart might explode with joy.

The cottage is more a house, Bitty thinks. Or a chalet. It’s all wide wood planking and huge glass windows overlooking Bird Lake. It’s surrounded by arching scraggy pines and flat grey rocks. There’s a carefully hewn staircase leading down down to a long wooden deck and the clear water. A tall flagpole stands just outside the rear sliding doors: a Canadian flag snaps smartly in the breeze. Bitty thinks he’s never seen anything quite so breathtaking.

“It’s beautiful up here, eh?” Jack says quietly, coming to stand next to him. Bitty can only nod, taking in the long banks of pines and maples, boats idling in the water, faint cries of swimmers somersaulting into icy water. Something in his chest is tight and tangled at the sight of all that water. But then Jack’s large, smooth dry hand slides over his, twines their fingers together.

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” Bitty says this, this odd thing, in his soft, rounded drawl and Jack can’t help but smile. He always smiles when he’s around Bitty.

“Yeah?” he says. “You believe that?”

Bitty looks at him, eyes wide and clear and dark like the depths of an ocean Jack will never see, not in this lifetime. Jack’s water is slate grey, murky, Lakes Superior and Ontario, cold and unforgiving. Nothing like the warmth and kindness of Bitty at all.

“Yeah,” Bitty says, voice gone rough like sand. “It’s what ties us together, you and me. It brought us together, here, and that’s the best kind of magic there is, sweetheart.”

 

//

 

They spend the weekend exploring the jagged, grey rocks, hopping from surface to surface, arms pinwheeling as their feet grab hold, threatening always to tip into clear, clean, cold water. They lie on their backs and let the sun lick every inch of their skin. At night they huddle together in their room — two beds, haha — and lick the sun and water out of every crease and line. They eat hugely and well on the back deck, taking turns cooking, and Bitty bakes cookies and a batch of breakfast muffins. They put together huge, sticky S’mores. They tell stories and laugh until their stomachs hurt. They count stars, then count new freckles on Bitty’s heated skin as the light from a full moon splashes over the wooden floor of their bedroom. They read and they write and they walk and share stories with Len and Jude and talk until their throats ache, then don’t speak a word for hours as they watch birds pass overhead and canoes pass below.

They live. They are.

 

//

On their last afternoon, Bitty takes Jack’s hand and leads him down the steep stairs to the dock, a place they’ve visited several times, but ventured no further into the water. Yet.

They stand on the dock, looking down at crystal clear blue green water, reflecting rocks and trees and the clouds scattered above them.

Bitty grabs harder onto Jack’s hand, large and warm, calloused and solid in his own. He’s ready. He thinks he’s ready. “We’re going to jump?”

Jack looks at him, tilts his head, raises his brows. Bitty looks down again, breathes in and out and nods, deciding.

“Yes. We’re going to jump.” He clasps Jack’s hand hard and Jack squeezes back. One. Two. Three—

They jump together. For a moment, right before they hit the water, Bitty’s heart hits the top of his chest, the bottom of his throat, panic and fear overriding everything else, but then there’s Jack beside him, still holding on, and his feet are wet and his legs, his hips, his torso, neck arms, and finally his head. He’s under the water, under lake water for the first time again, freezing and hard in his eyes and ears, seeping into his mouth. The panic is there as he’s totally submerged, water swallowing him up and whole. He opens his eyes and its dark and clear though, with light above him and Jack still holding on, Jack beside him and he can see the sky above and he knows exactly which way is up. He kicks hard to the surface and he and Jack break free at the same time, arcs of water splashing around them, brilliant in the summer sun. Jack is looking right at him and Bitty blinks and blinks away water, shakes his head, water flying off the tips of his hair. He looks at Jack, at his beautiful face and dark hair and eyes so blue with the blue water.

“Okay?” is all Jack says. He’s still watching. He waits.

Bitty kicks and moves closer, presses lips to cold lips and pulls back and smiles.

“Perfect,” he says.

 

//

 

Clear water — This is a positive dream symbol that lets you know your emotions are clear. Depending who and what is around you in the dream might indicate to your feelings to them.

 

//

Bitty starts his summer job at the local rec centre helping kids with crafts and outdoor activities, trips to the park and soccer in the neighbouring field even though he can’t play for shit and generally enjoy themselves while Jack is training ice skaters at the training rink. They text each other during their breaks and make plans for outings and whose turn it is to cook dinner that night.

As the weather warms and the grass greens and the trees bloom, they sit on the back deck or take drives in the lengthening days, holding hands between the seats, windows rolled all the way down and wind on Bitty’s skin. He closes his eyes and thinks, This. This is it. This is what I wanted, and he thinks back to last year, to what he left behind to what was chasing him away and it doesn’t hurt quite as much anymore, because of where he is now, and who he’s with.

You don’t have to forget everything it’s ok to remember some things.

And now, when he does, it doesn’t hurt quite so much.

 

//

 

List:

Find apartment.

Buy toothpaste.

Ask Bitty to move in.

Live.

 

//

 

In July Bitty is freckled and burned with skin that smells like heat and sunscreen. Jack tastes every one of his freckles and declares, solemnly that they all taste the same, like seawater, except for the one right on the side of his neck. That one tastes like ice cream.

 

//

 

Tonight they’re writing out name plates for the tables. Jack, whose handwriting for some reason, is impeccable, has been ordered to help. He and Jude sit across from each other at the table, paper and fancy pens with glittery ink spread out between them. The dogs are lying at their feet, letting hoping for a little respite from the heat. Bitty and Len are running errands and hopefully picking up popsicles.

“Are you excited?” Jack asks at one point as he writes a guest’s name on his small folded paper and leans back to survey his handiwork.

Jude nods and grins and bites her lip. “Yeah,” she says and the way she says it, god. Jack stops what he’s doing and looks up. He swallows.

“What you have, the two of you.” Jack stops. He takes a breath. He doesn’t really know what to say, how to properly articulate the feeling that’s gathering in his chest.

Jude tilts her head at Jack and smiles a little.

“Endings can be beginnings. That’s what you realize as you age, as you experience things. The hard things, the hurtful painful things that you can’t ever imagine getting through. When my marriage ended I thought I had ended too. All those years, all that time, gone. But not really gone and not really all for nothing. It brought me to Len. If we had met at any other time?” She sighs and shrugs. “Who knows? It may not have led me, us, here.”

Jack clasps his hands. “Endings can be beginnings.”

“The best kind of beginnings.”

“You and Len are so.” He swallows. “Like you were meant to be.” He doesn’t talk like this, doesn’t let himself think like this. Like love like that — what his parents have, what Len and Jude have — is meant for other people not him.

“She lets me just…be,” Jude says, smiling a smile that probably isn’t meant for Jack, and it makes his heart skip and stutter in his chest. It’s the same smile he’s seen on Bitty’s face a lot lately, when he looks at Jack. “You deserve to be happy, Jack. You deserve to be loved.”

Jack can’t speak. He can’t look at her. “Some people are lucky that way.”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Some of it is luck for sure. Or serendipity. Fate. Whatever word works best for you. Finding the right person. But some of it is making the best person work for you and what you need to. Working for each other. No relationship is ever perfect, Jack. Ever. But it’s not about finding the person you can just live with. It’s about finding the person you can’t live without.”

Jack nods and feels his eyes grow wet. He blinks a few times and smiles, a bit wobbly.

“Yeah,” he says, breathing out long, shoulders falling “Yeah.”

“You get that?”

Jack picks up his pen and smiles without looking up. “Yeah. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.”

 

//

 

The heat breaks on a Tuesday, storm clouds rolling in thick and grey and fast. Jack and Bitty sit on the front porch after long shifts at work. They’re drinking ice tea and letting the freshening breeze dry sweat on their skin. As the first rumbles of thunder, low and deep start, Bitty shivers and reaches over between them to take Jack’s hand in his. Their sticky fingers twine together and hold on tight as the thunder rolls and rumbles and the first drops of rain, thick and fat and heavy and hot, start to fall.

 

//

 

Jack turns 19 on August 3 and Bitty gets up at 6 a.m. to hang balloons and streamers and bake a giant, three layer, black forest cake complete with homemade whip cream and hand-shaved chocolate sprinkles. There’s a party planned for later in the day in the backyard, with as many former team members and school friends as Bitty’s been able to track down, and after a giant breakfast of pancakes, sausage and two kinds of eggs, poached and scrambled, Jack shoves his chair back and groans and lets Bitty kiss him again, before he’s jumping back in excitement.

“Shitty’s back!” Bitty yells as Shitty walks through the door, grinning and wide and hair shorn almost off. “My goodness!” Bitty says as he launches himself into Shitty’s open arms. “Look at you. All serious like.”

“Best birthday gift ever,” Jack declares as he hauls himself up and they envelop each other, back slapping and smiling.

The party is good, good for Jack who gets easily overwhelmed. Bitty manages to keep it low-key, with no alcohol, even though Jack would have been fine with it, and they sit in the back yard until late, talking and laughing and remembering until Bitty sees Jack face go shuttered and serious and reserved and he knows it’s time.

Everyone says their goodbyes and hugs are had and promises are made before Bitty hustles Jack down the stairs.

“Are you ok?” Bitty grips Jack’s arms, peers into his face with concern. Jack looks pale. “I mean, seriously. Are you ok?” He touches Jack’s forehead with the back of his hand. He feels cool, though slightly moist.

Jack swallows audibly, his throat working.

“I’m just. I was thinking, all of sudden. About everything. About what’s coming up this year. About all the changes. About us.” He stops. “It’s good, yeah? It’s good. But it scares the shit out of me. The new team and the apartment and you and me.” He looks at Bitty, eyes dark and serious. “I just love you so fucking much, Bits. I want all of this to work so badly, for both of us.” He laughs a bit. “I mean, since you’re asking.”

Bitty goes suddenly still. He leans forward suddenly and kisses him, full and soft and directly on his mouth. Jack makes a sound in his throat, surprise and happiness and beneath that, desperate desire. Bitty’s hands go to Jack’s cheeks, his neck, tangling in the curls at the back of his neck, pulling him closer, closer. Bitty puts his hands on Jack’s waist, pulls him, tilts his head to get a better angle on the kiss. Bitty’s tongue darts out, swiping along Jack’s lower lip, then bolder, into his mouth, against his teeth and against Jack’s tongue. The only sound in the room is them, their mouths working together and the soft breathy sounds they share between them. Bitty pulls back, dazed.

Jack’s eyes go dark. “Bedroom,” he says, quietly. It’s not even a question.

They tumble onto the bed, a tangle of limbs, mouths crashing together, clothes tugged up and off. “All right?” he says, voice a rasp. Jack tugs at his shirt, pulling him up, pulling him closer, kisses him fully on the mouth, hands fumbling at Bitty’s jeans. Jack can feel him, his length and hardness and Bitty groans against Jack’s mouth.

Bitty’s eyes go impossibly dark as he eases himself down on Jack’s straining cock, Jack’s head thrown back but his eyes watching Bitty with an intensity that Bitty still didn’t quite know what to do with. Jack’s fingers cup Bitty’s hips lightly, then dig in when Bitty starts to move with intention, hands pressed flat to Jack’s chest as he rises and falls, again and again. Jack can only watch, breath catching in his throat, hips threatening to buck up, and they will, soon, but for right this moment he wants to watch, wants to burn this image into his brain, Bitty smooth and sun kissed, hair ruffled from Jack’s hands, throat long, mouth open, head back as he moves and moves, small groans coming from his lips. Bitty opens his eyes and looks down, sees Jack watching and blushes but he doesn’t stop, not for a second. He speeds up, in fact, thighs working as he moves on jack’s cock and Jack breaks finally, gripping Bitty so tight that Bitty makes a sound and Jack is moving too.

Jack comes with a groan low in his throat, head thrown back, mouth slack. He looks down at Bitty’s face, eyes wide and dark with desire, watching Jack intently.

“I was wrong before,” Jack says panting and looking up at the ceiling.

“What about?”

Jack waves a lazy hand. “This is the best birthday present. Ever.”

Bitty snorts gently. “Well, I should hope so, Mr. Zimmermann. I mean, Shitty is lovely and all, but yes. I would damn well hope so.”

“Happy birthday,” Bitty says into the slick, hot skin of Jack’s throat, right where the pulse was fast but steady.

“Thank you,” Jack says, and it’s for the sex, he knows, but it’s bigger than that, too. It’s for everything.

Everything.

 

//

 

Listening to water in your dream denotes time for reflection and peace with your thoughts and emotions.

 

//

 

The wedding takes place on the last day of August with the sun bright and the cicadas singing in the trees above their heads. The backyard is beautiful and Bitty looks down at the rectangular patch of grass, still faintly dented and faded from the January rink. Jack catches him looking and Bitty smiles at him, teeth and blinding in the sun.

This, Bitty thinks, looking around, at the love and the laughter, this is what I want, more than anything. And for the first time ever, he thinks it’s within his grasp. And there’s Jack, standing at the back door holding a tray of canapes that Bitty made, looking around with awe on his face like he too is just realizing this is a possibility in life. That there are people out there who love each other no matter what, no matter who they are, and that there’s someone who might love him like that, too. His eyes scan the crowd and fall, like they always do, on Bitty. Jack’s smile is slow and light and oh god. Bitty bites his lip and shakes his head like shit, I can’t believe this. Then he smiles back, big and blinding. Hello there, it says. I see you too, it says.

There are white chairs set up and tables with white cloths, lights in the trees.

Bitty’s parents are there and a few friends and relatives, Jack and Bitty and Shitty and the dogs, of course.

The ceremony is short and sweet and to the point, just like Len and Jude have always been with each other. And honest. Always honest.

“Forever,” Len says.

“As long as you’ll have me,” Jude says.

“Then, forever,” says Len, and they kiss and Bitty laughs and Jack grins so wide it looks like it hurts and the dogs bark and paw at their legs and it’s exactly how Bitty imagined it would be. Everything, and more.

Suzanne cries and Bitty does too, fingers wound tightly with Jack’s until they ache.

Len and Jude kiss and wrap their arms around each other, cut the cake that Bitty made and dance and their laughter winds together and curls up into the lazy, late summer sky.

The music plays long into the warm night up into a sky that will soon turn to autumn again. Bitty thinks back to a year ago, when he first arrived, alone and scared, shaken to his core, empty and grey and dry. He thinks back to a time before he knew these people, before he knew Jack even existed, and for a moment he can’t draw a breath. He can’t remember a day before he knew Jack. In some ways, he doesn’t want to.

“What are you thinking?” Jack says, low and close to his ear, just for Bitty.

“Good things,” Bitty says, and presses his lips to Jack’s cheek, warm and flushed.

Everything, Bitty thinks, is going to be ok. Even if things get bad, or rough, even if there are bad dreams, even if bad memories crowd in on all sides dark and stormy until he awakes drenched in sweat, heart pounding, it will be ok. Because he’s ok now, and he has people who want him to be ok, too.

He has Jack.

Jack holds Bitty close under the late summer stars, not a cloud in the sky, in a yard filled with the last of the vegetable garden, surrounded by fairy lights and music and people Bitty loves with his whole heart.

In the last waning light of the day, Jack asks Bitty again — and it's silly because he already knows the answer and he just wants to hear him say it again because — if he wants to move in with him, stay with him, be with him.

“Do you want to?” Jack asks, shy and tentative. Bitty laces their fingers together, tight and sure as ever.

“Yeah,” he says, soft enough that only Jack can hear. “I do.”

 

//

 

List:

Buy toothpaste.

Milk.

Pickles.

Tell Bitty you love him at least twice a day.

More, if possible.

Feel.

Live.

Be.

 

//

 

Dreaming of a waterfall is a great dream symbol. It means cleansing and a new beginning. You might be getting a fresh start on life.

 

//

 

When Bitty dreams, he dreams of waterfalls, of crystal clear water, falling and flowing without end. He dreams of ponds for swimming and diving. He dreams of long limbed, dark-haired boys who swim with him. Boys who look at him like he’s everything, who keep him steady, buoyant, head above water, ready to help him when he’s going down for the third time.

But it’s the waterfall dream that visits him most often. No longer drowning, no longer cold and afraid and alone, but the waterfall. When he looks it up in his battered, dog-eared book, he stares at the page, grinning privately, just to himself. He doesn’t even write it down this time, because this one he won’t forget.

When Jack dreams, he dreams of Bitty.

 

//

 

“Be like water, which is fluid and soft and yielding, as in time, water will overcome rock which is rigid and hard. Therefore, what is soft is strong.”
~Anonymous