There is no shame in this, Jack reminded himself for the fortieth time, as he gripped the steering wheel of his Jeep hard and tried to take a deep breath the way Dr. Dana had spent ninety days attempting to teach him to ground himself in the moment. He had learned well enough to successfully complete his three months of detox and rehab, but he was out in the real world again, and the stakes were completely different. Lower, somehow, and yet also higher in some ways. But of course, that could just have been the anxiety talking.
Because it wasn’t like the detox and rehab for his Xanax addiction had rid Jack of the reason he’d started taking the Xanax in the first place. It had given him coping mechanisms that weren’t “stuff yourself with pills until you can’t feel your face anymore”—which he had to admit were helpful with the low-level buzz of nerves that seemed never to turn off, but he’d yet to have a full-on panic attack since his discharge, and he had no idea what that was going to look like—but it hadn’t reached in and yanked out the part of his brain that kept cooking up thoughts and catastrophizing hypothetical situations until he was catatonic on his bedroom floor.
Or the locker room floor, or Smitty’s billet mom’s kitchen floor, or the hotel bathroom floor that one, last time.
Kenny found him on that floor the last time. Kenny usually found him, or was right there when he went down in the first place, but Kenny also found him in the bathroom that one, last time. He’d never asked Jack if it was on purpose or not, but Jack got the feeling that, especially that last time, Kenny knew. I did not try to kill myself, Jack said out loud in group or one-on-one therapy, whenever he was feeling particularly charitable, but it was a lie every time.
Jack’s phone vibrated loudly, clattering against the plastic cupholder he’d thrown it into, and it successfully drew him out of his more depressing thoughts, if not wholly out of the anxiety attack he continued to slip into. He grabbed it, thumbed open the text notification and exhaled sharply through his teeth. Speak of the devil. Maybe Kenny had a sixth sense for when Jack was thinking about him. Or maybe he was just never going to stop trying to get back to normal.
They’d spoken a lot at first—except for that first week in the hospital when Kent was busy being the NHL’s number one draft pick and Jack was busy shaking and crying and shitting his guts out—and it had been fine. Then they’d spoken less, and a little less, until Jack would often pick up his phone to see four or five missed messages from Kenny that he’d just delete without reading. It wasn’t, he didn’t think, that he didn’t want to talk to Kenny at all, but rather that they didn’t have anything in common anymore, except for a few good memories that even now were tainted by the fact that Jack was high in some form or another for most of them. What would he even say in response to whatever Kenny was probably bragging about? Training camp is going great? That’s cool. I managed not to freak out for a full thirty minutes this morning after I talked to my dad on the phone. Why would Kenny even want to hear any of that anyway?
It was probably being unfair, though, and Jack knew that somewhere beneath all the self-imposed misery and anger at his new situation. They had been best friends. They had been more than that. Kenny was Jack’s first in so many different ways, it was impossible for Jack to even imagine what his life would have looked like if he hadn’t met Kenny almost three years ago now.
“Fuck me,” Jack said aloud, confronted again with truly how little time it had taken for his life to become so wildly different. Worse, he thought, or maybe better. Who knew, it was again, probably the anxiety talking.
The text message was just an emoji of a phone and a question mark, which Jack assumed meant “can we talk?” because most of Kenny’s messages these days were a variation on that exact question.
“I’ll call you after class,” he found himself typing back in response, a surprise to himself. He never called back anymore. But he was feeling vulnerable and maybe it would be okay to talk to Kenny for a while. Maybe it would be fine.
It couldn’t be worse, he supposed, than whatever was waiting for him at school.
Samwell Community College looked like four squat office buildings smushed together with stretches of grass in between each of them. It wasn’t so much ugly as it was boring and bland, and possibly perfect therefore. Jack adjusted the straps of his backpack so it sat a little better on his back and walked purposefully towards the North building, where his first ever college class was located. He knew he was absolutely imagining that people were staring at him and whispering about him, but knowing that didn’t much help the anxiety he’d already felt before he’d even left the car in the parking garage. “No one is looking, no one even knows you, you’re not unique, you’re just a stupid freshman,” he started to say quietly, before realizing that people were probably going to stare even more at the guy talking aloud to himself.
“Pardonay moi, bro,” said a tall brown-haired guy with an impressive flow and a ridiculous mustache, in a terrible French accent. “Your glorious physique is kinda blockin my way to Comp 101.”
“Sorry,” Jack said, barely above a whisper against the sudden dryness of his mouth. He coughed and then stepped to the side away from the glass double-doors. “Sorry, eh,” he repeated, louder this time, although probably the guy thought he was nuts and shouldn’t have bothered.
“No worries, my guy! Name’s Shitty Knight, and whomst might yourself be?”
Jack frowned. “Shitty?”
Shitty Knight laughed, and Jack really wanted to think it was meanly, but it didn’t really sound that way. “Your name’s Shitty too? Rad,” Shitty chirped, before he reached out and gently slugged Jack in the arm. “Wanna try again?”
“Jack. I’m, euh, I’m Jack.” It sounded weak to Jack’s own ears, but Shitty only smiled and slugged him in the arm again, and it was so like every hockey player Jack had ever met, that he felt more at ease than he had in a long time. “Watch the goods,” he added dryly, tensing and flexing his biceps when Shitty went in for a third punch.
“Well aren’t you a fuckin beaut, my bro,” Shitty laughed, rubbing his fake-bruised knuckles. “All right, well I gotta head in, but see ya around campus?”
“Wait, um, you said, euh, you said Comp 101?” Jack asked quickly, heart racing a little.
“Yup. You too? With, uh—” Shitty pulled a wrinkled sheet of paper out of the single composition notebook he carried and consulted it for a moment “—Moran?”
“Room 348,” Jack confirmed, and the relief that surged through him at maybe, possibly making a friend, or at least someone to talk to a little, was immense.
“Sw’awesome! Onward!” Shitty said, pulling the handle and swinging the door wide, then indicating for Jack to head in first.
“Sw—sw’awesome,” Jack repeated, a little shy, but—happy.
By the time they had reached room 348, Jack had got Shitty’s entire life story, including what led him to Samwell instead of one of the many, many prestigious universities his grades and his parents’ wealth could have got him into. “You get to a point, man, where you just, fuck, you don’t want to follow the expected path, ya know?” Shitty’d said, sounding entirely too world-weary for a teenager who hadn’t tried to kill himself several times before he’d even turned eighteen. “Their money is great and all, but like fuck, I don’t need that shit to get where I wanna go…wherever the fuck that is, haaaa!”
Jack understood that feeling more than most kids his age, but class had begun before Jack could commiserate, and when it had finished, the moment had passed enough for Jack to begin feeling self-conscious again. Shitty didn’t share Jack’s next course, which was Bio 101, and he’d dipped out with a wave, saying he’d see Jack around campus or at the very least on Wednesday morning for Comp again. They didn’t exchange numbers yet, but it was a start. Jack had thought he’d manage to make it through his two years at Samwell without talking to anyone other than his teachers, so he was already out ahead.
He had about forty-five minutes before Bio began, which wasn’t nearly enough to drive home, but was too much to walk straight over to the East building and find himself a seat in the lab, so he headed idly to the library on the lowest level of the North building to find a quiet place to hang out until it was time.
He could call Kenny, he knew. He said he would, and with one class down and himself no more the worse for wear, he supposed he was feeling okay enough to actually do it. (Maybe if he was lucky, Kent would be busy doing NHL things and not have time to talk.) With a sigh, he took his phone out, pulled up Kenny’s number and hit dial before he could talk himself out of it.
“Hey college boy,” Kenny said, picking up on the second ring.
“Barely college,” Jack responded immediately, somehow already both on the defensive and tired. “Baby college.”
“More college than I’ve ever had, so you got me there, Zimms,” Kenny replied, and fuck, it already sounded like he was trying to tread lightly. Like Jack needed to be treated with kid-gloves.
“This is why I don’t want to fucking talk to you, Parse.” The insult flew out of Jack’s mouth before he could even think about it, and he immediately wished he could take it back because it wasn’t even true. Well, it was mostly untrue.
Kenny didn’t say anything for a long enough moment that Jack almost ended the call, but then, he said quietly, “Do you really not want to talk to me?”
“No,” Jack answered. “I mean, no, I do want to talk to you.”
“Because I…well, I just…”
“I want to talk to you,” Jack repeated. Kenny sighed down the phone, and Jack bit back a sigh of his own. “I want to talk to you, Kenny.”
“So, um,” Kenny started then, after a moment of just breathing at each other, “how was your first class?”
Jack bit down on his lip to keep himself from snapping that he didn’t want to talk about school, but as the only other topic of conversation would then likely be hockey or whatever was left of his and Kenny’s relationship, and he absolutely didn’t want to talk about either of those, it looked like that was all he had to offer. “Not bad. Felt like high school, I guess. I might have, euh, met someone—made a friend, I mean.”
“Wow, all by yourself?”
It was an obvious chirp, the lowest-hanging fruit, and it stung more than it probably should have for the number of times Kenny or his parents or teammates or anyone had made it. “Yeah, and I didn’t even have to buy him drugs or get wasted to do it. Amazing, huh?” Jack said dryly.
“I was just kidd—”
“—I know. Hilarious as always, Parse.”
Jack had to put the phone down from his ear and breathe through the rush of feeling that flooded him at hearing those words.
Fuck, but he was so exhausted with apologies. In the aftermath of the end of his life as he’d known it, all he’d heard for months were apologies. From his father for pushing him too hard, from his mother for not pushing enough, from coaches, from teammates, from everyone who thought that they’d failed him somehow by not doing enough or doing too much, and nobody seemed to understand that it wasn’t fucking about them, not at all. Even his own pitiful apologies to himself or to other people felt hollow and pointless. What really was there to be sorry for?
Sometimes, in his lowest moments, Jack thought that the only thing he was sorry for was that he hadn’t succeeded at dying.
But he drew himself up and out of those moments. He had his coping mechanisms. He used one now.
Putting the phone back to his ear, he said quietly, “I’m not doing okay right now.”
Kenny was quiet, but then he said, steadfast in a way Jack almost never felt for himself, “Would it be better for me to hang up or do you want to keep talking?”
Jack closed his eyes and leaned back against the bench. He concentrated on his beating heart and the even breathing in his ear. “Keep talking, please. I want you to keep talking to me.”
“Okay Zimms,” Kenny said softly. “I’ve got you.”