I want to see your happily ever after
That you know in your heart that you matter
That you are royalty
You're ready, born ready
All you gotta do is put one foot in front of you
-Daughter, Sleeping at Last
Game five of the Eastern Conference Finals are in Providence. Bob and Alicia are staying in a hotel, because Alicia had said,
“Jack, I love you, and I love Eric, and I am so proud of you for everything. But I have been through surly hockey players during playoffs far too many times and I am staying as far away from you as possible for the time being.”
It’s not at all convincing; Jack and Eric know they want to give Jack space. And they don’t want Eric to worry about being hospitable. He’s got bigger things on his mind, too. So Bob’s in a hotel room in Providence the night before possibly—most likely, he believes, but he knows better than to jinx anything—watching his son head to the Stanley Cup Finals.
He’s a bit emotional.
“Can you believe it?” He keeps asking Alicia. She smiles indulgently every time. She doesn’t seem as excited as Bob, and he can’t figure out why. Jack is going to play for a Stanley Cup. It’s what he’s been working toward his entire life. It’s what he was always destined for. Even if they don’t win, making it this far, especially as a rookie, puts Jack in an elite club. Bob remembers his first Conference Final, his first Cup. This is the prime of Jack’s career.
“Aren’t you excited?” Bob finally asks. Alicia looks at him for a moment without speaking.
“I’m worried,” she says.
“Well, true, there’s always the possibility—”
“Bob,” she cuts him off. “It’s not the same for Jack as it was for you. You know that.”
Bob absorbs that. “You think he won’t be able to take the pressure?” He’s tired of hearing the NHL analysts saying that, the ESPN guys who don’t even know hockey. They don’t know hockey and they certainly don’t know Jack. Alicia fixes him with a glare.
“I know he can. He’s in such a better place than he was before the draft. What I’m telling you is that you’re caught up in the excitement of playoff hockey. It was always fun for you. You love the pressure and the scrutiny. You love people doubting you and you love them depending on you. You know that’s not how it is for Jack. Nothing about this is fun for him right now.”
Bob blinks. She’s right. Of course she is. Bob has a tendency to put his blinders on when it comes to hockey. He didn’t forget Jack’s anxiety. But Jack’s been so much better lately, happier. Bob assumed it wasn’t a problem anymore.
Of course it’s still a problem. The doctors told them all along, after the overdose, that it would always be a problem. Had maybe always been a problem, but Jack had hidden it or not realized anything was wrong that he should tell anyone.
Bob swallows. “Oh.”
Alicia’s face softens. She puts her arm around his shoulders, even though she’s too small to be able to really wrap him up in her arms. She rests her head against his.
“I love that you’re so excited for him,” she says softly. “And someday in the future, he’ll be able to look back, no matter what happens with the game tomorrow and the rest of playoffs, and be happy about getting here. I just don’t think he can see that right now.”
“You’re right,” Bob says. “I just wish he could see it from our side. He’s a rookie and he’s an alternate captain leading his team to the Conference Finals! I didn’t do that. He’s better than I was.”
“Please don’t say that to him,” Alicia murmurs. “You know the comparisons are hard on him.”
“I know.” That always makes an ugly twist of guilt curl his stomach. Bob can’t do anything about that—he’s in the NHL Hall of Fame. His son playing hockey was always going to draw comparisons.
Sometimes Bob wonders if they should’ve kept Jack from hockey. He wouldn’t have had to deal with the media holding him up to Bob’s standard. But it would’ve been impossible, really. Jack loves hockey, always has. He started skating when he started walking and he started trying to shoot with Bob’s stick when he was two. Bob and Alicia never told him he couldn’t come inside until he made ten shots from different points on the ice when he was seven—that was all on his own.
“The Cup finals might be worse,” Bob says. “For his anxiety.”
“Probably,” Alicia agrees with a sigh. “But at least he deals with it better now.”
“He’s worked so hard to get here,” Bob says. He can feel himself getting choked up. It’s surprising to a lot of people, but Bob is actually a very easy crier, even worse now after retiring. It used to amuse Alicia to no end before she got used to it. “I just want him to realize how far he’s come and be proud of himself.”
Alicia smiles at him, fond at his emotion. She kisses his temple. “I don’t know if that’s in the cards right now. But I know between us and Eric, we can try to convince him.”
Bob huffs. “Eric’s probably going to have more luck.”
Alicia laughs. “I’d say so. Now let’s get to bed. We’ve got a long day tomorrow of waiting and not eating anything because we’re too nervous.”
They go to bed, and Alicia falls right to sleep. But Bob’s gotten a bit out of practice with hotel rooms. There was a time in his life when he could navigate any hotel room in North America with his eyes closed, but he’s gotten used to his own house and sleeping in his own bed. He can’t sleep.
So he’s already awake when his phone lights up at one am. Bob picks it up quickly, hoping it doesn’t wake Alicia. She’s very grumpy when she’s tired. Jack got that from her. Bob’s commiserated with Eric about it more than once.
The text is from Eric, actually. Is Jack over there with y’all?
Bob’s stomach drops. He goes to the bathroom and hits the call button.
“He’s not here,” Eric says when he picks up, no greeting or anything. He sounds frantic. “I thought he was in bed, but I took the trash out and his car’s gone. He’s not here. And he’s not answering his phone.”
“Okay, stay calm,” Bob instructs, even though he feels like his heart is trying to climb out his throat. His insides are seizing up, remembering that panicked call from Jack’s coach telling him an ambulance had to pick Jack up, Jack wasn’t breathing, Jack might…
“He had an anxiety attack earlier,” Eric reveals, voice thick. “I thought he was okay. He helped me make the pregame sandwiches. He—he talked to Shitty and Lardo on the phone, and Ransom and Holster were texting him. He was tense, of course, but I thought we were okay.”
“Eric,” Bob soothes. “I think I know where he is. I’m going to check, and I’ll let you know when I find him, okay? Is anyone else in town to come sit with you? What about Lardo and Shitty?”
Eric sniffs. “I’ll—I’ll call Lardo.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know as soon as I find him.”
Bob pulls on a pair of pants and a Falconer’s jacket. He kisses Alicia’s forehead and leaves her a note on the hotel stationery just in case she wakes up. Then he drives to the arena. Jack’s truck is in the back parking lot, right by the players’ entrance. Bob pulls out his phone to text Eric, but then stops. He wants to see Jack first.
He needs to make sure Jack’s okay.
Bob’s not sure he’ll be able to get in without some kind of pass, but the door’s open. That seems like an oversight. He checks the locker room first, but Jack’s not in there. Bob walks through the hallway to the bench. The ice is waiting, fresh and clean and painted.
Jack’s sitting in the first row of seats behind the bench. He’s just staring out at the ice. He frowns when he sees Bob.
“Ah shit, did I freak Bits out?”
“Yeah,” Bob admits. There’s no use lying about it. Jack rubs a hand down his face.
“I’m such an idiot. I didn’t tell him I was leaving and I turned off my phone.”
Bob sits down beside him. He texts Eric, found him at the arena, will send him home asap. He gets some kind of weird face made from lines back. He doesn’t have time to decipher that—he’s got Jack to focus on right now.
Bob doesn’t say anything, just looks out at the ice with Jack. A fresh sheet of ice always has a pull over Bob. He knows exactly how his skates would sound sliding through that ice.
“I’m scared,” Jack finally says, voice so small it’s painful. Bob wants to throw his arms around his son, block the world out and shield him from the criticism and the attention. He bites down on the impulse.
“I know,” he says gently instead. “And that’s okay.”
“I don’t want to mess this up.”
Bob looks over at Jack. Jack is strong, broad. His beard is full and he has lines around his eyes when he smiles, not that he does that enough. It’s jarring, sometimes, seeing a grown man when Bob expects to see his little boy running after him with floppy hair and untied shoelaces.
Bob didn’t retire until Jack was nearly ten, so he missed a lot of the earliest milestones. He was in Phoenix when Jack took his first steps, Philadelphia for Jack’s first word, St. Louis when Jack lost his first tooth. Sometimes it seems like Bob missed Jack’s whole childhood, like he blinked and Jack was leaving for the Q, blinked again and Jack was leaving for Samwell, opened his eyes and found an NHL player where he thought he left a peewee.
Jack’s not a child anymore, but he’s still a bit of a kid. He’s twenty-five, and he’s a rookie, at any rate. This is his first Conference Finals. Not a milestone in any parenting book, but a first nonetheless. Bob missed the other stuff, but at least he’s here for this.
Bob puts his arm around Jack’s shoulders. “Jack,” he says softly. “I know I can’t make your anxiety go away. I would give anything to do that. And I know it doesn’t really help to say everyone’s nervous before such a big game.” Bob sighs. “I’m not sure what I can say that will be any help. You know I’m proud of you, right?”
Jack nods, but he’s still solemn, looking straight ahead at the ice with his jaw clenched. “One shift at a time, period by period,” Jack says mechanically. “I need to stop getting ahead of myself and thinking too much.”
Bob huffs. “Sorry, son, but you’ve always been one to think too much.”
Jack’s mouth twists wryly. “Yeah. It hasn’t exactly turned out well for me in the past.”
Bob gives him a gentle shake. “I don’t know if this is a good thing to say to you right now,” he starts slowly. “But I hope you take a minute to look around at where you are, Jack. This is what you’ve always worked for. And I don’t mean that like you have to keep being careful or you could ruin it all. You can’t, Jack. You’re here already. No matter what happens, you made it. I don’t want you to let the fear stop you from realizing that. I want you to enjoy it.”
“I want to enjoy it,” Jack whispers. “I’m trying.”
Bob laughs a little. “Trying to enjoy something might make it hard to actually enjoy it.”
Jack almost smiles. “I guess that’s true.”
Bob leans back in the seat a bit. “You’re an incredible hockey player, Jack. You’ve put in the time and the work. You’re ready for this. You have to trust yourself and your teammates.”
Jack nods. “I know.”
Bob smiles at him. “You’re an incredible man, too, you know. If you could see yourself from my point of view…I’m not just proud of your hockey. You took yourself out of a bad place, and you put yourself into a place that would help you grow. You found friends who make you a better person. And you work hard to take care of yourself. You’re in love, eh? You have so much that I’ve always wanted for you.”
Jack nods, eyes starting to shine. “Yeah.”
Bob moves his hand up to squeeze the back of Jack’s neck. “No matter what happens tomorrow, or any time after, you’ve earned this happiness, Jack. Remember that. Stop and look around and take it all in, okay?”
Jack wipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. It’s a Samwell sweatshirt, not a Falconer’s sweatshirt, and Bob finds that fitting. In hindsight, he’s not sure Jack would’ve made it here without Samwell.
Bob knows he didn’t handle things well after Jack’s overdose, after Jack decided to go to Samwell. Bob didn’t understand why Jack was doing it. There were still teams who wanted him after rehab, and even colleges with more established hockey programs, but Jack was adamant about Samwell. Bob had always thought Jack was punishing himself. But seeing him at graduation, with so many friends who loved him and supported him, Bob realized Jack had been rebuilding himself. Bob had been worried Jack’s hockey would suffer, but Jack left Samwell a better player and a better teammate than when he got there. He wouldn’t have been alternate captain material before Samwell, that’s for sure.
Jack could’ve written Bob off as a cliched disappointed father, taken his daddy issues and left. But he didn’t. He keeps in touch with Bob, he trusts Bob. They’ve had to work on their communication, and Bob knows he still says the wrong things sometimes, but they’re both trying. Bob’s not sure they’d have that without Samwell, either.
“Now,” Bob says. “I think we’d better get you to bed. You’ve got a game tomorrow.” Jack smiles. That was what Bob always said the night before a game when Jack was a kid. Now, Bob adds, “And I don’t want to deal with Eric’s wrath if I don’t return you soon.”
Jack’s smile morphs, goes so soft around the edges Bob almost feels like he’s intruding. “He made pregame sandwiches for all the guys and the coaching staff,” Jack reveals, laughing.
“He takes good care of you,” Bob says.
Jack ducks his head. He’s blushing a little. It makes Bob’s heart do a funny jolt in his chest. On the one hand, it feels like another way Jack grew up without Bob seeing it. But on the other hand, Bob wants to jump for joy. His son is so in love, and he’s loved back. There’s a very large possibility Jack and Eric will be together for the rest of their lives, and Bob is so happy that Jack found someone so wonderful after everything he’s been through.
“Make sure you take good care of him back,” Bob reminds him.
“I do,” Jack promises. “I do my best, at least.”
They leave the arena. Jack looks back at the ice once, but he follows Bob out. They go back out to the parking lot and Jack surprises Bob with a hug.
“Thank you,” he murmurs in Bob’s ear. Bob won’t even try to pretend the tears in his eyes are from the wind. He squeezes Jack.
“I love you, Jack,” he says. He doesn’t say it enough, never has.
Jack buries his face in Bob’s shoulder, and for a second it feels like he’s a kid again, like Bob is big and strong enough to fix all his hurts, protect him from anything bad. Bob sends up a prayer or a thought, puts it out to the universe, that he will trade anything to keep Jack safe. He’s done it before. He used to think it didn’t work, but then again—Jack lived through it, and he got here now.
“I love you, too,” Jack says.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Bob says. “After the game.” Jack will have morning skate, and team meetings, and a nap, and press, and…the list always seems to go on forever on game day, especially for playoffs. “Good luck. Remember, trust yourself and your team.”
“Okay. Thanks, Papa.” Jack takes a deep breath and gets in his truck. Bob watches him. Jack waves one last time before he drives off. Bob smiles to himself as he gets in the rental car. He knows everyone, including Jack, has always thought that he wanted Jack to succeed, to play hockey, to win games. It’s not untrue. But it’s not Bob’s main concern. Bob just wants his son to be happy, and he knows that he is. Jack is happy and loved and stable.
Bob can go back to the hotel and sleep easy. Whatever happens tomorrow, Jack is ready. And no matter what, Jack will rise above.