A/N: In case you didn't read the summary all the way, please note that this fic gets into body image issues in detail. Please also note that I'm autistic and Jack's experience mirrors my own in various ways; I'm not guessing randomly at what that's like. Title from Grace Petrie's song "You Build a Wall."

Dear baby Jack,

You deserve good things. You haven't done anything to earn good things, and you're going to obsess over that later, but not having earned them is the point. That's why I'm writing these letters. Because you deserve good things even when you haven't done anything to earn them. It's not that you should never have to work for anything or treat people well or contribute to society or whatever. It's just that you deserve, baseline, to be okay and be loved, even when you don't give 110% of what you're capable of. Even when you don't give anything at all, like now, when you're a baby. You're a person and you deserve to be treated like one, and I'm sorry for how long it's going to take to believe that.

You're going to shit in the Stanley Cup. You're going to be embarrassed about that for a while, but it's okay. It's actually pretty funny. You're going to be pretty ugly by conventional standards, and that's okay too. You're not at an age where you should have to conform to any sort of standards or feel embarrassed about anything you do.

You're in for a really hard time, and I'm sorry about that. I'm not going to tell you that it's worth it or it makes you stronger or whatever. A lot of what's coming for you is absolute bullshit. But you can get through it. The tunnel is long—it's so fucking long—but there is light at the end that is not the front of an oncoming train. We can do this, okay?

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear one-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're an ugly baby on the cusp of becoming an ugly toddler. You've shit in the Stanley Cup once and you're going to do it again this year. And you know what? That doesn't matter. You deserve good things.

I hope you eat foods you like and I hope you enjoy learning to talk and I hope you love Maman and Papa. There's nothing I want for you at this age but happiness. Things should be simple at your age. I really hope they are.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear two-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're an ugly toddler and the only person to have shit in the Stanley Cup twice and Maman doesn't know what to do with you half the time and you still deserve good things.

What you deserve, aside from love and support and all that other shit that everyone deserves, is an autism diagnosis. I am so fucking furious that the diagnosis came at age 19 instead of age two or age five or something reasonable like that. I used to be mad at Maman and Papa for it, but now I'm just mad at, like, society. For not teaching them what to look for. For not teaching any of the doctors or teachers what to look for. Of course, if you'd gotten diagnosed at age two you might have wound up in some horrible "therapy" that did way more harm than good, so maybe the way it turned out is for the best. I'm still angry, though.

I'd apologize for sending you such an angry letter, but I'm not actually sending this and you're actually me only 23 years apart, so I think it's okay. Just remember: you deserve good things.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear three-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're a chubby kid who doesn't always know the difference between French and English, and you keep confusing your American grandparents. You're just learning to skate and it's equal parts frustrating and thrilling, or at least that's how I remember it. You want to be just like your Papa, and you have absolutely no concept of what that means or how much it's going to cost you.

Good. You shouldn't have any concept of that, not yet. (Maybe not ever, but there won't be much to be done about it, someday.)

I hope you like preschool. I hope you learn the difference between "chien" and "dog." I hope you keep telling jokes in French that only make sense in English and vice versa. I hope skating is more thrilling than frustrating. I hope you love the ice, for all that it may not always love you back.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear four-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're going to burn your hand on a hot cookie sheet this year and only Vitamin E and a whole lot of luck is going to keep it from scarring. Your speech is a little bit less of a bilingual mess than it was when you were three, but it's still somewhat garbled. You're still chubby, and it'll be a while yet before you grow out of that. And you deserve good things.

You've never had a friend, and it'll be a while before that changes, and someone really should have noticed sooner that you're autistic, but I suppose anger about that now won't really change anything. I'm glad that you're happy enough playing with your action figures and your pucks by yourself every day for hours on end. It makes me sad to think about you doing that, but it would make me sadder if you hadn't enjoyed it.

I'm glad you have skating. You're getting good at it, and you'll be able to play hockey next year. Well, for certain values of "playing hockey," anyway. The ice won't always love you, bud, but you love it enough to make it your home anyway. I can't tell if that's actually deep or just something Shitty would say while high, but hopefully it means something.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear five-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're going to play your first season of hockey this year and you're going to be the only kid who understands the concept of a position, other than the goalie, who's nine and plays for a team of older boys and is just helping your team out. One of the defensive players on your team (I'd say "D-men" but you're all literally five years old) is going to try to make snow angels on the ice every single practice and game and you're going to be so mad at him that you could scream. Actually, I'm pretty sure you really will scream at him. Oops. And you still deserve good things, though it's also starting to become important that you do good things yourself, as well.

You still don't have any friends, and maybe that's not surprising given that you're the type of kid who screams at another kid making snow angels on the ice, but you deserve love, including from people outside your family. You deserve to learn how to have good relationships with your peers. You deserve people to play with on the playground during recess. At least you'll like the school part of kindergarten. I'm sorry that the social part of it is so miserable. You really do deserve an autism diagnosis.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear six-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're still a chubby kid even though you're playing your second season of hockey this year, and your metabolism is honestly a little baffling, because you're such a picky eater that you don't eat half of what you're given and somehow you're still a little chunk. You're starting to be aware of the fact that Maman is thin and Papa is muscular and you are neither of those things, and I ache for you so, so much as you make that realization.

You start first grade this year, and I'm so glad you're a smart kid. Maybe that sounds bad, like I'm saying you wouldn't deserve good things if you weren't book-smart, but that's not what I mean. I just mean that social stuff is so hard for you, and that's going to matter more to you someday than it does now, and even now I'm pretty sure it matters some. I'm glad that the academic part of school, at least, is easier for you. And I'm proud of you, kid. Adults joke about how easy elementary school is, but I remember the struggle to learn to write legibly and to read and all the rest of it. It was a whole new skill set, and you worked so hard to pick it up, and you managed it so well. (Considering that you're me, this may sound like bragging, but whatever.)

I wish you had friends. I wish you had a proper diagnosis. I'm so sorry I can't reach back to you and give you those things. I'm proud of you for doing so well in school despite not having friends and despite not understanding your own brain. I'm proud of you for leading your team in points and for understanding what it meant to be a forward when no one else on your team stayed in position. You're doing so well, bud.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear seven-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're a friendless, chunky kid who gets good grades and is "mature for his age" and "such a delight to have in class" and all those little code phrases that mean that nobody knows what the hell to do with you and you're going to wind up diagnosed with something later. Sorry, I think it's probably obvious that I'm bitter. I want to be clear that I'm not mad at you; you're a child, and a pretty young one at that, no matter how much you want to be a "big kid," and the school system is failing you miserably even as you refuse to fail anything it throws at you. You're spectacular and the world sucks and I'm sorry.

Your hockey teammates are starting to understand the game a bit, and I'm happy for you on that front at least. Winning feels good. You're a little insufferable, I must admit. You think you know everything, and I'm sorry, kid, but you just don't. It's going to take you a long time to grow out of that, and I feel bad for the people around you because of it. The world owed you better, but you owed your teammates better, too. Those things can both be true.

I want to help you figure things out. I want to whack you upside the head and tell you to be nicer to people. I want to scream at your teachers until they understand that you're not just another student, that you need different things than they're used to kids needing. I'm sorry for not being able to do any of those things. All I can do is write it all down, and ache, and try to care for myself in ways no one properly cared for you.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear eight-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. If I remember correctly, this is the year when you have a special interest in whales—the first time you've had a special interest that isn't hockey, at least to my memory. I wish you all the books about cetaceans you can possibly find (and I wish you'd remember to return your library books by their due dates, even though Maman and Papa have the money for fines). You may be friendless and not particularly cute by conventional standards, but whales will never disappoint you, and I hope you enjoy your trips to the coast and that whale-watching boat ride, even though some absolute nincompoop decided to make the barf bags clear for some horrid reason.

You're going to get teased this year, a lot more than before, and I'm pretty sure I'm a lot more angry about it now than you're going to be as it happens. There is nothing wrong with you. You're not worth less than other people because you're awkward or chubby. Neither of those things is a result of your choices, and neither of those things is a bad thing to be. The teachers should have intervened, it would have been fine to tell your parents you were being bullied, and you still have the same infinite value as every other human being. I'm so sorry about the way the other kids treat you.

I'm glad you're good at school, not because it makes you worth more but because it's something that makes you feel good. I'm glad you're good at hockey and your team is actually figuring itself out. I'm glad your team is nicer to you than your classmates are. (I'm glad you're nicer to your teammates than you were last year, even if the change is pretty small.)

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear nine-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. It is absolutely heinous that a tabloid reporter is going to suggest swapping you out for a child model in a photo shoot Maman does this year. Maman is going to add that tabloid to the already long list of news outlets neither she nor Papa will ever work with again because those outlets have been terrible to you. I'm sorry that such a list exists. I'm sorry that it's going to get longer as time goes on. None of this is your fault. Your body is allowed to be the shape it is. You are allowed to be awkward. Neither of these is a moral failing.

What is a moral failing is the way you talk to your teammates, and the way you talk to your parents about your teammates while your teammates are within earshot. You think you're hot shit, kid, and it's kind of a little bit starting to be true, but being a jackass about it isn't going to solve anything. Hockey is just a game to some people, even if it's starting to be your life, and you have no right to expect a bunch of other nine-year-olds to be as dedicated to it as you are. Honestly, you should honestly be a little less dedicated yourself, at least for a little while. Maybe then you could make some friends among your teammates.

This would, of course, be easier if you had an autism diagnosis, or if you'd ever had a friend before. Lacking these things is not your fault. You could still do better with your teammates, but the school system and your classmates could be doing better with you as well, and I'm sorry they're not. I wish the world were better to you, bud.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 10-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're going to grow out of your baby fat this year just in time to grow into your awkward phase, and I'm so sorry, mostly because by now it bothers you, a lot. Obviously the braces are necessary and they're worth it in the long run, but I wish there were another way to straighten your teeth, because it's no fun to go from being the chubby kid to being the first kid in your class to get braces. The other kids should stop teasing you, full stop. You don't deserve to be mocked. It's not your fault.

Your hockey is fantastic. You're still a kid, but you've got a drive and a work ethic and a level of technique that a lot of teenagers in the game are still struggling to achieve. People are saying things they shouldn't say within earshot of you because of how good you are, and you're starting to feel the pressure. I'm sorry. That sucks. I almost wish you weren't as good or as driven as you are, because you're setting yourself up for a lot of pain, but right now you're mostly still happy about hockey, and you're already starting to make some gorgeous goals.

You're also really smart, kid. I wish some of that came in the form of social skills or emotional intelligence, but I can't help but feel proud of the books you're reading these days and the conversations you're able to have with adults about said books. I know getting 96% on a test feels like a failure right now, because it's not perfect, but you're out-scoring most if not all of your classmates and it's pretty impressive, especially given the way hockey dominates your time. You've got more than one thing to be proud of, more than one thing you're good at.

I'm sorry about the bullying. I wish you had friends, and I'm especially sorry that you're starting to feel lonely in a way you didn't when you were younger. I wish you could either go back to being the little kid content to play with his action figures all alone, or fast-forward to the amazing friendships you're going to experience in college, but unfortunately there's no way out but through. It wouldn't be tattling to tell Maman and Papa about this, but I know you won't believe me when I tell you that.

Despite how badly your classmates are treating you, and despite the way adults forget themselves around you and start talking about your future in ways that aren't healthy for you to hear, I do wish you were nicer to your teammates. They're not as good at hockey as you are. That's going to be true of most people you meet in your life. That's what happens when you're good at something—most people won't be as good at it as you are. And guess what? They still have worth. They're still human. You should still treat them accordingly.

But mostly I'm sorry that you're so awkward and lonely. I wish it were better.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 11-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. And I really, really wish I could say I'm proud of you for making a friend this year. Well, I guess I am proud of you for making a friend. No matter how it's going to turn out, this is a big step for you. It's just that Charlie is going to be awful for you. He already is. He's jealous of your hockey, of who your dad is, of all the attention you get. And his hockey is good enough that it makes you start to doubt yourself, and Charlie has absolutely no interest in reassuring you that you're good enough. It's going to be ugly, and you're going to hang on for way too long because you've never had a friend before. I'm sorry. It's going to suck.

You're going to have your first crush this year, on a girl named Alice who's in your class at school. You honestly could have done a lot worse for a first crush. She's nice and smart and sweet and pretty. She's also way too quiet for the two of you to ever have a non-awkward conversation, but that's fine. You're not picking a life partner here, and you're jaded enough to know that, even at 11.

Your hockey is impressive, and I'm sorry for the ways Charlie is going to make you doubt that. The pressure is starting to get intense, and it's inhumanely early in your life for that, no matter how old you feel like you are at the moment. You're a kid and you deserve to have fun, and you're also a skilled player who deserves to feel secure in that skill.

You're a smart kid and you're starting to really love history. I think this is your second non-hockey special interest. Maman is working less these days, and you spend a lot of your spare energy convincing her to take you to historical sites on the rare occasions when you don't have practice or a game. I'm glad you're doing that. In just a couple years, you won't be living at home anymore, and even before that, school is going to start getting harder fast, as is hockey.

I'm glad you're standing out a little less at school, now that other kids are starting to get braces too and now that you have a friend. I think being friendless was honestly better than having a friend as bad as Charlie, but hey, it's a change of pace. (Why am I trying to be an optimist about this? Both situations fucking suck and you deserve better.)

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 12-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. And oh, bud, I'm sorry about this year. Charlie continues to be awful to you, and now you're crushing on Guillaume, too. You're terrified that there's something wrong with you, that you're doing something wrong, that you're broken, that you're gross. None of your fears are true. There is nothing wrong with you. Having a crush on a boy is not wrong. It's not a bad thing for you to do. You're not broken. You're not gross. You're just bisexual, and that's perfectly fine, no matter what Charlie or Gillaume or any other boy says in the locker room or at school or on the ice or anywhere else.

It's no consolation, really, but you're going to get your braces off this year. You'll be in a full-time retainer for the next year, which isn't really better and might actually be worse from the standpoint of trying not to draw attention to yourself. But you've got straight teeth and your interactions with orthodontia are coming to an end, at least for a while. Your awkward phase—or at least this part of your awkward phase—is ending. That might bear a little bit of celebration, now with popcorn again.

I wish you were nicer to people. I've given you a lot of passes because of the bullying and the lack of proper diagnoses, but kid, more people would want to be friends with you if you weren't such an utter jackass. You need to stop bragging about your hockey every second of every day. I understand that part of the reason you're doing it is because you secretly doubt you're any good, because Charlie has gotten in your head, but you need to shut the fuck up, and you need to stop being so hard on your teammates.

You still deserve good things, though. Even when you're a jackass, I'm still convinced of that, and hot damn am I grateful for the therapy that's gotten me here.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 13-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. Charlie isn't good for you and I wish you'd realize that, but unfortunately your taste in people is going to be abysmal until your early twenties. I wish you'd figure out that if you hate being around someone and you're constantly scared of what they're going to say or do, they're not your friend. It's not your fault you haven't realized this—you really should have had more experience having friends by now, but unfortunately you grew up undiagnosed and without the help that would have allowed you to thrive.

I'm pretty sure you're going to have your first panic attack this year. You've always been an anxious kid, of course—it'll take until multiple years into adulthood to realize that all those stomach aches weren't a physical problem but rather were attempts to express your anxiety—but it's starting to get worse. I hate to inform you that you're not at the bottom of the hole yet and won't be for a while. You've got a lot further to fall. I wish you'd work up the courage to tell Maman or Papa rather than taking another two years to convince yourself that adult intervention is necessary, but who knows, maybe that would have resulted in you getting meds earlier and overdosing earlier as a result. (Spoiler alert, I guess.)

You're still smart, and you're still good at school, and I'm so proud of the history project you did on World War II this year. It's going to inspire some of your projects in college, because you're well and truly settled into history as a special interest at this point. You're good at math, too, even though it's not nearly as interesting to you, and I'm proud of you for trying so hard and doing so well at a class you find fundamentally boring.

I'm pretty sure 13-year-olds can only be good looking to other 13-year-olds, but you're genuinely a lot less ugly than you used to be. As I've said in other letters, this has nothing to do with your worth as a person, but I know being average looking is going to ease your way, as compared to being ugly. Of course you have acne. You're 13. It's fine. But you're lean now, bordering on gangly, and you're done with your retainer and you're starting to really look like your parents' kid, especially your father's. It's less fodder for bullies, and that's good.

I know your arrogance is mostly born of insecurity and anxiety, but you need to shut up about other people's hockey. You're not team captain. There is no team captain. You're not responsible for these kids and you'll get into the Q when it's time. You're going to be fine, and your teammates are going to be fine even if they're not on the same path you're on. So stop being so mean to them.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 14-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. And as much as that fight with Charlie hurts, as awful as it is to lose your only friend, I'm so glad you're done with that friendship. He was so bad for you. I wish I could tell you, "You'll rediscover your sense of worth in X amount of time," but the truth is you never had a sense of worth independent of your accomplishments, so you can't rediscover it. Charlie tore you down, but there's nothing to rebuild because not much was built to begin with. Also, things are going to get worse from here for multiple years before they get better.

I wish your response to losing your only friend weren't to get even more intense and judgmental about hockey. I wish you'd realize that some of your teammates are actually much better players than you give them credit for. I wish you'd take some time to breathe every once in a while, and I wish you'd actually rest on days set aside for that. You get injured this year in some ways you wouldn't have if you'd just taken a break. You're also still definitely a jackass to your teammates, and I really wish you weren't.

I know you'd hoped that having an awful time in middle school would mean that high school would be better, and I'm sorry for the ways that hasn't been true. You're a good student, and I'm glad that school comes semi-naturally to you, but you're back to being friendless and now you've gotten a taste, however awful, of what having a friend is like, and I'm sorry that now you're alone again. You're significantly less of a jackass to your classmates than you are to your teammates, and your classmates should treat you better in turn. They bully you less than they used to, at least overtly, but it's still not okay the way they freeze you out.

I'm sorry about the panic attacks. I'm sorry that you have no one to talk to about those—that you haven't yet worked up the courage to tell your parents or find a professional, and that you don't have any friends your own age to sit with you in the depth of the awfulness. I'm so sorry.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 15-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You deserve good things and I'm so sorry for what's coming.

You're going to get diagnosed with anxiety this year, not of your own initiative but because you're going to have a panic attack at school and your teacher is going to call your parents and tell them about it. That whole situation is going to suck a lot, but the meds you're going to get as a result—well, those are going to help. For a while, at least. The psychiatrist really should figure out you're autistic, but somehow he's going to miss that. I'm sorry.

It's your last year at home before the Q and you're going to spend it freaking the fuck out. I wish I could go back in time and tell you that hockey isn't everything, but I have no idea how I'd make you believe me. Some things you just have to learn by experience rather than by being told, and I think this is one of them.

Your hockey is good enough. Your academics are good enough, even though you're paying less attention to school than you used to. You're going to be fine, eventually, and frankly you could maybe be fine a lot sooner if you'd stop freaking out. I know you can't help it, though. I just wish there were a healthy way for you to calm down. (I also continue to wish you'd be nicer to the people around you, but at this point your intensity is a lot less misplaced than it was when you were eight.)

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 16-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things.

I don't know what else to say. I have a million points I want to make and also nothing whatsoever to say to you and I don't know how both of those things are possible at the same time. I have played back this year of my life so many times and never figured out what I could realistically have done differently to avoid sending me hurtling toward an overdose the night before the draft. (There I go with the spoilers again.)

I don't know what to say about Parse. It's not nearly as cut-and-dried as it was with Charlie. I think there were times when Parse might have been good for you—or, at least, it might have been good for you to know Parse, play on Parse's line, experience a peer with that level of hockey ability, and meet another queer male hockey player. I also know, without a doubt, that there were times when he was bad to you and for you.

You trusted him too much. I don't blame you for that, not when you'd only ever had one friend before and you'd never felt known the way he made you feel. But you definitely trusted him too much, and he used the information you gave him to hurt you whenever you fought. That probably sounds normal, but he always went for the absolute lowest blow in a way that I think most people would have avoided. In a way that your college friends would never dream of doing.

A large part of me wishes it hadn't been as electric as it was, playing with him and partying with him and having him in your life. A large part of me wishes it hadn't been the best damn thing you'd felt up until that point. A large part of me wishes he hadn't sometimes made you so happy, so arm-flappingly ecstatic. I think it would have hurt less if he hadn't.

Even so, part of me is happy for you. You're playing with far better teammates than you had up until that point—a list that starts but does not end with Parse—and it's allowing you to make the kind of plays you've been dreaming about making for years. You're partying, which isn't healthy but fuck if it isn't a nice damn change of pace from the loneliness that followed you for most of the first 15 years of your life. You're not healthy and you're still freaking the fuck out, but there's a goodness to this time too, even if it's sharp and twisted.

I hurt for both of us.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 17-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things.

Congratulations on losing your virginity, I guess? I wish the sex hadn't been so good, honestly. Because it was amazing—only because you were 17 and hormonal and so fucking horny, but still. You feel good when you're with Parse, in any and every possible way. There's pleasure and calm and satiation and ecstasy and excitement and hope and the list goes on. At least, the list goes on when it's a good day.

When it's a bad day—and there are a lot of those—there's pain and fear and despair and jealousy and desperation and emptiness, so much fucking emptiness. You feel awful in ways you don't know how to combat, in ways that winning can't fix, in ways that sex can't make you forget. There are going to be a lot more bad days, and I'm sorry.

You're lying to everyone at this point, and I wish you wouldn't. You've already started taking your meds in ways you shouldn't, and if you had to do that I wish you'd at least have let someone know. I wish you'd talked to your parents or your coaches and told them you couldn't handle the Q, actually. But I know you couldn't have lived with yourself if you'd done that. I know that you did your best, that you got through the only way you knew how.

You think your social skills are improving, and I hate to break it to you, but they're not. Or maybe they are, a little, but not nearly as much as you think. Being able to interact with other hockey players while high is not the same as being able to interact with most people while sober. You're going to have to get to know yourself better before you figure out how to really improve your social skills, and that's going to involve an autism diagnosis, and it's a fucking travesty that you've had a psychiatrist for two years now and still don't have a proper diagnosis.

I wish you felt better. I wish you were more honest about how hard things are for you and what you're doing to survive. I wish anyone had ever had the first clue what to do with you, even just once in your life up until this point.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 18-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. I really, really wish you believed that.

A lot of this year is lost to prescription drug abuse, honestly. I have less to tell you than I've had at other times, because I don't fucking know what you're going through. I know it feels like too much and you're doing what you can to survive in a world that, on the one hand, you've been raised to inhabit and that, on the other hand, isn't set up to welcome people like you—not queer people, not autistic people, not people with anxiety.

Here are some things you won't believe now but that I want you to hear anyway so you can start believing them when that's possible for you: your worth is not defined by your performance—not at hockey, not at academics, not at socializing, not at anything. You have inherent value because you're a human being. Other people also have inherent value, to exactly the same extent you have it. Other people's value doesn't depend on their performance, or whether they care about hockey, or anything else. You are worthy of friends but not entitled to them. You are worthy of love, but no one (other than perhaps your parents) is bound to love you, especially not if you treat them badly. Things will get better and you will find love again, love that hurts less.

I don't know what else you need, because you haven't allowed me to remember you. Whatever you need, though, I hope you get it. You're about as far down now as you ever will be. The trek up will be long and hard and full of fits and starts, but it will begin soon and it will be worthwhile. I just wish it weren't necessary.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

_X_

Dear 19-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You don't think the autism diagnosis is a good thing now, but it actually is one of the best things that ever happens to you. You're terrified right now that no one will ever want to be friends with you or live with you or play on a team with you or hire you or date you or marry you. All of that is false. (Well, I can't vouch for someone wanting to marry you, but the rest of it is false and things look promising on the someday-getting-married front, though I should go knock on some wood.) The diagnosis is actually going to empower you to advocate for yourself because now you have a framework to understand your own brain and a vocabulary to express what you need and why you need it. It should have come sooner, but it's good that it's coming now, at least.

Rehab kind of sucks, and I'm sorry about that. You need it. I think you realize that by now. But you won't be stuck there forever, no matter how long the days feel. You're going to get through this and you're going to make so many amazing friends in just a few years, and right now you just need to get through this. And I don't mean that you need to "earn" getting to make friends someday or some shit—I mean you literally need to be in rehab, both physically and psychologically. You need to unlearn the terrible patterns you got into the past few years, and you need to figure out what pushed you into such a deep hole that you only barely avoided drowning in. You need to be honest, with yourself and your doctors and Maman and Papa.

Talking to Maman and Papa is probably the hardest part of all of this. They didn't fail you as badly as you're going to accuse them of having done, but they weren't perfect, either. Even if they had no way of knowing you're austistic, they shouldn't have pushed you as hard as they did. They should have made it clearer that their love for you really is unconditional. And it is, but it hasn't felt like that in a long time and that's mostly on them, not on you. That doesn't excuse the way you yell at them and some of the accusations you throw their way, but they could have done better. The core of your complaint is legitimate.

That said, you will find your way to a better relationship with them than you have now. In fact, you'll find a way to a better relationship with them than you've ever had. It feels impossible right now, but you're going to learn to get along with them and love them and feel and appreciate their love and support more than you ever have. They're going to learn to love and support you in ways that feel good to you and to remind you that you never have to go through anything alone. It's going to be hard, and it's going to take so much therapy, but it's going to be so worth it.

Things are going to get better from here, I promise.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

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Dear 20-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. I'm so proud of you for taking the coaching gig. I know it feels like a small thing now, but it's such a good way for you to return to the ice without it being all about you. I'm glad you're getting ice time and building back the muscle you lost in rehab, and I'm also glad you're building leadership skills and learning to work with players and skaters who aren't as developed as you. You're going to forget some of the lessons you learn this year when you get to college, unfortunately, and that sucks. You would have been a better college captain if you'd remembered how to make your play more about other players' development than about your ego.

I'm sorry you're so lonely. Twenty is an awkward age to be living with your parents full-time. It's what you need right now, and I'm glad you're getting along better with your parents now that you've had a lot of family therapy, but there's no substitute for peer relationships, and even though you've gone much of your life without those you got a real taste of them in the Q, and it sucks to have those taken away again.

I know you're doubting it right now, wondering if the NCAA can do you any good or if college would be a waste of your time, but applying to colleges, particularly Samwell, is going to be the best choice you ever make. Your life is going to start there in ways that will be beautiful and exhilarating and occasionally painful, but so, so worth it. You're going to make such wonderful friends, and rediscover your love of school and learning, and meet the love of your life. You're making the right call here in a big way, and it's going to pay off.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

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Dear 21-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. Namely, you are worthy of Shitty Knight's friendship. Let him take you under his weed-smelling wing. He is one of the bravest and weirdest and smartest and most ridiculous people you will ever meet, and he is the person who will make you realize that you are capable of loving people other than Maman for reasons other than their amazing hockey prowess. He is worth every awkward moment he's going to cause for you, and he's worth them all ten times over.

Take the history classes. Seriously. Take all the history classes. Flirt with the idea of studying math and biology for a little while and then decide not to pursue those further once you realize how hard Linear Algebra and labs both are. Grieve for your eight-year-old self who liked marine biology (mostly whales) when you decide never to take another bio class now that you've gotten your lab credit out of the way.

You don't have to go to kegsters. The seniors are utter shitheads and I'm sorry you have to play with them, and I'm sorry that they exclude you from hazing. Their attempts to apply peer pressure are pathetic and you don't have to listen to them. It'll be fine if you don't. The team will still respect you and listen to you on the strength of your hockey abilities.

I want to tell you to learn to be better with people, so that you'll have things figured out by junior year, but unfortunately that's not how this works. I wish you figured out how to be good to people, but even with Shitty's intense form of platonic love it'll take you a while yet to get through your head that people have inherent worth. All I can really hope for you is that you feel at home at Samwell and that the love that you're given sinks in and helps you learn to be a better person, a better friend, a better teammate, and (when the time comes) a better captain.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

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Dear 22-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. And I'm happy that you're getting them. Your team is better now that last year's seniors have left and Lardo and Ransom and Holster have shown up. You've told Shitty you're autistic and he reacted really well, and now he kind of runs interference for you when you're having trouble interacting with people. It's great.

You declare a history major this year and I'm so happy for you that you're able to turn your special interest into something that goes on a diploma. You're going to really enjoy your Social History of the Twenties class this spring, especially the part about the queer subculture within the Harlem Rennaisance. Even though you don't come out to anyone for a couple years yet, it's good to remember that being queer isn't new or weird or wrong, that you're part of a long lineage.

I think it says something about where I am now that I'm putting your captaincy in the third paragraph of this letter, rather than the first. Congratulations, seriously. You don't quite deserve the captaincy yet, is the thing. I've been saying you deserve good things for a while now, so it might seem weird that I don't think you deserve this, but the captaincy gives you a lot of power, power that you can use to hurt people rather than help them, if you're not careful.

You're an excellent hockey player. I'm not trying to argue with that. But you've forgotten what you learned about leadership from your year of coaching preteens. Hockey should never, ever be all about you, because it should never be all about any one player. It's about the team, first, last, and always. Your friends are going to help you realize that, but it hasn't sunk in yet. And until it does, you won't really deserve the C.

You deserve good things in general, though, and I'm happy that you have friends, and classes and professors you like, and a good relationship with your parents. You are worthy of those things and I'm glad you have them.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

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Dear 23-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. You're a jackass. I'm trying to remember that those two things can both be true at the same time, but all I really want to do is yell at you. Bittle is the best damn person you have ever met and it's going to take you way too long to realize it. He is not a threat to your dreams of joining the NHL. He is not a threat to your legacy at Samwell. He is an amazing person and skater and hockey player and baker and dancer and you are lucky to ever get to know him, to share ice with him, to share space with him. He needs to work through his checking issues, true. But he can, and you'll help him do that, and the least you could do is be nice about it. But no, apparently that's asking too much of you.

Maybe I shouldn't be so bitter at you. Shitty is starting to make you a better person, simply by loving you as hard as he possibly can. Lardo's love is quieter but no less real, and she is teaching you about quiet and art and friendship in ways you've never learned before. Ransom and Holster have your back even if they don't always understand you the way you'd like to be understood. Johnson is bizarre, but he definitely wants the best for you. Slowly but surely the team is turning you into someone you want to be, not just on the ice but off of it. It just sucks that it's such a slow process and that you hurt Bittle because you weren't ready for him when you met him.

There are ways in which I regret being you more than I regret being the version of myself I was in the Q. I hope you can wrap your head around how serious that is. You're not on your way to self-destructing again, and indeed you're probably heading for the best part of your life. But you're hurting someone badly in the process, someone who in no way deserves it. I wish you'd get your head together.

Love,

25-year-old Jack

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Dear 24-year-old Jack,

You deserve good things. Welcome to a wonderful and stressful and love-filled year. Your friends are fantastic. Picking a team is difficult. Figuring out what's going on with Bittle makes your stomach flip and your heart race and your lips curve into a smile even as it terrifies you. As you figure things out this year, please remember that you're worth it, and so is Bittle. You deserve the kind of happiness you feel when you're with him, and he deserves for you to take risks to be with him.

You're finally a good captain. You see the ice and you know your teammates' strengths and weaknesses, but it's not just that. You value your teammates. You genuinely want what's best for them, on and off the ice. You've learned to get Ransom through panic attacks and you know what kind of chocolate to bring Lardo when she's menstruating. You know how to lean on Holster to make great defensive plays, and you're even figuring out what to say to Chowder after a tough loss. You deserve the C.

This isn't the best hockey you'll ever play. You're going to make the NHL and you're going to have very impressive professional teammates. But this might be the most joyful hockey you'll ever play, because you're a little bit in love with basically everyone you share the ice with, and you know they all love you back. And honestly, even though you'll play better hockey when you join the NHL, this might be the best hockey you've played up until now, despite the way you and Parse won the Memorial Cup. You're not going to win the championship this year and it's going to hurt like hell, but Bittle is the best linemate you've ever had and you're going to leave with no regrets about this season. You're finally in a place where you don't dissect every loss a million times, and I'm so happy for you for that.

Kiss Bittle. It's the right call.

Love,

25-year-old Jack