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Categories Fiction, Non-Erotic, Reluctance, Romance

Authror: Lukas Grey

Published: 21 December 2017

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Chapter 1
For our one-month anniversary, Alyssa had bought me this stupid little ceramic bear. He fit in the palm of your hand, nothing big, nothing fancy. He was a cutesy little affectation, not like a real bear, but more like a ceramic version of a teddy bear. He was sitting on his butt, an ice cream cone in his little hand, or paw, whatever you wanted to call it. He had a little dopy smile on his face, little yellow bow tie, tied around his neck. We had been out at a carnival, and she had seen it at this little booth as we walked past and just bought it for me on the spur of the moment.

She handed it to me with a little shy smile on her face, “Happy anniversary.” She mumbled as she handed it to me, like she was self-conscious about it, like maybe I’d look at it and say, ‘this is stupid’, or I’d tell her it wasn’t enough…

It was one of those cutesy little moments all couples seem to have. One little innocuous moment that either meant nothing, or everything depending on the couple.

I was a little disappointed to see him sail across the room at my head…

I was even more disappointed to see him shatter into a million pieces as I ducked him. I felt the hundreds of sharp little pieces of him bounce around the room, trying desperately to shred my flesh. I held my arm up over my face, deciding to sacrifice the arm to save my face. It’s not much of a face, but it’s all I have…

The bitch of it all was it was Alyssa that had thrown him at me…

Guess she hadn’t liked that bear as much as I had.

“I know you’re fucking around on me!” She screamed.

Sad thing was, I wasn’t fucking around on her…

I’m stupid. I’m selfish. I’m really not much of a provider. I don’t even like myself all that much…

One thing I am however, is loyal.

My cell phone, nestled into the front pocket of my jeans, started ringing again. The shrill air raid siren that I had made my ring tone belting out into the room. I was really starting to regret that ringtone, though, right now, with a furious, and semi-crazy woman shredding my belongings as she screamed at me like a banshee, an emergency air raid siren might be a little more appropriate than I was willing to admit to myself…

Alyssa was short, maybe five-five to my full six feet. She was a spark plug, however, and she knew how to make the most of what god had given her. What she lacked in intimidation factor, she more than made up for in sheer voluminous energy. At the sound of my phone going off, the third time in as many minutes she got right up in my face.

“Why don’t you want to answer your phone? Is it your whore calling?” She sneered into my face.

Part of me wanted to tell her I didn’t answer the phone because I didn’t want to throw any more gasoline on the fire of her insanity… there were plenty more breakable items in my house and her flinging them around willy-nilly probably wasn’t doing me any favors both with the neighbors, and in terms of my security deposit…

Considering she had lost so much control that she was hurling ceramic bears around the room… I decided it was better, and more than likely quite a bit smarter, to keep my mouth shut.

She blew up like this about once every two weeks. One time it would be her insistence I was cheating on her. The next that I was cheating on her because I had watched some porn. The time after that, I wasn’t working enough. The time after that, I worked too much.

One time she had blown up like this because there were no steaks in the freezer…

I was beginning to think she might be a little crazy.

Of course, I had to blame myself at least a little, after all, what does that say about me? I’m dating a chick that flips out and throws ceramic bears around the room.

Maybe my mental state wasn’t one to be casting aspersions…

She held her arms out wide, “What, are you not man enough to tell me? You can’t just admit, you’re not heading off to class, or off to work? I know you’ve got some little bitch on the side. What does she have that I don’t? She sucks dick a little better?” Her voice grew taunting, cruel, “Come on, be a man, tell me!”

I considered for a moment the mental picture that flashed through my head, had I had a side piece and how the conversation with Alyssa would go if I told her that girl gave better head…

She pushed me hard in the chest, shoving me back into the wall.

A detached part of my mind screamed to smack her one. To let her know that she could yell, and scream, and accuse me of whatever she wanted to, because I really didn’t care about any of that bullshit. She could throw tantrums, and even little ceramic bears at my head, but she needed to keep her hands off of me.

I pushed that part down. Pushed it down way deep.

I wasn’t much of a man, but I wasn’t a man that had ever laid a hand on a woman in anger, and I wasn’t about to start because Alyssa went through a fit of jealous rage.

Course, for that matter, I wasn’t much of a man of anger. Most things that pissed other people off, just made me sad for them. I just didn’t seem to have that gene that made people go crazy and start throwing things. I had never had that fit where I just needed to break something to make myself feel better. Some people however, seemed to have that gene in spades…

Take Alyssa here…

We had started dating about six months ago. At first, it had been wonderful. We got along great. She had a terrific sense of humor, was fun loving and had a body to die for. She seemed really into me. She had serious commitment issues, but that was okay. She wanted our relationship to run like a sprint. In her mind at six months we should be living together. Inside a year, married. By year two, a kid on the way. Six months had come and gone, and there was no invitation to move in. Part of that was my desire to take things slowly… part of it was a desire to have a moments peace where I didn’t have to worry about something getting thrown at my head… hell, if I’m being completely honest, part of it was that I still didn’t really know how I felt about Alyssa…

A part of me loved how dedicated she was to mapping her life out. How dedicated she was to making that life materialize for her. Another part of me was absolutely disgusted how upset she got when things didn’t work out for her exactly the way she wanted them to. The largest part of me however, was simply tired of having to constantly be on the defensive about her insane insecurity issues…

Problem was, I was not into the whirlwind marriage. I didn’t want to just slip a ring on the first girl that I liked, hell, even one that I loved. I wasn’t that guy that just threw myself into something. I took my time with things. I wanted to make sure that the girl I married was the one I was going to be with for the rest of my life. It was a big commitment, and not just financially, but in time as well. I had promised myself that I would get married once, and only once. If I couldn’t make it work out, that was my one shot at it.

Seemed like the more time passed, the more Alyssa and I weren’t going to see eye to eye…

She was screaming something incoherent at me. Truth was, she was suddenly so small and boring. In my mind, I decided this was the last time she was going to scream at me. The last time she was going to throw something at me. The very last time she was going to lay her hands on me.

I felt my eyes darken, my breath shallow, the heavy muscles in my shoulder and neck bunch.

I am not an angry man. In fact, I can only think of a couple of times in my entire life that I was ever truly angry. I am not a violent man. What I am, however, is big, and when roused I think I come across as an angry grizzly bear. It makes me intimidating, and that got me pretty far in the world when it came to making a crazy person calm right the fuck down…

In fact, I had observed, most angry people were like angry dogs. They made a lot of very big sound, but when faced with a threat that seemed like it was going to bite back, they started to have some serious doubts… and they got a whole lot more reasonable very quickly.

Channeling all of that intimidation and energy into my body I growled at her, “Step back.”

Her eyes widened, a glint of fear smashing across them as, in her mind, she finally pissed me off enough to get angry with her.

What was really crazy was the manic glee that shoved its way into her eyes…

Fucking crazy bitch is getting off on the fact she finally pissed me off… I thought to myself wildly.

She started to open her mouth and say something new, some other, terrible, terrible thing.

My mind flashed back to the second month Alyssa and I had been together…

We were sitting on the couch and she was talking about her last boyfriend. She went on and on about how often he abused her. How he had smacked her around. All the terrible and nasty things he had said to her. She told me about a particularly brutal fight they had where he had punched her in the face and knocked two of her teeth out. From the sounds of it he was a real winner…

That crazy look in her eye made me wonder…

Was this something she got off on? Was she one of those women that needed to make themselves a victim? One that needed to just keep pushing a man’s buttons until he finally lashed out at her? I’m not saying it was right for a man to finally lose his temper, I’m just saying that everyone has a threshold for abuse. Smacking a woman around to get her to shut up was a really stupid and selfish way to address that when it was so easy to just walk out and stop caring…

She was still screaming something. I really wasn’t paying attention anymore…

The more I thought about it, that train of thought didn’t make sense on Alyssa. Thinking on it, it didn’t track, and then I realized, she wasn’t the type of woman that enjoyed being abused. Her constant worrying, the accusations, the wild insinuations, hell, even the violence and temper tantrums she displayed pointed towards someone that had been victimized. Someone that decided that they were going to be the aggressor from now on. Someone that had zero true self confidence but who desperately wanted to be seen as a confident person. Someone who perhaps had learned that the best way to avoid being a victim was to victimize…

Everything she was doing right now, this entire display, was a show.

That look in her eyes… it wasn’t that she got off on pissing me off. Hell, I had to admit to myself, it was just her feeling victorious for getting some kind of reaction out of me. Me showing some sign of life…

I realized then, Alyssa wasn’t a bad person. She just bored the ever-loving shit out of me. She was petty, shrill and about as annoying as you could get. The truth was, I wanted her gone. I wanted her out of my life, and rather than be a man and show her the door I had simply driven her away in the hopes that she would get tired of my shit and leave.

Right now, though, right now, she was just pissing me off…

My phone rang again.

She gave me a smug smile. “Why don’t you answer it? I’m sure your little bitch is worried about you.” She sneered.

I frowned, shrugged and pulled my phone out.

I saw her eyes fill with rage as I glanced from them to the screen on the phone. Caller ID said it was Casey…

Instantly I filled with worry. Casey was my oldest friend. She lived four hours away in my home town with her little girl, in fact, she lived right behind my parent’s place. She helped out babysitting my little sister… she was a family friend, and a personal one.

She would not call four times back to back if it weren’t an emergency.

My eyes popped up to Alyssa’s. “Hold on a second, this is important.”

Her mouth dropped open and I could see her rage boil up…

I hit the answer button and held the phone up to my ear. “Casey, sorry, I was in the middle of something, what’s up?”

Casey’s voice was filled with panic. Something was definitely wrong…

Of course, I couldn’t hear what was causing her panic, because as soon as Alyssa heard a female’s voice on the phone she started screaming, “You motherfucker! Why don’t you say hi to your cunt for me!”

Alyssa rushed me, and I had to lean back, turning the phone away from her, holding it with one hand as I tried, mostly unsuccessfully to hold a crazed woman on the warpath back, and away from me.

I could feel the frustration in me rising, “Please, Alyssa, chill out for a second…”

That, apparently, was the wrong thing to say to her at that particular moment…

Alyssa is a lefty…

A southpaw.

She reminded me of that with her left fist as it came rocketing in, smashing me in the face.

She was small, but she was a spark plug. She hit me right. Good swing, tilt of the hips, putting her little legs into it just the way I had shown her…

It was a hook, perfectly timed to saw across my face and into my nose.

She’s not big, but a well-timed smack to the schnoz is going to get anyone’s attention.

It sure got mine when my nose broke.

I’m not too proud to admit my knees went watery for a second. I felt a surge of pride at knowing I was the one that had shown her how to throw that punch. I had worked many a night showing her exactly how to hold her hand, how to swing her hips into the punch, how to use her legs to get the absolute most out of throwing her weight behind it. My hands on her hips, my arms guiding hers… maybe a dirty thought or two sliding through the dark waters of my mind as I moved my body with hers…

Hey, I’m a man, sue me.

Now, however, I felt a rush of disappointment in her at her using that knowledge against me…

Pain lancing through my face, I put the phone back up to my ear as I walked away from Alyssa. “Casey, please hold on a sec.”

I walked over to the front door, threw the lock and opened it. Alyssa screamed behind me, “Yeah motherfucker! Run away like a little bitch!”

Shock registered across her face when I turned back from the door. I guess after punching me in the face she thought that I was going to throw her a beating. She probably assumed that her parting shot had put me over the edge, like I was opening the door to leave and she had finally said the wrong thing and now I was going to turn back around and cave her ferret like face in…

Her mouth opened in shock as I grabbed her by the elbow and firmly walked her to the door. She screamed and fought. She called me names. She frothed at the mouth like a rabid beaver…

Turns out, I won’t hit a woman…

I will however, firmly put my foot on her ass and sail her right the fuck out my front door…

I guess it’s good for us all to know our limits…

Slamming the door behind her, I flipped the lock.

This was my apartment, and as much as I liked Alyssa, I liked my personal space a whole lot more. She did not have a key, so I was not all that worried she’d get back in. She’d probably throw a holy living bitch fit and beat on the door…

Well, I knew she’d throw a bitch fit as she started pounding on the door almost immediately…

She had an amazing repartee of curse words… as evidenced by the door, and her screaming through it.

I held my hand up to my face, just now registering that I was bleeding from the nose profusely. I tried to stem the bleeding, lamenting the fact that I had probably just ruined a perfectly good shirt.

Fuck! I got blood on the carpet! I noted in dismay as I saw the little drops of red on the beige carpet.

Blood dripped from between my fingers, as I held my hand over my nose and raised the phone back up to my ear.

“Casey?” I said, my voice nasally from speaking through my hand.

“What the fuck was that?” She demanded.

I tilted my head back as I walked toward the bathroom. “Sorry about that. My crazy girlfriend just broke my fucking nose. Well, I guess my crazy ex-girlfriend just broke my nose.”


I couldn’t help but laugh at the panic and anger in her voice. “Not a big deal. I walked her out the door. Sorry about that.”

She went dead silent for a few seconds. “That’s it? You just walked her out?”

Just about then I made it to the bathroom and surveyed my face in the mirror. As I tilted my head down the blood starting pouring again. “Just a second, my nose is bleeding. I have to put the phone down for a second.”

I could dimly hear Casey’s voice as I set the phone down on the counter and pulled a few sheets of toilet paper off the roll. Wadding up a couple of sheets for each nostril, I stuck them up there in the hopes I could get the bleeding to stop…

Leaning in close to the mirror I surveyed the damage. There was a new lump on my already ugly nose… she definitely broke my nose…

That was a damn fine left hook… I allowed myself. Nothing wrong with being proud of work done well…

I picked the phone back up. “I’m back. Sorry. What’s wrong?”

She was silent so long I was worried she might have hung up on me. When her voice came back on the line I could tell she was on the verge of crying…

“Your mom is in the hospital.”

I felt a little of the air rush out of the world…

“What?” I asked in desperation. My mind jumped around, wondering why Casey was calling me instead of my dad, or my little sister. “What happened?”

Her voice was rushed, filled with pain, “I don’t know. Your dad and sister came home and I guess they found her on the kitchen floor. Your dad rushed her to the hospital and he sent Adrianna here… I only talked with your dad really quick on the phone. He asked me to watch Adrianna. He’s freaking out.”

I was freaking out a little bit myself…

“How bad is it? Do you know?” My voice was quick, desperate…

I could hear her stifle back a sob, “I don’t know Jakey… I’m sorry, I don’t know. Adrianna said she was limp on the floor when they found her.”

I looked at my watch. It was four in the afternoon. It was a four-hour drive. Most of it through back country where cell reception was going to be spotty at best…

“I’m on the road in five minutes. I’ll be there by eight. If you talk to my dad, let him know I’m on the way.”

“Hurry Jake. Please.” Her voice was raw, full of desperation, she was looking for a little hope, and I was in a terrible place to provide it for her.

My heart bled for her…

She was stuck there, taking care of her three-year-old daughter and my fourteen-year-old sister. Her friend heading to the hospital. She was probably going out of her mind worrying and there she was stuck needing to be tough and not fall apart in the face of two children that needed to depend on her… and here I was on the other side of the state, a four-hour drive away…

That little nagging voice in my head snickered at me for being the piece of shit that I was. For not being there when my family needed me…

“Do you want to talk to Adrianna?” She asked.

I thought about it. “No. I want to grab some clothes and get on the road. Tell Adrianna I’m on my way.”

“Okay, Jakey…”

I started walking quickly to the bedroom, forgetting about the bloody, broken nose. Forgetting about the pain. Forgetting about Alyssa, who, incidentally, was still beating on the front door and screaming at the top of her lungs for me to let her back in, I noted as I stopped in the hallway for a quick second.

“Casey…” I tried to think about what to say… how does one thank a friend for stepping in and taking care of your family because you were too big a piece of shit to be there when you were needed? I settled for, “thank you.”

“Please just hurry…”


With that, I hung up the phone. I grabbed my black backpack, the one I used for school, and dumped my books out on the bed. A book on Environmental Law flipped face up, reminding me of that failure…

I forced the thought out of my mind as I grabbed underwear, pants, socks and a couple of shirts and stuffed them in the bag. I ran back to the bathroom and grabbed my shaving kit, throwing in my toothbrush, toothpaste and razor. I shoved that into my bag too.

I nearly ran back to the bedroom, giving one final panicked glance around the room, trying desperately to figure out if there was anything else I needed to get on the road.

Fuck it. If I need anything else I can get it at a store when I get there… I thought wildly to myself, just desperately wanting to get on the road…

In all the excitement, I had forgotten that Alyssa was still outside. Still smashing on the door like a goddamn crazed gremlin, a gremlin that was also high on PCP.

I grabbed the handle and took a deep breath. I really didn’t want to open that door. Like, really, really didn’t want to open that door.

Briefly, I considered going back into the bathroom, opening the window and jumping from the second floor… the thought of doing so made me laugh a little.

Stop being a coward and just face this… I warned myself. Putting it off won’t make it any easier…

I wrenched the door open and Alyssa recoiled back. She again, must have thought I had finally lost my temper and that I was going to hit her…

She really doesn’t think much of me… The thought smashed home as I realized how little we truly understood each other.

Even after six months… she thought I was going to beat on her and I thought she was a reasonable, uncrazy person. For a split-second I felt regret smash through the corridors of my mind at the time I had wasted with her. Thinking on it, I realized that I had allowed myself to be paralyzed by fear and a deep-seated sense of sympathy. I had not broken things off with her because I knew she would take it hard, and somehow, it was just easier in my mind to suffer and let her go on her merry little way. I hadn’t loved her, not really. I don’t think she loved me either, we were both just too terrified to be alone and so we had clung to each other like two survivors at sea, feeling like it was better to be alone together than to face it, and be alone, alone.

Anger and sorrow fought each other for control of her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.”

I pushed my way past her, just wanting to be rid of her, to get on the road and start off, to take the chance to be with my mom… who might very well be dying as I had this pointless conversation hundreds of miles away…

She grabbed my arm, as I closed the door, screaming at me, “Goddamn it! Talk to me!”

I whirled on her, “Enough. We’re done.” I told her, my hand slashing the air in front of me. “I’m sick of this bullshit. I’ve had enough. Go find whatever the fuck it is that’s going to make you happy, but leave me the fuck out of it.”

I watched as her sorrow turned to anger, as the worm turned in her mind, poisoning her thoughts.

I walked away from her before her rage could erupt again.

Three doors down the corridor a door opened and my landlady, Mrs. Epstein stepped out. I could see the disappointment painted on her face, plain as day.

She was a little old lady, sweet as could be. I really liked her and I was embarrassed at the fact that this had to play out in front of her…

She looked at me and the disapproval in her eyes sent a shiver of shame through my spine…

“Kids, enough is enough here… if you two have to fight constantly at least do your neighbors the courtesy of not letting it spill out into the hallway.” She admonished me like a stern schoolteacher…

My eyes found the floor and I shook my head ruefully.

Leaving Alyssa standing there, her mouth flopping open and closed like a beached fish I walked up to my landlady. “Mrs. Epstein, I apologize. I’m sorry for the scene.”

She shook her head at me, “Don’t be sorry Jake… do something about it. Be better.”

Sighing, I tried to explain to her. “I just got a call. My mom’s in the hospital. I have to go home for a few days.”

Her face instantly filled with concern, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry…”

I shook my head at her, trying to let her know not to make a scene about it. Things like this always embarrassed me.

“Can you keep an eye on my place for me while I’m gone?” I asked. “I don’t know how long it will be.”

Alyssa’s voice echoed from behind me, “What do you mean your mom’s in the hospital?”

I sighed again, tilting my head back towards Alyssa. “This one is not welcome here anymore, but she’s most likely going to have a hard time getting that into her skull.”

Again, Alyssa’s voice piped back up, “What the fuck does that mean?”

I closed my eyes and instinctively reached up to press on the bridge of my nose, only to be reminded of the broken nose…

I winced touching it, the pain rocketing through my face.

Mrs. Epstein’s eyes narrowed in anger, her eyes flashing towards Alyssa. “Missy. Do I need to call the police to get you to leave?”

Fortunately, that shut her the fuck up…

Of course, if the cops showed up I most likely would be in a shitload of trouble too… I’m sure it would get twisted around. At the very least I’d end up tied up forever answering questions and it would put me on the road all that much later. I wanted very much to get moving…

I shook my head at her, “We’re okay, she’s leaving, and I’m fine, and I need to get on the road.”

She clenched her jaw at me. “Okay, honey.” Patting me on the arm she added, “If you need anything just call okay?”

I nodded weakly at her. “Thanks.”

Alyssa followed me all the way to my truck. She would not shut the fuck up, and somehow, she got it into her head that I wanted her there…

I just ignored her, walked fast and tried to get her to finally fucking understand I had no desire for her to be there anymore. I just wanted her to walk away… how could she not get that? What did I need to do to be more clear?

See, that’s the problem with being a doormat. People didn’t understand what you are doing when you finally get up and shake the dirt off…

I had just thrown my bag into the bed of the pickup when she finally said “Just give me a couple days and I’ll drive down and join you.”

I spun around. “Are you fucking stupid?”

The venom in my voice surprised me.

Her face went wide in shock. “How dare you talk to me like that?”

I jabbed a finger towards my broken nose. “How dare I? Listen here, you crazy bitch. You broke my fucking nose. I’ve pretty clearly told you,” I emphasized each word with a chop of my hands, “I. Don’t. Want. You. Around. Me. Anymore. What do I have to do? Take out fucking billboard that says, ‘Fuck off crazy bitch, I don’t have time for any more insanity in my life!’?”

My jaw clenched and I could finally feel the anger rising up from within me. “We are done. Not with this conversation, not for right now. Forever. I don’t want to see you ever again. How much clearer can I make that for you?”

Sadness welled up in her eyes as tears started to gather.

And now she’s crying… Fuck! I thought to myself in exasperation.

“How can you be so mean to me?” She sobbed. “Just let me help, I just want to be there for you.”

I held my hands up. I couldn’t take it anymore. “Enough. I have to go.”

Spinning away from her I opened the door to the cab of my truck…

“I know you’re just upset Jakey,” Alyssa said, “I’ll call you tomorrow and you’ll see, things will be all better.”

I slammed the door. Hard. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Starting the truck, I slammed it into gear and pulled out of the parking spot aggressively…

Chapter 2
I made it to the first stop light before I realized I was going to need gas…

My truck was nearly on empty and as I drove further and further towards home gas was going to do nothing but get harder to find and more and markedly more expensive.

Home. I thought as I drove. I hadn’t thought of that place as home in four years… it was just a place that I had grown up. A place I had run from just as fast as I possibly could…

Now my mom was sick, and suddenly it was home? The thought didn’t make sense to me.

Why is that place suddenly home? I thought to myself as I pulled into the gas station.

As I pumped my gas the people at the other pumps gave me strange looks, making me wonder why I suddenly felt like an absolute weirdo…

Getting back on the road, I realized that I still had blood stained toilet paper sticking out of both nostrils… I felt like an absolute weirdo, because I looked like an absolute weirdo…

I pulled them both out and threw them out the window, laughing at my own stupidity…

The thought occurred to me then, I was due at work in the morning…

I pulled my phone out and called my boss…

I worked as a legal clerk at a small law firm. It was low level work. Running down leads, looking up cases. Interviewing clients, and potential clients while I took notes. The pay was shit. The work was shit. My boss was a dick. It was still a paycheck though and as much as I hated it, I decide that it was probably not a good idea to dump gas over my entire life and set fire to it before I left town.

He picked up just as I started to hope that I was going to get lucky and the call was going to go to voicemail…

“Jake, I’m glad you called. We’ve got a problem. I need you to meet with Carey Larson in the morning-“

I cut him off, “I can’t. I just got a call. My mom’s in the hospital. I have to go back home for a few days.”

The line went silent…

I started to wonder…

“Look. Jake, I can’t give you any time off right now, we’re in the middle of a big case here, I mean this could be a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of lawsuit here. I mean I’d love to give you a couple of days off, and I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I’m in Tahoe and my wife would kill me if I broke away from this vacation…”

Are you fucking kidding me?

I sat for a minute, hoping against hope he would finally come to his senses and realize exactly what he had just said to me…

The line sat quiet…

Finally, I cleared my throat, “Maybe you don’t understand what I’m saying… My mom is in the hospital. I don’t know how serious it is. I’m not asking for time off. I’m telling you, I won’t be there in the morning.”

“Maybe you’re not understanding what I’m saying…” He growled, “If you’re not at work in the morning, you don’t have a job anymore.”

I frowned. Well, that sucks. Hey, at least I didn’t like the job all that much…

“I understand.”

“So, you’ll be there in the morning?”

“Nope.” I said, hanging up the phone and throwing it on the seat next to me…

Well, there was nothing like burning a few bridges on the way out of town…

Chapter 3

I spent the first hour of the trip working through the details of how I was going to get home and find my mom had died… I thought of all the ways that could go down. All the ways that I could lose her. She was young, only sixteen years older than me, forty to my twenty-two… wait, no, thirty-eight to my twenty-two… god, was she really that young?

I spent the second hour wishing my phone would ring. That someone would call me. That they would tell me what the hell was going on… that she was fine. That this was all a big misunderstanding…

I spent the third hour hoping my phone wouldn’t ring… I was sure if it did ring it would be someone on the other end telling me that she had died. Telling me that I had been too late. Telling me that she had left without me being able to at least tell her goodbye. That she had died without me being able to tell her how much she had meant to me. That I had missed my opportunity to thank her for all that she had taught me, all she had done for me…

The last hour, I spent thinking about the people who were waiting for me at home…

People that I loved…

I thought about my mom, Deb. She wasn’t really my mom. She was my step mom, but to me, she was my mom. Family was about a hell of a lot more than blood, it was about the people who had bled for you, it was about the people that had been there for you. The people that stood beside you when the best thing for them was to walk away and let you flounder on your own. It was about the people that put aside their own needs and wants for you. People that had made sacrifices for you. People that took care of you when you were sick. People that looked out forrea you when you were in trouble. People that gave you advice when you couldn’t figure things out on your own. That spent their time and energy teaching you to be a better person…

Deb definitely fit that bill in every way. She was my mom, she had earned that name in every way that really mattered.

I let my mind drift back to how she and my dad had met…

It wasn’t a love story for the ages, but it was a love story nonetheless…

My mom died when I was nine. My dad dutifully shouldered the responsibility of taking care of me. It didn’t really seem like something he wanted to do, it was just another task that he put his shoulder to, another boulder that he pushed up the hill.

At the time, he worked at a mill, graveyard shift. By the time I was eleven I had gone through several babysitters. I went over to their house and I slept there. Apparently, that was too much trouble for most people.

We lived in a shitty little trailer in a shitty little trailer park. A couple moved in next door. Husband, wife, little girl. Deb, her husband, and their daughter. My dad and I were always pretty standoffish with our neighbors, we were the type of people that kept to ourselves, and made it apparent we expected everyone else around us to do the same, but for some reason my dad hit it off with Deb. She played piano, and he would sit there on the couch with the window open and listen to her play. She would play Moonlight Sonata, by Beethoven, and he would just sit there with this enraptured look on his face…

It was about then that I realized that what the really noticed, was Deb.

He would find an excuse to walk outside when he heard her mowing the lawn…

And Deb started to really notice my dad.

She would come over every few days and borrow some little food item or another, an egg here, or a little sugar, and then she’d show back up an hour later with a plate full of cookies…

After a couple of weeks, he asked her to start sitting for me. He made the excuse that it would just be easier to have the neighbor watch me. They were a poor family, and they could use the extra money. I would go over there at night, sometimes in the evening if he took on extra shifts, and I’d sleep there, or sit and watch Disney movies with little Adrianna as Deb played the piano, or cooked for us, or did one of the million other things that seemed to be her responsibility as a housewife...

It made me a little sad to see her. She was an awesome lady, one of the sweetest I had ever known. Her husband, Mike, was a student, and a real piece of shit. He was twenty years her senior, and apparently had met her in the small town she had grown up in. Being the fucking slimeball I knew him to be, he had, at better than thirty years of age, started hitting on a fifteen-year-old girl. By the time she was sixteen he had knocked her up, and I guess that was all the excuse her parents needed to marry her off to him…

I never saw him be mean to her, never saw him abuse her, but I rarely saw him interact with her at all… He just sat in the front bedroom of the trailer, which he had converted into an office and played on his computer, or sat at his desk fascinated by some electronic doodad that he had pulled apart.

I got the sense he had just knocked her up and he treated her like she was a dog he owned…

It made me really sad for her.

It made me really angry at him…

She started hanging out at our place when I wasn’t over at hers. She would bring her daughter, Adrianna, and my dad and her would just interact. It wasn’t dating per se… but it wasn’t that far off either. They’d sit and drink beers, talking and laughing for hours…

Even at eleven, I knew that it wasn’t completely kosher. I knew, on some level that she was a married woman, and what my dad was doing was wrong. Honestly, I guess in my mind I just made myself not care.

I guess she just wanted someone to pay attention to her. Maybe to feel like someone finally loved her.

I guess my dad just wanted someone to share his life with…

My dad and Deb fell in love. The fallout from her marriage imploding was… impressive.

Her husband showed up at our place one night drunk and full of accusations, and he decided to take a swing at my dad. My dad is many things…

Patient is not one of them.

Mike was a forty-year-old, overweight nerd.

My dad was a thirty year old millworker that was not in the business of taking shit from forty-year-old nerds…

So… uh… Dad beat the holy living fuck out of Deb’s husband. I don’t mean he popped him one. I mean he went full on, crazy badger protecting his den on Mike. To this day, I wonder what would have happened if Deb had not finally arrived…

I think my dad may have killed that man…

Not sure which stung Mike worse, the beating my dad threw him, or when his wife moved out the next day, taking their daughter with her.

On some level, I felt bad for him.

On pretty much every other level, I despised the man. It made me feel better about the whole situation when I reminded myself how he had treated her. How loyal she had been to him for years and years… How if he had just had two brain cells that weren’t locked in mortal combat he could have turned it around.

I finally decided it was his loss.

From the moment they moved in, Deb treated me like her very own. She watched out for me. She held me when I was down. She gave me advice on how to talk to girls, and helped me with my homework. She stepped between me and my dad as we argued, the ever-present voice of reason, sanity and patience. She always watched out for me. Even with her daughter there, she always made time for me. She always made energy for me. She always made me a priority.

She made me love her.

Tears filled my eyes as I remembered how happy she had always made me. How safe I had always felt in her calming presence…

At first, it was weird suddenly having a little sister. Adrianna was only three and we were forced into pretty close quarters. My dad’s trailer only had two bedrooms, and as a married couple… well you can guess who’s bedroom Adrianna ended up in…

At first, I hated her. I hated that I had to share everything with her, that she was constantly around…

Always under my feet. Always itching to hang out with me…

Then, one day, it finally hit me. I had a little sister…

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t alone. I found myself starting to love her and Adrianna and I grew closer and closer. It wasn’t easy, not with eight years’ difference in age, but just being there with her. Being a part of her life. Helping to raise her. Teaching her things. Watching her grow, and learn, and take on some of my mannerism, some of my dad’s mannerisms made me start to really like her.

I was patient as she followed me around like a puppy dog. Unlike most kids, I just one day stopped minding. It always filled me with wonder to see how happy she was, how filled with curiosity.

Leaving Adrianna was one of the toughest parts of leaving home. She was my little sister… and I loved her and missed her every day.

I thought of my dad.

That made me think of the disapproval on his face each time he looked at me.

I thought back to how it wasn’t always that way. I felt like he loved me, or at least like he had loved me once. Like he at least liked me at some point. Growing up I felt like he cared about me, but he desperately didn’t want to have to take care of me. I think in his mind he was just terrified of the responsibility of being completely responsible of this little moldable human being, and how much damage he could to by fucking up…

I never really held it against him. Hell, the more I thought about it, the more terrified I was of having my own children and having to worry about how badly I would fuck them up…

Most of my dad’s attitude got better once Deb came around. She took care of most of my needs and my dad only really stepped in when he absolutely had to. He never really actively ignored me, he was always involved in my life, and it was obvious with the interest he had in me that he cared, and that he loved me, but the day to day responsibilities he faced were greatly reduced… Deb took care of Jakey issues, or at least she did for the most part. It was an arrangement that everyone seemed happy with. Dad got to worry less about messing up his kid, Jake got to have a mom in his life that was constantly hovering nearby when he needed her, and Deb got to be the thing she was always best in the world at, being a mother.

Things got worse between me and my dad as I got more and more rebellious as I got older. We threw sparks off of each other continuously. As I got closer and closer to graduating high school things got better, and we finally started to see eye to eye more often, even, I felt, finally started to get along. Really finally started to see eye to eye. He was thrilled when I told him I wanted to be a lawyer…

He was even happier when I got into a good school…

I thought we were in a good place. I thought we understood each other…

About a year after I left things turned really sour.

That old disapproval came back, stronger than ever. Now, well now, he barely spoke to me…

He never really told me why. I had wondered, but the truth was, I was just so used to being a disappointment I could never work up the energy or caring that would be needed to ask him. I’m sure he had his reasons, and I had decided, I didn’t really care to hear them. Didn’t really care to learn what there was about me that he saw that had led him to cut me out of his life…

I had about half an hour left on the drive when my phone rang, interrupting my musings.

Dread poured through me as I looked at it on the seat next to me…

Casey’s picture was lit up on the display…

At least it isn’t dad… I reminded myself. If she had died… I think dad would have at least called me then…

I picked up the phone. My heart turning cold. “Jake here.”

Casey’s voice was somber, “It’s okay Jake. She woke up. She’s still in the hospital, still in the ICU, but she woke up. The doctor’s think she’s going to be okay. At least for now.”

I tried to slow my breathing. “What does that mean? For now?”

She stayed quiet for too long…

“They think she has a tumor, or at least some kind of growth in her throat. Something cut off her breathing, but just for a little while. She’s going to be okay for right now. They’ll know more in the morning.”

Tumor. Cancer. Mom…

The thoughts wouldn’t untangle themselves in my mind.

I thought back to my birth mother, Vanessa… her light had been cut off by breast cancer… and now Deb…

Back to your responsibilities. Your family needs you right now. Focus on that. Dad is going to be a mess, Mom’s in the hospital. Adrianna needs you right now. Focus on that. The thought smashed into me.

“Where’s my sister?” I asked, my voice a little too harsh…

“She’s here with me. She’s worried out of her mind.” Casey answered.

Anger flashed through my mind at that. Dad should have come and got her, or manned up and asked for help in bringing her to him and mom, from Casey. Adrianna should be with her mother right now. She was just a kid. She needed her mom. It wasn’t right for dad to have kept her away… if Deb had died he would have robbed her of the right to say goodbye to her mother…

I decided then and there he and I were going to have a talk about that. A rather terse one…

Stop. Getting angry isn’t going to help anyone. Stay focused on what is important. I reminded myself

I sighed…

Casey’s voice was subdued, “Are you going straight to the hospital when you get to town?”

I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “No. If you don’t mind, I’m going to come get Adrianna. She needs to be with her mom right now, or at least be able to see her. Would that be alright?”

Casey chuckled and for just a moment, I thought of her… her shock of red hair. Her pixie nose. Her quick laugh, and quicker smile.

Hell, it made me smile just thinking about it.

“I’d love to see you Jakey… you are always welcome here.”

I sighed, my eyes drifting half closed, dangerous on the road, I knew, but I couldn’t help it. I had finally found some hope. It was like I had found I was holding my breath and not even realizing it… like I finally got a breath of air after being trapped under water…

“I’ll see you soon.” She continued.

I knew she was going to hang up, so I talked fast… “Casey… hold up.” Again, my mind spun, looking for the right thing to say, the right thing to do. Casey had always done that to me… she had always confused me, like I couldn’t even think when I was with her, when I was talking to her…

“Look, kiddo.” I shook my head, amazed at how lucky I was to have a friend like her. “Thank you for today. I don’t know what we’d have done without you. Thank you for that.”

She chuckled, and in my mind I could see her beautiful face. Could see her easy smile…

“Come home soon Jakey…”

Again, I nodded, feeling better, “I’ll see you soon. I’m about half an hour out. Okay?”


We broke off the conversation.

I put the phone back on the seat and thought about my friend…

I had met Casey when I was eleven years old, right before Deb and her husband had moved in next door. My dad and I had just moved from a tiny one bedroom house and into the trailer he had bought. My mom’s death was expensive, and the weight of all of that had fallen squarely on my dad’s shoulders. Instantly, we had to downgrade from a proper family home to some shitty little hovel in the shittiest part of town. Looking back, and knowing the kind of proud man my dad was, I realized that must have been an amazingly difficult choice for him to have had to make…

Being eleven, I wasn’t thrilled about the move. I had to change schools, had to move away from my friends, and at the time I was pissed about it. Adding the benefit of hindsight, I could see now my dad had made the right choice. We both needed some space, we both needed our own bedroom, our own private places. Our old place didn’t allow that. The new one did.

I was an awkward kid. I had very few friends and the type of personality that made it very difficult for me to make new ones. Moving into a rundown trailer park in the better part of town didn’t make things easier…

I was instantly a pariah. My awkward personality made it even more difficult. Add to that the fact that I was still, most likely, and quietly, trying to get over the loss of my mom…

And then I met Casey. Beautiful, amazing, funny, lovely Casey…

I knew that normally hanging out with a girl a year younger than me would be considered weird, but at the time I was so lonely and so in need of a friend that I didn’t care, or at least, at the time, I made myself not care.

I thought back to the day I had met her…

Our trailer park had a little playground on it. One day I was sitting there on one of the swings and feeling sorry for myself when Casey came up to me. She was smaller than me, and painfully shy. She just walked in through the gate and came over and sat down on the swing furthest from me. She didn’t say anything to me, I didn’t say anything to her. I caught her looking at me occasionally, wary of me as a bigger kid, obviously worried that I might chase her off just for the sin of being smaller and more vulnerable. For having the audacity of daring to use one of my swings!

The truth of the matter was, I was just as intimidated of her as she was of me…

She was an instant mystery to me. Other kids in general confused me, but girls in particular really confused the shit of me. They were so soft. So delicate. So full of this weird energy that I never could define…

So, I kept my distance.

Each day, we would meet there after school and we would give each other space and we would both play quietly.

I guess, after about a week Casey decided that I was trustable, that I was no longer a danger.

I guess that was a good thing, because I would have never worked up the courage to ever walk up to her, would have never introduced myself to her, would have never found the best friend I had ever found in my entire life…

She walked up to me, smiling at me shyly, “Hello. I’m Casey.” She said, holding her hand out to me.

I can still remember staring at her pale, freckled hand, looking at it like it was a snake, out to bite me…

I took her hand, “Jake.”

She smiled again, this time happier, prouder that she had made the first move. “Do you want to be friends? There aren’t a lot of other kids around here… and the ones that are around are mean.”

I felt myself begin to light up… I needed a friend, girl or not, weird or not…

“Sure.” I had told her.

“I like you. You’re nice to me.” She told me, a quiet confidence in her voice.

I wasn’t sure how nice to her I had been. Really, all I had ever done was simply not try to bully her… I guess sometimes the only thing you need to do to be nice, was to not be an asshole.

From that day on we were inseparable. I picked her up from her house every morning and we walked to school together. We met up and walked home together. We hung out after school at her place, and at my place on the weekends. It was a little weird to have a friend that was a girl, and even weirder to have one that was a year younger than me, but we made it work.

We both loved video games, and we’d spend hours sitting in front of the television, or at least every minute we could until one of our parents chased us outside to play…

We grew up together. We both made other friends as we got older, but we never lost sight of the fact that there was a time in our life when all we had was each other. We never walked away and we always found a way to make our friendship work, no matter how awkward it got for either of us…

I graduated a year ahead of her. I went off to college, and she stayed behind. There was a part of me that knew separating from her was inevitable. Knowing that didn’t make it any less hard…

There was a part of me that missed her so much those first few months of school, I considered quitting and going home. Giving up the dream of becoming a lawyer and heading back to our small-town college, just so I could be close to her. So, I could see her smiling face when we talked…

Then she got pregnant, and things changed…

It happened the summer between her Junior and Senior years of high school, not too long after I had left. She kept it from me for the first four months she was pregnant. I could tell, talking to her she was ashamed of herself…

That year was hell for her. There was a girl my Senior year of high school that got pregnant. She had a steady boyfriend and he was in school with her and still it was a brutal experience for her. I could only imagine what it had been like for Casey. She got pregnant from some random guy at some random party, which surprised the fuck out of me, as it was completely out of her character to just have a random one night stand…

It was something she didn’t like to talk about and the more I pressed her for the details the more evasive she got.

I left it be, and just tried to support her the best I knew how. She pulled away from me. We talked less and less. I watched as she isolated herself. I felt so helpless then. I blamed myself for not being around. I knew that had I been there, that random hook up would have never happened.

Had I been a good friend and watched out for her she would have never gotten pregnant in the first place, and now, I couldn’t even be there to support her while she went through the hell of having everyone look down on her because she got pregnant at seventeen…

For a while, I gave her space. A part of me hoped she’d find a way to make things work with whoever got her pregnant. I had hoped she was lying to me about it being a random hook up and that she was really involved with someone and just hiding the fact from me. I figured it was someone she was ashamed about. I figured me being around constantly would be a distraction. Maybe the guy felt threatened. Maybe she was too focused on our friendship to make her relationship work…

She said little, and I gave her space to try to put her life straight.

That ended with a call from my mom…

Deb called me up one day and asked how long it had been since I had talked with Casey.

I told her it had been a few weeks, and desperately hoped that Deb had news about her. Casey, even pregnant, supposedly irresponsible Casey, watched my sister Adrianna, and I knew that Deb got to talk to her even when I didn’t…

I dared to ask how she was doing…

I still remember that conversation….

“Not good…” Deb told me, her voice filled with anguish.

I sat, the line filled with silence between us. “Mom, I don’t know what to do…” I finally confessed.

“What do you mean?”

I took a deep breath. “I just feel so helpless. I see her spiraling down and feel like I’m losing my friend. I want to be there for her, I want her to know I’m there for her, but every time I reach out to her, she pulls away… I try to talk to her about what she’s doing, what she’s experiencing, how she’s dealing with the dad, how she’s managing school, and every time I do… she pulls a little further away…”

Deb sighed… “Jakey. Is Casey your friend?”

With conviction, “She’s the best friend I have ever had.”

I felt tears in my eyes… I missed her so much… so I confessed, “I just don’t know what to do. I want to help her fix this… but she won’t let me.”

My mom was quiet for a really long time… to this day, I still don’t know why…

Finally, she started talking, “Jakey, she’s embarrassed. Everyone in her life is looking down on her. She’s having a really tough time with her mom right now. She’s having trouble at school. Her whole life is coming apart at the seams. Every plan she has ever made in her entire life just got flushed and went swirling, and she’s completely alone…”

I took a deep breath… “I know mom, but she won’t let me in… she won’t let me help her fix this.”

“Jakey… she doesn’t need to fix this. She doesn’t need you to help her fix this. She needs to know you are there for her. She needs to know that you are only a phone call away. You need to stop trying to put things back together for her and you need to start letting her know that you’re not judging her. That you’re going to cheer her on as she figures out how to put things back together for herself. Right now, everyone in her life is looking down on her and you’re her best friend. She can take it from everyone else, but from you… from you that is heart breaking… when you start trying to jump in and offer her solutions it feels like you’re not only telling her she’s not smart enough to fix it on her own, but that you’re also telling her she’s stupid for being there in the first place...”

I sat and thought about that for a long time. That was the last night I let her isolate herself from me.

I called her every night. I stopped trying to solve her problems. I stopped judging her. I just sat there with her. It was one of the weirdest and most awkward times in my entire life. Some nights we talked for hours. Some nights we just sat there on the phone. Some nights she begged me to stop, to just leave her alone…

I always refused her.

I never left her alone.

I never missed a call.

After a few months, she started calling me with her problems. I spent a lot of time listening. It took me a long time, but finally I realized how right Deb was. I learned the value of just showing up, just one of the many invaluable lessons my friend Casey had taught me...

Our calls kept up even after she had her little girl. Casey named her Aubrey, a fact that Adrianna, my little sister, was immensely proud of. Casey and Deb grew closer, became friends. After a while, Casey became like a member of my little family…

My ruminations came to an end as I pulled up in front of Casey’s little trailer. I thought of how alone she must have felt there… to end up just a few hundred yards from where she had grown up…

Her mom was a drinker and she passed away about a year after Aubrey was born, leaving Casey really and truly alone…

I felt a stab of guilt as I remembered yet another challenge my friend had needed to face without me…

I sat in my truck for a minute, staring at her home… feeling like a really bad friend…

Chapter 4
Casey opened the door and I was struck with the deepest sense of wonder I had felt in a very long time… the highest sense of happiness that I had managed to find in such a long time…

It had been almost a year since I had been home… so long since I had seen her smiling face.

My face, bad day or no, split open on seeing her. I couldn’t help but smile in her presence.

She wrapped her arms tightly about her body and leaned against the door frame, her brown eyes reaching into my soul, the same way they always did. I stepped forward as she stepped back, letting me into her home, no invitation extended and none needed…

My left hand reached out and took the back of her neck as I pulled her head to mine.

I almost kissed her…

The desire to do it was stronger than I had ever felt, and considering that I had undergone the entirety of my teenage years with her as the closest friend I had ever known… I had thought about kissing her pretty fucking often.

I would never do that though… I had no right. I had to admit to myself… I really wanted to. I had wanted to since as long as I could remember.

I contented myself with laying my forehead to hers, my nose against hers, little sparks of pain shooting through it as our noses brushed. I didn’t care about the pain. Just her presence against me was enough to drive all of my concerns away.

Her hand came up into the crook of my elbow and pulled me closer to her. We both closed our eyes and savored the moment.

Kiss her you fool! My brain screamed at me.

I shook my head and sighed, feeling the familiar rush of emotions she always brought out in me. Loyalty, friendship, a sense of family and protectiveness I felt with no other human on earth… and yes, more than a little love.

I was not however, going to mess up that friendship.

“I missed you Case.” I whispered.

She finally wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a big hug. I hugged her back just as hard.

She whispered in my ear, “I missed you Jakey.” She added as she pulled back from me, taking my face in her hands, “Your poor little nose…”

I smiled at her, “It was never very little…”

She smiled back at me, and I added, “Don’t sweat it, it just has a little more character now.”

“You two need to get a room?”

I laughed at Adrianna, interrupting our moment.

Turning to her, I was struck by how much she had grown up in the year since I had seen her. She was taller, and at fourteen, she was starting to transition from kid to woman. She was fuller, stronger. She had mid length blonde hair, and her father’s features. That same blonde hair and striking, otherworldly, Nordic blue eyes. She had her mother’s athletic body, which was way better for her than if she ended up with her dad’s, who tended more towards the plump size.

“How ‘bout a hug over here, big bro?” She smiled, holding her arms wide.

She was still tiny compared to my six-foot frame, athletic or not. I wrapped my arms around her neck as she wrapped hers around my body. I was gentler with her than I had been with Casey, but I still hugged her tight.

We broke, and she punched me in the ribs. It was a light punch, a hell of a lot lighter than Alyssa’s had been.

It made me wonder a little bit at what about me made women feel the need to punch me…

“Fucking took you long enough to get here!” She yelled.

“Ow…” I muttered rubbing my side.

I smiled at her, “Sorry, kiddo. I came as fast as I could.”

Casey laughed at me…

“Mommy?” A tiny voice echoed into the room.

I looked across the room towards the hallway. Aubrey, Casey’s little girl was hiding over by the corner, coming out of the hall, peeking around the corner.

“Roo!” Casey admonished. “You’re supposed to be in bed!”

I laughed. “Hey, Roo!” I called.

She held her little hand up and waved at me. It was technically a goodbye wave, but it was still cute as hell.

Casey stopped and looked at me, a strange look on her face, something like a mix of anger and fear on her face.

I gave her one of my stunning smiles and pushed past her, walking over to where Roo was hiding. I sat cross-legged in front of her, giving her my biggest, warmest smile. She looked at the floor shyly…

She looked a lot like her mother. Short, bright red hair, cut short. Delicate features.

She held her hands together and shrugged, looking at me through her eyelashes.

I held my hand out to her, “Hello, Roo. How are you?”

She stepped away from me a little.

“Roo!” Casey’s voice was like a whip.

I turned back to her, holding my hand out, “It’s okay. She doesn’t remember me…”

Smiling at Roo again, “Hey Roo, do you remember me?”

She smiled at me, “You’re big guy. You talk to my mommy on the phone. That always makes Mommy happy.”

I laughed. “Well, I’m big, and I do talk to your mommy on the phone, but I’m not sure how happy I make her.”

She moved closer to me, sidling up to me, showing me her side. Finally, she tentatively wrapped her arms around me, giving me the tiniest hug. I wrapped my arms around her lightly, pulling her close but almost making sure I was being exceedingly gentle.

“Thank you Roo.” I whispered into the side of her head.

She stepped back from me and shrugged shyly. She whispered, “I’m supposed to be in bed… but I heard voices.”

I smiled at her, waggling my eyebrows, “It’s okay, she won’t be too mad at you.”

Casey’s voice went up in mock anger. “Oh, you bet I will be!”

Roo screamed playfully, as she ran back for, what I assumed, was her bedroom. Casey chased after her, playfully. Stopping at a room down the hallway, she looked back at me, giving me a shy smile, “Give me a sec to put her back to bed? Before you go?”

I nodded at her, standing up.

Finally, she disappeared into the room.

Turning back to Adrianna, I assessed how worried she was. She looked like she was okay, but she seemed pretty nervous.

I was a little embarrassed, and a little guilty to be holding her up…

I tried to hedge, “Just give us a second. We’ll go to the hospital here in a minute?”

She shook her head at me, a look of disappointment on her face, “I talked to dad on the phone. He said we should let mom rest. That when you got here, we should just go home. That we could come in the morning.”

My eyes narrowed and I ground my teeth as I felt my frustration grow.

“Well, he can go fuck himself. You have to do what he tells you, I don’t. So…” my eyes pierced into her. Right was right, “you coming?”

She went over to the couch, “Definitely.” Smiling at me, “You taking the blame on this one?” she asked as she picked up her backback.

I smiled back to her, “Well…” I gave her a half smile, “I’m supposed to be in charge, right?”

Casey came up behind me, laying her hand on my shoulder. “You guys going to the hospital?”

I turned and looked at her. The desire to kiss her welled up inside me again, this time I had to force my eyes away from her…

By looking away, I managed to find some strength. I managed to shove it down, it was hard, but somehow, I managed to do it.

I gulped, “Yeah, you coming?” I asked, looking back at her.

She shook her head, “I can’t.”

Motioning back down the hallway, she continued, “I mean, I’d love to… I really want to, but I just got Roo to bed, and I have the early shift at the super market in the morning…”

I pulled her close and hugged her one more time. “It’s okay. We’ll send your love…”

Chapter 5

Re, my pet name for Adrianna, and I rode in my truck on the way to the hospital. It was all the way on the other side of town, so it was a bit of a drive to get there. We lived in one of those towns that was just small enough to only have one hospital, and just big enough for it to take forever to get there when you needed it.

I looked over at Re while she chewed on her thumb nail, her own, private, nervous tick…

She needed to get her mind off of her worries, or at least that was the impression that I got just looking at her. That, in turn, meant I needed to talk to her, get her mind away from her worry…

“Re, why does everyone call Aubrey, Roo?”

She raised an eyebrow at me, her face a mask of shock, “You really don’t know?”

I chuckled, “If I knew, I wouldn’t ask.”

She shook her head at me. “You remember when Roo was born don’t you?”

Guilt pounded through me…

Re continued, “Casey was so scared. Mom kept trying to get her to calm down, kept telling her that everything was going to be okay, but she kept freaking out. All she wanted was for you to be there when she had Roo. She just kept on about it and on about it…”

I shook my head sadly. “And I kept telling her I had finals. And promising her that as soon as she went into labor to call me and I would drop everything, finals or no, and I’d come running.”

Re smiled at me. “And Casey went into labor, and she called you, and you came running.”

I sighed, “And I was too late… A four-hour drive, but still Roo had come before I got there…” Shaking my head I continued, “I thought, stupidly, a four-hour drive is no big deal, who has a baby in four hours?”

Re giggled, “Apparently, Casey managed to pull it off.” She shrugged, “And you showed up, her a tired mess, and just beaming that you had finally gotten there. Roo, pillowed on her chest, and in you walk with this giant basket of stuff you had put together for her. Diapers, and baby clothes and stuffed animals for her and the baby. You looked so pitiful. Just running in like you had just ended the world, and ready to throw yourself onto the pyre to appease the gods.”

I shook my head, disgusted at how selfish I had been. My friend had just wanted me to be there for her while she went through the scariest moment of her life, and I had come up short… again. I had let her down, again.

“There was one stuffed animal in there, a kangaroo. Casey loved that kangaroo, and she immediately made it Roo’s. She used to make sure it was in Roo’s crib every night. She used to hold it out to her and parrot, over and over, ‘kangaroo!’, ‘kangaroo!’, like she wanted that to be Roo’s first word.” Re shook her head, “And it was. Freaking crazy Casey, every other mom out there trying to get her kid’s first word to be ‘mommy’, and she’s trying to get her kid to say kangaroo…”

I laughed just thinking about it. That just about summed up Casey.

“Turned out it was a giant mistake. Roo carried that goddamn kangaroo everywhere. Only, she couldn’t say kangaroo. All she could say was Roo! She would run around and hold that stupid stuffed animal out to everyone and yell, Roo!” She shrugged, “So people started calling her Roo.”

I shook my head at her, giving her a quick glance. “How was school this year?”

She shrugged, “Okay, I guess.”

I raised my eyebrows at her. “You excited about finally heading to high school?”

She shook her head, “Not really. I mean, I know it will be just school again, but it still feels weird.”

“You going out for cheerleading or something?”

She scoffed. “With those bimbos? No way. I’m going out for volleyball, be an honest athlete!” She tried on a smile, beaming proudly, “How about you? How’s school going?”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. I held my pinky out to her. It was our little thing, our deal that we would tell the truth, and what we said was between only us. There were a lot of years between us, but we were still close, and neither of us would dare break the confidence of a pinky promise.

She gave me an, ‘are you kidding me?’ look and took my pinky in hers.

“Not good.” I finally admitted.

She pulled her hand from mine, “Why not?”

I shook my head. “I mean, it’s okay. My grades are slipping a bit but not by much, at least probably not enough to worry about. I’m working too many hours, freaked out about money, but most of it is I just feel like I’m wasting my time. Like I’m doing something I’m going to end up hating. I clerk in a law office and more often than not I deal with other attorneys and every time I do they disgust me. I really don’t want to end up like that. I don’t want to become that kind of person…”

She tilted her head at me, “Stop worrying about that. You’ll never be that person. Lawyers get a bad rap a lot of the time. You see the flashy ones, the ones that are out there all the time. The big defense attorneys or the ambulance chasers. It seems to me like a lot of lawyers must just be good, quiet people and because they’re quiet, their impact never really gets seen…”

I made a face. “Also, I’m struggling with getting into a law school that I like. Like I said, my grades are slipping a bit, but mostly I’m struggling with the cost.”

She nodded, “That sucks.”

I shrugged. “It is what it is…”

I held my pinky back out to her, closing our promise and letting her know that we were done with our secrets. She took my finger with her own… giggling gently at my stupidity.

We passed the rest of the trip in small talk, catching up. She babbled on about her boyfriend, which I already knew about from Deb. Dad didn’t like him. Not one, teeny, tiny bit.

Not surprising, but I wanted to give her a little bit of credit. The guy, from what I had been told, didn’t seem like an absolute bozo, and knowing Adrianna, he was probably a pretty good guy. Now granted, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it was still something that now that I was back in town, I was going to take a little time to look into. I was still her big brother, and a good big brother has certain responsibilities.

When we got to the hospital we went straight to the gift shop.

“What are we doing?” Re asked me.

“I’m not showing up empty handed, and neither are you. Pick out some flowers for mom.” I told her.

She held up her purse and started to look inside. She grimaced a bit. “I only have like, about twelve dollars…”

I wrapped my arm around her and smiled, “I got it, I’ll cover you.”

“You sure? I can pay you back…”

I smiled at her, “Yeah, I’m sure. And no, you don’t need to pay me back.”

We both picked out flowers, and as I was heading to the register I found something that caught my eye…

They had a set of kangaroos. There was a momma kangaroo, and a baby kangaroo. The momma was big, about as big as Casey’s torso. The baby was much smaller, and nested into the momma’s pouch. They were a set, a bloody expensive set, but a set nonetheless. I looked at Re and raised my eyebrows, holding the kangaroos up, “What do you think?”

She pushed down a smirk, tilting her head, “Case and Roo will love them.”

I nodded, “A good thank you gift?”

She chuffed at me, rolling her eyes, “Yeah, sure. You tell yourself whatever you have to…”

I gave her a look that told her to stow it…

We paid and went upstairs. Stopping in at the nurse’s station we found which room Deb was in. The nurse also informed us that visiting hours ended in fifteen minutes…

I nodded at Re, “Looks like it will be a short visit.”

She shrugged, and I could see that particular brand of worry and excitement that marked how concerned she was start to bleed into her body language, “At least we can see her. At least I can see she’s alright.”

I wrapped my arm around her as I smiled at her, “She’s going to be alright. She’s a tough old bird.”

We walked to the room together, bursting in, flowers and smiles a plenty.

My dad’s face darkened the instant we walked into the room, “Adrianna. I told you your mom needed rest.”

My face darkened in return. “It wasn’t her call, dad. I decided to come and unless you want her sitting at home alone, she was forced to come along for the ride. If you want to get pissed off at someone, get pissed off at me.”

He ground his teeth as Adrianna squealed and ran to her mom.

I chose to ignore him and focus instead on Deb, who was sitting up in the bed. She was a tall woman. Thin, with dark hair and twinkling eyes. She looked tired, but was still beautiful. Well, maybe not beautiful, she wasn’t model material, but she was definitely pretty, several classes above my dad’s league, for sure. She was the type of woman that went without makeup most times, favoring instead a natural look. Normally that lent a healthy glow to her skin, but tonight it just made her look tired. She was wearing a hospital gown and had one of those little oxygen tube thingies in her nose.

She broke out of Adrianna’s hug and held her arm out to me, offering to let me in on it. I held up my flowers, “For you.”

She smiled, “They’re beautiful Jakey.”

I set them down on the stand next to her and let myself be pulled in for a weak hug.

When she pulled away from me she looked at my face with disapproval… “Oh, baby boy, what happened to your nose?”

I smiled, a jolt of pain snapping through my face, “Well, I guess my girlfriend broke up with me…”

Deb laughed, “With a right hook?”

I shook my head, “No, it was a left.”

She covered her mouth as she laughed at me…

I sat on the edge of her bed and let her enjoy the moment, figuring it was worth the hit to my pride to give her a moments enjoyment at a time when she could probably really use a pick me up.

She finally broke the silence by saying, “I’m surprised you came, honey.”

I pulled away from her and looked at her, “My mom ends up in the hospital, and I come straight home. Them’s the rules.”

She raised her eyebrows at me, “I thought this was finals week?”

I shook my head at her, “I’m mostly done. I just have to…” my head dropped. “Shit.”

Her face wrinkled up, “What?”

I shook my head, looking at the floor, “I was going to say… I just need to turn in a paper on business law… but it’s on my laptop, and I just realized that I left my freaking laptop at home…”

My dad snorted.

Thanks for the support, dad… I thought.

She sighed at me. “So, you need to go home.”

A thought occurred to me then, “Nope. I saved it on my Dropbox. I’ll borrow Casey’s computer and I can pull it down and send it to my professor. Crisis averted.”

She smiled at me. “What about work? Don’t you have to work?”

I shrugged. “Turns out I don’t have a job anymore.”

“Big surprise...” dad muttered.

Mom gave him a look that clearly told him to shut the fuck up. “What do you mean honey, what happened?”

I smiled at her, “I called my boss and told him you were in the hospital and that I needed a couple days off. He told me if I didn’t come in tomorrow I was fired. So, I guess I’m fired.”

Deb gave my dad a hard look. I could tell it was one of those preemptive glances that promised him an ass chewing if he opened his mouth and said one more word, “Honey, you shouldn’t have done that…”

I kissed my mom on the forehead, “Worth it,” I told her, nodding, “for you. I’ll find something else. No big deal.”

She took a deep breath, steadying herself. “Maybe you should go home. Between school and your job, if you leave now, you can be back in the morning.”

“Nope. You’re sick. I’m staying until we get this sorted out. It’ll be okay.” I tried to will conviction and a sense that the topic was not open for debate into my stare.

She put her hand on my face. “I’m going to be okay. Stop worrying about me. You have a life to live, and that needs to be your priority sometimes…”

I gave her an ‘are you kidding me?’ look. “You passed out mom. You have some sort of lump in your throat. It made you stop breathing. I’m staying until we get this figured out.”

She held her neck up, “It’s just a small lump. See? And I didn’t stop breathing. It just made it hard to breathe and the air getting cut off caused me to pass out.”

I raised my eyebrows. I could see the lump, just to the right of her esophagus.

I gave my dad a dark look. “How could you have not noticed this?”

He gritted his teeth at me, narrowing his eyes.

Deb cut me off, “I hid it from him. I had a doctor’s appointment later in the week. I didn’t want to worry anyone.”

My eyes snapped back to her. “How’d that work out?”

My dad growled at me, “Watch your tone with her boy.”

I started to snap back to him, a sharp word on my tongue, he had pushed my buttons just about as long as I was going to let him. Deb shut me down, “It was stupid. I shouldn’t have hidden it from everyone. Don’t start blaming each other. I made a choice and it turned out to be a bad one that’s now worrying everyone… and I’m sorry.”

She looked at each of us in turn, sighing, “I’m sorry. To all of you, but please, stop passing blame around. I need you all to get along. Please?”

I nodded, “I’m sorry.”

Dad stood up, looking at me and Adrianna, “Guys, it was nice of you to come,” he started.

I cut him off, “Can I talk to you in the hall for a second?”

His eyes narrowed. “If you want.”

“Please don’t fight you two…” Deb said. I could hear a touch of sadness in her voice and I knew dad and I must be exhausting. We never had the best of relationships, but since I had been a teenager we had been going at it, bumping heads, pretty much full time. It was worse now, but it had never been very good to begin with. A part of me wanted to say that was because we were so different, that we just saw the world so much differently, but as I got older I realized it was because we were just too much alike. We had our own ways of looking at things, and both of us were too stupid and stubborn to back down. The more one of us pushed, the harder the other pushed back, and it just seemed to create a vicious cycle of one of us constantly escalating our conflict.

For the first time in my life, I started to feel bad about that. I thought back to all of the times Deb had needed to step between us and make peace. I realized how annoying that must be constantly. Feeling ashamed of myself, I shook my head at her, trying to make her stop worrying. “We won’t.”

Deb looked at dad, “Walter?” Her tone brooked none of his crap.

His eyes snapped from me, to her, back to me. “I’ll be good.”

Dad and I stepped out into the hall together. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Say your peace.”

I took a deep breath, forcing my anger down. I refreshed my promise to myself to not fight with him, for Deb’s sake. She had enough on her plate, she didn’t need to be wasting energy worrying about dad and I, just because we couldn’t be mature for long enough to get along… I had no control over how he reacted or the choices he made, but I could control my own actions and right now, I promised myself that I would say what needed to be said, right up until it started to turn into an argument, and then I would back off…

I made myself look at the floor, trying to defer off some sense of aggression. Taking a deep breath, I dove into the conversation. It was kind of like steeling myself to dive into icy water, “Look. I know you’re pissed at me for whatever reason. I get that. We need to push past that shit right now.”

His jaw clenched.

I started to unload on him, to accuse him, to blame. At the last second, I decided that the best thing I could do was shift gears…

“Why didn’t you bring Adrianna with you to the hospital?” I wanted to scream at him, but a realized that asking a question conferred to him I wasn’t trying to place blame, I was seeking understanding… that I wanted to understand his choices and motivations. By seeking understanding, one wasn’t placing blame, they were communicating that they may not agree with a decision, but they also were not seeking to tear someone else down.

His reply was curt, “I don’t answer to you when it comes to Adrianna, or Deb.”

I held my hands up, trying to hedge off his anger, “I get that. I’m not accusing. I’ll admit, I jumped to a conclusion on it, and that’s not fair to you. I’m genuinely asking, giving you the benefit of the doubt. You must have seen something about the situation I don’t understand. I want to understand, so I’m asking.”

He was taken off guard, I could tell. Normally, I would have laid into him, I would have yelled at him for leaving Adrianna behind. I would have called him stupid, and selfish. This time, I was seeking understanding.

He turned away from me, and I could tell, he hadn’t really thought about it himself. He finally put his hands on his hips, and when he turned back there were the beginnings of tears in his eyes.

He shook his head, and I could tell it killed him to admit it, “I kind of panicked.” He stopped and took a deep breath, “All I could think of was helping your mom. I just remember thinking I didn’t want to be tripping over Adrianna too, or dealing with her panicking while I was trying to help your mom.”

I looked at him, trying to will myself to be understanding. I knew he loved Deb, that she was his whole world. She was the rock he had built the foundation of his life on. He loved Adrianna and I, even if he had a tough time showing it, but Deb gave him the stability he needed to interact with the world, hell, to even interact with his own kids.

The truth was, the situation seemed terribly selfish of him to have done, but the truth of the matter was, dad was human and he had just panicked.

“Do you understand how disastrous that could have been?” I asked.

He looked at the floor. I could tell he was having a hard time wrapping his brain around it. He was never the most empathetic man. He was a good man, a man that genuinely tried to do the right thing in everything he did, yes, but an empathetic man? No.

He shook his head, “Maybe.”

I shook my head at him, “Don’t you get it? I know you love Deb. I know she’s your whole world, but she’s Adrianna’s mom. You shouldn’t have sent Re away. If something had happened,” I held my hands out, “Fucking god forbid she had died, Re would have never forgiven you.” I searched his face, hoping against hope that I was getting through to him. “Right now, we need to pull together and be a family. We have to take care of each other, and driving wedges between each other is the last thing we need.”

He closed his eyes and took a breath, shaking his head, “You’re right.”

I was floored.

He continued. “I panicked. All I could think about was that I didn’t want Adrianna to have to watch her mom die. How I didn’t want to have to watch her mom die…”

I put my hand on his shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze, “Look, don’t be so hard on yourself. I just want you to think about what you’re doing. That is going to be super important in the coming days and weeks. We all need to be on the same page, okay?”

He looked at me, nodding.

“One other thing.” I added, hoping I was still building on a good foundation.

He looked at me, his face seemed open.

I shook my head and spread my hands, “I know you’re pissed at me. I’m not asking you to stop being mad at me, but for right now, we’ve got to put a pin in that. Deb needs to focus on resting, and getting better, and if she’s constantly on guard that you and I are going to go for each other’s throats she can’t do that.” I held my hand out to him, “Truce? For now? Until Deb can get better, then you can go back to hating me.”

I could tell, being so blunt with him about our relationship, about how far out of control it had gotten, was like a punch to the gut. He nodded, and took my hand, shaking it firmly. “Truce.”

I started to turn back to the room, and he reached out and grabbed my arm, pulling me up short. “You did good getting here…”

I turned back to him. It was the first kind thing he had said to me in years… pretty much since I had left for college.

Sighing, “Thanks.”

He looked at the floor, breaking my gaze, “How bad is taking off really going to screw you up?” His eyes snapped up to me, “Be honest. Deb would never forgive herself if you messed up your future to be here.”

I started to argue and he cut me off, “Don’t down sell it. Be honest.”

I shrugged, putting my hands in my pockets, “I’ll find a way to make it work. I need to get that paper figured out. The job is probably gone,” I shrugged, “but to be honest, the job is a shit job, and I’m starting to realize that all I was really doing there was making someone else rich. Besides,” I added, “done is done. I think I made the right choice.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, “I’m proud of you.”

Wow… he was really going for broke tonight.


We were interrupted by the nurse. “Guys, visiting hours are over. Need you to go home, let her get some rest.”

My dad folded his arms across his chest and gave her a firm look.

I stepped in, “Ma’am. I appreciate what you’re saying. My sister and I will go home, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to pry my dad out of here tonight… at least not without causing a huge scene…”

She looked from dad, to me, then back to dad. Finally, she nodded, “Okay. But she needs rest.” Her look got firmer, “One problem, and you’re out of here, got it?”

I held my hands up, “We’re gone.” I looked at dad, “Cool if I stay at the house tonight?”

He nodded, “Can you keep an eye on Re?”

“No problem.”

I collected my sister and we headed back to my truck.

Getting in, I looked at her. She looked so small and fragile, but I could tell seeing her mom had helped her, like it had put a little air back into her sails.

She was starting to get her arms wrapped around this thing. Stuck at the house with Casey, all she could do was sit and fret, worry and make up problems. Now that she had seen her mom, sick, but okay, the situation must have felt so much more manageable.

“Feeling better now?” I asked her.

She gave me a shy smile and nodded. “Yeah. Thanks, Jakey.”

I grabbed her and pulled her in for a hug.

We rode in silence for a while, the only sound the rumble of the engine. Finally, Re broke the silence.

“Jakey, can I ask you something?” her voice was quiet, almost shy.

I gave her a quick glance and a smile, “Of course kiddo.”

She bit her lip and I could tell she was trying to figure out how to put whatever it was she had on her mind. “Were you and Casey ever a thing? Like… like a couple?”

I looked at her, surprised by what she had asked. I had expected her to ask about her mom, worry about what was going to happen, pretty much anything but that.

I shook my head, “No. We’ve always been good friends, but never anything more than that.”

I felt a wave of sadness settle over me at having admitted it…

She nodded, “Why not?”

I took a deep breath and finally allowed a shrug, “Just never happened. Why do you ask?”

She nibbled on her nail again. “I just always got the impression the two of you were in love.”

I snuck a quick glance at her, “What gave you that impression?”

She looked at me, “Just a feeling.”

Her eyes found the road ahead of us, and she paused for a few seconds before continuing, “I mean, when I was young, before I really understood boys and girls, it made sense that you just were friends. It made sense that you hung out and that was that. As I got older I started to realize how weird you guys’ relationship was. Boys and girls just aren’t friends like that. When I was a little younger I just kind of assumed that the two of you had just figured out the secret, like you had found the cheat code that let two teenage kids be friends without it having to be a sex thing. Now though, I watch the two of you and you’re just drawn together. Like gravity.”

She sat quietly for a few seconds, trying to draw her thoughts together so that it made sense. I sat patiently, letting her figure out what she wanted to say, and how she wanted to say it.

Finally, she broke the silence, “In science class, we watched this movie on how solar systems are formed. It had a bunch of computer animation that showed how everything comes together. One of them was on binary solar systems. How two suns would form, or how two solar systems would merge. Each sun would just kind of stop, and they would both dance around each other. Everything else in the solar system would orbit around the two suns, but those two, they would just sort of dance around each other, each pulled by the others’ gravity. They didn’t orbit one another, but they kind of danced around a central point.”

She looked back to me, a softness coming over her face, her voice dropping to almost a reverent tone, “That’s what I think of when I see the two of you together. Like tonight, when you pulled her in. Both of you just sort of gave in to the gravity. I thought you were going to kiss her…”

My left eye started itching and I stopped to scratch it. “It’s not love kiddo. We’re just really good friends. We’ve been really good friends for a really long time, and yeah, it’s a little weird because of the boy/girl thing, but we make it work.”

“So, you guys never tried to make it into something else? Something more? Something… better?” she asked.

I laughed, a short, dismissive bark, “Define better.”

She looked me up and down and I could see a sadness there that mirrored some of my own. “I think what you have with Casey is rare. The friendship is nice, but I think you two could be so much more if you just worked at it.”

I shook my head, sighing, “Kiddo. I know it’s hard to wrap your head around. Hell, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around, but sometimes it’s best to settle for something that makes you happy and not risk everything betting on something that might make you happier. Casey and I have each other. If we pushed it beyond that, yeah, maybe we end up as a couple, but… maybe we stop being friends. Maybe we end up hurting each other in a way that can never heal. I think both of us just realized that if one of us, or the other started pushing it, we could unravel the whole thing.”

She looked back out at the road, biting her nail again. She was obviously hesitating to ask me something…

After what seemed like forever, she finally found the courage, “Do you love her?”

I felt a surge of emotion in my chest, like a tidal wave hitting some hidden wall I had set up.

The answer to that question was a truth I didn’t want to admit to. Not to her, hell, maybe not even to myself…

It was my turn to be quiet for a good long time. She waited for me, patiently…

“Yeah, as a friend I do. I mean it’s tougher to settle out. My friendship is different with Casey than it is with my guy friends. The love I have is different for each of them.”

She turned back to me and narrowed her eyes. I could instantly tell my answer was not satisfactory for her. “Do you think she’s hot?”

I smiled, well, more of a smirk, and told her, “I try not to think about that. She’s my friend, and that’s not something I want to put on her.”

A big shit eating grin spread over her face. “What a shitty answer! Okay, so, if she wasn’t your friend, and you were just hanging out in a bar and she walked over to you and started flirting with you, would you think she’s hot then?”

I smiled at her, knowing she had me, “Yes.” My brain went to a very adult oriented corner as I pictured her, thought of her soft curves and angles, her hair, her face, her beautiful smile. Her full body…

I forced my mind away from such thoughts…

She nodded, knowing she was backing me into a corner.

“And would you flirt back with her?”

I rolled my eyes, “Yes.”

She spread her hands, “So, you have a girl you think is beautiful, and who you are amazing friends with, and you don’t think that maybe it might be worth it to take a shot? To at least talk to her about it?” She sat for a second, gathering wool, like a thought had just occurred to her for the first time and even she was surprised by it, “Wait, have you two ever even talked about it?”

I looked at her quickly, my eyes darting between her and the road, “No.”

She sighed at me, shaking her head, “You are so stupid.”

I laughed, “Look, you’re too young to get it. Sometimes having a good friendship is better than all the other relationship stuff. I don’t need all that other stuff, and neither does Casey.”

Something about what I said riled her the hell up. I could see her face drop a lot of the playful banter and something like anger hardened her features.

She dropped all her playfulness and her eyes bored into me. “You’ve been gone too long. You need to remember, you only see your side of things now.” She shook her head at me, “Don’t speak for Casey, and don’t think you know everything she’s thinking. You should probably at least consider that she sees you differently now…”

I shook my head, gaining some understanding. Re just didn’t understand Casey and I well enough. She was after all, just a kid.

She pressed her advantage though, “Let me throw you a hypothetical. Tonight, we get home, and as soon as we do Casey comes running over. She pulls you aside and she tells you that she’s been stupid for years. That she loves you, and not as a friend. She tells you that she wants to be in a relationship with you. She tells you that what she feels for you is so much more than what she should feel for a friend. What do you say?”

The floodgates in my mind splashed open and the feeling of what she was saying flowed over me. I could feel myself pulling Casey into my arms. I could feel the heart beating in my chest as the implications of what Re was saying overwhelmed me…

I nibbled at my lip and sighed, really afraid of the implications of what that train of thought meant…

Finally, I fessed up to it, “I’d probably say let’s give it a go.”

She smiled at me smugly, “So. What you’re really saying with all this bullshit about ‘we’re just friends and that makes us both happy!’ shit, is that you’re too scared to ask for something more than what you have, right?”

I gave her a dark look. “No. Not necessarily.”

I felt my mind hit a speed bump. I knew what she was saying. Worse still, I knew she was right.

“So, what if she’s scared too? What if, the only thing that is keeping you and her from being together is that both of you are just too chickenshit to admit it to the other?”

I chewed on that for a second, letting my mind go down all the potential alleys and pitfalls what she was suggesting might hold. Sad as it was to say, she had a damn good point…

Finally, I nodded my head, I allowed her the point. “Maybe you’re right about the scared thing.” I held a hand up to forestall her pushing her point even farther, “But you’re wrong about one thing. That would not be the only thing keeping us apart.”

She looked at me and I could see a dark cloud of anger spread over her face, “What? Roo? You’re saying you’re too good for her because she has a kid?”

That hit me totally by surprise…

“What? No! I don’t care about Roo. I was talking about the fact that I have school. I mean, right now, I can afford to bail, I’m off for the summer, so I have a few months here that are pretty much free, but come fall time, I’m going to have to go back. Let’s say Casey and I fall madly in love. We run off and start a happy home together. What happens next September? We just wave at each other as I go back to school?” I shook my head at her, “Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of people try to pull off the long-distance thing. Most people can do if for a couple months, but a whole year? And then, what about law school? I just go off to that and leave her here? Where does it end?”

Re looked at me like I was crazy, “What, are you fucking stupid? Take her with you when you go back!”

I spread my hands, “Just make her give up her whole life here? Make her walk away from everything she knows?”

Now she looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language… “Give up what, stupid? Her glamorous life as a single mother? Her pretty much non-existent social life? The ever so important job of scanning groceries? Versus the alternative? She can go off and live with someone she loves while they become a fucking lawyer? Wow, how is she going to get over the heartache caused by that? You know how fucking alone she is, stupid? Every night.” She emphasized each word, “She goes home to a three-year-old. I’m sure that’s stimulating conversation. Let’s say she goes out on a date. You know how many guys are just going to run straight for the hills as soon as she mentions that she has a kid at home? Not that it fucking matters if they did, because you know how many dates I’ve seen her go on since Roo came along? None!” She shook her head at me disgustedly, and crossed her arms, “Get over yourself.”

I was surprised at how angry she was. How quickly I had gotten under her skin…

What she was saying made sense… but it was still a lot to take in.

I shook my head, suddenly overwhelmed and feeling like I had maybe been too stupid to figure things out.

My respect for Re grew greatly in that moment. She may only be fourteen, but in some ways, she was a hell of a lot smarter than I was. She had a lot more figured out… or at the least she was a hell of a lot more observant than I had been in the past three years…

She shook her head at me, her anger suddenly gone. “I just see the two of you. Both of you seem so sad all of the time.” Her eyes found mine as I glanced at her again, “Unless you’re with each other. Then, both of you seem like the world can’t touch you.” She looked me up and down. “I’m not saying you should take the plunge, I’m just saying, think about it. Make a conscious decision about what you’re doing. Don’t just let inertia make the decision for you. Maybe talk with each other and make sure you’re both on the same page with being happy just being friends…”

I shook my head and sighed, confused beyond belief. “I will. I mean, I’ll think about it.”

She nodded at me, going silent.

We sat in silence for a minute or so when she looked at me again. “So… have the two of you ever…” She made a clenching motion with her hands and moved them back and forth, “you know…?” She made some grunting sounds to punctuate her point.

I sat there in stunned silence…

She wasn’t asking what I thought she was asking…

She just sat and kind of looked at me.

I couldn’t even speak…

Finally, I realized that she wasn’t going to actually say anything else. The thought caused me to snap back to life. “What? No way! Are you fucking kidding me? Are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?”

She rolled her eyes at me, “Come on, we’re both adults here…”

I held my finger out to her, “No. No we are not, ‘both adults’, here. I’m an adult. You’re a child.”

She raised her eyebrows, “So you two haven’t had sex?”

My eyes went wide, “That’s totally private!”

She smiled, “So that’s a yes?”

I shook my head vehemently. “Why would you ask me that?!”

She looked forward and shrugged, her voice going quiet, “I just thought, you know, maybe Roo was yours.”

I felt like I had been dropped in a deep, cold pool…

Roo? Mine?

A strange feeling smashed to the forefront of what I was feeling. A warm feeling, like coming home…

Then it withered and died on the vine. Replaced by something cool and reptilian. An unpleasant emptiness as I realized that no matter how much I wanted something, it wasn’t true.

I shook my head, “Roo’s not mine.”

She looked me up and down again. “You’re sure?”

I sighed deeply. I really didn’t want to talk about this with her… it was too private, too… painful.

“I’m sure.”

She held her hands out, “You’re sure because you used protection?”

“Protection?!” I sputtered. She started to answer and I stopped her, “Stop. No. Stop. I can’t think about that!”

She giggled at me as I tried to collect my thoughts.

Finally, it struck me as funny. I laughed under my breath as I shook my head at her. “No. Not because I used protection.”

Again, that sadness filled me.

She held her hands out, “So you didn’t use protection, so it’s possible that Roo might be yours?”

I held my hands out on the wheel, spreading my fingers, begging her mentally to just stop…

“No. Because as much as I’d like Roo to be mine.” I stopped, my brain starting to wrap itself around that beauty of a thought…

I realized suddenly that there was a part of me, hell, a large part of me, a part of me that I had never before allowed myself to admit existed…

Was upset because Roo was not mine…

“No… Roo can’t be mine… because Casey and I have never…”

Her eyebrows shot up, “Had sex?”

I spread my hands against the steering wheel. “Yes. We’ve never had sex.”

She looked at me like some strange bug splattered on the windshield. “Ever?”

I looked at her in shock. “No. Never.”

She shrugged, “Have you two ever… done other things? Like maybe you two were playing and maybe some fluid got somewhere it shouldn’t have?”

“Playing?! Fluid?! What the hell!” I gasped.

She giggled at me again, “What? I’m not innocent. I’m fourteen. I have access to a computer and the internet with no parental filter…”

A mental picture snapped into my mind I desperately wished I could wash clean… I was going to need to pour bleach into my ears when I got home. Some very strong bleach…

“Gross… that mental picture is going to stick with me…” I muttered.

She gave me an offended look. “It’s not that big a deal. If I was your little brother and not your little sister you wouldn’t say shit about it.”

I laughed, shaking my head as I realized she was right. I shrugged, “I guess you’re right. In fact, if you were my little brother I’d probably have some website recommendations for you.”

She hit me in the arm as we both laughed our asses off.

Once the fit passed she pressed on, “So, is that possible? Maybe you two just weren’t careful?”

I shook my head at her. “No. Not possible. We have not treated each other as playground equipment.”

She frowned. “So… you’ve never seen her naked?”

I threw my head back…

Taking a deep breath, I told her, “I didn’t say that. I just said, we’ve never had sex. We’ve never…”

She looked at me like I was holding back, “But you’ve seen her naked? So, it’s possible that maybe Roo is yours?”

I raised an eyebrow at her, “Maybe you’re understanding of baby making mechanics is off, but knowing what she looks like naked doesn’t mean it’s possible I got her pregnant.”

She laughed, “I understand the mechanics of it asshole! You’re not giving me much detail to work off of!”

I laughed back at her, shaking my head. It was apparent she was going to work this like a dog with a bone…

I licked my lips nervously, and took a deep breath to get ready for this…

Finally, I looked at her soberly, “You remember, we’re under pinky promise right now?”

She nodded, “Yeah.”

I pointed a finger at her. “I’m serious. You tell no one what I’m about to tell you. Not mom, not dad, and certainly not Casey. I shouldn’t even tell you this, but I know you’re going to go crazy if I don’t.”

She crossed her heart, “Promise.”

I took a beat to think. “One other thing. We were young. Really young. You don’t hold this against Casey. Got it?”

She held up two fingers, “Promise.”

I gripped the steering wheel tightly, trying to center myself. “I’ve seen Casey naked. But I know Roo is not mine. We might have played doctor when I was like thirteen or fourteen. It wasn’t sexual per se, it was just us both being curious, comparing bits and pieces. There was no touching, or at least not much touching… and no… fluids.”

She giggled. “You’re such a prude!”

It was my turn to look at her like she was crazy. “So, unless Casey has the gestational period that is somewhat more impressive than my knowledge suggests, I think I’m in the clear.”

I went quiet…

The sadness quietly seeping in. It was surprising that the thought of not being Roo’s father was so disappointing.

“By the time Casey got pregnant… it had been a long time since we had had any opportunity for Roo to be ours. We just had a few times when we got curious, just kid stuff. Figuring things out. When Casey got pregnant I already had a good idea of the mysteries of the female body.”

She nodded, thinking…

“Why are you harping on this so seriously?” I asked her.

She looked at me, concern showing on her face. “I guess I just thought Roo reminded me of you. I mean, not in looks. In looks she looks just like her mom. It was just something in her eyes, in the way she acts.” She shook her head, “Must just be something Casey passed on to her, like the stupid kangaroo thing.”

I looked at her and smiled. “Or I’m lying…”

Her jaw dropped, “No! We were under pinky promise! You’re not allowed to lie!”

I laughed at her and shook my head, “I’m not lying.” I sighed… “In fact, surprising as it is for me to admit, a part of me wishes Roo was mine. Even if it was an accident.” I smiled at Re, “I think Casey and I would make one amazing kid together.”

She shook her head at me sadly. Pointing her finger at me, “See. It’s shit like that, that I’m talking about.”

I didn’t want to get back on that track…

“Okay…” A thought occurred to me then, sudden offense splashing over me, “Wait a minute! You seriously thought that I’d get Casey pregnant and then take off on her?”

She paused, her eyes slowly walking back and forth while she thought of a good lie… “No….”

“Pinky promise!”

She threw her head back and spread her hands. “Okay. Maybe I thought that. If you had asked me last year, I would have said yes. Now, I mean just now, when I started to talk to you about it,” she rolled her hands around each other, “I just thought maybe you two had been fooling around and you just weren’t careful enough… maybe there was another guy in the situation… maybe things got complicated…”

A dark cloud passed over my mind, “Re. Casey is not that kind of person. She’s not the kind to ‘play around’ and she’s certainly not the kind of person to be fooling around on someone.”

She held her hands up, “Okay, okay. No need to get testy about it. I just wanted to ask.”

I shook my head at her…

We again went silent.

She again broke the silence…

“So how old were you when you…” she again made that squishing motion with her hands, “when you first…”

I froze dead, everything clicking in place. Yes, a good part of this was satisfying her curiosity about me and Casey, but a larger part of it was about satisfying her need to understand sex in general. Casey and my relationship must have represented a mystery to her, how a boy and a girl managed to be friends and address the issue of sex within that relationship. It may not directly relate to her own situation, but it still fueled her desire for knowledge, and to understand a subject that must have been deeply intriguing for her.

I thought back to my own days of being fourteen and trying to figure out all this sex stuff.

How it all seemed to be a big mystery. How nobody seemed to want to talk about it, and everyone seemed so repressed. Nobody that mattered seemed to have the answers, and those that did have the answers made it weird to talk about…

“Have you talked to your mom about this?” I asked cautiously.

She made a face, “Ewww… no!”

Fuck! I thought desperately. I was hoping she’d be more comfortable bringing these questions there…

This was not a talk I wanted to have… she was my little sister after all…

Problem was. If I didn’t have it with her, who was going to? I mean, I was sure Mom at least had sat down with her and explained the basics. Dangers, things that needed to be watched out for. Most likely even the emotional pitfalls that needed to be taken into account. I also realized that as deeply embarrassing as that conversation was, Re most likely had tuned out for most of it at worst, and at best had held onto any questions she might have had…

Now she was looking to someone she trusted to get those questions answered…

I just drew the short straw of being the one to have the discussion…

I blew air out. “Okay. Fine. Let’s do this. Hit me.”

She giggled at me, “How old were you your first time?”

My face darkened, “A hell of a lot older than fourteen… on an unrelated note, how’s your boyfriend? Still eating solid food? Because I can help him with that…”

She rolled her eyes at me, giggling like a schoolgirl, “Don’t worry about that… we haven’t… done anything.”

I raised my eyebrows at her, “Sex anything, or anything, anything?”

She gritted her teeth and looked deeply embarrassed, “We’ve kissed. That’s all.”

I laughed at her, “Hey, don’t give me attitude, you started this.”

She laughed and shook her head, “So, are you going to tell me, or are you going to evade my question?”

I narrowed my eyes at her, “Sixteen, almost seventeen.”

She nodded and bit her lip. “And if it wasn’t with Casey… who?”

I shook my head at her, “I’m not going to be that specific.” I could see her close up a bit, so I reached out and took her hand for a sec, hoping to make her understand I wasn’t trying to deepen any mysteries. “I’m not rebuking you. I just want you to understand that who you have sex with and under what circumstances is a special thing to be shared between you and them. It isn’t a topic of public conversation and it’s something that should never be bragged about. Sex can be strictly a physical thing, but if it’s done right, it’s an act of love, and that makes it a sacred thing. When you break that trust, you’ve committed a grievous sin. It’s something you should never do, and more importantly, something you should never tolerate from someone. Do you understand?”

She nodded and gave me a shy smile. I let go of her hand. This was a weird enough conversation, adding holding her hand to it was not an element I even wanted to consider.

She nodded, considering her questions, “So, not being specific, was it just a hookup, or a girlfriend? Someone special?”

I looked at her. This was going to be unpleasant to explain…

I cleared my throat, “My first time was… not what it should have been. It wasn’t for the right reasons. I started dating this girl…”

Goddamn it! I thought, this was seriously going to make her dog the Casey angle…

“When I was sixteen I fell for Casey hard. I mean really hard.”

Her eyebrows shot up.

“I fell in love with her, and not just a little. She was all I could think about, day and night. It became like an obsession. I thought about having sex with her, about loving her, about growing old with her. I mean I had always had a bit of a crush on her but one day I woke up, something clicked and I was dragged under.” I looked at her, “You asked about whether or not we were ever a couple, that was as close as we ever got. I was a neurotic mess. She became my entire world.”

I shook my head, trying to recall how powerful that feeling had been, not just so I could explain it to her, but so that I could feel it again myself. “I came pretty goddamn close to asking her out, hell, to just flat out telling her I loved her.”

Her brows knitted, “Why didn’t you?”

I shook my head at my own stupidity, “Because I was scared. I got it in my stupid head that I was going to tell her I loved her and she was going to reject me…”

She nodded, “And then you wouldn’t be friends anymore…”

I shook my head, “No. I was terrified that she’d reject me and then I’d lose her. She’d push me out of her life and that would be it. No more Casey.” I sighed, shaking my head, “I couldn’t do that. I made up my mind it was better to just love her and be her friend than risk losing her forever.”

She looked at me, a look of pity.

I shrugged, “But that only made it worse. I got more and more obsessed. It was like a knife was buried in my chest and I was trying to move it constantly. Like she was twisting it in me…” I clenched my jaw… that feeling I could remember…

“Finally, I got it in my stupid head that you could only love one person at a time, and since I couldn’t love Casey, I needed to find someone else to love. I started hitting on this other girl and we started dating.” I shook my head, “One thing led to another and we ended up sleeping together a few times…”

I sighed in disgust, “And I realized that everything I was doing with her was just to try to forget what I felt about Casey. I finally got so disgusted with myself I broke it off.”

She had a shell-shocked look on her face, “Well… that sucks…”

I smiled and shook my head at her. “I guess my point is that things can get real complicated real fast when sex is involved.”

She nodded, “Yeah…”

“What about Casey? When was her first time?” She asked.

I only considered answering because I could see how tentatively she asked the question. How respectful she was in how she asked it…

I shook my head at her, “I don’t know for certain… and again… I don’t want you to judge her, but I think whoever Roo’s father is,” I stopped, feeling sorrow well in my chest, “he was her first. I know she was a hell of a lot smarter than me, and she waited a lot longer.”

Re curled in on herself a bit, “Do you think she loved him? That he loved her?”

I looked at her, a deep well of sadness pulling me in… “I don’t know if she loved him. She doesn’t talk about it. Not even with me. I think she beats herself up about it, that she looks down on herself for it.” I paused, my sadness turning to a boiling anger, a desire stronger than almost any I had ever felt to hurt someone, “But I know he didn’t love her, because there’s no way in hell he could have made Roo with her and walked away if he did.”

Her face crumpled up a bit and she nodded sadly.

I snuck a glance at her, “So, I’m guessing since you’re asking about all of this stuff, you’re trying to make up your mind on when you should give it up?”

She put on a pained smile and nodded, “Kind of.”

I shook my head, “Do you want to? Or does he?”

She shook her head, “He wants to,” she paused, “of course… but…” she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “I really do too.”

I blew air out through my nose, trying to hold back my judgement on the situation. Yes, she was my little sister. Yes, I knew she was too young. I also knew making her feel like I was judging her was not going to make her stop wanting what her body was telling her to do. Being dismissive of her right now was, in fact, probably the best way to make sure she made a really stupid decision.

I finally realized what to say…

“Do you love Casey?” I asked.

She nodded, if she caught the sudden change in topic she didn’t register it, “Like she was my sister.”

I raised my eyebrows, “And do you think she’s a smart person?”

Her expression turned earnest, “One of the smartest people I know.”

I nodded, “And do you respect her?”

She tilted her head and gave me an ‘are you kidding me?’ look. “More than probably anyone else in the world.”

Her hand shot out and hit me in the arm, “Certainly more than I respect your sorry ass.”

I laughed, time to set the hook…

“Then before you make this decision, maybe you should ask her what she thinks about these kind of choices…”

There have only been a few times in my life when I really made a difference in someone else’s.

I got the impression, right then and there, that I made a difference for Adrianna. I could see all the tumblers line up perfectly for her, could watch as everything fell into place. I could see in her eyes that she looked at Casey’s situation and for the first time she put herself in those shoes and walked a mile. She felt the sadness. Felt the isolation. Felt the sacrifices that Casey made on a daily basis to take care of her baby girl.

I could tell, she rejected every part of that, but not in a judgmental way. She didn’t look down on Casey. She just decided that she had seen her friend go down a very hard path, and while she respected what Casey had managed, she decided to go a different way…

I also guessed I just cockblocked the shit out of her boyfriend…

Worth it.

She smiled at me, and as we pulled into the driveway she looked at me, “So, about those website recommendations…”

I looked at her in horror for a split second…

Then she burst out laughing…

Chapter 6

We went inside. I learned an important lesson that night. When someone you love is sitting in a hospital somewhere, when you don’t know how they are doing, how well they are, hell, whether or not they’re going to live or die, the quiet times are the worst times. There’s nothing to do, but sit, and wonder, and worry, and make up scenarios that one should definitely not be thinking about…

We sat on the couch in my parent’s trailer and tried to watch a movie together.

Neither of us seemed all that tired. Both of us seemed restless as all get out. We had talked each other out, and neither of us seemed all that interested in trying to get to sleep.

Finally, I could take no more.

I stood, “I’m going to go for a walk. Maybe moving around some will help me get my brain to shut the fuck up. Want to come?”

She looked up at me from the pillow she had laid out for herself to watch the movie from. She was chewing on her nail again.

She shook her head at me slightly, “No.” She lifted her phone up, “Fuck. It’s almost midnight.”

She sighed, “I’m supposed to have volleyball camp in the morning. Think I’m going to need to bail on it.”

I shook my head at her. “No way.”

She looked at me, and I was taken with how much like her mother she looked. “Jakey, my mom is in the hospital. I really don’t feel like playing volleyball right now.”

I knelt in front of her and put my hand on her hip. “Kiddo. Your mom would kill me if she knew I told you this, but she put in a lot of sacrifices to make sure you had the money for that camp. If you don’t go, she’s going to feel like she let you down. Like she took something from you. It would be important to her that you go.”

Tears started in her eyes. “I know. It’s just I sit here and all I can think about is how worried I am that she’s going to get sicker…”

She didn’t want to say it. She didn’t even want to open the door to the possibility that her mom might die.

I licked my lips and tried to focus my thoughts. I didn’t want to think about mom dying any more than Re did, but I needed to. I needed to think out ahead of this. I needed to be the one that kept their shit together so if this went sideways I could help keep everyone else centered in the road. I needed to be strong for Re, and for my dad. It would be tough, and I knew I would be hurting just as much as they were if the unthinkable happened, but someone needed to do the job, and I was best equipped.

I looked into her eyes and smiled. “Kiddo, things are going to work out. They have to, because I won’t let it go down any other way. Right now, sitting here, hell, tomorrow, sitting here, and worrying your head off, isn’t going to do a goddamn bit of good. You should go to your camp tomorrow, and you should try to have fun. You should try to learn, and you should live your life like everything is going to be okay, right up until life shows you it isn’t going to be. Don’t tempt fate. We all just need to go on with some hope, and pray things turn out for the best. Okay?”

She gave me a hopeless look. “And what if she gets sicker? What if she gets bad news from the doctor tomorrow?”

I smiled at her, trying to put her at ease, “Then I can come right down to the school and get you. You’ll be my first stop, and we’ll all face this together as a family. Right now, what I need you to do is be a kid. I need you to let me do the adult thing, and you do the kid thing. If you’re running circles around your mom’s bed at the hospital all she’s going to do is worry about how she’s worrying you. You going on like you’re not worried is the best thing for her. You want to be strong for her, that’s the way you do it, okay?”

She gave me a pained smile, and I knew I had said just the right thing, in just the right way.

She nodded, and with tears rolling down her face she sat up and gave me a big hug. I held her tight, pretending I was the one giving her strength when I knew the truth was that she was supporting me.

She pushed back from me and blew out a deep breath, waving a hand at her face to dry her tears. I could see her driving the pain, and the worry down. Could see her exerting iron-willed control over it.

“You go for your walk. If I’m going to be at camp tomorrow, I need to get some sleep.”

I smiled at her. “You go on to bed. I’ll hang out here. I don’t need to go for a walk. If you can be tough, so can I.”

She crawled off the couch and walked around behind it, heading back towards her bedroom. She stopped at the door between the living room and the kitchen and turned back to me. “Go ahead and go for your walk.” She smiled, and I felt my heart lift a little. “And say hi to Casey for me.”

I smiled at her. “Casey is in bed I’m sure. I’m not going to run off and bother her. I really just wanted to get out and burn off some energy.”

She nodded, frowning at me, not believing a word I said… “Tell yourself what you have to…”

With that, she turned and walked from the room.

I stayed until I heard her finish in the bathroom and head into her bedroom and shut the door.

I lied to myself as I pulled the kangaroos I had bought for Casey and Roo out of my truck and told myself that I was just bringing them in case I happened to walk by and Casey happened to be awake.

My traitorous feet gave truth to the lie as they headed me straight towards her place. She had bought the trailer right behind my mom and dad’s. In truth, my mom, who had managed the park for the past few years, had arranged for her to be able to get the place. Things had gotten tense between her and her mom while she was pregnant. Her mom had apparently taken the attitude that her daughter, who was a million times better of a person than her mother could ever hope to be, was a whore for getting pregnant at seventeen. The last couple months of the pregnancy Casey had ended up staying at my parent’s place…

She busted her butt and got through school early, in fact, just in time to have Roo. She always joked that at least she hadn’t had to walk to get her diploma while still big as a whale…

After she had Roo, she got her job at the local supermarket. They hired her as a checker, and that was what she had done for the past three years. She used her paltry pay to help pay for her little trailer, and she worked hard every single day to make her life, and her daughter’s life, just a little bit better than it had been the day before.

My feet crunched in the gravel that was set between the trailers as I thought about how low I had felt when I had talked to Casey right after Roo had been born. I had run home to try to be there for Roo’s birth, and I had come up short. I sat down with her, and I begged her to come back with me. To bring little Roo, and come stay with me. She could start a new life there. She could go to school with me, and she could live with me until she got her own place. Looking back on it now, I realized, I hadn’t been trying to convince her to start a new life, I had been trying to convince her to come and start a life with me.

In my own fantasy world, I had gotten it into my head that she’d come up and she’d live with me for a little while. She’d start to realize that she maybe, maybe she loved me as much as I loved her…

We’d just pretend Roo was mine.

We’d be a family.

I swallowed a lump in my throat as I tried to make my mind jump away from remembering how she had told me no with tears in her eyes. How she told me she couldn’t leave her mother behind, how she needed to find her own place in the world.

I remembered thinking how hollow all of those excuses had sounded. I remember thinking that what she was trying to politely tell me was that she wasn’t interested in starting a life with me…

I looked up and my heart leapt to see that the lights in her place were still on.

I gripped my stupid little kangaroo tighter as I tried to summon up the courage to keep walking…

You have to be either stupid, or crazy to do what you are thinking about doing… I warned myself. You already laid your heart bare for her once… how many times are you going to do this to yourself before you realize that she doesn’t feel the way about you that you do about her? Are you seriously going to let the pie in the sky ramblings of a fourteen-year-old kid tear you open like this again? How many more times do you think she’s going to put up with this shit from you before she tells you to get lost forever?

…How many more times do you think you can hear her say no before you start to hate her?

I came around the front of her trailer and started up the three steps to her porch. My eyes were so focused on the front door and my mind so focused on screwing up my courage that I didn’t see her sitting there on the beat up, ancient, little couch she had on the front porch.

My only warning she was there was when I heard her sniffle, when I saw her move in the darkness. She had the porch light out. She was sitting there in the darkness…

Just enough light poured in from the streetlights around the park for me to make out her wiping at her face.

She had been crying.

My heart crashed into my stomach…

You stupid motherfucker. Her friend is in the hospital and she’s probably worried sick about her, and here you are thinking about how you can get into her pants? What is wrong with you! I thought in disgust.

I wanted to apologize for bothering her…

All I managed to say was, “Hey.”

She sat up a little straighter and sniffled, wiping at her face harder. “I’m sorry.”

I smiled, even though I knew in the darkness, she couldn’t see it. I shook my head at her, “Don’t be sorry. You that worried about her?”

She jerked her head, nodding…


I pointed to the couch next to her. “Can I sit for a while?”

She was facing into the streetlight, so I could see her smile at me, “Please. You can always come sit with me.”

I sat down next to her, close to her. Close enough that I could put my arm around her if I dared…

I didn’t dare.

She leaned over and put her head on my shoulder.

I figured, What the fuck? And put my arm around her, pulling her close.

She didn’t complain.

She held up the bottle she had in her lap. “Beer?”

I shook my head, “No thanks. I remember your taste in beer sucks…”

A sob seemed to wrack through her… one she barely caught… and she folded into me like the life had just been drained out of her.

I dropped the kangaroo I had still been holding in my right hand to the floor and pulled her in tighter, hugging her. I put my lips to her head and squeezed her tight, trying to will my strength into her. My heart was breaking into a million pieces just to hear her crying. To feel the sobs, she held back as they wracked her body.

I kissed her forehead, daring… hoping…

“It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay…” I whispered, rocking her.

She shook her head and I pulled her in closer. “I got you. I’m here… I’m sorry it took me so long…”

I tried to let her cry herself out, but I also wanted to comfort her… “Kiddo, it’s okay. She’s going to be okay.”

Like that, she took a deep breath and I could feel her shove a glut of emotions down into some deep, dark place. Like water smoothing as the wind died, she went calm…

That’s not good… I thought as I realized that she had just pushed the emotion away from her.

She sat up straight and looked at the bottle in her hand. I figured she’d drain it…

Instead, she set it on the little table she had next to the couch.

I gave her a weak smile, “Figured you’d down that bitch…”

She gave me a chuckle, “No. I don’t need to be that person.”

The realization of how dumb that comment was slammed into me at full force. Her mom had been that person. The one that had turned to a bottle every time things got tough. The one the drowned themselves in liquor every time there was a problem…

I put the palm of my hand to the side of her face, her cheek beneath my thumb, her elven ear underneath my fingers. I could feel the heat of her ear on my fingers and the wetness of her tears on my thumb. She covered my hand in her own and leaned into it, closing her eyes like she was savoring the contact, like she was sucking up the love and storing it for some later date.

We twisted so we could face each other on the couch, one leg draped over the edge, the knees of our opposite leg touching. Once again, I let my hand drift behind her neck and I pulled her forehead to mine. We sat that way for a few minutes, our foreheads pressed together. Our noses touching. Both of us quietly, gently, moving our heads just enough to rub our noses together…

Eskimo kisses…

That was what my mom, my birth mom, had called them. She used to give them to me every night before we went to bed…

Finally, I could take no more. I pulled away, reaching for the kangaroos… “Here. I got you this.”

It was dark, and I’m sure she had no way to see them, at least not well.

She sat the momma in her lap, her big feet facing her. She grabbed each foot. She ran her fingers over the face of both momma and baby…

She shook her head, in truth she shook her whole body…

She was starting to lose her composure again…

“Thank you… Roo’s going to love it.”

I moved closer to her, my breath shallowed as I felt an icy wave break loose in my chest…

That feeling I had told Re about? The one, the obsession? That thought where the only thing that existed in the world was Casey? How I had told her I didn’t remember how it felt anymore?

I remembered it.

I shook my head as I took the kangaroo back from her. “No.” I pulled the joey out of his momma’s pouch and held it up for her. “This one is for Roo.” The momma, I took my left hand and holding the neck between my fingers I moved the kangaroos head up and down, making it nod… “This one is for you.”

Her face crumpled as she looked at me…

My god… how can she be so beautiful even when she cries… I thought in wonder…

She pulled the kangaroo out of my hand, hugging it tight. She cried, and all I could do was sit there, my hand on her knee, and be with her.

“Thank you.” She finally managed.

I smiled as I felt the last of my will sap away…

“I’m sorry…” I whispered as my hand found its way back to the back of her neck.

Her eyes opened and the tears stopped… her breathing slowed… I felt her hand just start from the kangaroo and onto my leg…

“For what?” She whispered back to me.

“I can’t pretend anymore…”

I pulled her in and kissed her on the lips.

It was a stupid move.

It was a disrespectful move.

I had no right.

As soon as our lips met I expected her to pull away. I expected her to push me away. I expected her to scream.

Hell, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had punched me in the face…

Wouldn’t have been the first time a woman had punched me in the face…

It wouldn’t be the first time a woman had punched me in the face today…

What I didn’t expect was for her lips to melt beneath mine as they did. I didn’t expect her mouth to open for me. I didn’t expect her tongue to slip between my lips. I didn’t expect to feel her arms come up and wrap themselves around my head.

I sure as fuck didn’t expect her to surge up and spread her legs over my body…

I got all of those things.

I wrapped my arms around her as she kissed me aggressively, her fingers dancing lightly across my face.

A better man than me might have been able to keep track of the world. He might have worried about the time wasted in the relationship that had just ended. He might have worried about the job he had just lost. He might have even worried about his sick mom in the hospital…

I was happy for the first time in my entire life to not be a good man…

She became my entire world. I felt the shell I had put around my feelings for her smash away and the entirety of it all boiled up from within me. My hands found their way beneath her shirt, working their way across the smooth muscle of her back.

Her body worked against mine, our bodies finding time with one another. Her breathing was fast and hard, matching mine in rhythm and tempo. I felt her physical need for me grow to match mine…

And then it hit me I was doing this all wrong…

I wanted her. I wanted to just pick her up and carry her inside. To crawl into bed with her and make love to her. I wanted to forget the world with her. I wanted to make her forget the world with me…

But more than anything, I wanted her to understand just how much I loved her. I needed her to understand that it wasn’t just a physical love that drove me. She was beautiful. She had an amazing body. I loved the graceful curve of her neck, and the soft lines of her face, but more than anything… I loved her soul.

I pulled my mouth away from hers, “I love you.” I managed to whisper between kisses.

Her mouth moved down the side of my face, across my neck, “Stop talking…” she begged.

I shook my head… I needed her to understand…

I needed her to understand I didn’t just want to get in her pants. I didn’t want to have tonight. I wanted to have tonight and every night from now on. I needed her to understand I couldn’t do this unless I could have that. There was no way I was going to be able to look back at tonight and know that was all I was ever going to have with her…

My hands found their way from her back to her side. My lips found her neck as the fire in my chest spread through my body…

“I love you, and I want to be with you…” I whispered, “Not just tonight…”

She stopped kissing me and closed her eyes, a look of pain and something like intense concentration warring on her face. Her arms wrapped around my head and she kept my pulled close, her forehead against mine.

“Please stop talking…” She begged. “I just want you to make love to me…”

Her body shuddered, like she was about to start sobbing again…

I kissed her lips again, trying to make her understand that I was going to make things okay again.

“I don’t understand…” my head shook, “what’s wrong?” I whispered. “What did I do wrong?”

Her head shook, “I can’t. I’m sorry… I can’t.”

I tried to kiss her again and she pushed me away this time…

And there it is… she doesn’t love you. She’ll let you have sex with her, but she’ll never love you. I thought to myself, my heart starting to bleed.

She slid away from me. “You should go.”

My heart crashed into my stomach…

She slid out of my lap and turned her back to me. I slid forward on the couch, desperate to explain myself…

I had ruined everything. I had gambled our entire friendship and I had lost. How could I be so stupid?

“I’m sorry…” I whispered…

She shook her head at me, “Please just stop.” She turned her face back to me. “I’m sorry. This is my fault…”

“Just let me explain…” I begged.

She opened the front door. Turning back to me one last time, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore…”

She went inside…

Chapter 7
I carried my sorry ass out of there and went home. I’ll admit, I laid there on the couch for a long time, feeling sorry for myself. How had one day gone so badly? How had I managed to take literally everything I had and destroy it?

After a few hours, I finally managed to fall asleep. It was a restless, exhausting sleep filled with bad dreams. It was one of the longest nights of my entire life. I knew, on one level, I should be worried about my mom. I should be worried about my future. The only thing I was worried about though, was whether or not Casey was ever going to talk to me again.

Never again would I get to see her smile in the sun as she lay next to a swimming hole. Never again would I get to see the raw joy in her eyes as she dove into a plate of bar-be-que ribs I had made for her. I would never again get a two-in-the-morning phone call that woke me up just because she felt alone. I would never see her grow old. I’d never get to make her soup when she was sick…

I felt adrift and lost…

I woke to a knock on the door, snapping awake and jumping up from the couch. I wanted to get the door open as fast as possible as I didn’t want the knocking to wake Adrianna up. I felt bad for the poor kid. Sleep and an adult schedule was hard enough on a kid. I knew it had taken her forever to fall asleep last night.

Some asshole banging on the door first thing in the morning was the last thing she needed.

I rubbed my face as I ripped the door open.

My heart leapt into my throat when I saw Casey standing there in the morning light. I tried to swallow…

Fuck me in the ass with a wooden spoon! I thought, panicking.

This was so not fair! She didn’t even give me a chance to come up with some sort of explanation? Some chance to come up with some sort of semi-believable lie we could tell each other to try to find some way through this? Just an early morning ambush?

Her face was puffy and I could tell she had been crying. What was worse was I knew she had been crying because of me. Because of the raw stupidity that bounced around inside my brain.

Say something you stupid son of a bitch! My brain screamed at me.

Roo saved my ass, “Big guy!” She screamed as only a three-year-old can.

She reached for me with her one free hand, her other arm was busy wrapped around the stuffed kangaroo that I had given Casey the night that Roo had been born.

Casey shushed her gently, trying to get her to be quiet, and bounced her in her arms. “Quiet now baby girl. It’s still really early and people are trying to sleep.”

Her eyes caught mine for a split second and as fast as I could think, as I could hope to find some of sort of forgiveness for my stupidity the previous night they swiped away from me.

“Is Adrianna here?” She asked me shyly.

I rubbed my face to try to clear my head, “She is, but the poor kid didn’t get to sleep until way late.”

Casey looked away from me, out into the yard, like she was trying to think. She bounced Roo, who had put a thumb in her mouth and leaned into her momma. Little Roo was looking at me, that blank stare all small children seem to adopt when they are studying something they find interesting. I stuck my tongue out at her…

It was a goofy thing to do, but the urge struck me suddenly and I just rolled with it. Roo’s face lit up in a smile around her little thumb and she giggled at me.

The sound caused Casey to spin around.

I barely got my tongue back into my mouth and did my best to look innocent.

Roo rated my ass out, “He’s silly mommy! He stuck his tongue out at me!”

Casey looked at her daughter, then to me with shock.

She laughed for just a split second before that sadness I had put in her heart managed to snuff out the flame. I felt a dagger of guilt stab into my heart…

Casey shook her head, “Look. Can you wake Adrianna for me? I overslept because of-“ She cut herself off.

She didn’t need to say it. I understood. She had overslept because she had been up crying most the night because the stupid ass she had been friends with since she was ten years old had decided that it was more important to him to stick his tongue in her mouth than it was to just be her friend…

She shook her head, her face nearly cracking, “Doesn’t matter. Adrianna is sitting for me this summer while she’s off school. I’m already late and I need to get ready fast. Can you wake her up?”

I held my arms out, seeing my chance to weasel my way back into her good graces. “Give her here. I can keep an eye on her. Then you can get ready and Re can get some extra sleep.”

Her eyes widened and she looked from Roo to me. Her face was filled with such love when she looked at her daughter, and such sadness when she looked at me. She nodded quickly as she forced a smile onto her face.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. How about it pumpkin? You want to go with Jakey, hang out with him and Adrianna today?” She asked the little girl.

Roo reached out for me, “Big guy!”

Her little face was filled with such joy I couldn’t help but feel my spirits raise.

Stepping close I pulled her out of her mom’s arms and scooped her close to my chest. She giggled and gave me one of those awkward hugs only a toddler seems to know how to give.

I looked at Casey and watched as her face nearly cracked with sadness…

“Hey, can we talk… about last night, I’m really…”

She cut me off, holding a hand up, “Tonight. I promise.” She shook her head, looking back towards the safety of her house, “I’m crazy late. I need to run.” Her eyes snapped back to me, and for the first time all morning she was able to hold my gaze for a second. “Tonight, can you come over? I’ll make the three of us dinner, and then we can watch a movie or something and we’ll talk after I put Roo to bed.”

“But I don’t wanna go to bed!” Roo announced.

Casey smiled, pushing the sadness out of her eyes as she stepped closer to me and ran her hand over her little girl’s forehead. “I meant tonight silly. You want to have dinner with Jakey, and then we can watch Zootopia?”

Roo looked at me with amazement, “You’ll watch Zootopika with me?”

I giggled as her three-year-old palate mangled the word and pulled her tighter, “Yeah kiddo. I’d love to watch Zootopia with you and your mom.”

Roo looked back at her mom, “You promised.” She held one of her chubby little fingers out. “You have to keep a promise.”

Casey leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. “I will baby. We’ll have dinner, and then we’ll watch a movie together.”

Her eyes came back to me and I could see them gloss over with tears…

I wanted to beg her. If I knew it would do a damn bit of good I would have thrown myself at her feet right there and begged for forgiveness.

She nodded, pushing the sadness back down, “Tonight.”

I wanted to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder, pull her in for a hug, even hold her hand. Anything to try to suck some of the pain and sadness out of her…

After my stupidity last night, I didn’t dare touch her. Best case scenario, I was going to have a long, hard road ahead of myself to try to earn her trust back. Worst case scenario… I didn’t even want to think about what the worst-case scenario looked like.

Casey pointed to the two of us, “You two going to be okay?”

I sighed, trying to force my brain onto the topic of taking care of this little girl until my sister woke up.

I looked at baby girl, “You don’t still shit yourself, do you?”

Casey barely compressed the laugh that tried to burst out of her, and forced it into a snort.

Roo held her hand in front of her mouth, “You said a bad word.”

I took her hand and shook it, “Don’t try to dodge the question. You know how to use a toilet?”

She primed up like a peacock, “I use the potty like a big girl.”

I looked back at Casey, overjoyed to see that my offhand remark had put a little spark of happiness in her eyes.

I frowned, “I think we’ve got it covered then.”

I saw the joy and the sadness fight for control of her mind and took it as a good sign when she put a smile on her face and dodged her way off of the porch. “Call me if you need anything,” She threw over her shoulder as she fled.

Roo and I watched her go.

Finally, and with a big sigh I carried Roo into the house.

“Mommy’s sad.” Roo said ruefully.

I bounced her like I had seen her mom do. “Yeah, I messed up and made her sad.”

She looked at me seriously, “Did you say you were sorry?”

I smiled at her, “I’m trying to baby. I’ll just have to find a way to make it up to her.”

She pursed her little face up, a look of total concentration on her face, “Maybe you should call her… she always smiles when you call her.”

I sighed, “I’ll think about it.”

Shaking my head to try to clear it, I asked her, “So what the shit should we do?”

She again put her hand over her mouth, “You said another bad word…”

I laughed in her face. “Get used to it kid.” I told her, laughing.

She laughed with me…

“Can we watch Zootopika?” She asked in her innocent little voice.

I looked at her sideways… I was starting to get the feeling I was going to be watching a hell of a lot of Zootopia, whatever the hell that was…

“We’re going to watch that tonight with Mommy, remember?” I reminded her.

She rolled her eyes at me like I was stupid, “Yeah, I remember, but you can never watch Zootopia too many times silly…”

She was a little smart mouth like her mommy…

I loved it. I let her down and walked her over to the couch. Taking her hand, I lifted her and helped her climb up. She sat engulfed by the cushions, her legs sprawled out straight in front of her. I smiled at how cute she was.

“Well, kiddo. I don’t live here, and I don’t know if they have Zootopia and it would be rude for me to go pawing through their stuff. Can you think of something else you’d like to do? Learn how to do taxes, or juggle knives or something…?”

She tilted her head at me, “Mommy says knives are dangerous and that I shouldn’t play with them.”

I laughed. Kid didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but she had good comedic timing…

I squatted down in front of her to be at her level. “Well, I threw out two perfectly good ideas. If you don’t like them, why don’t you suggest something.”

She pointed a finger at me, “I thought of Zootopika…”

I smiled, “Good point. How about another choice?”

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “Can we watch Dashie?”

I raised an eyebrow and scratched above my ear, “So… full disclosure. I’m a little out of the entertainment for three year old’s circle. What the hell is a Dashie?”

She pointed to the TV. “On OoooTube.”

Holy shit, it’s like I need to learn a whole new language… I thought, trying to figure out what the hell she was talking about.

Then it hit me. “YouTube?”

She smiled as she nodded eagerly.

Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out… I thought to myself as I started up my sister’s Playstation and loaded the YouTube app.

I typed in Dashie on the controller and started shifting through the results. Looking at Roo I asked, “Little help here kiddo?”

She pointed excitedly. “That one! That’s Dashie!”

I had never seen this particular guy do his shtick before, but I had seen videos like it. He sat and facecammed while he played video games. Seemed a little weird for a three-year-old to be interested in, but hey, who was I to judge?

I selected his channel and sorted through his videos, trying to figure out what she would like.

Damn, guy does a lot of videos… I thought as I sorted them.

“Which one do you want, Button?” I asked Roo.

“The ones where he plays Mario!” She said excitedly.

Okay, easy enough. I thought as I sorted to a playlist where he played Super Mario Maker.

I sat down next to her as I played the video for her.

Then I realized, maybe it isn’t cool to sit cuddled up with a strange three-year-old… I was still a little fuzzy about all of the rules when it came to taking care of a kid…

Looking down at her I watched her little face enraptured by this guy as he screamed and yelled as he got trolled by the level. It seemed like the entire theme was built around people making levels for him that were purely designed to torture him…

It was pretty funny… maybe a little in the adult language department for a three-year-old, but still funny. Part of me wondered if I should turn it off… the larger part was more concerned with the fact that at least I wasn’t watching something terrible.

Fuck it. Plausible deniability. If someone bitches about it I can just play stupid. I thought.

We had made it through three episodes when I heard a voice over my shoulder, “Ha. This one’s funny.”

I tilted my head back to find Adrianna standing over the back of the couch. She leaned over and plucked a piece of cereal out of the bowl I was eating out of, and popped it into her mouth.

I smiled at her as she said, “You know if Casey finds out you let her watch this she’s going to kick your ass, right?”

I looked at Roo, who was sitting on the other couch, a bowl of cereal as big as her head in her lap, then up at Re again, “And you know snitches get stitches right?”

Re lifted her eyebrows at me, “She’s three, bro. They’re not exactly politicians when it comes to keeping secrets right?”

I frowned.

Oops. She was probably right. I was most likely busted…

Roo was totally engrossed in the episode so I snapped my fingers at her, “Roo.”

She looked at me, “Don’t tell mommy I let you watch this okay?”

She looked at her bowl of cereal, then at the TV. Then her evil little eyes narrowed. “Mommy says I shouldn’t keep secrets…”

I looked at Re in shock. “Is this evil little troll fishing for a bribe?”

She laughed and took another piece of my cereal, popping it into her mouth. “She’s three. They’re all little sociopaths. They have the self-discipline of a raccoon.”

“Trash panda!” Roo screamed.

I looked at Adrianna questioningly. “Trash panda?”

Re giggled. “I taught her that. Her mom hates it, it’s hilarious.”

“So Roo. You understand if you tell your mommy I let you watch this I won’t be able to let you watch it tomorrow.”

Her face went wide in shock. “I won’t tell.”

I snickered and held my fist out to her, “Bump it.”

She fist bumped me.

I gave Re a shit eating grin, pointing at Roo, “I taught her that.”

Re grabbed the bowl of cereal out of my hand and started eating out of it. “Great job bro. You’re the very definition of a role model. Her life is enlightened by your very presence.”

Smart ass… I thought, giving her a dirty look.

It was still funny though…

“What’s she even doing here?” Re asked between bites of food.

I gave her a perplexed look, “What do you mean? I thought you were sitting for her this summer?”

She chewed with her mouth open, “Remember bro? Volleyball camp this week. She’s supposed to be going to one of Casey’s friend’s house this week.”

My stomach sank and I grimaced, “Oops.”

Re put another spoonful of food in her mouth, “Looks like you’re babysitting today.”

I looked at Roo. She was having a blast. Finally, I shrugged, “Whatever, she’s cool.”

Re smiled. “Roo?”

Roo looked up from the TV.

Re pointed her spoon at me, “Did you hear that? Jake thinks you’re cool.”

Roo nodded, full of innocent spirt, “I like Jake too!” She balanced her bowl carefully and started to lift it, “He gave me sugar cereal! See!”

Re motioned her to put the bowl back in her lap, “Yeah, I see.” She looked at me, “You know mom’s going to put your balls in a vice and squeeze if she spills that on the couch.”

I paused… “Oops.”

Re shrugged, eating another spoonful. “So, Casey must have forgotten about camp this week, huh?”

I looked at Roo and said absentmindedly, “She didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Re laughed, “About damn time!”

My head snapped around to her. I realized in horror she had misinterpreted what I was saying. “No! Or… fuck… not like that.” I said quickly.

She gave me a ‘sure.’ look.

I shook my head at her, last night’s stupidity flashing back into my head. Sighing, I decided to tell her…

“I went over there… it didn’t go well. She’s pretty pissed at me right now.”

Her face went white in shock and she tilted her head towards the kitchen, pointing towards Roo with her spoon.

“We can’t just leave her here!” I hissed.

“Why not?”

I looked at Roo, who was, incidentally, completely enraptured by the TV, “I don’t know, what if she sticks her spoon in a light socket or something?”

Re looked at me like I was stupid… “Watch.” Re commanded, “Roo!”

Roo’s head snapped around to her. “Don’t get off the couch. Auntie Adrianna and Jake have to go into the kitchen. If you get off the couch, I’ll turn off Dashie and you won’t get to watch him for the rest of the day.”

Roo’s eyes went wide. “No. I’ll be good. I’ll stay right here.”

Roo turned and looked at me. I nodded at her, “Yeah, uh… stay on the couch, and don’t put your spoon in a light socket.”

Roo looked down at her spoon, then back up at me. “That would be pretty stupid… that’s where the electricianity lives.”

Re laughed her ass off while I gave her a dirty look, “See bro? She’s smarter than you…”

I looked at Roo and stuck my tongue out at her. She stuck hers back out at me and then went back to watching television.

Getting up I followed Re into the kitchen. She leaned up against the counter and gave me a questioning look. “You told her?”

I leaned against the kitchen table, rubbing the stubble on my chin and trying to think. Last night went so off the rails it was hard to remember exactly where it had taken the hard-left turn.

“Not really… I mean, yeah. I told her.” My eyes found hers, “I kissed her first though…”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Going for broke, huh?”

I shook my head at her, looking at the floor, “I guess.”

“Hey.” Her voice woke me from my trance. She motioned with her spoon. “And how’d she take it?”

I chewed on my lip. I didn’t really want to give her details, but I also wanted to get someone else’s opinion on how badly I had screwed up. Re was only fourteen, but she had a really good head on her shoulders. There were few opinions in the world I held in higher esteem. Yeah, she might not have all the answers, and she might have a lot to learn about the world still, but she was an avid student of people, and she knew a shit load more about them than I thought I would ever figure out…

I stepped forward and held my pinky out to her. She dropped her spoon in her bowl and grabbed my finger gleefully.

I sighed, “At first, it was great. She kissed me back…”

“How’d she kiss you back? Was she into it? Or was she like, ‘ew… this totally sucks, he’s a terrible kisser and he looks like the ass end of a badger’?”

I rolled my eyes at her. This seemed really high school right now… “It seemed like she was into it...” I shook my head… that couldn’t be right. She couldn’t be into it, could she? I mean not if she reacted the way she had?

“And then?”

I looked at her and realized I had again gone into a trance, “And we were kissing, and I told her I loved her, and she shut me down.”

“Wait. What?” She looked confused. “Back up there.”

“She shut me down.”

Re looked at me like I had grown a third arm. “No, before that. You told her you loved her? The actual word, the L word?”

I rolled my eyes. “You told me to tell her how I felt.”

She put another spoonful of cereal in her mouth, “Yeah, but I thought you’d pussy out for sure.”

I gave her a deadpan look. “Thanks for the vote of confidence…”

She chewed her cereal quietly for a few seconds. “She smack you one?”

I shook my head, “No.”

Another bite, “She push you off of her, or away?”

I shook my head, “No. She was on top.”

Now she looked like I had slapped her, “Wait! What? You suck at this! How did she end up on top of you?”

I looked at the floor, grinding my teeth. “I gave her the kangaroos…”

She pointed her spoon at me, “That was smooth.” She told me through a mouthful of food.

I bounced my eyebrows at her, “Yeah, whatever. Anyway, she was looking at the kangaroos and I just kind of leaned in and kissed her. Nothing too aggressive, just a light peck. I started to chicken out. I wanted the words to just rush out and they wouldn’t, so I figured I’d show her how I felt. I leaned in and kissed her and she kissed me back.”

She put another spoonful of cereal into her mouth, “And she didn’t act like you look like the ass end of a badger, I mean, you know you look like the ass end of a badger, right?”

“Ha, ha. Very funny. Stop it, my sides are splitting here…”

She smiled and put another spoonful of cereal in her mouth, “So she ignored the badger anus part of you, a good sign, and then what happened?”

“And we started kind of making out, and she climbed on top of me… and while we were… you know… I told her I loved her.”

“Where was this?”

I blew out a breath, “On her front porch.”

Her jaw dropped open, “You had sex with her on her front porch?”

“Sex! I didn’t say we had sex!” I shook my head and held my hands out.

She spread her arms wide, “I told you! You suck at this! What was I supposed to assume when you said ‘while we were, you know’?” She made a face at me while she said it…

“We were making out!” I told her incredulously, trying to keep my voice down so Roo wouldn’t hear us.

She held her spoon up, “Okay! I get it now.” She shook her head at me. “Sheesh. You really are a prude.”

“You’re not helping here!”

She laughed. “So, you were making out, and you told her you loved her, I mean, like that right, you didn’t say something stupid like, ‘hey, you’re pretty cool’, or ‘you look finer than a new set of snow tires’ or something, did you?”

I shook my head at her, “No. I told her that I loved her, like that, in so many words.”

She put another bite of cereal in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

“Huh.” She said, frowning…

“Huh! Huh?! What the hell is ‘huh’ supposed to mean?” I asked in a panic.

She turned and put her bowl in the sink, and then came over and patted me on the cheek. “It means it sounds like you’re fucked.”

I held my hands up, pantomiming choking her… “I’m going to strangle the ever-loving shit out of you.”

She giggled and held her pinky up to me. “Sorry bro. Sounds like she’s crazy to me. Either that or she has better taste than I thought she did!”

I took her pinky in my own, closing the circle, and ground my teeth in frustration at her as she walked back towards her bedroom. “Not helpful!” I shouted after her.

She laughed. “I’m fourteen! Look who you’re asking love advice from! Now, get some clothes on, you’re taking my ass to practice!” She threw over her shoulder.

Just about then I heard Roo in the front room, “Uh-oh.”

Fuck my life… I thought, walking back into the room.

True to form, Roo had spilled the bowl of cereal on the couch…

She looked up at me, panic and fear in her little eyes. “I spilled, I’m sorry.”

I pushed my frustration with her down. It wasn’t her fault, and getting mad at her was only going to scare her. I needed to remember that she didn’t know me very well, and it was very important to me that she knew I would never hurt her.

I walked over to her and knelt, helping to pull the bits of cereal out of her pajama pants. I scooped up what was now globs of cereal and put it back into the bowl. The milk had already soaked into the couch and the carpet beneath, so there wasn’t much to be done for that other than to soak up as much as I could. I didn’t want it to dry so I pulled my shirt off and pressed it down on the wet spots, sighing.

I knew Adrianna was right. Deb was going to kick my ass…

Looking up at Roo, she had her little hands up by her face and was trying to make herself as small as possible. I gave her a smile, “It’s okay lollipop. It’s my fault. The bowl was too big, and I should have had you eat it at the table, okay?”

Her eyes got all big and adorable. “You’re not mad at me?”

I smiled at her and shook my head, “No, Button.”

“You can turn Dashie off…” She offered, “That could be my punishment. I won’t watch him for the rest of the day… I won’t be mad.”

I stood and kissed her on the top of the head. “I told you, Button, I’m not mad. I’m not going to punish you. It wasn’t your fault. I should have been smarter.”

She smiled at me and I felt my heart break a little she was so freaking adorable…

“I’m wet.” She complained.

I looked at her pajamas, which I was just noticing now, were blue, and covered with little kangaroos…

“I know, pumpkin. Do you have any other clothes?”

She thought for a second, “I do at my house with my mommy…”

I smiled at her, “I mean here?”

Her little hands went back up to her mouth and she shrugged. She was a sensitive little thing, that was for sure.

I leaned back down and kissed her head again. “Tell you what beautiful. You sit there and watch Dashie, and I’ll check with Auntie Re and see if we have any clothes to change you into.”

Her eyes snapped back to the television for a second, and then back to me, “Okay.”

I shook my head at her and headed into the kitchen. I dropped the bowl in the sink and then headed down the back hallway to Re’s room. She had the door closed, thankfully, I really didn’t want to walk in and find her naked.

Knocking lightly, I said through the closed door, “Roo spilled her cereal…”

“Ha!” I heard her snort from the other side of the door, “You’re fucked! Who’s going to be the favorite now!”

I thought for a second, “With mom, it’s still going to be me, with dad, you.”

“Fuck! You’re right.” She giggled, “Thought I might be able to hedge past you there.”

I laughed. I really loved her sense of humor. It made me realize how much I had missed her. We talked on the phone pretty often, but that just wasn’t the same as being able to see her, to interact with her.

“Does Roo have any spare clothes here?” I asked the closed door.

She pulled the door open and I was thankful to see she was still wearing her pajamas…

“Case didn’t leave you any other clothes? She just dumped her off in her pajamas?”

I grimaced at her, “No.”

She raised her eyebrows at me, “And you weren’t smart enough to ask her how you were supposed to dress her?”

I shrugged, “I forgot about your camp. I thought I was just going to dump her in your lap.”

She rolled her eyes at me, opening the door wider. I looked in at the room we used to share. She had redecorated it since I had moved out. Gone was our old bunk bed set, replaced by a bigger, one story bed. Gone were the bare walls, replaced now with posters for bands, and cute animals. Everything was pink now… so pink it burned my eyes…

She walked away from the door and headed over to her desk. “Just a second, let me grab my keys. I have a key to Casey’s house on there. You’re going to need to go over there and get her a fresh set of clothes. Casey probably was in a hurry this morning and thought that was what I would do.”

I held my hands out, “No way. I am not going into her house uninvited.”

Casey had found the keyring and looked at me. “Scared she’ll still be there huh, pussy?”

I put my hands on my hips, “No.”

She chuckled, “Terrified she’ll be there?”

I nodded, “Yes.”

She shook her head, “Just stop. Things will work out. Stop being a worrywart. You’re going to need to get this figured out one way or the other, might as well pull the Band-Aid off.”

I looked at her in panic. “I was trying to put that off till tonight.”

She looked at me, bouncing the keys in her hand, “What happens tonight?”

“We’re having dinner over at her place.”

She raised an eyebrow at me, “She’s cooking you dinner?”

I shrugged, “I assume. I guess it’s possible she’ll catch me in some sort of large metal cage and then make me make her dinner…”

She laughed and shook her head at me, “I’ve eaten your cooking… I guarantee that is not her plan.”

I laughed with her and her face suddenly went wide in shock, “Fuck! Did she leave you her seat?”

“Seat?” I asked, having no clue what she was talking about.

“Yeah, idiot, her car seat! For Roo!”

I raised an eyebrow at her, “Like a babyseat? Why does Roo need that? She’s three.”

Re looked at me like I was stupid. “She still needs a booster seat, asshole.”

“Hey, don’t look at me like that! I mean I was going to put a seatbelt on her. I only briefly considered just throwing her in the bed of the truck and letting her put her face into the wind while we drove.” I told her defensively.

“Fuck!” Re said in exasperation. She turned and headed over to her nightstand to pick up her phone.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She looked at me, “I’m calling Lisa. I need a ride, and because you have the parenting skills of a dead wombat, we have no car seat for Roo. That means you can’t take me. I need to be on the road in like, an hour, if I don’t want to be late.”

I tried to look around her room for a clock, trying to set up what time it was, “How do you not have a clock in your room?”

She looked up at me as she swiped at her phone, “I don’t like the light while I’m sleeping. I just use my phone.”

“Whatever, anyway. I’ll just run to the store, real quick. I need to anyway if I’m going to go see mom today. Once you leave, if I can’t put her in the truck safely I’ll be stuck here.” I looked at her, hoping she’d help me out. “Can you watch her really quick? Please?”

She pointed at me, “You better be fast. I don’t want to be late.”

I ran in and kissed her on the head. “Thanks,” I headed for the door, “Love you in a platonic, completely appropriate for a little sister sort of way!” I yelled as I ran down the hall.

I stopped in the living room and put my shoes on, and then realized I was shirtless…

Fuck! I thought, looking around the room in a panic for my bag. Shit! I left it in the truck!

Roo was looking at me like I was insane…

“Lollipop, I need to go get you a new seat at the store. Re’s going to watch you, is that alright?”

She shrugged, “I’m still wet.”

Double fuck!

I held my hands out. “I’ll get you some clothes while I’m there, okay?”

Her eyes went back to the television, “Okay, but pick out something cute… I don’t want to look stupid.”

I held the index fingers on each hand up at her, “Got it. Cute. Stupid. Got it.”

Running out the front door I gave the neighbor’s a little show as I ran to the truck and pulled a t-shirt out of the back and put it on. I hopped in and drove to the store as fast I could legally… well, mostly legally.

I headed first to the baby section and picked out a car seat. I had no clue what I was looking for so I just got the most expensive one they had… I figured if it was expensive it had to be good…

Next, I ran into the home section and grabbed a little handheld carpet shampooer so I could clean up the mess Roo had made on the couch, along with a bottle of shampoo.

Finally, I found myself in the little girls’ clothing section… and found I had no fucking clue what to get for her. I panicked a little, just kind of wandering around the section, overwhelmed by all the pinks and yellows. All the frills and lace. Finally, one of the blue smocked employees took a little sympathy on me and came over, “Can I help you find something?” She said with a smile.

She was tall, and attractive, and about my age…

Hey, I may be in love with Casey, but I’m still very much a man, and very much human…

“Um… I need clothes for a three-year-old.” I stammered, trying not to look too much like an idiot.

Kelly, I knew that was her name from sneaking a quick look at her nametag, looked at me like I was crazy.

She pinched her fingers together, “Can you narrow it down just a little bit for me.”

I looked back and forth, trying to figure out what she needed narrowed down…

“Uh… a three-year-old human?” Something occurred to me, “Girl.”

She laughed, covering her mouth as she did. She looked into my cart and saw the seat and put two and two together, realizing I probably had no clue what I was doing, “New to this, huh?”

I nodded, “Very much so.”

She laughed again, not a derisive laugh, just enjoying watching me flail a little bit. “Yours?”

I looked at the cart, “Not yet, I am planning on buying it though.”

She threw her head back and laughed fully this time, when she finally got herself under control she looked back at me, her eyes meeting mine. She had really pretty eyes, green, with flecks of blue, “No, the little girl.”

I shook my head, “No. My friend’s little girl.”

She leaned casually against the cart, “A female friend?”

What the hell did that matter?


She leaned in a little closer to me, “A female friend you’re trying to impress?”

I got it now… she was flirting!

I grabbed the handle of the cart and almost started nervously rolling it back and forth.

I stopped when I realized that it would have most likely dumped her on her ass, considering she was leaning on it. “Yeah…”

She smiled at me, and I could see a little disappointment in her eyes, but she was still friendly. She stopped leaning on the cart, “Well, let’s pick you out something that will impress.”

We walked deeper into the section. “What were you looking for?”

“Shirt, pants… uh… underwear?” I looked at Kelly in a panic, “Can I even say underwear when I’m talking about someone else’s kid?”

She laughed and shook her head at me, “You are too adorable…” She turned when we got to a section of shirts, “What size is she?”

I kind of roughly waved my arms about, giving a reasonable approximation of how big Roo was. Kelly laughed again, again covering her mouth as she did so. “So… we’re just going to kind of guess?”

I shrugged, “Look. I’m like a big dumb bear that’s found a dumpster behind a restaurant. I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, I’m just excited and doing my best to roll it out of the parking lot without drawing the attention of the police…”

She laughed again and pulled a couple of shirts with that fucking snowman from Frozen on them. “How about these?”

I grabbed one that seemed about the right size, throwing it into the cart, “Looks great.”

She helped me pick out pants, and undees…

I was really lucky that she helped. There was no way I could go into the little girl’s underwear section alone… I would have died of embarrassment.

Once we had everything she turned back to me, “Got everything you need?”

I nodded, “I think so. Kelly. You’ve been my hero today!”

She stepped closer to me, “If she doesn’t realize how lucky she is, maybe come back and see me.”

I smiled, blushing… “Don’t think that’s an option for me Kelly.”

She smiled again, “Too bad. You’re cute.”

I nodded, “Uh… you too?”

She laughed, again covering her mouth. “Have a good day.”

I nodded in relief and ran for the front of the store.

I checked out and drove home as fast as I dared. Diving in through the front door I found Re and Roo sitting on the couch watching TV together, Re looked at me in exasperation, “Cutting it a little close aren’t you?”

I threw the bags on the couch, “Sorry. Had no clue what I was getting and I had to get her clothes too…”

Re pulled the shirt out of the bag and I could tell the instant she held the shirt up it was going to be way too big for Roo…

Re laughed at me, “Well, you hit this one out of the park…”

She threw the shirt at me, “Get her dressed, I’ll go put the seat in your truck.”

Panic surged into me, “Nope!” I said as I threw the shirt back at her.

Re looked at me, “What?”

I looked at Roo in panic, then back at Adrianna. “No way I’m getting her dressed.”

Re laughed, “Well, we need to get going, do you know how to put a car seat in?”

I shook my head, “No.”

She walked up and dropped the shirt back in my arms, “Then you’re on dressing duty.”

She looked at the panic on my face, “She can dress herself, mostly… try to control yourself.”

I rolled my eyes at her as she laughed and walked out the front door.

I looked at Roo, “Can you help me here kiddo? Can you get dressed like a big girl?”

She jumped off the couch and started pulling clothes off…

I quickly turned and faced the wall, uncomfortable as hell. Pulling the tags off the clothes, I handed them back to her without looking, hoping that she could get things sorted out down there without any help. When I handed her the shirt I could hear her squeal, “Olaf!”

Her little hands wrapped around my leg in a big hug. I kind of shook my leg, trying to kick her off…

“Yep, Olaf. Uh… could you… um… put the shirt on now?” I asked nervously.

She let me go and I could hear her struggling with the shirt. “Let me know when you’ve got it figured out…” I mumbled.

Finally, after what seemed like forever she announced, “All done!”

I turned back and looked at her adorable face. She was smiling ear to ear, holding her way too big shirt out, so she could look at the snowman on the front of it. The shirt was blue, which I realized with her bright red hair was a good color on her. She was swimming in it, but it did the job. The jeans I had gotten for her were a much better fit at least, and they had elastic in the waistband which seemed to be doing the job.

I knelt down and pulled on her pants a bit, just to make sure they weren’t going to fall off the first time she took a step. They were loose, but holding. I looked into her little button eyes, “I really suck at this kiddo.”

She looked down at her new shirt and then back at me, smiling a smile that melted my heart.

“You did good, I look cute!” She announced as she wrapped her little arms around me.

I hugged her back as tight as I dared. I was really starting to fall in love with her…

The front door burst open and Re threw out an exasperated, “Are the two of you finished making out in here?”

I let go of Roo and she grabbed the chest of her new shirt, “Look, Jakey got me an Olaf shirt!”

Re burst out laughing, and Roo looked crestfallen. Re pointed at her, “Great job bro! She looks like she’s wearing the clown shoes version of a shirt!”

Roo looked at me, her little face drooping. I crouched back down, “Don’t let her get you down. You look good! She’s just jealous that she doesn’t have an Olaf shirt.”

Little Roo turned back to Re, “Yeah! Your just shelous you don’t have an Olaf shirt! I look good!”

Re smiled and looked at me, “Well, I could probably borrow that one! Here hand it over!”

Roo planted her feet, “No! It’s my Olaf shirt!”

Re and I started laughing our asses off. Re hooked her thumb at the door, “Bro, I really got to go or I’m going to be late.”

I scooped Roo up and bounced her, “You want to go for a ride pumpkin?”

She narrowed her eyes at me, “It’s my Olaf shirt. You tell her she can’t have it. You gave it to me…”

I leaned in close to her, “Do what I do…”

We both looked at Re. I stuck my tongue out at her. Roo stuck her tongue out at her. I laughed and kissed Roo on the cheek. She was so cute!

Re laughed and shook her head, “Wait until Casey finds out you taught her that…”

“I’m not scared of her!” I announced as we walked to the door. Conspiratorially, I leaned in and whispered into Roo’s ear, “Maybe let’s not do that in front of mommy, okay?”

Chapter 8

My phone rang as I was pulling out of the parking lot at the school. Looking at the display I saw it was Casey. I turned the radio off and looked over at Roo, who was wearing my sunglasses to comedic affect…

I held my phone up, “Mommy’s calling.”

She reached her little hands out, “I want to talk to mommy, I need to tell her about my Olaf shirt!”

I swiped the phone to answer the call and handed the phone to Roo. “Hello mommy!” Cute little Roo answered.

I couldn’t make out what Casey said to her, but Roo beamed, “No, it’s Roo!”

More mumbling from the phone, “No mommy. Jakey’s right here. No mommy, no, listen…”

Roo went quiet as she listened to her mom talk. “Yeah, I’m having fun mommy. Jake bought me an Olaf shirt!”

I watched her as she held the phone to her too little face, her hand barely fitting around the flat black square. “Jakey does a good job taking care of me mommy, he fed me cereal, and he bought me an Olaf shirt, and he got me a new car seat!”

Roo looked at me, “Okay, I guess you could talk to Jakey, mommy.”

She handed me the phone, “Jake here.”

Casey’s voice was like a cool drink of water on a hot summer day, like music to my ears… “I’m so sorry Jakey. I totally forgot that it was this week Adrianna had camp. I just woke up this morning and in the rush I… I’m really sorry Jakey.”

I shrugged, “Don’t sweat it. We’re having fun,” I looked at Roo, “Aren’t we pumpkin?”

She smiled and nodded her head vigorously.

I said into the phone, “She agrees.”

“I’ll pay you back for the car seat and the clothes…”

I shook my head, “No you won’t. Don’t worry about it.”

The line went quiet for too long to be comfortable. Finally, she said, “I go on lunch in about an hour. I’ll race home and grab her and take her to my friend Cathy’s.”

“Don’t sweat it, we’re having fun.” I repeated.

Then I realized I might be stepping over the line… this was her child I was talking about. It really wasn’t my place to tell her she couldn’t come get her, “I mean if that’s okay with you?”

“Jakey, I trust her with you, I know you’ll take good care of her. I just don’t want to dump her on you.”

I looked at Roo and noticed her having to pull at her shirt. It was comically too big. She was actually sitting on it, and it was pulling the collar down. “You’re not dumping her on me. I’m having a blast with her, she’s cool.”

Roo stopped fidgeting and smiled at me. She waved at me, I waved back.

“Are you sure?” Casey’s voice sounded pained.

I nodded and winked at Roo. “I’m sure. We’re going to go home, clean up a mess, then go see my mom. We’ll have a busy day today and she’ll be all tuckered out when we get home.”

A part of me stopped short, “We still on for dinner?” I asked cautiously.

She was quiet again for a long time. “Yeah. Dinner. Then we can talk.”

I felt a lump form in my throat… I tried to swallow it, and couldn’t…

“See you then?” I asked.

“Yeah, I have to go anyway. I’ll see you tonight.”

I hung up, my heart dropping into my stomach. Too late I wondered if I should bring something for dinner…

I looked at Roo and she was fidgeting with her shirt again…

“Pumpkin, is that shirt uncomfortable?” I asked.

She put her hands on her shirt defensively, “No. I like my Olaf shirt.”

I looked at her in her car seat, “What about your seat? Is your seat comfortable?”

She rubbed her hands on it affectionately, “I like my new seat. It’s comfy.”

I smiled at her, proud that I had got one thing right at least. I put the truck back in gear and looked at her, “Let’s see what we can do about that shirt then.”

She pitched a fit the whole way back to the store. I tried to explain to her that everything was going to be okay, but she was having none of that shit…

When we pulled into the parking lot she nearly burst into tears. “I’ll be good! I’m sorry. Don’t take my shirt back…”

I got it then. She thought I was going to take it away from her… I shook my head at her, “Roo, baby. I’m not going to take your shirt away. We’re going to get you another one. That one is too big for you. I can tell, it’s not comfortable. You can hang on to that one until you get big enough for it.”

Her little eyes filled with hope. “And then I’d have two Olaf shirts?”

I smiled at her and rubbed her head. “I’ll tell you what, Button, you can pick out whichever shirt you want, it just has to fit you baby girl, would that be okay?”

She smiled ear to ear as I got her out of her seat. I set her down on the pavement and let her walk at her own pace. It was slow, but I didn’t want to rush her. When we got to the area where the cars drive through, she stopped and held her hand out to me, her little fingers opening and closing.

I raised an eyebrow at her, “What is it Button?”

“Momma says I have to hold her hand when we walk in park lots. Cars are dangerous.”

I smiled at her, “Your momma’s a smart lady, you should listen to her.”

I took her hand as she smiled at me, “I always try to listen to mommy, but I forget sometimes…”

Looking down at her, I returned her smile, “We all make mistakes pumpkin, just try real hard okay?”

She nodded, her excitement growing as I led her into the clothes section.

I led her back to where Kelly had helped me to pick out the shirt. I let her wander around the aisles, fingering the clothes as she walked by them. I didn’t rush her, I just let her look at things. She looked back at me tentatively the entire time…

We walked through the entire section three times…

She finally walked over to the rack I had got her Olaf shirt from.

“Can you pick one out for me? I like this one because you got it for me…” She asked me shyly. I have to admit, it choked me up a little bit…

I smiled and crouched back down to her level. I pulled a new one from the rack, this one was pink, and a few sizes smaller… “How about this one Button?”

Her face got all excited and she hugged the shirt tightly. “Pink! I like pink!” She held it out, her eyes quivering in excitement. “And look! It has Olaf too!”

We wandered the store a bit, just looking at things. She asked a ton of questions, and I did my best to answer them. She was like a little sponge, just taking in information and then asking more and more questions. As we walked, a thought occurred to me. I wanted to go to the hospital and see mom, and that meant I had to take her with me. That was going to be extremely boring for her…

I crouched down to her level and she smiled at me, hugging her new shirt tight. She had made me let her carry it.

“Button, I need to go see Aunty Deb. She’s sick, and we have to go see her at the hospital. Can you be patient while we’re there?”

She looked at the floor, a look of intense concentration on her little face.

“I think I could be good.” She finally allowed.

I pulled her in close and kissed her head. “You’re always good pumpkin, I just need you to be patient. I’ll tell you what. While we’re here, I’ll get you a toy, and you can take that with you, would that help?”

She made a little O with her mouth, she was so excited. “Could I get a bike?”

I made a face at her, “Maybe later… why don’t we pick out something that you can use while we visit Aunty Deb though…”

She nodded, going suddenly serious, “Oh, that’s right… I forgotted.”

I shook my head at her and let her wander the aisles. She breezed through the girl’s aisles. Honestly, I expected her to pick out a doll or something…

She showed a lot more interest in the boy’s toys. Not a big surprise, I remembered Casey as a young girl, and she was always a bit of a tomboy… it made sense her daughter would be too.

She finally stopped seriously for the first time in one of the learning toy sections. She was looking at the little teaching tablets for kids. She pointed to one behind the glass. “My friend Jenny has one of those… It shows me all kinds of neat stuff…”

I looked at the price and was a little shocked… it was pretty expensive.

“You think your momma would want you to have that?” I asked her, not looking for an excuse to get out of buying it, just making sure I wasn’t digging any deeper of a hole with Casey…

She curled up a little and I could tell she was disappointed. “I asked mommy for it one time and she said it was too espensive… we couldn’t ford it.”

A smile lit up my face, and I knew that it was perfect…

I leaned in closer to her, “Well, you see, your mommy wanted it to be a surprise, but she gave me the money and asked me to bring you here and see if you still wanted it…”

I knew it was a lie, but it was a pretty damn little one. What I really knew was that it had to have broken Casey’s heart to have to tell Roo she couldn’t afford something. My little fib meant that I wasn’t going to get credit from Roo on buying it, but it meant that Casey did. That was a hell of a lot more important to me in my book. I really did not want to come in and spoil the hell out of Roo and make Casey feel bad. She worked her butt off, and I wanted her to be proud of what she had accomplished…

Her face lit up, “She did?”

I nodded, “Do you still want it?”

She nodded eagerly, “I do, but only if mommy can ‘ford it.”

I’m not going to lie. I’m a big manly man here…

But my eyes got a little wet there…

I stood quickly, mostly to hide it from Roo; but her little admission filled me with shame. I realized then that Casey had to be busting her ass hard to provide for herself and her little girl. For god’s sake, she checked out groceries for a living. There was no way she was rolling in the dough…

I wasn’t rich by any means, but I worked a lot of hours, and overtime stacks up pretty quickly. Pretty much anytime I wasn’t in class, or actively studying, I was at the office running down leads for my boss. I didn’t make bank, but I did pretty damn well for myself. Add in the fact that I lived pretty much like a monk, and I was doing pretty okay. I had a decent amount saved up, and while I had to be a little careful considering that I wasn’t going to be bringing in any more money anytime soon, I could afford to splurge a little bit.

I couldn’t think of anyone I’d love to splurge on more than Casey and Roo.

I took her hand. “Your mommy has been saving up for this, you know what that is?”

She shook her head at me, “No.”

I walked her back to the front of the aisle to find someone to unlock the case the little tablet was locked up in.

“Saving is when you put a little money aside so if you need it later you have it.”

Roo nodded sagely, “Mommy’s real smart.”

I smiled at her, looking down at her, “Yes,” I told her, nodding, “she is.”

She stopped. “She’s a really good mommy.”

I scooped Roo up, not liking looking down at her, “I know she is, Button.”

She hugged me.

We finally found someone to unlock the cabinet. I got her the little tablet, checking the age range on it, considering I knew absolutely jack shit about kid’s toys. It said it was suitable for four to six-year old’s. I figured it was a bit of a stretch, but Roo seemed to know what it was, and she seemed like a smart kid, so I figured, what the hell…

I looked at the guy who had unlocked the cabinet for us, “This thing any good?”

He shrugged, “People seem to really like it, for her?”

I nodded, “Yeah.”

“Yeah, I think she’ll like it. Get it some good programs and she’ll probably have a blast with it.”

I picked out the tablet and a bunch of games, or programs, or whatever the hell they called them. It was a pretty penny, but it was worth it just to see little Roo’s face light up…

Chapter 9

We went home and I set up Roo’s little tablet and let her play with it while I used the little carpet cleaner on the couch and floor where she had spilled her cereal this morning. Roo sat on the other couch and as I finished she flashed me one of her little, shy smiles. “I’m sorry I spilled.”

I got up and kissed her little head, “Don’t worry about it, pumpkin.”

When we were done, I loaded her and her new toy into the car and we headed to the hospital to see Deb.

Roo, of course, flew into the room like a whirlwind, screaming, “Auntie Deb!” as she jumped on the bed.

At first, I was worried about bringing Roo. I was worried about how much her energy might wear my mom out…

I should not have been worried. The instant Roo ran into the room my mom’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.

“Roo!” She screamed as the little girl jumped up and into her arms.

I leaned against the wall and watched them for a few minutes, just watching as mom and Roo played.

I had switched Roo into her new pink shirt while we were at home, and Roo went over top to bottom about how I had bought her a shirt this morning, and it was too big, and then I had taken her back to the store and I had bought her a new one and then I got her a tablet that she could learn on, and then something about kangaroos…

It was exhausting to listen to…

My mom seemed to follow the whole thing though. I guess that’s why she’s a great mom, and I’m some schmuck…

I shook my head and yawned.

Dad laughed from the chair beside mom’s bed. “Exhausting, aren’t they?”

I gave him a tired smile and nodded, not wanting to admit to him that I was more tired from the lack of sleep last night than from keeping up with Roo as she tore ass around town.

Looking at dad, I realized how haggard he looked. He must have slept in that chair last night… and he must seriously be exhausted…

“Dad, why don’t you go home and get some rest?” I asked him.

His eyes narrowed and he shook his head slightly, “I’m good. I’ll stay here with Deb.” He said, his voice full of steel.

Deb looked at him, “Walter, go home before you fall over…”

He looked at her, and I could see the frustration in his eyes, “I’ll be fine.”

I figured Deb could use the backup, and there was no way dad could be any angrier at me, “Dad. Go home and catch a quick nap. I’ll stay with Deb and if anything goes wrong, I’ll call you first thing.”

He started to argue. Deb shut him down.

“Honey, I’m fine. The doctors said I’ll be fine until the surgery. Go get some sleep. Jakey will stay with me until he has to go pick up Adrianna, and then he can bring her home and you and her can come back here and we can all have dinner together.”

Oops… I thought guiltily.

“Uh… I screwed up.” I admitted.

Deb looked at me, “Plans with Casey?”

I looked at the floor, ashamed of myself for not thinking of spending time with Deb. How could I have been so stupid?

“I’ll cancel with her.” I told them, scratching my head and looking at the floor. “I’m sorry. I should have used my head. It’s been such a hectic couple of days that I didn’t even think about it.”

I could see that Deb caught something in what I had said, “Don’t cancel with her. You guys need time to talk and work things out. We’ll be fine tonight, won’t we Walter?”

I looked at dad, who in turn looked at Deb. Finally, he nodded. He looked so exhausted…

Finally, he rubbed his face and stood up. “You two are right. I need to go home and grab a nap.” He leaned in and kissed Deb. His initial plan was to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned and pulled him in for a kiss on the lips. I smiled, seeing them so happy. Yes, they started out in a rough place, but I was happy for both of them, happy that they had found each other.

He pulled away from her and smiled, his eyes locked onto her like she was the only thing in the entire world. Looking up at me he smiled. “Take care of her, okay?”

I nodded and smiled, hoping he knew I would do everything I could.

After he left, I pulled out Roo’s little tablet and handed it to her. I sat down in his chair and looked at Deb while she watched Roo play with her little pad.

“Where’d you get this kiddo?” She asked Roo.

“My mommy bought it for me with money she saved. Jakey helped me pick it up from the store today…” Roo answered distractedly, only half paying attention to Deb she was so enraptured with her new, little toy.

Deb looked at me, raising an eyebrow, “Your mommy bought it for you, huh?”

I gave her an exasperated look, “Yeah… her mommy bought it for her… I just helped her pick it up.”

Deb shook her head at me, “You’re a good kid, Jakey…”

I closed my eyes, suddenly very tired. “So, what are the doctors saying?”

She looked at me levelly, “That I’ll be fine.”

Tilting my head at her, I narrowed my eyes, “Don’t bullshit me. If things go sideways I’m going to be handling the fallout. I need to know, mom.”

She gave me a tired smile, “Have I ever told you you’re a good kid Jakey?”

I nodded, “You might have mentioned it.”

Deb smiled at me, this time wider, friendlier, “They think I have a thyroid growth. Day after tomorrow they’re going in and taking it out.”

My eyebrows went up, “How serious do they think it is?”

She shook her head, “Not serious. Most thyroid issues are pretty tame.”

I sighed, “Please be straight with me.” I gestured to the room, “I’m pretty sure they don’t have you staying here because you like the ambiance…”

She smiled at me, gesturing to the oxygen tube in her nose. “The growth is putting pressure on my windpipe. Doctors are worried that it might make it hard for me to breathe. They said I would probably be alright going home…”

I giggled, “Let me guess, dad flipped the fuck out.”

She nodded, “Yes. Your father had a few choice words about his opinion on me leaving...”

I thought of dad and how pissed he probably got… I remembered a story my mom, my birth mom, would tell me when I was a little kid. When she went into labor the doc at some point had pulled out a big needle and started to give my mom an injection. Apparently, he didn’t explain himself to my dad’s satisfaction and dad put him into a wall and pinned him there…

Deb smiled at me and kissed Roo’s head. “I’ll be fine. Besides, do you seriously think your dad would leave me for a second if he thought there was any chance of anything going wrong?”

She had a point…

I nodded at her and sat with her quietly for a little while, both of us watching Roo play with her new toy. She was enraptured with it, watching the little screen, pressing buttons, her whole world boiled down to that small point.

Deb looked at me, “You going to hang out for a couple of days?”

I nodded. “Yeah. At least until we get all of this stuff sorted out. Probably need to grab a hotel room.”

“Honey, you don’t need to waste money on a hotel room. You know you can stay at the house. I know things are a little tense with your dad, but you should know, you are always welcome.”

I nodded, “I know, I just need some space. Right now, I have to crash on the couch, and that’s going to get old after a couple of days. I know I could crash in Re’s room, but I think I might go insane if I was surrounded by that much pink for that long…”

Deb smiled at me. “You could stay with Casey.”

I shook my head at her, thinking back to last night. After that little disaster, I found it really hard to believe that I was going to be welcome at her place overnight…

“Probably not a good idea. We got in a little bit of a spat last night.”

Her eyes narrowed at me, “A little spat?”

I shook my head, “Nothing serious. I just said something stupid. It’s one of the reasons we’re having dinner tonight, so we can talk about it.”

I could see some hesitation in her eyes, “You’re sure, nothing serious?”

My eyes narrowed at her. There was something going on here that I didn’t understand… “Yeah. Nothing serious. What could it be?”

She smiled at me, “You two have been circling each other for a long time kiddo… sometimes things get out of hand when there’s tension.”

I yawned and rubbed my forehead, too tired to think about it…

“When you get home, talk to your dad. Tell him I asked him to give you the keys to unit 47. It just came open a few days ago. It’s clean, and furnished. The park owns it and I haven’t had a chance to list it yet. How’s that sound?”

I smiled at her. “It sounds perfect. How much is the rent on it?”

She shook her head at me, “Tell you what, you can stay there for a few days while you figure out what you’re doing and if you decide to stay longer, we’ll fill out all the forms.”

I smiled at her, “That won’t get you in trouble, will it?”

She shrugged, “No. Between me getting sick and the trailer just coming open, if the owner asks, I can tell them you’re cleaning the place up and fixing a few things.”

Dad worked at the Fish and Wildlife department, checking water monitoring buoys. Deb owned a small photography business, and supplemented her and dad’s income by managing the park they lived in. The owners held it as an investment property. Deb managed collecting the rent, making repairs on things that needed attention, buying trailers from people who decided to sell, and renting those trailers back out when they came open. Occasionally, she sold a property or a trailer and managed the payments on it. That was how Case had ended up with her trailer. An eighteen-year-old, single mom that worked at a grocery store, did not exactly have a glut of options when it came to where to live. My mom had made sure she was set up, and had vouched for Casey’s loan. I was really proud of all the work Deb had done for Casey.

Casey had picked out the trailer right behind my parents’ place, just so she’d feel a little more connected and safer. That in turn, had led to her and Deb hanging out a lot. They were pretty good friends for what it was worth, and it made me happy to see that they had developed such a close relationship.

Letting me crash rent free was not exactly kosher though… and I didn’t want her getting in trouble. Mom and dad weren’t exactly struggling, but they weren’t flushed either.

“What’s the rent on the place?”

Deb rolled her eyes, “Eight hundred a month.”

I nodded and yawned, “I’ll take it. I’d kill that in hotel costs by the end of the week. That way if there’s any question of what you’re doing, it’s legit.”

She ground her teeth at me, “You and your dad. Always so prim and proper.”

I smiled at her, “I’m not prim, I just have shitty luck, and I don’t like to spread that to the people I love.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever, have your dad give you the keys. The utilities are covered by the park and with the furniture you can move straight in.”

She blew air out through her nose, “Can you afford to be away from school?”

I looked at her and smiled. “It’ll be okay. I need to get the thing with that paper sorted out, but that’s not too big a deal. The professor for that class would probably give me a pass if I needed it, I would just prefer to avoid that, if possible.”

“Do you have summer classes this year?”

I shook my head. “No. Figured I’d take the summer term off this year. Next year’s my last year, and I’m on track to graduate in the spring. After that it’s off to law school, if I can figure that out and get into one… I was kind of planning on just taking the summer and working, maybe trying to put away some money to help with the move.”

Deb looked at Roo, “So, theoretically, you could spend the summer with us?”

I looked at her, seeing the hope in her eyes. It had been years since I had been around for any period of time. It was obvious she missed me…

I looked at Roo and made up my mind…

“I’d need to find a job, I can’t afford to just eat away at my savings all summer…” I hedged.

She smiled a shiteating grin at me, “At your dad’s work they’re hiring interns for the year. Pulling river sensors, doing tests, that kind of stuff. Pay is always good. He’s always bitching about how lazy the kids he ends up with are, and with all the environmental classes you’ve taken, it would be easy for him to convince them to hire you… might even be a nice perspective for you to have when you graduate, a little real world experience.”

I shook my head at her, clever old biddy my mom is…

“You think it’s a good idea, dad and I working together?”

She nodded, “Yes. I think it would be. You and him spending some time together would help remind him how hard a worker you are, and how much he misses you.”

I bounced my jaw a few times, “I’ll think about it…”

She smiled at me, “I think you should stay for the summer one way or the other. Some time with family would help you I think…”

Smiling at Deb, I told her, “You know what. Maybe some time away from law would help me a bit, and that would be nice. Like a long vacation. Be around the people I love. Spend some time with you, and dad, and Re.”

Deb smiled at me, “And Roo. And Casey.”

I felt the sting in my heart. I loved Casey…

I just didn’t know how much I could stand the pain of being around her and not being able to be with her…

Nodding, I tried to avoid looking Deb in the eye… “Yeah. Roo and Casey too…”

Chapter 10

Re rushed into the house, pulling Roo behind her. Dad was sitting on the couch, waiting patiently for us to get home so he could get back to the hospital. I could tell he had snuck a bit of a nap in, as he looked much revived and a hell of a lot less like he’d been sleeping on a park bench for the last week.

Re gave him a quick glance, scooped Roo up and told dad, “Just give me a second to get changed and we’re on the road!” She looked at Roo, “You want to help me pick out my outfit?”

Roo cheered excitedly, babbling about how she was going to help make Auntie Re pretty…

Dad shook his head and watched them bounce down the hallway.

I took a seat on the still damp couch I had shampooed, sharing an awkward moment of silence with my dad. Finally, he looked at me. “Why’s the couch damp? You didn’t have a woman in here did you?”

Giving him a deadpan look, I ran my hand across the couch, “Yeah, dad. I had a girl over. I had Roo hold the camcorder…” I shook my head at him, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I’ve never gotten a woman this wet in my entire life… you’ve seen the equipment I’m working with down there…”

He stopped, his jaw dropping open.

Then he started laughing his ass off.

I started laughing my ass off too…

After we had laughed ourselves out I looked at him, “I gave Roo a bowl of cereal this morning. She spilled it on the couch, so I bought a shampooer and cleaned the couch.”

He was still chuckling it out, shaking his head as I could see him working through the mental picture in his head. “You gave Roo a bowl of cereal and let her eat it on the couch?”

I nodded, “Yep, pretty stupid. Hell, Re even warned me.”

He laughed again, “You might want to lie and tell your mom you had a girl on the couch…”

I started laughing again, before the thought occurred to me that I needed to ask him about that unit… “Hey, can you get me the keys to unit 47? I’m going to be renting it for a little while.”

He gave me a shocked look, “You going to hang out for a little bit?”

I nodded, “At least until we figure out what the hell is going on with mom. She kind of asked me to stick around for the summer.”

I looked at him, gauging his reaction, “If that’s okay, that is.”

He looked me up and down, “Yeah. I think that might be good for you.”

I scratched my head and tried to think of something intelligent to say…

He cut me a break by speaking first, “Can you afford to stay? You got enough laid by to get you through, or do you need a little help?”

I was amazed…

Was dad actually offering to help me pay bills while I lazed about?

“No. I have enough saved up. I can afford it.” I gave him a firm look to let him know he didn’t need to worry about me, “Besides, I’m used to living in the city. My rent there is twelve hundred a month, and then I have to pay utilities. Mom’s giving me that trailer for eight hundred, utilities included. I can swing both for the summer…”

He shrugged, “Might help take some of the sting out of it if you had a little something in the way of a job?”

I smiled at him, surprised to see him taking such an obtuse tack. “Mom thought you might be able to set me up with something this summer.” I winced at him, “I just didn’t want to impose… didn’t want to make you feel like you’re obligated or something. I don’t want it to be weird, and I didn’t want to reach into your refrigerator uninvited.”

He smiled at me, “You’ve been cleaning my refrigerator out since you were as high as my knee!” He joked, “Do you seriously think your mom wasn’t on the phone with me the instant you left that room?”

I nodded, grimacing, “Figured that might be the case.”

Taking a deep breath, I blew it out through my nose. “Look. I know things are tense with you and I. I don’t want to impose and I don’t want to step on your toes. If you think it would be a bad idea for us to work together, just say the word. I’ll tell Deb that I decided against it.”

He raised his eyebrows, disapproval in his voice, “You’d lie to her?”

I smiled at him, “I’m studying to be a lawyer remember? I wouldn’t be lying to her. You tell me it’s a bad idea, and I, in turn, decide against taking the job.”

He rolled his eyes… “Never got how someone could be that comfortable with telling half-truths…”

I sighed, “It’s less the half-truths and more the fact that everyone seems to be comfortable with the all-out lies, that has my attention.”

He looked at me, a look of true concern on his face. “What does that mean?”

I shrugged. “Just means I’m starting to doubt whether or not I want to be a lawyer. Money’s good if you are willing to be a douchebag. Not so great if your morals mean something to you.” I shook my head, “I know I’m not a great person, but I also know that I really won’t be happy misleading people for a living.” I shrugged, “I guess I kind of had it in my head that the truth could still matter to you and be involved in the law…”

He looked at me. “I’ll set it up tomorrow.”

I shook my head at him, “What, the job?”

He nodded, “Yeah. Let’s do it. Sounds like you could use some perspective. Get away from working in a law office for a little while. Be out there and work with some people that sweat for their money. Get some dirt under your nails. By the end of the summer, you’ll either go running back to school happy, or you’ll know it isn’t for you. Either way, valuable life lesson.”

I was floored…

All I could do was nod, “Okay… are you sure it won’t be a problem?”

He smiled at me, “No, it won’t be. Not like we’ll be in each other’s hip pocket all day, every day. Maybe we’ll have to do some river runs together, but mostly you’ll be working and I’ll be managing. Work for you?”

“Yeah,” I thought about it for a second, and the more I did, the more appealing it sounded, “it does… I… uh… I appreciate it…”

He stood up and bopped me on the forehead… “Let me get those keys for you.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was standing on Casey’s porch. Roo’s little hand in mine.

She had her little tablet held tight to her chest, I held her blue Olaf shirt in my other hand. I hesitated a second before I knocked…

Get on with it pussy! My brain screamed at me…

I knocked.

I heard Casey bounding through the house, and the door flew open. The door to her trailer opened out, and I knew enough from the bounding cascade of energy that was Casey to step aside and pull Roo with me. She flew out of the trailer like a demented jack-in-a-box. Her attitude, her energy was like night and day between this morning and right now. This morning, she was filled with sadness. Like she was grieving. Tonight, she seemed like the happiest woman in the world, like no care could touch her…

I hoped that meant she had thought about my stupidity last night, and decided that she could forgive me…

Casey scooped little Roo up and swept me into a big, one armed hug. She kissed me on the cheek like last night never happened, and then kissed her little girl.

“How are my two, favorite people in the whole world?” She said, a smile splitting her ear to ear.

It warmed my heart to see her so happy, and at the same time, made my heart break to realize that I had been the source of so much of her sadness lately. She had enough burdens to be carrying… I didn’t need to be adding to them…

“Thank you so much for covering me being stupid Jakey…” She gushed as she let me go and started into her home.

I wanted to hold onto her as she moved away from me, and I had to stop and remind myself that I needed to put that part of my brain to bed. I had to let that go. Casey and I would never be that thing, no matter how much I wanted it.

“No problem. We had fun. Didn’t we Button?”

“We had tons of fun!” She squealed as she hugged her mom tight, “Thank you for my pad!”

She held the little tablet I had bought her out so her mom could see it. Casey took one look at the tablet and her eyes flitted over to me.

“Jakey told me how you saved up money so you could ‘ford it for me!”

Casey’s chin crumpled, her face overwhelmed with emotion, and there again was that sadness…

Tears filled her eyes up, and I wondered what I’d done wrong this time…

She pulled her little daughter into a tight hug, mouthing at me, Thank you.

I nodded, getting her meaning. She wasn’t crying because I had done something wrong. She was crying because, finally, I had done something right.

Casey set Roo down and grabbed her little shoulders. “Roo. Jakey was confused. He bought your tablet for you.”

I felt like I had been gut punched…

Why would she do that? Why would she not let me give her the credit?

Roo looked confused. She looked from the tablet, to her mom, and finally to me. “Why would he tell me you bought it mommy?”

Casey sniffled, and I could tell she was holding her tears back. “Because he loves me sweetie, and he loves you. He wanted me to get the credit for buying it for you because in his stupid head he thought that you’d like it more that way.”

Just her saying it jabbed a dagger in my heart. She was crying because she didn’t love me back…

I guess I had still done it wrong…

Roo looked at me with pure love. Her face was so much like her mom’s… it took my breath away. It was then, in that moment, that I finally understood what Deb had gone through. How big of a heart she had, to look at me, a child not her own, and completely accept me. To always treat me like I was her very own. To treat me every bit as good as she did her own child…

I knew, because I decided then and there that I would always be that for Roo.

I had to swallow past the lump that formed in my throat I loved that little girl that much…

She had no father, or at least the shitbag that had squirted himself in her mom had no desire to be there with his amazing little girl. I would be there though, I would pick up what he had discarded. I would make his trash, my treasure. I would always be there when she needed me…

I would do whatever I needed to do to make things right with Casey. I would figure out how to not be such a fuck up. I would be whatever I had to be so Roo could have the father she deserved, right up until Casey found the man she deserved and he stepped up to fill the role. I would be her friend, not her lover. A shoulder to cry on, a hand to help when she needed. It wouldn’t be easy loving her when she didn’t love me, but for Roo… for Roo I would find a way to push through it.

Casey turned, and wrapped her arms around my neck. That lump in my throat came back with a vengeance as I let my hands circle her waist.

When her lips met mine, I was in total shock, thinking she was just going in for a hug…

Heat exploded through my chest as I kissed her back, pouring every ounce of the love I had for her into that one meeting of lips.

When she pulled back from me her eyes were filled with so many things. I saw love there, true, passionate love. I saw hope, a hope for the future that she planned to build. Mostly, though, I saw fear. Not that I would ever hurt her, but a fear that must have come from worrying that by taking the next step in our relationship we were risking so much more…

I couldn’t help it. I pulled her in for another kiss. I wanted to kiss away all of her fears, to find a way to make the most amazing woman, hell, the most amazing person in the entire fucking world know that things would be alright. That I would make them alright.

“Ewww…” Roo chimed in.

I turned away from Casey’s attentions, smiling at Roo, “Deal with it kiddo.”

Roo looked at her mom, who pulled away from me, and started into the kitchen, “Mommy, you shouldn’t do that. He has cooties.”

Her mom snorted. “No, he doesn’t kiddo.” She chimed at her daughter, “I’ve known Jakey since mommy was a little girl. Mommy made sure Jakey had his cootie shots.”

Roo looked at me, narrowing her little eyes… “Did you have your cootie shots?”

I smiled at her, “As far as I know I’m up to date on all my vaccinations.”

Wow, maybe dad was right. Maybe I was getting a little too comfortable with half-truths…

Casey laughed as she stirred something that smelled delicious, “Now that’s the kind of lawyer talk I love to hear!”

I snorted a bit myself, realizing she had caught my little half-truth. I hadn’t had cootie shots… but I was up to date on all my vaccinations…

I went into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, looking into the pan to see what we were having for dinner.

I watched Casey as she worked, stirring, mixing, not really paying attention to me. I pushed down the urge to go around behind her, to wrap my arms around her. To kiss her neck, and run my nose up her ear. To enjoy the secret feminine scent of her.

She was uncomfortable. I could see that.

We need to take this slow… I warned myself.

I wanted her, and I wanted to be with her, but I also didn’t want to push her into any corner she was uncomfortable being in. She had just taken a huge step by kissing me in front of Roo, and I figured she needed some time to process that.

She looked at me, sensing me watching her, and smiled, the light catching her doe like brown eyes and sending a quiver of sensation through my chest.

I had to close my eyes and look away just to control the urge to not pull her into my arms and kiss her again…

When I looked up she was focused back on the pan, chewing on her bottom lip the way she did when she was nervous, or uncomfortable.

Ease up on the bedroom eyes there, big guy… you’re going to spook her. I reminded myself.

I grabbed a piece of diced up tomato off of the counter, “What are we having?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

She looked at me, that glint back in her eyes, “Tacos.”

I fucking loved tacos…

“Yeah! Tacos!” Roo chimed into the conversation.

I looked down at her, standing by my feet. She had snuck into the room and was standing close to me, trying to look at her pad, but still be involved in what the adults were doing. I crouched down to be at her level, and looked into her deep, brown eyes, so much like her mom’s…

“Do you like tacos?” I asked her.

She nodded that enthusiastic nod only a toddler ever seems to manage, the one that shakes their entire little body. “Tacos are my favorite!”

I smiled at her, “They’re my favorite too.”

I snuck a look at Casey, making sure she picked up on my not too subtle complement.

She looked back at me, a beaming smile on her face. Her eyes squirted over to Roo… “She loves that, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows at her, “Loves what?”

She pointed at me with the spatula. “When you talk to her, you don’t look down at her. You always crouch to be on her level. She doesn’t have to crane her neck up at you to talk with you. Must make her feel like she’s the center of your world when you talk to her…”

I thought about it. She was right, but it wasn’t something I ever really thought about.

Shrugging, I told her, “I never really think about it, it just seemed like the right thing to do…”

Casey pulled a piece of meat from the pan and tasted it, “Until I saw you do it, I never really thought about it. I always look down on her, unless we’re sitting on the couch together or something. Look how close she stands to you…”

I noticed then that Roo was right next to me.

I watched her for a few seconds, playing with her toy.

“Come here pumpkin.” I told her as I pulled her in, and wrapped my arms around her.

She leaned her little head against my chest, still playing her game.

I closed my eyes and rested my nose against her head, breathing in her scent. How did little kids always smell so good? Like a warm spring day after the rain had just fallen. A scent that screamed innocence and vulnerability. It was a scent that awakened an animal need in us all to protect, to fight and die on a moment’s notice if needed…

I felt eyes on me and looked up, to see Casey with tears in her eyes as she watched us.

Concern flooded through me. Something was definitely not right here… this was about more than just Casey and I…

“Are you okay?” I asked, worry clouding through me.

She nodded, and turned back to the pan, “Yeah. Just emotional. You’re so good with her.”

I smiled, raising my eyebrows, “Did you expect me not to be?”

She turned back to me, “No.” she told me, shaking her head, “No. I always knew you’d be great with her.”

That was high praise, and I knew it. There was no honor greater that a woman could give you than in trusting you with her child.

That’s when I realized… maybe that was what was off?

For me, this Casey/Jake situation was simple. I loved her. I hoped she loved me. Book begins and so it ends. For Casey, things weren’t that simple. Her choices, what she wanted, didn’t matter. Her world had to begin and end with Roo. She couldn’t put herself first. She no longer had that right. She had to think of Roo, and what was best for her first and foremost. Anyone she involved in her life had to be the right fit for what was best for her child as well as what seemed to fit for her. She had to live her life on the scraps of what her child needed… I knew many people that didn’t look at it that way, but I knew Casey well enough to know that was the way it was going to work for her. If she did involve me in her life, what did that look like? What impact would it have on Roo?

All of these questions would be flying through Casey’s head every time we interacted. More doubts, piled on more doubts. Not just what Jake and Casey thought.

It made me realize how much more patient I needed to be. How much more persistent. How I needed to be there, and give her love, and respect, but also how I needed to give her space to realize that I cared about Roo just as much as I cared about her. I needed to make her understand that for me, it wasn’t just a Jake/Casey equation. It was us becoming a family…

“Hey Roo? What say we go and get you washed up for dinner?”

Roo looked up at me with sleepy eyes, her left eye drooping a bit as she smiled at me. I realized then that I had screwed up. She had been up and going since she had gotten out of bed that morning. No nap, no rest, just, go, go, go.

I kissed her head, “You’re so sleepy… sorry pumpkin. I guess I didn’t do a very good job of taking care of you. I didn’t get you down for a nap…”

Casey’s voice was sharp, “Hey.”

My head snapped around to her, expecting a much-deserved rebuke.

“You did great today.” She told me, smiling…

Chapter 11

We ate dinner, pretending to be a family. I sat on one side of Roo, her mom on the other. We took turns eating, and chatting, and getting food into a reluctant three-year-old.

It wasn’t easy, and it made me wonder how Casey got any food into herself at all… if it was this challenging to get her to eat her favorite meal, how hard would it be to get her to eat something she didn’t like?

We sat down on the couch after dinner to watch the movie. Roo ended up in my lap, curled against me. She started excited, full of energy and waned quickly as the movie and the comfort provided by her proximity to me lulled her off to sleep…

About a quarter of the way into the movie, Casey crawled over and nestled herself against me. She looked at me with vulnerable eyes… “Is this okay?”

I felt that lump form in my throat again and pulled her in tight to me, wrapping the free arm that wasn’t pinned down being wrapped around Roo around the woman I loved.

I kissed her forehead, “Yeah. This is nice.” I mumbled, enjoying the warm feminine presence of her against me.

She cuddled into me tight, and I heard her sniffle again…

I knew she was crying again, and I knew that there wasn’t a damn thing I was going to be able to do to figure it out, or make it right. I decided that instead of worrying about it, instead of making it a bigger scene for her, I would just pull her tighter. She was going to be in control for a change. If she needed to cry, she could cry. If she just needed someone to cuddle her, all she had to do was climb over and take what she needed.

The day, combined with the comfort of being there with my two ladies, lulled me off to sleep about half way into the movie. My head pillowed against Casey’s, Roo warm like a little bonfire against my chest. For the first time in a very long time, I felt totally comfortable, totally at peace. The world seemed to be spinning just for me, like everything was going to be completely okay from now on…

Sometimes life lifts you up just a little bit higher…

So the fall is that much more painful…

I woke to the sound of a click.

Groggy, I had to take a second to put together in my head where I was. I looked up and saw Casey was holding her phone out, taking a picture of the three of us together…

Like we were a family.

I wanted that family so badly.

She looked at me and the sadness in her eyes made me realize that all of the hope that was there… everything was like ashes in the wind.

Her eyes filled with tears, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up… I just wanted…” Her voice caught and she nearly sobbed, “I just wanted one picture with the three of us together…”

I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. Everything would seem better in the light of morning. That she would always have me… but something in my heart told me that was a lie…

She turned and like that, her lips were on mine. Not a needy kiss, just one of quiet desperation. I kissed her back, feeling the surge of emotion in my chest that her kiss ignited in me. I wanted in that moment to just forget everything. To put Roo to bed, and carry Casey off to her bedroom. To make love to her and to never let her go…

But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Gears were in motion, the universe itself lining up the pieces to ensure that everything we knew and loved was going to be torn asunder. Glass smashed and scattered across the floor, only to cut our fingers every time we tried to pick up the pieces.

I don’t know for certain that I heard the voice of God in that kiss… maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me, but I felt deep in my core, from a place so much deeper than my intellect a voice, both booming and somehow a whisper tell me…

“I’m sorry kid. Get ready for it… this is going to be bad… now is the moment you will see the true depth of pain, you will look into the well of sorrow and what you choose to be afterwards will be the man that is judged…”

I pulled back from the kiss, seeing the tears and sorrow in Casey’s eyes…

“I’m sorry.” She whispered.

I felt my eyes narrow at her. Felt my body’s need for her pushed down by something so much more powerful… “I think we need to have that talk now…” I whispered back at her.

She nodded, a mix of an affirmation and a shake of her head, like she knew the truth but did not want to face it.

Her hand came up and caressed my cheek as desperation filled her eyes. Her lips again found mine, and all that worry and pain washed away.

I felt another voice from within…

“This. Feel only this and question no further. Take what she gives you, and ask no more. This would be okay…”

I let the seductiveness of that voice lull me...

She broke our kiss and our eyes locked, “I love you…” She whispered.

Joy surged in my heart like a sparrow leaping into the air, only to be torn apart by the hawk’s talons. I felt that joy smashed to shreds…

“I’m going to tell you the truth…” She whispered.

I didn’t understand what the fuck she was saying… what truth?

Her hand caressed my face again, “Just let me put Roo to bed… and then we’ll talk, okay?”

I felt the voice whisper in my head again…

“That way lies only pain… don’t say I didn’t warn you…”

I felt my head nod stupidly, like a hand had gripped me atop my head and moved me like a puppet.

She sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She scooped Roo up and carried her towards the hallway. I sat there dumbly and watched her go, wondering why I was letting her go…

She stopped just before she turned the corner. “Will you help me put her down?”

I nodded and got up, walking to her and taking Roo’s limp body from her. She took a step backwards and looked at the two of us together, like she was taking a mental picture of the moment.

I followed her into Roo’s tiny bedroom. Her little bed. The kangaroo I had bought for Casey sitting in proud prominence in the center of the pillow. I looked around the room and saw the clean, ordered meticulousness of Casey’s ordered mind. The care and comfort that every item in the room had. Like Casey had built a shrine to her daughter…

There were stuffed animals, and pictures scattered throughout the room. Everything soft fabrics.

I noticed more than a few of the pictures were of me, and my mind spun a gear as I wondered why…

I set Roo’s lifeless body down on the bed while Casey collected the too big Olaf shirt from the top of the dresser. She came back and handed me the shirt. “I’ll get her undressed, and you help me get her into this…”

I helped her, wondering at the weird ritual that Casey had seemed to put together…

We tucked Roo in together, and for a minute sat side by side on the little girl’s bed, watching her sleep…

Casey looked at me and gave me a weak smile.

My hand found its way up to her face, pulling her closer to me. I swallowed past my heart and looked into her eyes… “You’re a good momma Casey.”

She shook her head, “No,” Tears filled her eyes and cascaded down her face, “No I’m not.”

I suddenly felt anger boil up within me. Nobody talked about Casey that way!

Not even Casey…

“Hey. Stop that. This isn’t easy and that’s how you make it look…”

The thought finally burned its way out of my mind.

The question I had never had the courage to ask before… “Case? Where’s her dad?” I shook my head at her, “How can that piece of shit just leave all of this to you… to shoulder all of this all by yourself?”

Her face crumpled and I knew then that I had opened the well…

I had chosen to look into the well of sorrow…

And what was worse…

I had made her look with me.

She sobbed, collapsing into my chest. Her tears coming fast and hard, like a damn had erupted. I held her tight and tried to squeeze the pain out of her, like some infected boil filled with puss and bile.

After a minute or so, I felt the steel enter her spine again.

She pushed away from me and looked into my eyes. “Come on, and I’ll tell you.”

Instantly, I pushed all worry about the pettiness of having a Jake/Casey conversation out of my mind. I realized how much more important this conversation was…

I followed her to the kitchen. She went straight to the freezer and took a bottle of tequila, still full, out. She set it on the table.

Her eyes found mine, “You’re going to want to sit for this…”

I sat dumbly, watching her movements, graceful and full of sorrow…

She collected two glasses from the cupboard and sat across from me. She filled the two glasses with about two fingers of liquid and slid one across to me…

I looked at her, dumb confusion on my face as she downed hers in one motion. Her face filled with strength as she pinned me with her gaze. “You’re going to want to drink that…” She warned.

I felt the confusion press onto my face as I took the glass and slowly drank the nasty fluid within…

I set the cup down and watched her fill her own again. She downed it in one quick motion too…

She took my cup back and started to fill it.

I stopped her, putting my hand over the glass, “I’m good.”

She looked at me, her eyes piercing me like she was looking straight into my soul…

Gently, she pried my fingers from the glass. She filled the cup with another two fingers of liquor and slid it back to me. I took it from her, not drinking, just simply feeling the cool glass against my hand. She filled her cup again and sat, looking into it.

She swallowed past a lump in her throat, “The summer before you left to go to college I was in love with someone…”


That hurt.

It shouldn’t have… but fuck, it felt like someone had rammed a knife into my back…

I felt myself down the cup of liquid without thinking, the cold liquor burning my throat on the way down…

She sipped from her cup and pushed the bottle to me.

Suddenly I realized I was going to need it just as much as she realized I did…

I filled another two inches of liquid and whispered to her… “I didn’t know that…”

She nodded, her face crumpling a bit, but she kept control, “I know.”

She shrugged, “He was the most amazing person in the world, and I was obsessed with him. He was all I could think about. I wanted him with every fiber of my being.” She shook her head sadly, and took a sip from her glass.

“He didn’t notice though…”

I shook my head and looked at the table, feeling the terrible sadness that I knew she felt.

She took a deep breath, “He asked me to go to this party with him. He was leaving town in a couple of weeks, and I think he thought of it as one final hurrah before he left.”

How could I not have known about any of this? I wondered…

“I went with him, hoping against hope that I could find the courage to finally corner him and make him understand how I felt.” She shook her head and drained the rest of her cup.

I slid the bottle back to her and she refilled it.

“When we got there though… things were too perfect. They were always too perfect with him. He made me feel amazing all the time, like I was lighter than air. Nobody has ever made me feel like that…”

I felt tears start to form in my own eyes and drained my cup again…

There you go kid… there’s the answer to your question… she may love you now… but she’ll never love you like that…

Casey pushed the bottle back to me and I refilled.

She wet her lips and continued. “We had so much fun that night. Highs and lows, me alternating between being enraptured at having him there with me, and then crashing into a pit, knowing I was going to lose him forever…

“We started drinking. He was putting down two for my one, sometimes three to my one.”

Her eyes found mine again, her soul pressing up against mine.

“About halfway through the night I got the stupidest idea into my head I’ve ever had…” She killed her glass again.

I slid the bottle back to her and watched her fill her glass again.

“See, I decided that I loved him. I was still a virgin and I decided that I wanted to give that to him…”

That made me kill my glass…

She slid the bottle back to me and I realized how much I had drank, and how quickly…

I shook my head and left the glass empty.

“You’re going to want to fill it back up.” She told me, sorrow in her voice.

I looked at her, sorrow and panic spearing through my chest. A war for what I should feel crashing through me breaking the glass in the corridors of my mind. What could be worse than hearing about how the woman I loved lost her virginity…?

“He was really drunk, and I was really embarrassed.” She shook her head. “I knew he didn’t want me like that, and I knew if I just asked him he would say no, so I kept him drinking while I stopped.”

I sighed as I looked at my friend. I watched as she exposed every raw nerve in her body to me…

“I took him up to one of the bedrooms, and I locked the door.” She shook her head, “He wasn’t a virgin. He had run off and thrown that gift away on some silly girl the year before…” She looked me in the eye, “But I didn’t mind. I just wanted him.” Her face cracked, and tears starting pouring down her face.

“I wanted one time, just one, fucking,” her voice broke… “time, to know what it felt like to be in his arms.”

Tears dropped down her face as she downed her glass again. I handed her the bottle back, and this time she left her glass empty…

She put her face in her hands and she almost lost control… “It was perfect. He was gentle to me, and as we did it he told me he loved me over and over… He kissed me, and he held me, and for the first time in I don’t know how long I felt loved. I felt happy.”

Tears fell down her face hard as she looked at me…

“I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I wanted just this one small thing. I wanted to pretend for just one night that the man I loved, loved me back. I wanted him to be mine, and I didn’t care how selfish I was being.”

She almost lost her control again, but she managed to wrest it back…

My emotions were swirling like a maelstrom. Anger and jealously swirling at the top.

Sorrow for the pain she was feeling.

Disappointment at how she had conducted herself.

But most of all, I felt love for her. I wanted to sweep everything away and just pull her into my arms and tell her how much I loved her, and how none of this mattered because we would have each other…

“When it was over, we lay there naked, him wrapped around me. He kissed my ear as he drifted off to sleep…” she smiled, a sweet counterpoint to the tears that poured down her face, “these little kisses, just one after another, his lips just lightly nipping at me, right up until he fell asleep. I lay there, thinking of how happy I was. Fixated on all the times he told me he had loved me while he was making love to me… a part of me filling with hope that he meant it. That it wasn’t just hormones talking…” She shook her head and looked at the table in shame.

“And then it hit me. I had just raped him… and now I was hoping that he was just going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh shit, Casey, I’m glad you did that! I see the error in my ways now!’.” The tears fell harder now. “And I panicked. I got up, and I got dressed. And I got him woken up enough to get him dressed. And I promised myself that I had gotten what I had wanted. I had given him what I wanted to give him. I lay there the rest of the night in his arms… half of me terrified he’d wake up in the morning and remember me. Remember what we had done. Remember that he had told me he loved me. Remember that he did love me…

“The other half prayed that he was too drunk to remember… maybe remember, but think we were both drunk and it was just two good friends that had taken things too far…” She stopped and took a deep breath… “And in the morning, he woke up… and he didn’t remember…”

I felt the keys in my mind snap together…

Oh, God… no…

My eyes came up from the table… “What party was this?”

Her face crumpled, “John Key’s…”

I felt the air sucked out of the room… felt a ghost drag it’s fingers up my spine. Felt it whisper in my ear…

I had woken up with Casey in my arms at John Key’s party… exactly two weeks before I had left to go to school…

My stomach did a backflip and tried to push out the liquor I had poured into it…

My head went woozy and I nearly passed out…

“Roo…” I whispered, looking at her in panic, hoping beyond hope that she would tell me no. That she would scream at me that I was wrong… that I was being too self-centered. That not everything in the world was about me…

She just started sobbing and shaking her head… “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” She mumbled between sobs…

Roo was my daughter…

She was mine…

I felt tears smash into me as the full brunt of my shame tore through the corridors of my brain.

My head dropped to the table as I wrapped my arms around my stomach…

I felt the love I felt for Casey, the love I had held onto for dear life up until that moment, burst into flames and go scattering to the wind.

I felt the most profound sense of shame I had ever felt in my entire life…

I should have known…

Trying desperately to center my universe… I thought of Roo.

I thought of my baby girl. I thought of all the things I had missed in her short life. Her first word. Her first step…

Hell, I had missed her first breath…

I couldn’t think about that.

That way lie madness…

I sat at the table and sobbed like I had never sobbed before…

Never had I felt anything even close to this painful.

Somehow, I managed to find the strength to lift my head and look at…


The emotion drained out of me, leaving me empty.

“Are you sure?”

My voice was hollow, the emotion drained from me, leaving me unable to breathe.

She had her arms wrapped tight around herself. Tears streamed down her face as she tried to comport herself enough to answer my questions… She nodded her head, “You’re the only one… Ever.”

I am not an angry man…

I don’t hit women…

But in that moment. In that moment, a vision filled my mind of me grabbing the table and flipping it over.

Casey would scream as my fist came down… her teeth would scatter around the room as I hit her, again, and again.

As I screamed at her that she had no right. She had no right to keep my daughter from me. She had no right to do what she had done…

I thought of how good it would feel. Of how righteous it would feel…

I forced the thought out of my head.

I stood, forcing myself away from the table.

I had to go.

I had to run.

My legs went watery as the thought that I had let my baby girl run around for three years without knowing who her daddy was…

I fell, just managing to catch the corner of the counter…

I tried to tell myself it was the alcohol… but I knew the truth.

Casey was there, her hands on my arm, trying to steady me.

“Don’t touch me!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, my arm whipping away from her like her hands were branding irons on my skin.

Her hands pulled away from me like I was an electric current.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She kept saying, like that was going to make it alright.

I could hear Roo crying in the other room, awakened by my outburst…

Another thing you managed to fuck up… The nasty voice in my head screamed at me in glee.

Casey’s voice was pleading behind me, “Please. Blame me. Don’t blame Roo. It’s not her fault… please blame me… hate me, don’t hate Roo.”

I couldn’t hear her anymore. I couldn’t look at her.

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I fled.

She managed to stop me with one hand on the doorknob to the front door…

“Roo needs you…”

I turned back to her… this empty thing… this… this disgusting creature that now lived in the skin my beautiful Casey had once wore.

Might as well know… this can’t hurt anymore… I warned myself, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I croaked, my voice like a dead man’s.

She had her arms wrapped around herself as she looked into my face… “Because of that look right there… The one on your face right now… because I knew, once I told you, you were going to hate me forever… and I couldn’t lose you. I was too weak to lose you… I loved you too much…”

I stepped into the night and slammed the door behind me.

Chapter 12

For the first time in my life, I woke up the next morning, and didn’t want to get out of bed and face the world. It was all just too much…

I laid there, on a shitty bed in my new rented home. No sheets, no blankets, no pillow. Just me, alone on a bare mattress. Light streamed in through the curtain less window, a slash of light across my face. A long time passed, and I might have fallen back asleep… or I may have just laid there catatonic.

I had no purpose.

No goal.

Honestly, I had very little that seemed worth getting out of bed for…

I knew I did. I knew I now had a daughter, just a couple hundred yards from where I now lay probably…

I knew I should get up. I should put one foot in front of the other and find a way to put myself in front of her…

But that would mean facing her mother…

I couldn’t do that.

I couldn’t face her.

I’d rather stare down an angry bear at that moment than look at her…

I’d rather look down the barrel of a shotgun.

I looked back on my life and wondered how I felt so empty about her now. How this beautiful thing I had once loved more than the next breath in my lungs had become… how she had become what she had become...

Now. Now I felt nothing but rage and pain.

Look on the bright side… at least you don’t hate her… My brain added, helpfully.

My phone beeped on the bed next to me. I lifted it, looking at the screen. It was a text from Re…

“Can you give me a ride this morning…?”

I let the phone drop to my chest. I couldn’t get out of bed. Not even for Re…

I let my brain fade to black.

Five minutes later someone was banging on my front door.

I decided they could knock until doomsday.

One minute later, someone opened my front door…

Ha! If you wanted to pout like a bitch, probably should have locked the door first! My brain laughed at me.

I heard Re come to the hallway and stop in the doorway of the open door. I lifted my head from the bed and looked at her. She stood there, her hand over her eyes. “Get out of bed lazy ass…” She told me, a smile on her face.

I let my head drop back down. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“I’m going to take my hand away from my eyes… so help me god, if you’re naked, I’m going to have to go into the kitchen and carve my eyes out with a spoon.”

I was not naked. I had no shirt on, but I had slept pretty much as I had been dressed yesterday. Jeans, my boots still on.

I stared up at the ceiling as Re took her hand away from her eyes.

Swallowing, I assured her, “Joke’s on you. There’s no silverware in the kitchen.”

Her playful banter dropped and she came over and sat on the edge of the bed. Her face was filled with concern.

“Are you okay?” She asked, her cool hand reaching out and caressing my face, feeling for a temperature, “Are you sick?”

“Does being sick and tired of being alive count?” I murmured, feeling sorry for myself.

She grabbed my face and pulled it to face her, “What the fuck did you just say?”

I took a breath and shook my head, “Sorry. Bad joke.”

She held onto my face, her nails digging into my cheeks, “Not funny.”

Nodding I told her, “I know. I’m sorry.”

“What’s wrong?” She asked, her hand softening as her fingers caressed my cheek, genuine concern flooding her face.

I shook my head and forced myself to start getting up. “I don’t want to talk about it…”

“Look, I can catch a ride with Lisa… I’m sorry bro. I didn’t know you were having a bad day, I just thought I’d bug you a bit.” She started to get up.

Pushing myself off the bed, I grabbed my shirt from where I had let it drop to the floor before crashing into the bed.

“No, it’s not a big deal. You’re right, I need to get my ass out of bed and face the world. Time to stop feeling sorry for myself.”

She stood and caught my arm, making me face her. She moved in front of me. Reaching up, she took my face between her hands. She held me firm and looked into my eyes. I couldn’t even meet her gaze…

Suddenly, she hugged me tight, “We’ll get it figured out bro… I’m sorry it hurts so much…”

I held her tight and tried to avoid crying in front of her, “I haven’t showered in two days… do I have time for one?”

She nodded, “I’ll run home real quick and get you a towel and some soap.”

I had forgotten I would even need that stuff…

Maybe Casey was right. Maybe I shouldn’t be taking care of a child… I couldn’t even take care of myself it would seem…

I got in under the hottest water my body could possibly stand and just let my mind go to seed. The water was at least hot, but the showerhead sucked, the pressure weak, and the spray terrible. It wasn’t nearly as relaxing as I had hoped it would be.

A few minutes later I heard the door open and a bar of soap appeared over the top of the shower curtain. “Towel on the counter…” Re’s voice announced. “Please… for the love of god, do not open the shower curtain…”

I chuckled in spite of myself.

I washed myself thoroughly and toweled myself dry. I went into the bedroom and grabbed my last set of clean clothes out of my bag…

Need to do some laundry too… life never stops… need to remember that. I thought to myself as I dressed slowly.

“Fucking bitch!” Re’s voice from the living room.

I stepped out of the bedroom and looked at Re, who was sitting in the oversized chair in the living room.

I gave her a questioning look…

“Fucking Casey won’t answer my texts!” She announced.

My eyes went wide as I stomped across the house, pulled her phone from her before I fingered my way through her texts…


The first one was pretty tame… “What happened between you and my brother… I’m worried about him.”

Casey’s reply, “Not something to talk about over text… also, pretty personal. I know you’re worried about him, but not something I want to talk about. Sorry.”

Re’s response, “Seriously? I came over this morning and he’s damn near in a coma. What happened? Tell me now.”

“Kiddo. I love you, but I’m not talking to you about this.”

And then Re’s crazy train jumps the rails and smashes into a children’s hospital.

“Tell me right now you fucking bitch! I swear to god if you don’t stop playing with his fucking head I’m going to come over there and rip your tonsils out through your asshole!”

I looked at Re, who was still sitting in the chair, chewing her nail and doing what I guess was her best attempt at looking innocent.

I offered her phone to her, “Well. That escalated quickly.”

She shrugged, “I’m sick of her playing games with your head. She either needs to get on the stick or fuck the hell right off…”

I shook my head at her, proud that she was willing to defend me, especially to someone she loved as much as she loved Casey, but still very upset that she had chosen this moment to throw even more gasoline on the fire of the problem.

I looked at her, “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”

She stood and got in my face, “Will you just stop defending her? Why are you being such a fucking doormat?!”

I didn’t want to tell her…

Casey was her friend, and throwing wrenches into the gears was not going to help any of this be any easier… not for me, not for Casey, not for Roo… hell, not even for Adriana.

“Kiddo, I’ll get this whole thing figured out, but it’s going to take time…”

She grabbed her bag angrily off the couch. “Come on. I’m going to be late and if you’re going to be Mister Mysterious about this whole thing, I don’t have time for your crap.”

She stomped to the door and I followed. After as much as I had drank the night before at Casey’s house, I hadn’t wanted to move my truck, even the couple hundred yards necessary to get to my new place so we had to walk back to my parent’s place and collect my it. The walk left me chasing after Re the entire time. When we finally arrived, I was surprised when she walked past my truck without stopping…

It took me half a second of standing there dumbstruck to figure out what was happening, what she was doing… finally it hit me and I realized. She was heading to Casey’s place…

I panicked and rushed forward, grabbing her arm, “What do you think you’re doing?”

She spun on me and I could have sworn, she was angry enough I thought she was going to take a swing at me…

“I’m going over to that fucking cunt’s house and I’m getting a fucking explanation!” she explained as she poked me in the chest hard, “She doesn’t want to text about it? Fine! She can fucking explain it to me in person!”

She was nearly screaming she was so angry…

Wow… she was pissed…

I took a second and pinched the bridge of my nose, my broken nose screaming at me as I did. I was careful to keep one of her wrists held in my hand. Re was angry enough that if I let her go she might very well charge over there and start beating on the door. Things were shitty right now, I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if Re found out, and somehow the thought of dragging my angry sister off the mother of my child did not seem to be a particularly fun time…

“Kiddo. I need a pass on this one. Just give me a day to get things figured out.”

She sighed, clearly angry out of her mind… “No. I don’t like this.”

I grabbed both of her hands in mine, “Please, I’m begging you. Please. Cut me a break here.”

She turned and stomped towards my truck. Looking back at me, she pointed her finger at me, “One day, that’s what you get and not one second more, and I’m not promising that I won’t still break her fucking arm for whatever this is…”

I sighed… well, at least I got the day.

I really didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do with it, but I got it…

I took her to the school and dropped her off. As she got out of the truck I stopped her, not trusting her anger to not overpower her common sense, “One more thing…”

She looked at me, obviously annoyed. “What?”

“No more texting? Please? Things are tough enough as it is. You pouring more gas on the fire isn’t going to help.”

She clenched her jaw, “I won’t text anymore…”

I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head at her, “And if she texts you back…?”

She rolled her eyes, “I’ll be good…”

“You’re awesome.”

Her eyes narrowed at me and she ground her teeth, “I don’t like you keeping secrets. In fact, I don’t like anything about this entire fucked up situation.”

She pointed at me again, “Tomorrow morning. You have until tomorrow morning to give me an explanation, or I’m going to go get one myself.”

I nodded, “I know, and I promise you, I will. Have a good day. I’ll come pick you up when you’re done.”

She shook her head, “No. I’ll make it home on my own. Seems like you have a lot on your plate right now…”

I nodded, a surge of emotion crowding through me…

As she walked away, I sat and thought about my options.

I could go home and crawl into bed again.

I could drive straight to a bar and crawl straight into a bottle…

That sounded like a pretty fucking good option…

Or… or, I could do the adult thing and try to work my way through this. I knew that was the best option. The one that resulted in the most gain for everyone…

Didn’t mean it was what I wanted to do.

Be a parent. My thoughts told me. Do what’s best for Roo…

I sighed, knowing it was the right way to think. It was best, but it didn’t mean I had to like it. I tried to mull over how that looked and could come up with no answers. What I really needed, was help. Help and advice. What I needed was someone I trusted to tell me what they thought, to point me in the right direction. To help me figure out where to start. How to react. Someone to help me figure out what to do.

I drove to the hospital.

I really didn’t want to talk to anyone right now, but I also knew that no matter what personal shit I had going, I still had responsibilities to my family. Re had reminded me of that. No matter how much I just wanted to go home, and curl up in a little ball in my shitty bed, the world continues to spin and I needed to figure out how to spin with it.

It didn’t hurt my decision making process to know that I was heading towards the best fucking parent I had ever seen…

As I walked into Deb’s room, I was surprised to not find my dad there. I didn’t think wild horses could drag him away from my mom’s bedside, even if she was just sitting there, killing time until the doctors worked their magic…

I looked at mom, sitting there in the bed, TV running lowly, reading a book. She was a little disheveled, a fact I knew bugged the shit out of her. She had on one of those hospital gown things, her hair pulled up into a pony tail. Little reading glasses were perched on the edge of her nose…

She looked up, smiling at me as she closed her book, marking her place with her finger, “Hey kiddo…”

I dropped lifelessly into the chair beside the bed, “Hey.”

She gave me that mother bear look…

I tried to hedge her off, sighing while I looked around the room, as if I expected him to come bursting out from beneath the bed, “Where’s dad?”

Her eyes narrowed, “I made him go to work. He was driving me insane…”

I nodded… understandable…

Well, that was all the small talk I had in me…

I found myself staring at a spot on the floor about three feet in front of my chair. Staring at a point where the white and black tiles all met. Staring just to avoid thinking. To avoid facing my problems.

“What’s wrong kiddo?” She asked me, cautiously.

I looked at her and sighed, a big sigh that echoed from the bottom of my toes, to the top of my head…

I rolled my thoughts over in my mind, trying to find the words. There was no right way to say it, at least not that didn’t make it sound like I was being an asshole, or outright crazy…

“Roo’s mine…”

Her face filled with not surprise, as I had expected, but instead with sadness…

Ha! And you thought things couldn’t get worse! My brain screamed at me, throwing itself on the floor in a fit of laugher…

She shook her head, as she ground her teeth, “That stupid girl…”

My eyes slipped closed as I tried to contain my anger once again… I focused on my breathing, in, out, in, out…

I’m not an angry person. I’m not an angry person… I AM NOT AN ANGRY PERSON!!! My brain screamed at me as I tried to contain myself…

And like that, my anger fell into an abyss of freezing cold water, replaced only with despair…

“You knew?” I heard myself croak, opening my eyes once again, this time searching her face for the answers to all of the questions rolling around in my mind…

She took her reading glasses off and threw them on her bed, grabbing the bridge of her nose while she shook her head. Finally, she nodded, looking up at me. “I’ve known almost since Roo was born…”

I felt tears sting up in my eyes…

I shook my head… it was too much. I couldn’t accept the truth of it…

I found my face in my hands as I tried to control the wave of emotion that crashed over me, dragging me into the depths of insanity.

“Tell me…” my voice choked out, “Tell me why?” my voice raising… “How did you find out?” Louder… “Why did she tell you and not me?!” I was nearly screaming, my anger finally cascading over…

Her face was pure misery, and the anger was instantly washed away as I realized that misery was for me, and not for herself.

You will control yourself. A voice filled with steel echoed through my mind. You will not raise your voice with this woman again… you owe her better than that.

I forced all the anger and hurt into a little locker inside my mind, feeling the locks split and rattle as I finally managed to force them all closed. The thoughts burst the seams, screaming and tearing at the little box I had forced them into. The chains rattled, the lock groaned, the wood split and burned, but they held…

She sighed… “Baby boy…” She shook her head at me, “Everyone can see it but you.”

Tears fell from my eyes as I shook my head at her, “See what?”

“You and that girl have been circling each other since you were eleven years old. You’ve been crazy about each other the entire time… when she ended up pregnant, everybody’s first assumption was that it was yours. Hell, my first assumption was that it was yours.” She looked at me with pity…

“I was sure you would quit school and come running home. That this was the end of your dreams. You’d give up everything for that girl, just to stand by her side…” She shook her head, “but you didn’t… and the only thing that made me doubt you might be the father was when you didn’t… that’s why I never brought it up when I talked to you about her, about the pain she was going through. You never once blinked, you never hesitated…

“I doubted then, because I knew you too well. I knew the man my little boy was, and I knew that the hounds of hell themselves would never be able to drag him away from Casey if she were pregnant with his child.

“You didn’t come home, and I started to think she’d done something stupid. That she felt that she’d lost you, and she’d jumped into bed with someone else. Someone to show you what you’d lost maybe… maybe just someone to drown out the pain of losing you…

“I lied to myself, and I convinced myself that was what had happened. I knew the whole time I should have leaned on you. I should have confronted you with how you felt about her. I should have talked you into coming back and standing beside her.” She shook her head, “I told myself a thousand times that she needed you, and you needed her, and every time I started to tell you to do the smart thing, I talked myself out of it. I told myself you needed to have the chance to follow your dreams. I lied to myself and told myself that it was just one year before she would run off and be with you. That she was going to follow you like a lost puppy. I kept telling myself that there was going to be time. Time for you two to figure it out. Time for you to realize what was really going to make you happy.”

She shrugged, “And then Roo was born.”

She shook her head at me, “One look and I knew. I knew she was yours. I could see it written all over her little face. I was so angry. I was angry at you, for knocking her up and then turning your back on her. I was angry at her for letting you. I was furious that she had kept it from me… I wanted, no, I needed to know why. Why the two of you had made the decision. Why the two of you couldn’t just figure it out… and so I went to her and I demanded an answer. I demanded to know what had happened. I couldn’t believe my little boy would walk away from his little girl. I didn’t want to admit that to myself, that you had. I needed to know. I needed the answers it was going to take to convince myself to forgive you. As soon as I confronted her… I realized how wrong I was… she broke down and told me everything. What she had done, how she had done it… everything.

“I sat there, and I listened to this little girl I loved like my own daughter. I thought of all the times I had seen her stare at you like you were the beginning and the ending to the entire world, like you held the universe in the palm of your hand. I thought of her in her little green prom dress, when she had gone with you your senior year, how proud she had been, how much love had been in her eyes when she looked at you. How sweet and shy, how full of secrets she was…

“I thought of you, your arms wrapped around her as you two played in the swimming pool in the back yard. Your face filled with the purest joy I had ever seen on my sad little boy’s face. Like she made the entire world go away, like nothing in the world mattered except her.”

Tears filled my mom’s eyes, and I realized now how much she loved me. How much she really, truly, loved me.

“I thought of how you stared at her when you knew she wasn’t looking, how your fingers lingered over her skin, how protective you always were of her…

“I thought about her first boyfriend, who had dumped her, and how you got yourself suspended from school because you knocked him out. I saw the rage in your eyes and knew that yes, a part of you was angry at him for hurting her, but the bigger part was furious because he had something you always wanted and he had just thrown it away…

“I knew, knowing she had kept it from you…” She shook her head, “It would tear you up inside…”

Her eyes met mine, firm and strong, “And I told her to never tell you…”

My jaw clenched in rage and the locker almost split open. I nearly lost control…

My voice was filled with venom, “Why?”

Her eyes bore into me, “Because I know the man you are. You are, without a doubt, the single best man I have ever known…”

And like that the rage boiled out of me…

I shook my head, finally letting it settle between my palms, like I was trying to keep it from flying apart in confusion.

“I don’t feel like a good man right now…” I muttered, shaking my head.

She nodded, “I know. But you are. You are the best, truly the best. Your dad is a good man, but he doesn’t have your patience. He’ll suffer for a cause he believes in, but he won’t do it just because it’s the right thing, like you will.

“I knew, all Casey had to do was snap her fingers and you’d come. All she had to do was tell you she loved you, and you’d never leave her or Roo’s side, not ever and not for any reason. You’d love Roo like she was your own, like I did with you. Not because she was half you…” she shook her head, “that would mean so little to you, like in your eyes she was something somehow worse because she had you in her. No, you would love her fiercer than any man ever would, not because she was a part of you, but because she was half her… half Casey…

“And that would be the end of it. There would be no question about who her father was, because you’d kill any man that even tried to claim her as their own. It was a shitty decision, but that’s what I told her to do. I begged her to call you, and just tell you she needed you. To tell you she loved you, and she needed you.”

She shook her head; her sadness was palatable. “I was furious with her when I found out you asked her to join you at school and she’d refused. I didn’t talk to her for a solid month. And that was when it hit me. She couldn’t tell you. There was too much shame. Too much regret. There was no way she could take you into her life and look at you every day. The guilt would burn her to ashes. She needed you in her life, and living with you, looking at you, she would be eaten alive…

“I knew she wouldn’t be able to not tell you…

“I almost told you then myself, but I knew, I knew, if anyone but her told you, it would tear you apart. She would be dead to you, and one day you’d look up from all your pain and anger and you’d realize that you had given up on the best thing that had ever happened to you. You’d hate yourself for letting her slip between your fingers…

“I hated it, but I hoped she’d move on. She’d find some other man to fill the Jake shaped hole in her life. That she’d forget about you… that she’d finally find a way to be at peace, and maybe put closure on the matter for you, so you could move on too…” She shook her head, “But the guilt kept her from doing that too… and pretty soon she was like a ghost. A shell that lived only for her daughter. There was no joy in her, no happiness in her life, there was only Roo… except when you were around. When you called her. When the burning light of your gaze fell on her, only then was she lit up, only then did she start breathing. Only then was she alive again…”

She went quiet…

My eyes narrowed at her, “And now that I know?”

She looked me up and down, “And now, I hope that I’m wrong about everything. I hope that you are better, and smarter man than I gave you credit for. But I don’t think that will happen, and all I can do is try to make you understand how stupid the thoughts that are running through your head are… I can remind you that you love that girl, and that she loves you. I can make you realize that there is no way you can walk away from Roo, and Casey is always going to be a part of that equation...

“And I can be sad for you. I can look at you right now and see the anger burning in your eyes every time I say her name. I know what you’ve lost,” She shook her head at me once again, “and I can tell you, it’s not what you think it is.

“Right now, you think you’ve lost three years with your daughter, and you have, but what you’re considering right now, is giving up the rest of your life with the woman you love…”

My jaw clenched harder, “Don’t. Don’t you even try to defend her… and don’t say I love her.”

My teeth hurt I was clenching my jaw so hard…

She looked at me with pity, “If you don’t want to admit you love her, then you are lying to yourself, and that makes you a stupider man than I ever thought you’d be. I’m not defending her. I’m warning you. I’ve never seen a love like the one you share with Casey. Never. You’re like two magnets, just searching for each other all the time, and when you finally connect, magic happens. The two of you are like one soul split into two bodies…”

She shook her head at me, “Please be smart… don’t throw this away… be a better man than I thought you were going to be. Be an even better man than your mother, who loves you with all of her heart, knows you to be. Don’t do it for me, or for your father, or for Casey, don’t even do it for Roo… do it for you. Please…”

I closed my eyes, and ran my fingers across my face, trying to wipe the exhaustion, the frustration away… it was all too much to handle. There were too many things flying at me from all sides… too many choices… too many people to consider… too much right to be done and too little of me to do it…

Deb’s voice called me back to reality, “You’re hurt right now, and angry, but soon, soon you’re going to wake up and you’ll find that your heart belongs to her still… and when that happens, a very special part of you will die if you’ve burned this bridge… and the real bitch of it is you won’t be able to drown it away in women, or booze, because you’ll have to look that woman in the eyes every time you see your little girl…”

I put my face back in my hands, trying hard to sort through everything I was feeling. Specifically, I was looking for one thing… I was looking for my love. The part of me, the best part of me, knew that Deb was right… that everything she said was spot on… if I truly loved Casey.

If I still loved Casey. With that in mind, I went looking for my love for her… I was looking for that special place that held the well of emotion I felt for Casey. On the surface, I found what I was expecting, hurt and anger, but diving down deeper, I found it…

I didn’t want to find it…

But I did…

And then my thoughts snapped back. So much made sense now…

“Dad…” I croaked… “Oh, god no… Dad knows too… that’s what drove the wedge between us when I left…” My head fell back into my hands… “God, who else besides me knows? Why am I the only one too stupid to see…?” I looked back at Deb, “Adrianna too?”

She shook her head, “It’s not what you think. Your dad, he doesn’t know, at least he doesn’t know, know.” She took a deep breath and blew it out, “He suspects, which is even worse… in his mind he sees Roo, and his mind keeps coming round to what his heart tells him, but he rejects it. He won’t believe himself. He can’t reconcile what his eyes are telling him, and what he knows about his son. He can’t accept the truth that his son, the best, smartest, strongest man in the world, in his mind at least, truly could just walk away from his daughter…”

I shook my head at her, amazed, “And you never told him?”

She shook her head back at me, “I couldn’t. I know that was hard on you. I know it created hardships in your relationship, but if I had told him, he would have told you, and if that had happened there’d be no stopping how angry you would be…”

It was a shit reason… and I was angry at her… but I knew it was true.

“And Adrianna?”

Deb sighed, “Adrianna doesn’t know, at least she doesn’t truly know, but she’s not stupid. Up until now, she’s been too young, too willing to accept what she’s told. She’s getting older though, and she’s figuring it out. It won’t be long.”

I sighed, “She already knows.”

Deb’s eyebrows shot up, “You told her?”

I shook my head, “No. But she asked me directly if Roo was mine two nights ago… that first night I was back home, at the time, I didn’t know.”

I sighed…

Well, there it was…

“So, what do I do now?” I asked her.

She shrugged, “Now? Well, I would think that would be obvious, honey. You decide. You decide if you want to let anger rule your life or you decide you want to feel sorry for yourself and your loss… or you decide you choose to be happy…”

Chapter 13

I sat alone in the dark of my trailer. I wanted very much to lie to myself. To tell myself I was sorting through my thoughts.

To tell myself I was making plans for my future. Lie, and claim I was trying to figure all of this out…

The truth was, I was feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want the truth. I didn’t want to figure this whole thing out. It was all too much for me. All I knew was that I wanted to feel sorry for myself. I wanted to sit, and think about every moment I had lost. All those firsts in Roo’s life. Every moment I had ever missed…

I heard the knock on the door and lifted my head from where I had thrown it back on the couch. Panic surged through me for a split second as my panicked mind screamed that it was Casey. That she had come to confront me about how I felt. What decision I was going to make…

My common sense kicked in as I realized the knock was way too hard to be Casey…

My heart also told me the secret truth of Casey. There was no way she was ever going to confront me. If I grabbed my bag right now, got in my truck and headed back home, never to return, she would never say a word to me about it.

I stood up and turned on the lamp, throwing some light on the room. I felt a moment’s shame as I thought about how pathetic it was for me to be sitting in the dark, feeling sorry for myself.

Then I realized how little I really gave a shit what anyone thought, least of all myself…

I turned the porch light on, and opened the door to find my dad standing on my porch.

He was blinking in the sudden light of the porch light as he laughed; a short, humorless bark. “You look like shit kid…”

I nodded slowly, feeling so many of those old grudges fall away…

“Fuck you old man… I’m having a bad day.”

He smiled, “Drunk yet?” he asked.

I shook my head slowly, “Nope…”

He raised a bottle of whiskey I hadn’t noticed he was holding, “Want to see how fast we can fucking fix that?”

My mind latched onto that like a port in a storm, “Fuck yes.”

He handed me the bottle as I let him in. I looked at it, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, good stuff…

I chuckled, “I don’t think you needed to splurge on the good stuff for how I feel right now… Wild Turkey would have done just fine…”

He smiled at me as he plopped himself down on the couch. “You say that now, but you don’t know the history of that bottle…”

I threw the bottle up, letting it flip in the air before I caught it again… “Enlighted me.”

He raised his eyebrows, “Well, see. When I had the birds and the bees talk with you… I went out the next day, and I” He pointed at the bottle, “bought that bottle. I told myself that the day I had my first grandkid you and I would pop that fucker open and get good and drunk…”

We stared at each other for a few seconds…

Then we both burst out laughing… “How’d that plan turn out for you?” I asked between snorts.

He shook his head, “Nothing in life is ever as easy as we make it seem, is it?”

I shook my head as I looked at the bottle, “Ain’t that the truth?”

We stared at each other for a few seconds, not an uncomfortable silence, just one where both of us tried to sort out what we were thinking, what needed to be said, what was better left to silence…

I raised the bottle, “Let me scare up a few glasses…”

He shook his head emphatically, “Nope. We’re going to kill that fucker straight from the bottle.” He patted the couch next to him, “Think we could both use it right now.”

It hit me then how selfish I was being. All I could think of was how miserable I was, how confused. I realized then that he was in just as dark a place. Deb was sitting in a hospital bed right now, ready to go under the knife in the morning to have something taken out of her that may, or may not, be cancer. Maybe to have a chunk of death cut out of her…

The love of my dad’s life was fighting for hers, tooth and nail right now, and all I could think of was myself…

I walked to the couch and sighed, disappointed in myself.

“Dad, I’m sorry. I’m being such an ass. How are you doing with all of this?”

His face looked like I had slapped him. He shook his head and took the bottle from my hand. Twisting it open, he looked at me, “Boy, you got your head turned right around in all of this. I didn’t come over here for you to be a shoulder for me to cry on, I came over here to be there for you…” he rolled his eyes, “for once.”

I could see the disappointment in his eyes, and for the first time in a very long time, it wasn’t directed at me… this time, well, this time, it was directed inward. I could see how disappointed in himself he was.

He took a big drink and looked me deep in the eyes, “Boy, I’ve been a real fuckface.”

I started to protest and he held his hand up, “No. Just fucking listen for once.” He took a deep breath and blew it out through his nose, “I’ve been an asshole… a total and complete fuckup and I want you to know how sorry I am…”

I took the bottle from him and took a big drink out of it, the warm liquid burning its way down my throat like a swarm of bees… I shook my head at him, “Doesn’t mean shit, dad, and it’s not all your fault. I could have been a man, I could have cornered you on it. I could have smacked you upside the head and told you to stop being an asshole. I could have made you tell me, and a lot of this shit would have been a whole lot better had I done it.” My eyes flashed and met his, I offered him the bottle, “It’s on me as much as you.”

He shook his head at me, taking the bottle and taking a big pull from it.

“Where’s your head at right now, kid?” He asked me.

I shook my head.

“You planning on murdering Casey, grabbing Roo and heading to Mexico?”

“Nope.” I told him, taking a big drink from the bottle, “My Spanish sucks… I was thinking of heading to Canada…”

He laughed, “Shitty plan. Too easy for them to reel you back from the Great White North…”

I sighed, “Yep. Figured that… guess I’ll just have to let her live and figure this out…”

We sat side by side on the couch for a few minutes, each of us wrapped up in our own thoughts. We passed the bottle back and forth, hitting it hard each time.

It was me that finally broke the silence, “Three fucking years. I’ve lost three fucking years with my little girl, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”

He took another drink, his head bobbing, “Yep. Life’s a bitch sometimes…”

I snorted, feeling the whiskey start to kick in, the warm burn in my chest, the loosening of my muscles, the fuzziness in my head that made the pain feel so much less. I had never understood how people had lost so much of themselves to the allure of the booze. Now… now I understood. I felt the pain start to melt away, felt it start to not matter so much anymore.

I didn’t want that. I needed to feel the razorblades flash between my fingers. I needed to know how this felt, and so I latched onto it, I pulled the pain closer to myself… “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

Dad took another pull from the bottle, “Well, I guess that depends on what the fuck you want to do?”

I looked at him from the corner of my eye, “Helpful. What’s that mean?”

He shrugged, “Well. Seems like you have some options…” His eyes pinned me down, “Though none of them get you that three years back with your little girl… so just put that shit right the fuck out of your mind.”

I nodded, feeling the sadness and finality of that settle into my gut… like ashes into the wind, those years were gone…

“Yeah, I know that…” I admitted sadly.

He frowned, and I could feel how sorry for that he was. How much it hurt him to see the hurt in me. He took another deep breath, “You could just put your shit back in your truck and head north again.”

I started to protest and he again held his hand up, “No. Fuck that,” He told me emphatically, “A lot of men would do exactly that. They’d look at that bitch and tell themselves, ‘she wants to raise a kid on her own, fine!’ they’d tell themselves that she thought they weren’t good enough for her the first time and now, now that she was circling back them that they were too good for her, and they’d hit the road.”

My jaw set in anger as I even considered such a route. I promised myself, no matter what, I’d never be that man. I shook my head fiercely, “Not an option.”

He nodded sadly, and I could tell that while a part of him was deeply proud of me for choosing not to take the easy road, there was something about that that made him even sadder, “Thought so…”

He took another pull from the bottle and passed it to me. “So, seems to me you have to figure out what you’re comfortable with.”

My left eye twitched, “You mean what she’s comfortable with, don’t you?”

His eyes took on a fierceness I had not seen much of since Deb had come into his life, “No, I don’t boy. You see, this isn’t about her anymore. This is about the kid. Your kid. Yeah, it’s hers too, but the two of you need to decide together. It ain’t about you, and it ain’t about her. It’s about Roo. For right now, you need to step up and dictate how you’re going to participate in Roo’s life. Casey has very little say in that. You need to decide whether you’re a part of her life or not, whether you’re a paycheck to help get her what she needs, whether you’re an ass in the wind, or whether you’re a part of her everyday life. Whether you’re there for her, or whether you’re her father. That’s your first step. Everything else falls in line behind that decision.”

I took a deep drink from the bottle, feeling a little bit of repulsion with myself for getting slammed when I had a little girl… somehow, it just didn’t seem right to me…

“I’m going to be her father.” I finally decided. “I’m going to be a good father.”

“And if Casey doesn’t want that?” He asked me.

I took another deep drink, “Then fuck Casey…”

That’s what got you into this mess asshole! My brain shouted at me, laughing hysterically.

I took another deep drink to shut that asshole up.

Dad frowned, nodding his head with obvious pride, “Good for you. So that decision is made.”

I nibbled at my bottom lip, trying to think. “And what do I do about Casey?”

He sighed a weary sigh, taking another drink from the bottle. “Well, that, that’s another can of worms…”

I took a deep breath…

I was not going to like asking this…

“What would you do?” I asked.

He shook his head, “Nope. No way in hell I’m answering that. Life’s too short to be living the misery someone else picks out for you.” He looked at me, “Plus, maybe for once in my life I’d be smart to realize that maybe my better half is smarter than I am. She seems to think you’re the second coming…” He took another sip out of the bottle, “And I think she might just be right. That you might just be stupid enough to do the right thing because you think it is the right thing. I don’t want to be putting any stupid ideas in your head about what the right decision is…”

I laughed and took the bottle back from him… “And what does Deb tell you? What did she tell you to tell me to do?”

He threw his head back and laughed, the booze getting into his head, “She thinks you should run over there this instant and slap a ring on that girl while you’ve got her over the barrel. She seems to think that if you asked that girl to marry you, the guilt of what she just pulled might just push her into saying yes.”

I looked at him and took another drink, “And what do you think about that?”

He took the bottle back from me, sipping at it, “I think if you do that, you better be a better man than I am.”

I looked at him, realizing for the first time how much affect the alcohol was having on me, as it seemed as if I was starting to sway, even as I sat there. “How’s that?”

He sipped at the bottle again, “Look. I’m not proud of it, but had a woman done to me, what that woman did to you, and I was twenty-two… I’d have knocked her teeth out the back of her skull…”

I nodded, taking another drink from the bottle, “I thought about it.”

He nudged me with his arm, “Of course you thought about it. Any man with any sense of pride would have.” He nudged me again, “Proud of you that you didn’t though…”

I let my head drop back onto the back of the couch. Some of that was just being tired, but the bigger part was to try to get the world to stop spinning for a second.

“If you do decide to do that, you better get your head straight first,” He continued.

I lifted my head and raised my eyebrow, “Knock her teeth out?”

He gave me a funny face and shook his head, “No. Time for that’s passed. I mean if you do decide to slap a ring on that girl. Sounds like a pretty stupid idea to me. Too much need for both of you to forgive and forget…”

I drunkenly slapped myself on the chest, “What’s she got to forgive me for?”

He looked at me dumbly, “For not noticing? For not just grabbing her up and riding off on your white horse? Who fucking knows? Women are crazy.” He sat and swayed for a second, “Not what I meant though. That girl is going to be carrying a lot of guilt. If you two are even going to think of making a go at it, she’s going to need to learn to forgive herself. She’s going to need to push passed her bad decisions. And that means you’re fucked.”

I tilted my head back towards him, “You mean I’m even more fucked?”

He smiled and nodded, “Yep.”

I raised an eyebrow at him, “How’s that?”

He sighed and took another drink from the bottle. “See, you’re going to need to forgive her.”

He looked me up and down, “And I don’t mean you need to say the words and then pretend that everything’s okay. You need to find a way to forgive her,” He tapped me in the chest, “In here,” Then he smacked me in the head, “And in here. Not going to be easy.”

He drank from the bottle again, “This ain’t one of those things that can be brought up and chewed on every time the two of you can’t decide if dinner is going to be steak or pork chops tonight. Imagine how those conversations play out, ‘I want to go out to the new movie!’, ‘No! I want to stay in tonight, plus you hid my daughter from me!’, see what I’m saying?”

I nodded. It was a point I hadn’t considered before…

If I wanted her, I needed to give her an entirely fresh start…

I had to forgive, and not only forgive, but forget…

He raised the bottle at me, “See? Fucking hard, huh?”

I nodded dumbly, “Life sucks…”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Doesn’t it?”

I threw my head over and looked at him, tired of thinking about my own shitty problem, “So what are you doing to do about Deb?”

He sat, a deer in headlights look on his face. I could see he didn’t like the question, didn’t want to answer it. At its heart, I was asking him how he was going to handle this if things went south. How he was going to go on living…

His eyes filled with tears. “Boy… I already put one wife in the ground… I can’t,” He shook his head, “I can’t do it again…”

I put my arm around him and pulled him close, taking the bottle from him.

He clung to it for a second, holding it tight… like he was holding on to Deb…

“I can’t…” He whispered, “I think I’ll just lay down… maybe find a way to go join her…”

I sat up, a smile on my face. Leaning in close to him, I wrapped my hand in his shirt.

And gave him the hardest fucking shake I had ever given him in my life. His eyes went wide, and I could see just a small sliver of fear in them as I screamed at him, “Don’t you even think of it you fucking pussy!”

I gave him another firm shake. “Just put that fucking thought right out of your fucking head! You don’t have that right.” I leaned in close to him, my voice dropping to a growl, “If she dies, you’re going to screw up your courage and you’re going to put your shoulder to the wheel again. You’re going to put her into the ground, and then you’re going to man the fuck up. You’re going to take care of Adrianna, like a fucking man! You have a daughter too asshole! If Deb goes, who’s going to take care of your little girl?”

He looked down, and I could see the shame in his eyes… “Boy…” he shook his head, “I wasn’t made for this parenting shit… your momma was. Deb is…” he looked down, feeling sorry for himself, “I never was. Look how bad I fucked it up with you.”

My eyes narrowed, “Fuck you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

I hit myself in the chest, “What’s wrong with me? I’m gonna be a fucking lawyer!”

He shook his head sadly at me, “That was all Debby… and your momma…”

I pushed him back, letting go of his shirt roughly, “Bullshit. You were there too. For every kiss over every scraped knee, you were the one telling me to get my ass back on the bike. To stop being a pussy and go back at it. You think that just came from Deb? That thing that makes us get back up and keep fighting?”

I poked him in the chest harder than was necessary, “That was you. Re is going to need that. She’s going to need you to pluck her back up and dust her off and tell her to get her ass in gear. You’re going to need to hold her while she sobs. You’re going to need to make sure she goes to school. You’re going to need to make sure that she doesn’t fuck her life up. Who else is going to do that for her?”

The more I said to him, the more I realized that every word of it applied to me just as much as it applied to him. I was a father now. I had a little girl. Every responsibility I was lecturing him about having, I had too…

He smiled, “I will… but I know you would too, if I wasn’t around.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, “I would. But if you check yourself out… I’m taking a dump on your grave…”

He smiled, “You might.”

I pointed at him, “No. I will. And not just once. I mean, I’m driving there every time I feel like it, and taking a shit on your grave.”

He laughed, shaking his head… “We figure anything out here tonight?”

I took another drink from the bottle, “We figured out I’ll shit on your grave…”

He threw his head back on the couch, laughing, “I already knew you were going to do that. I mean with you, with me.”

I elbowed him, taking another drink. I knew I was drunk, but didn’t care… I was finishing this bottle tonight. “We figured out both of us are going to man up, no matter what, and take care of our little girls.”

He struggled up to his feet, taking the bottle from me as he went. He took one final drink from it. “Make you a deal?”

I nodded.

“We’ll both take care of our little girls, and we’ll both try to take care of our ladies?”

I took the bottle back from him. “Damn straight.” I held the bottle up, “I’m keeping this.”

He smiled at me, swaying drunkenly. “Go ahead. I’m too fucking old to be polishing bottles off… I’m going home…”

I raised the bottle and took another drink, noticing that the bottle was disturbingly low… “I’d walk you to the door, but I’m too much of an asshole…”

He smiled at me, chuckling… “That you are boy… that you are…”

Chapter 14

I sat for a while in the darkness, sipping from the bottle. I thought of my little girl and all the things I had missed…

I started to fall into a well of self-pity again…

Then I realized something that drove shame straight into the heart of me…

I thought of a lesson my dad had taught me. Some trivial thing, but something important nonetheless…

I had gotten some bad grades from a teacher that didn’t like me. My dad had gotten pissed at me, and I had done what every other kid since the beginning of time had done. I had blamed the teacher. I had told him she was out to get me…

He went and met the teacher, and had a conference with her. When he came home, he looked me straight in the eye and told me I was right, that lady really did hate me, and she was going to do everything in her power to make sure I failed her class…

I looked at him with vindication and asked when he was pulling me out of the class. He told me that there was no way he was going to do that. That I needed to learn a lesson about the world… sometimes life isn’t fair.

I had argued, pointing out that the grades she was giving me were unfair and he looked at me and asked, “If you walk down a dark alley, and a guy jumps out of the shadows, beats the shit out of you and takes your wallet, who’s fault is it?”

“The robber’s” I had screamed, “He shouldn’t be robbing people.”

Dad had nodded sagely, “And maybe that’s the lesson you learn. You’re the victim. So, the next night, you walk down the same dark alley, and the same guy jumps out, and beats your ass, and takes your wallet… now who’s at fault?”

I wanted to say it was still the robber’s fault. No matter what decisions someone else makes, nobody has the right to be a criminal…

But I also realized, in that situation I would be at fault too… I had a choice. I could walk down that alley, or I could learn my lesson and go a different way…

“Well, it would be both of our faults…” I mumbled.

Dad nodded sagely, “Now the next night, you walk down that same alley, and the same guy jumps out, beats your ass and takes your wallet. Now who’s at fault?”

I gave him what I’m sure now was a smart assed look, “Okay, at some point, you need to learn your lesson and realize that something is going to go badly. Now you’d be at fault for making yourself into a victim.”

He smiled at me, “But if that’s true the third time, doesn’t it make it true the first time?”

I sat and thought about it…

“Now, bad things can happen, but when they do, if the only lesson you take out of them is that you’re the victim, the same thing is just going to keep on happening…”

I sat and thought about it, “I don’t see what that has to do with this teacher crapping on my grades.”

He shrugged, “Yeah, she gave you some bad grades. That’s true. Who turned in the work? Who gave her room to give them bad grades? When you got the first one, what did you do? Did you improve the quality of the work? Or did you throw up your hands and make yourself a victim and keep walking down that same dark alley?”

I had stayed in that class… I improved the work I was doing. In the end, I had pulled my grade up from a D to a B. I learned two important lessons that day. The first was that there were ways to make sure that the quality of the work you did was so good, there was no way that someone could shit on it…

The second lesson I had learned, was that no matter what happened, you weren’t a victim. Everything that happens gives you a chance to learn from it. That lesson may suck. It may hurt, but how you responded to it determined who you were. You could learn and make yourself stronger, and smarter, or you could sit there in the mud and cry, and point a finger.

One choice made your life better.

The other choice made it worse.

In the end, it was our choice.

Casey had kept my little girl from me for three years, true.

In that time, I had missed every important event that my little girl had experienced.

I had missed her first breath.

Her first cry.

Her first meal.

I hadn’t been there when she said her first word.

When she took her first step.

I had not been there when she was laid into her bed for the first time…

All of that had been taken from me.

Today, I chose to miss her waking up.

I chose to miss her getting dressed.

I chose to miss her getting breakfast.

I chose to miss her entire day…

Today, I was to blame…

I chose to miss today.

For what? My pride? That stupid, hollow thing?

For my anger? For something that really did nobody any good?

Who was to blame for that?

Fuck that! Not anymore! My drunken brain screamed at me. Get your ass up!

I stumbled up from the couch and went to the door. Stepping out into the summer night, I watched the moths bat at the glass of the streetlights as I weaved my way drunkenly to Casey’s house…

I nearly fell walking up her stairs…

I knocked on her front door.

I decided, then and there.

I didn’t want to see Casey. I didn’t want to face her.

I did want my little girl. I wanted to see my little Roo…

Casey opened the door, her face red, her eyes puffy. She had been crying…

She took one look at me, standing there, swaying drunkenly…

A bark of laughter managed to squeeze itself out of her before she shut it off.

“Are you drunk?” She asked me.

I smiled at her… I couldn’t help but smile at her when she gave me that smile. It was like the sun on my face on a cold winter day. Like the air was in the world just for me.

“Yep.” I announced as I held up the bottle I hadn’t even realized I had carried over from my place… “The good stuff too.”

She crossed her arms in that sexy way she always did… that way that made me just want to walk up to her, and pull her into my arms. To kiss those beautiful lips… to let my fingers walk their way down her back, to feel her skin on mine.

I swallowed passed the lump in my throat, and licked my lips. “You look very beautiful when you stand like that…”

Sadness filled her eyes, “Maybe you shouldn’t talk like that.”

I took another drink from the bottle, thinking about that, “Fuck it. It’s true. I might as well say it.”

I pointed into her house, “Can I see her?”

She looked me up and down, “She’s sleeping.”

I looked at the floor, trying to get the image of Casey out of my mind…

Finally, I looked up at her and said, stupidly, “I’ll be quiet?”

She gave me that look only a mother can seem to have down pat. That look that said you’re a drunk asshole…

Finally, she stepped aside and waved me in.

I stepped into her house, trying hard to keep my balance and not embarrass myself any more. It was going to be a tough thing I realized, as I nearly tripped over the two-inch step into the house. Casey stepped in front of me and caught me…

“That was embarrassing…” I muttered as I straightened myself back out.

Casey gently took the bottle from my hand… “Maybe you should let me hold on to this?”

I nodded, relinquishing the bottle, “Probably a good idea.”

I patted her on the head, “You’re a good friend… you always look out for me.”

She smiled, a touch of sadness in her eyes… “She’s in her room. Please try to be quiet and not wake her…”

I smiled the smile of a drunken fool…

As I stumbled past her I looked back, gesturing at the bottle she was holding, “That’s the good stuff… you should finish it… I’ve had too much…”

She smiled and looked at the bottle, “Okay.”

I stumbled back to little Roo’s room. The door was open just a crack, a little nightlight the only light in the room. Even drunk as I was, I knew better than to turn the light on…

I wanted to see her. To watch my little angel sleep. I left the door open, throwing light across her little face as she slept, and crept into the room. Going to the corner of the room, I grabbed a glider chair and pulled it closer to the bed, sitting down.

I sat and watched her sleep while I rocked back and forth in the chair. I watched her for a very long time…

I studied the little lines of her perfect face, seeing so much of the woman I loved there. Her hair, her little nose. The curve of her graceful lips.

The more I looked though, the more of myself I saw in her little face. My cheeks, my complexion.

I tented my hands across my lap and felt the wonderful mix of pleasure and happiness my little girl gave me, like a warm cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter day. Like that first big drink of lemonade after a hard day of working in the summer sun.

I was beginning to drift off when a shadow threw itself across my angel…

I looked in the doorway and there she was. I knew, just from looking at her, I loved her as much in that moment as I had the first day when she had held her little hand out to me…

As much as I had loved her the night I had taken her to prom.

As much as I had the morning after we had conceived little Roo, when I had woken to find her clutched in my arms…

I remembered then how happy I had been to find her there. How complete I had felt with her in my arms, her warm body pressed against mine. The way her hair had smelled as she lay pillowed against my chest. I remembered how I had pulled her tighter to me, desperate to feel her against my body. I remembered how much I had wanted to kiss her… and how my fear had made me too much of a coward to follow through.

I remembered how she had woken, and how she had slipped out of my arms, embarrassed to have woken there…

And I remembered how alone I had felt once she had left. How incomplete…

I smiled at her as she stood there in the doorway, watching me and our little girl. She smiled back at me, “Do you want me to get a blankey? So, you can sleep in here tonight?” She whispered.

I shook my head sadly, “No. I should go home. I don’t want her to wake and find me,” I gestured to myself, “like this.”

She giggled, holding her hand over her mouth, “Drunk?”

I nodded, then shook my head, “No. Feeling sorry for myself…”

The smile fell from her face and her eyes fell to the floor as she nodded, swallowing past the lump I knew would be in her throat… “It’s okay…”

I forced myself to my feet, and leaned over my little girl. Kissing the side of her head, I whispered into her ear, “I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out baby girl… but I promise… I’ll never leave you alone again…”

I gave her one more, one littler kiss as she squirmed and repositioned herself, cursing myself for a fool for having disturbed her sleep.

I made myself walk out of the room. Casey let me passed, and followed close behind me. I could feel her there, her presence comforting, and so much like home…

It made me realize why…

How on that first night I was on my way back. After I had found out mom was in the hospital. I was in the truck, and I was thinking, I’m on my way home…

I had wondered to myself what made it home…

Then I realized. Home was wherever Casey was…

I took a deep, sighing breath and tried to steady myself as I turned back to her. Her face was so beautiful. So complete. It was everything I could ever want in a face.

Looking at her, I tried to find the hate I had felt for her, tried to find the anger I had held onto all day…

And like that. With one look at her, I couldn’t remember any of it.

She stepped closer to me… “We should talk…”

I nodded stupidly and held a finger up to her lips, feeling her perfectly kissable lips. “Not tonight, okay? I’m drunk… and stupid…”

She nodded and smiled at me as my finger traced its way down from her lips to her jaw. “I’m sorry.” She whispered.

I swallowed past the lump in my throat, realizing how much I wanted her…

I knew I had to tell her…

“That night…” I began as her eyes found mine, “When we made Roo?”

Her eyes found the floor, and I had to put my finger beneath her chin and force her eyes back up to mine…

Her face melted and somehow, even crying I found a way to love her face even more…

“I wanted you…” I whispered.

She gave me a sad smile, “You were drunk, how could you know you wanted me?”

I leaned in closer to her, “Because I’m drunk right now… and I want you…”

My lips found hers. A small, loving kiss… my top lip finding the spot above hers, the small scrape of electricity that pounded through my body every time I kissed her…

My arms found their way around her as I lifted her higher, making her easier to kiss…

Her arms found their way around my neck as she lifted herself higher into my arms.

Neither of us pressed the kiss any further than it needed to go, and when we separated, I looked into her too deep, too brown eyes. She had tears in them, and I reached up and wiped them away…

“I’m sorry…” She whispered once again.

I leaned in and kissed her forehead to let her know it was going to be okay…

When I leaned back she looked deeply into my eyes… “You can have me tonight… if you want…”

I felt lust for her slam through my body as I pulled her into another deep kiss. I felt my body start to respond to her…

Felt her tongue on mine…

Heard her strained, panting breath as she met my kiss viciously…

Smelled the shampoo of her hair, the soap on her skin…

I let my kisses trail down her face, finding her neck…

My hands found their way up under her shirt…

I let them trail across her front, and move around to her back. My fingers dug into the knotted muscle there…

I somehow managed to find the strength to pull away from her…

It was like escaping the gravity of a black hole…

She looked at me, love, and wonder, and lust spread across her face…

I hoped this wouldn’t hurt her too much… “Not tonight…” I whispered…

Sadness played across her eyes again, but this time, this time she did not cry… “Why?” She whispered back to me, “It doesn’t have to mean anything. You can have me tonight, and in the morning, you can go back to hating me.”

I smiled at her… “I don’t hate you…”

She nodded and wrapped her arms around herself… “I understand…”

I felt her pain… I knew she took it as rejection, and the bitch of the matter was… there was no way to make her not feel that pain. I wanted her, I wanted to be with her with every inch of my body.

I was drunk, and considering our history, there was no way that I could have her and her not think that it was just a repeat of our first time together… I tried desperately to think of a way for me to have her and to have her not think of it as her just having her way with me because I had no control…

I took her head between my hands… “No.” I told her, shaking my head, “You don’t…”

I closed my eyes and tried to think, tried to make my brain start working right again. I hated the way the booze made me feel now…

I pulled her in and kissed her forehead… “My mom is going in for surgery tomorrow. Can you be there?”

Her eyes flashed up to mine… “I shouldn’t… I mean…”

I kissed her forehead again. “Please. I need you. I need you to be there with me… to be there for me. I need you to be my family. I’m begging you.”

She put her hand to my lips… “Shhh… stop. Please. I’m sorry. I’ll be there. I promise…”

I pulled her tight, hugging her with all my might… “Thank you.”

She tapped me, giggling a little, “Thanks… but I need a little breath here…” 

Chapter 15

I woke to a pounding headache the next morning… cursing myself for a fool… “I’m never drinking ever again…” I whined, holding my aching head in my hands…

I was wrapped in a sheet I had bought the day before…

I heard my front door open and the pounding steps of what could only be a herd of wildebeest… or my little sister, Re. She burst through the door, “Come on! Come on! Come on!” She squealed at the top of her lungs…

My head did a backflip into a molten pool of lava…

“Oh my god… how fucking loud do you need to be?” I croaked.

She jumped up onto my bed, screaming at the top of her lungs, “You gotta get up! You gotta get up! You gotta get up in the morning!”

I reached back and grabbed one of her feet and pulled it out from beneath her. She fell with a screech and then dropped backwards off the bed with a yelp…

She hit the floor with a thump that I could feel through the bed.

“That hurt! Asshole!” She whined.

I chuckled, feeling better suddenly as I let my head fall back onto my pillow.

“Why are you being so fucking loud?”

She giggled as she grabbed the edge of the bed and started to pull herself up.

“Because I know you’re so fucking hungover you can’t see straight!” She announced with glee.

I looked back at her, murder in my eyes… “And do you know why I’m hungover?” I asked, my voice nearly a growl…

I saw the panic in her eyes… then the shame.

I felt bad for having played that card for something so petty…

At the same time, I had promised her that if she gave me one day I would tell her what was going on between me and Casey. She had given me that day. I was thankful that someone had saved me the pain of having to tell her…

A wicked smile spread across her face… “Because you drank too much!” She screamed as she jumped across the bed and grabbed me. “Wakey! Wakey!” She screamed.

I started laughing…

That brought her up short… “Why are you laughing?”

I smirked at her, “Because I’m naked under this sheet.”

She jumped back like she had touched a live wire “Eww… that’s fucking gross bro! Why didn’t you warn me!”

I laid back on the bed, watching her squirm as she threw her hand over her eyes. “Gross, gross, gross!” She cried as she ran to the door and closed it behind her. “Now I need to go bleach my eyes! Get your ass in gear! We need to get moving!”

I laughed all the way to the shower, thinking about how uncomfortable she was…

When I got out, I toweled off and grabbed the cheap pair of clothes I had bought along with the sheets yesterday. I really needed to take care of my clothing situation…

We got in my truck and headed out for the hospital.

As soon as we got out of the trailer park, Re looked at me, “So, I was right… Roo’s yours.”

I rolled my eyes… “Yes, she’s mine.”

She nibbled at her lip… “So, did you lie to me then?”

I looked at her, realizing now how much that would hurt her… how much finding out that I had lied to her would tear her apart…

“No. Its… complicated. It was a drunken hookup…” It wasn’t completely accurate… it left out a lot of details… but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her that Casey had taken the chance and jumped at it.

“I didn’t remember in the morning…”

She looked at me, “But she did.”

I nodded, feeling horrible for having lied to her, even if it was a lie of omission.

It was then I realized… I realized how easy it was. I realized how easy it was to start letting the ball roll and how easily it snowballed into something that was uncontrollable.

I couldn’t do that… “I was leaving. She decided that she wanted me. I was too drunk, and she panicked. She hid it from me thinking I would reject her, that I would be pissed for having taken ‘advantage’.”

She looked at me, “So she raped you?”

The anger in my eyes as I snapped back to face her caused her to recoil back from me.

“No!” My voice was nearly a growl as it ripped its way out of me. Like I was some sort of caged beast…

Her hesitation only held for a moment, and then she snapped back at me, “Oh really? If she were a guy and you were a girl that’s what everyone would have called it. How is this different?”

I shook my head at her… “I wanted it. I’ve wanted it since I was old enough to even think of wanting it…”

She shook her head back at me, “Bro… you have a talent for making things really complicated…”

I tightened my hands on the steering wheel, “Tell me about it…”

“Look, I know you don’t want to hear it, but even if you did want it, that doesn’t excuse what she did after… Roo is yours. She hid that from you…” I could hear the anger in her voice…

I looked at her, suddenly pieces of the puzzle started falling into place. “Wait a minute, how’d you find out about this?”

She smiled at me, “Mom told me. Last night. She told me not to talk to you about it, to let you work through it on your own.”

I chuckled, a self-depreciating, mirthless chuckle, “And you decided the first thing you’d do was bring it up?”

She smiled at me, “I’m fourteen bro. It’s practically in the charter for me to not listen to my mom…”

I shook my head at her, and licked my lips, “And if I don’t want to talk about it?”

She sighed, “I just want you to take care of yourself. I know you, and I know you’d cut your heart out if you thought it would do her a bit of good. You’d do the same thing if any of us needed you…”

I sighed, “So what do you want me to do? You want me to just walk away from Roo, from Casey? To just pretend I don’t feel the way that I feel?”

She scratched her head… thinking. “I don’t know. I just want you to think. I want you to do what’s best for you…” she paused before she looked at me, “for once. I want you to care about you. I need you to care about you.”

I shook my head, “Remember what you told me about me and her, about gravity? So what would you do if you were me?”

She sighed… “Yeah… I get it…” Her eyes snapped to me, “Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m still going to knock her right the fuck out when I see her.”

I shook my head at her, “Please. Be good. Please just leave it be. I’m begging you. Don’t pour gas on the fire. Let me work this out.”

She sighed again, nodding, “I guess I can do that. I just need to keep my distance from her…”

I eyed her from the edge of my vision. “Yeah… about that.”

I could see her grind her teeth. “She’s going to be there today, isn’t she?”

I smiled, “Yep.”

She was seething… “Why. This is a family thing. She’s not family.”

I whirled on her, my anger finally snapping, “She’s not? She’s the mother of my fucking child! Whether you like it or not, that’s not going to change.” I managed to put something of a damper on it, managed to push some of my anger down into a deep, dark hole. “Besides. This isn’t about that. It’s about mom, and what’s best for her.” I looked at her, “You don’t think your mom is scared out of her mind? You don’t think that maybe, just maybe, before she goes under the knife, she might want to see her grandchild?”

Her eyes slid closed and I saw her scream at herself for her moment of thoughtlessness. I watched as she put the pieces together. Finally, she nodded, “You’re right. I should have seen it. Roo will help her…”

We spent the rest of the car ride in silence. When we got to her room, my dad, Casey and Roo were already there. Roo was sitting in Deb’s bed with her. Deb was positively glowing…

I looked at Adrianna, a smile on my face a mile wide. “See?”

She nodded, and gave me a bit of a smile… then she gave Casey the dirtiest look I had ever seen one woman give another… and I’ve been around women my whole life…

Casey took it in stride. She smiled at me, and gave a nod of respect to Re. I could see her accept the pain, take on another load, lose another friend…

I watched her as she just accepted the burden…

We all made small talk for a while, and then the doctors came and got Deb. She put on a brave face and told us she would see all of us later…

We sat in the waiting room, together, as a family. Casey sat with me, her hand in mine the entire time. Roo sat on my lap, quietly playing with the little pad I had bought her…

She was such a good little girl. She was a perfect angel through the entire wait. She played quietly, pausing only occasionally to stop and give me a little hug now and again…

Casey smiled each and every time, giving my hand a playful squeeze whenever my little girl took a moment to stop and brighten my day.

Waiting for a loved one while the doctors are off cutting a piece out of them is a special kind of hell…

There’s nothing to be said, nothing to be done, just sit and wait, sit and pray…

After a long while, my dad looked at me, “Kiddo, maybe you should take Roo and go to the cafeteria… it’s been a pretty long wait, she’s probably getting hungry…”

I looked at Roo, seeing the hope in her little face.

“Are you hungry Button?” I asked her

She nodded eagerly, and then pulled her enthusiasm back, “I’ll be okay… my tummy’s only growling a little…”

I kissed her little head, “Let’s go get you something little one…”

She smiled a sweet smile, “Can I have a juice box?”

I stood, lifting her, “We’ll see what we can get.”

I looked at Re and Dad as Casey stood with me, “You guys want anything?”

Dad shook his head, “No, I’m good.”

Re grimaced at me, glancing at Casey, “Something sweet?”

I smiled at her, nodding my head, “I’ll see what I can figure out.”

Casey and I took Roo downstairs. I noticed she kept a little bit of difference between us as we walked.

I carried Roo the whole way, just enjoying the feel of her little body against mine. I realized then, how quiet of a little girl she was. She did a lot of watching what was going on around her, soaking up every little thing she could, her eyes latched onto any little thing as I could see the gears in her head working to figure out what was happening. She paid particular attention to people…

I looked over at Casey, who was walking with her head down. “She’s a pretty quiet kid, isn’t she?”

Casey looked at me, then at Roo, “Yeah… she’s just like her da-…” I could tell she was going to say ‘like her dad’ but she cut herself off and looked at the floor again. She nodded quickly, “Something she gets from you I think…” She settled with.

I felt the now familiar lump jump up into my throat again…

Casey nibbled at her lip… “So, we should probably talk about how we’re going to tell her…”

I looked at her, a look I know that was way too dark. “I don’t think that’s something we should talk about just now…”

Casey’s eyes snapped back to the floor. I could see shame, and disappointment smash back up and start nipping at her heels…

She nodded that same quick nod, “Yeah… I’m…” She took a breath and swallowed, the graceful muscles in her neck betraying her nervousness, “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head hard, “Jake. I need you to talk to me. I need to know what you’re thinking… this is killing me.”

I took a deep breath, aware of the little girl in my arms. Roo put her little thumb in her mouth and leaned into me as I carried her. A funny affectation… one I had never seen her do before. It hit me then that she was probably picking up on the tension between her mommy and me. Kids were observant little creatures, and I needed to realize that I needed to start using my brain a hell of a lot more than I had in the last couple of days…

It hit me then. A few days ago, I had been standing in my living room, hundreds of miles away from here, ducking a ceramic bear thrown at me by an entirely different woman…

My only concern had been trying to work my way through that problem. Today, here I was, holding the three-year-old daughter I hadn’t even known I had and trying to work through with her mother how we were going to get all of this figured out and set straight…

How had my life gotten so off track?

How had things gotten so fucking bad?

I slapped myself mentally at the thought. Things weren’t bad…

So, look at the woman you love… The asshole that lived in my mind whispered. Look at your best friend. Go ahead, just have a look. Give her a hug.

I recoiled from the thought. Not the thought of giving Casey a hug, there was a part of me that desperately wanted to do that, but the thought of how bad things had gotten. I realized they were awkward beyond belief, and I hated that.

Okay, so things were bad. Bad in a good sort of way.

I realized then that things weren’t good, they weren’t bad. They just were.

I also realized how desperately I wanted them to get better.

Then my mind flashed back to something different… something I was ashamed of…

I found myself nibbling at my own lower lip, trying to work up the courage to say something, something important, something that needed to be said.

I looked at Casey, “I’m sorry about last night.”

She looked at me, the light flashing in her deep brown eyes for a split second as she tried to work out what I was talking about… “What do you mean?” She asked.

I shrugged, bouncing little Roo. Shaking my head, I told her, “It was wrong of me to show up at your place sloshed out of my mind…”

I felt the guilt of it deeply…

She laughed, a bit of joy pushing its way through the deep sadness that had taken up residency in her eyes too much of late. “Under the circumstances, I think it’s understandable, and excusable.”

I felt a surge of anger. Some of it at her, but most of it directed inward. “No. It’s not. I’m a-…” I stopped myself before I could say I was a father now…

It was true… the little girl in my arms was mine, but I had done nothing to deserve the title of father. I had responsibilities to my little girl, and to her mother, but I also needed to realize that I had no right to call myself a father. My dad, imperfect as he was, had earned the right. I had not.

I just shook my head and tried to swallow past that lump again, “I need to be more responsible. I need to start acting like a fucking adult…”

Roo piped up, “Owww… you said a bad word!” She scolded.

Casey and I both laughed. One of those short, sharp chuckles that just sneaks up on you and smashes you in the nose…

I looked at Casey, “See?”

It was like I let the air out of her. I could see the doors of shame slam shut in her mind, reminding her of everything she had done…

I let her collect her thoughts and turned back to Roo, “I’m sorry pumpkin. You’re right. I need to be more careful. Thank you.”

She leaned in, and petted me on the head, “Don’t worry Jakey… momma says that word all the time too, and she’s a good momma.”

I felt tears stab at my eyes as I realized how true that was. The guilt of letting her, well, I guess that wasn’t fair, I hadn’t let her, I would have stood by her had she told me…

It wasn’t fucking fair! There was so much I wanted to change…

I wanted to change the fact that Casey had needed to go through so much alone.

I wanted to have been there for so many things, to have seen so many things with little Roo as she grew up.

Yes, a part of me wanted to hide behind the excuse that I would have had Casey just told me the whole truth, but I also had to realize that I had made choices too. I had allowed her to be alone. I had known she was on her own, and I had elected to stay off at school and let her flounder. In my mind, I knew it didn’t matter if Roo was mine or not. I should have come home to be with my friend. I should have stepped up and made sure she had what she needed in life. At the very least I should have come home, packed her shit up and took her home with me. I should have thrown her over my fucking shoulder and carried her off kicking and screaming if I had had to.

I should have never let her tell me no. I should not have allowed that to be an excuse…

It was then that I realized a nasty truth about myself.

Something I had not wanted to admit. Not even to myself.

I had been mad at her.

The truth was, I had been furious at her.

When she told me she was pregnant I remember the howling animal rage that had charged through my mind at the thought that she had been with another man. I remember the pain and the hurt that came along with it. The sense of violation and betrayal I had felt. My brain kept throwing images of her, her skin sliding along some other man’s…

The breakers in my mind threw, even now, at the thought of it.

I remember wanting so badly to demand who she had been with. I remember wanting so badly to jump in the car and drive home so I could smash some guy’s face in for touching my girl.

And I remember the pain that came with the thought of knowing that she was not mine…

That I was too much of a coward to make her mine…

Too much of a coward…

Chapter 16

It’s done… I thought to myself as I stared at the floor of the hospital. My thoughts were interrupted by the doctor coming in the door.

He pulled his mask down and looked at each of us as we all looked to him in horror and hope. His face was grave, serious.

He put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath and I felt my heart start beating faster…

She’s dead! The voice screamed in the back of my mind, a cackle of mad laughter escaping his jester’s face…

The doc gave a half smile, “She’s in recovery now…”

You could feel the collective sigh spread through the room…

My dad stepped forward, “What was it? How serious?”

I saw that concerned look come back over the doctor’s face and realized then that just by her coming out of surgery we were not out of the woods yet…

He shook his head, “We’re not sure. It was the weirdest damn thing I’ve even seen. There was a large mass in her throat, and at the bottom, this weird little tendril that kind of worked its way down to her thyroid… like it was some sort of thyroid growth.”

Re pushed her way to the front, “Is that normal?”

I felt a moment of annoyance that I smashed down as I avoided snapping at her for asking such a stupid question. If it were normal he wouldn’t be saying it was the weirdest damn thing he’d ever seen…

The doc looked at her, “No. It’s not. I’ve seen thyroid growths before, but nothing that’s migrated like this. Occasionally you’ll see a little tendril, but this was two, maybe three inches of growth before it bloomed out.”

“What does it mean?” My dad asked cautiously.

The doc turned to him, “Right now? We don’t know. We’re sending it off to the pathology lab. Could just be a weird growth, could be something more serious.”

Dad’s eyes narrowed, “Something more serious as in cancer?”

The doc looked at him with sympathy in his eyes…

I could tell what he was thinking, even if he didn’t want to admit it. My mom has cancer…

“Yeah, maybe.” He hedged.

“What happens then?” I finally spoke up.

The doc looked at me, “Well. It depends on what we find with the pathology report. If there is cancer, we’ll evaluate the risk and decide if we take the thyroid out, or just a part of it. Then, depending on the cancer risk, radiation therapy or chemo…”

My heart sank into my stomach…

Casey’s hand found mine as Re found her way under dad’s arm.

The doc looked at each of in turn, “Folks. I don’t want to give you false hope, but all of that is down the road… focus on today. She’s out, and awake. We’re going to bring her back in a few minutes and you can visit for a little while, but you all need to clear out in a little while, and let her get some rest. Focus on the fact that today, she’s here, and doing well. Okay?”

We each nodded…

Chapter 17

We were standing in the parking lot, my entire little family, minus my mom…

Casey had Roo in her arms… dad had his arm wrapped around Re’s shoulders.

Dad looked at me, “Well. I’m about as wrung out as possible. Who’s up for dinner, my treat?”

I put my arms on the bed of my truck and looked at them all, trying to sort through all the thoughts flying through my head. Finally, I made myself focus and said, “I can’t. I need to head home for the night. There are some things I have to take care of. I’ve put them off too long as it is.”

Casey looked at me like a reptile had just sprung out of my mouth, “The trailer? Can’t it wait until after dinner?”

I closed my eyes, realizing how confused I had just made her. I shook my head, “No. I mean I need to go back to my apartment. I need to go back to school. I need to get some things, my laptop, clothes, some things I’m going to need if I’m sticking around for a while. I also need to let my landlady know that I’m going to be gone for quite a while and see if she can keep an eye on the place while I’m gone. She may not like that and I might need to give my place up…”

I could see the horror spring up on Casey’s face. The concern crawl into my dad’s and Re’s eyes.

I looked at each of them and smiled, “Don’t sweat. I’m going to drive up tonight and get everything packed. I’ll stay there tonight and then drive back in the morning.”

I looked at Casey, “Will you come with me?”

Her eyes got wide and I could see panic surge into them. “Uh… I… uh… I mean… why?”

I raised my eyebrows at her, and grimaced a little bit, “I think we need to have…”

I was going to say ‘a nice long chat’, but decided that was a little too authoritarian…

“I just figured it would give us a nice opportunity to talk about some of the stuff we need to figure out?” I settled. I looked at Re, “Adrianna, will you look out for Roo tonight?”

The rage that split my little sister’s face as she gave Casey a look of death was palpable…

Then she looked back at me and I could see the sympathy smash back into her eyes. I knew she was furious, and while everyone else in my life was trying really hard to stay out of the middle and avoid being judgmental about the situation my little lunatic was having none of that…

She finally nodded, “Yeah, I can.”

I looked at Casey, “Is that okay with you?”

She scooped Roo up and hugged her tight, “Yeah.” I could see she wasn’t too happy with it, but she seemed to be taking it in stride, “How ‘bout you Roo? You want to go and hang out with Aunty Re?”

She caught herself, mentally chastising herself like she had let the cat out of the bag…

I gave her a look of sympathy as I tried to make her mentally remember, Adrianna had been Roo’s Aunty Re since forever… now it was just official.

Roo spun in her mom’s arms, “Can we watch Dashie?”

I raised my eyebrows at Re, finally realizing who had shown Roo the weird guy from YouTube that played video games for a living…

Re rolled her eyes as she plucked Roo from her mom’s arms. She looked at me, “Yeah, so I might have shown her a Dashie episode or two…” She looked at Roo, “Thanks a lot you little snitch…” she muttered as she bounced her niece.

Roo was not happy with where the conversation ended, “So can we watch Dashie or not?”

Re smiled at her, “Your momma doesn’t like you watching Dashie,” Re’s eyes wandered over to Casey and I could feel it coming… “So of course, we can watch Dashie!” She squealed.

My dad’s voice was sharp, “Adrianna!”

Casey put a hand on his arm, “It’s okay Walt.”

I looked into the bed of my truck, feeling a sudden shattering feeling of grief for how messed up things had gotten…

One more problem that’s going to need repair… I thought to myself miserably.

Casey swallowed hard as her eyes got a little wet. “I had that… and a lot more coming…”

Suddenly Roo balled her little fist up in Re’s shirt, “You be nice to my mommy!” She shouted in Re’s face.

Re took a second to register the anger on Roo’s face…

“Okay! Okay… I’m sorry.” She turned to Casey, “Look, Case, I’m sorr-“

Casey cut her off, “Look. It’s on me. This is awkward for everyone and it’s my fault…”

I snapped my hands in a quick drumroll of the rail of my pickup, trying to head this off at the pass before it got any worse… “Guys. Let’s roll. We aren’t going to solve all of this in the parking lot of the hospital. It’s going to take time, so let’s all just try to give everyone a break and get this sorted out, okay?”

Casey and Re looked at me and nodded. My dad took Roo from Re and bounced her, a proud little smile on his face as he gave me a sly smile… “Why don’t we take little Roo to dinner? Would that be okay Case?”

She smiled a sad little smile and nodded, “Yeah. Let me get her seat…”

We got the seat transferred from Casey’s car to my dad’s SUV and Casey and I waved as Roo, Re and my Dad backed out of their space and headed out of the parking lot.

There was a moment of awkward silence between the two of us as we stood there, watching the taillights of the car as it drove away…

Casey cleared her throat, “Do we have time for me to run back to my place and drop my car off, maybe get a change of clothes for tomorrow?”

I nodded at her, “Yeah, whatever you need…”

A thought suddenly occurred to me, “Fuck! Can you make this work with your work?”

She smiled at me. It was a weak smile, but I decided to count it anyway. “Yeah. Today and tomorrow are my days off.”

Relief flooded over me. I had already made things bad enough for her… I didn’t need to be going and messing up her job too…

We took a beat and both of us kind of had that weird moment where we tried to decide to just get in our respective cars… or hug… or… what?

We finally decided on a nice, firm nod to each other…

I followed her back to her place. It started raining on the way. Hard, fat drops of rain that smashed down on the car. One of those sudden summer storms that sneaks up and drenches everything as fast as you can blink…

I watched the wipers flip back and forth as fast as they could, trying to keep up with the rain as I followed her.

We got to her place and she pulled up beneath the little carport. I pulled in behind her and waited while she jumped out of her car, gave me a signal that she’d be just a second and then ran inside. My truck was sitting in the rain, there was no room beneath the carport for both our cars, and I just sat alone, listening to the hard pelts of water as they hit the cab of the truck.

I didn’t really think about much. I knew on some level I should be preparing for what was most likely going to be one of the hardest conversations of my entire life, but something about the entire situation just seemed so overwhelming…

Like it was somehow better to put it off. It was going to come, there was no avoiding it, so there seemed to be very little point in working myself up about it and borrowing problems…

I watched as Casey came out of her little house, slamming the door behind her. She ran towards the truck in the rain and for just a moment I forgot about all of my problems. I watched her bounce through the rain as it slicked down her red hair, plastering it to her face in the split second she was out in it. She let out a little yelp as the coolness of the water hit her body, and something of the child that is in us all came out to play for just the briefest shining moment as she ran in the rain and jumped in the truck.

Her face lit up, and there she was… that girl I had loved for so long… that smiling, cheerful beauty that had held my heart in the palm of her hand for what seemed like forever…

I looked into her electric eyes, her shining bright teeth, the drops of rain on her perfect skin…

The whole world fell away as I looked at her and the urge to pull her across the truck was so strong I almost couldn’t resist its siren charm…

She sniffled as she wiped the rain from her face and I could see how uncomfortable my naked look made her…

“Sorry,” I mumbled as she wiped the water from her face and moved closer to the door…

She buckled up as I backed out of her driveway and started down the long road ahead of us…

We sat for too long, nearly a full hour, in silence. The road pouring out in front of us, as the rain poured down around us…

It was her that finally found the courage to speak… “I’m so sorry…” she moaned.

I shook my head sharply. “Stop that.” I said, too sharply.

She looked at me, tears starting to collect in her eyes again… misery painted plain on her face. “I don’t know what to do… what to say… I don’t…” She floundered.

I held my hand out to her, reaching to her to try to comfort her. She looked at my hand like it was a snake, and I took a moment to pull it back, letting it fall on the seat between us.

I kept my eyes on the road as I told her, “Look. We can’t change what’s been done. We need to focus on what’s coming. What we’re going to do.” I told her as I snuck a look at her, my heart breaking at both her beauty and at the pain she was feeling.

She shook her head at me, “What do you mean what we’re going to do?”

I shrugged, “I mean about Roo. About me and you…”

I took a moment and steeled myself… this was the hardest question I had ever asked… “Do you want me to be in Roo’s life?”

I felt my heart crumble even putting it to words. A part of me desperately wanted to know, another part of it, lurched away from the thought that maybe she didn’t. I knew if she didn’t it would tear me apart, shred my mind like a piece of meat dropped into a blender. I wanted to say that I’d fight tooth and nail to be a part of Roo’s life… but I knew the truth. If Casey didn’t want me around, it was going to be very difficult to force myself to force my way in…

A part of me wondered if that was why she hadn’t told me… that maybe she didn’t want me to be Roo’s father? Maybe she thought I wasn’t good enough? Maybe she thought I was too immature?

She took my hand, “Of course I want you to be in Roo’s life. How could you ask me something so stupid?”

My eyes slipped down, and I forced them back onto the road… “I just thought…” Doubt slammed into my heart, “Maybe, I wasn’t good enough for her?”

I snuck a quick look at her and saw the grief smash into her face once again. Guilt crashed through me to see that I had, once again, caused her pain.

“Jake…” She said as fresh tears fell down her face…

She pulled her hand from mine and wiped her face with both hands angrily…

“God, I’ve fucked this up so badly!” She said suddenly. Her voice was so sharp it pulled me up suddenly…

“Jake. You are the best man I’ve even known and Roo couldn’t hope for a better father. A better dad. None of this is about you, all of this mess is about me. All of it is about the stupid decisions that I made because I was too much of a coward to admit what I’d done to you.”

She shook her head, “Goddamn it! How could I have done this to you?”

A part of me wanted to bring her back to task. To remind her that the idea here wasn’t to beat up on her, but to figure out how we were going to make this start working…

Then I realized, I wasn’t innocent of beating up on myself either…

“So, what does that look like?” I asked her cautiously. “I mean, me. Me and Roo? I mean, I can be like her uncle, or she could just see me as some kind of friend…”

My voice caught in my throat as I realized how badly I didn’t want that. I wanted her to know. I wanted her to know I was her dad, that I loved her, that I would die to protect her…

I snuck another look at Casey, and saw the look of pure horror on her face. “You’re her dad, and that’s what you’re going to be to her.”

I saw her catch herself… “I mean, if that’s what you want to be.”

She clenched her jaw, “Jake. I have no rights here… I did this, and now I have to live with the consequences. If you want to just walk away, then you can. If you want to be her dad, then that’s what you’ll be. If you just want to be her friend…” Her voice caught.

I grabbed her hand, trying to pull her back to me, “I want to be her dad Casey!”

Tears filled my eyes as I felt relief pour into me…

My little girl! I was going to get to raise my little girl!

Casey forced her hair back behind her ears and swallowed hard… “That’s good.” I could see her emotion threaten to overwhelm her again… could see the iron determination she used to force it back down…

“How do we tell her?” I asked her cautiously…

She let out a harsh snort, something approaching a harsh chuckle… “I have no fucking clue…”

Chapter 18

We spent the rest of the trip discussing the logistics of how we were going to make the transition work. We decided that tomorrow, when we got home, we’d sit Roo down and explain to her that I was her dad. We talked at length about the fact that that was going to be a very difficult conversation. We discussed and rehearsed what questions would be asked. How she would react. What to do if she lost her little mind…

It was an absolutely shitty conversation…

By the time we got to my place, we had most of the specifics worked out, and both of us were exhausted by a very emotional and tiring day…

I led her upstairs to my apartment, being as considerate to my neighbors as humanly possible, considering that it was getting late…

I let us both in and let her wander around the apartment. She stopped by the destroyed ceramic bear and gave me a questioning look…

I smiled at her, a weak smile, but a smile nonetheless…

“My last girlfriend broke up with me… she broke him first…”

It hit me then that even in the worst storm, there was always a silver lining. I imagined for a second how that would have worked, how that would have gone down… fuck. How bad would things have been had that relationship been going while I was trying to work through all of this?

Another flash of shame smashed through me as I thought of Alyssa. I thought of the six months of her life that I had wasted in a relationship when I was obviously completely in love with Casey…

I forced the thought out of my mind… there was nothing that I could do about that now…

“What?” She asked me.

I shook my head to clear my thoughts… “Nothing. Sorry.”

She nodded timidly and bent down to start picking up the pieces on the floor.

“Leave them, please.” I commanded.

She looked up at me, obviously trying to figure out what she had done wrong.

I smiled at her, “We still need to talk about one more thing. Can you wait here for a second?”

She stood and wrapped her arms around herself again. She didn’t answer, she just nodded her head quickly, like it was painful.

I went to my bedroom and pulled out the bottom drawer of my dresser. I reached my arm in, feeling on the top of the drawer for what I was looking for. I found it taped up in the back, attached to the top of the dresser, in the place I had secreted it to keep it safe, and from prying eyes…

I went back to the front room and looked at her.

As the doctors say… this might hurt a little bit…

“I’m sorry…” I began.

Her eyes locked on mine.

I moved closer to her, getting so close I could smell her. Her clean, soapy, feminine scent. Even after a day like today, she still smelled clean…

I could feel the pull of her body and it was so much like Re and my mom had described it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right they had been. We were like two suns circling. Two magnets moving…

I lifted her chin and kissed her gently. Her lips parted for me and she returned the kiss, her lips moving softly against mine. It wasn’t an eager kiss…

It still took my breath away.

I let her go and looked into her eyes.

She shook her head at me, “Why are you sorry? I don’t understand.”

I held the little box in my right hand up to her. I caught the flash of emotion there.


A moment of glee.

Then nothing but misery.

She shook her head at me, whispering, “No… please don’t.”

I smiled at her, dipped to one knee, and opened the box in my hand. It was the box that contained my mother’s wedding ring. The one my father had given to her. The one she had died wearing. My dad had kept it, putting it aside for me, putting it aside for the woman I decided to give it to…

I knew in my heart that woman was Casey.

Her eyes filled over with tears as she continued to shake her head…

She knew what was in that box. She knew what it meant to me. She knew why I had held on to it for all this time… I had shown it to her one day. I had told her that I would put it on the woman I would marry one day…

“Cassandra Posey. I have loved you since I was eleven years old. I have loved you since the day you walked up to me in that shitty little park and held your adorable little hand out to me and asked if I would be your friend. I’m sorry I’ve been too much of a coward until this minute to tell you that. I have loved you since before I knew what the feeling was.

“I’m sorry I didn’t put this ring on you the first time I realized what it was that I felt for you. I should have grabbed you at fourteen and never let you go. I should have kissed you at sixteen and made you mine. I should have never let you go. I should have made Roo with you and stood by you every moment from then until now.

“I can’t change any of that, but I can spend the rest of my fucking life making it up to you. I can spend the rest of my life loving you, and never letting you get more than a step away from me. Cassandra… Casey, I love you, and I want you to be mine forever. Will you marry me?”

Tears crashed down her face and still, even after pouring my heart out to her… she shook her head…

No. “Jakey… I can’t. I don’t deserve you…” She whispered.

I felt a moment of pain, sharp and decisive. And then I decided. I had had enough. There were going to be no more excuses. I was going to make no more excuses, and I was going to allow no more from her. I was going to spend the rest of my life with her…

I took her left hand and pressed the box into it… “You don’t get it, do you?”

I looked into her eyes and saw the doubt there, the pain, and I knew in this moment, I was going to wash all of that away…

I smiled at her, fierce and proud…

“You are already mine, and I am already yours. Until this moment, I thought this ring meant something. I thought it was important. I thought one day I would put this on someone and it would mean something. Tonight, I kneel on this floor at your feet and I realize it means nothing. What matters is how I feel about you. I love you, and I refuse to accept no as an answer.

“You see, right now, I realize you’re already my wife. This ring doesn’t make you that. You saying yes or no means nothing. You are my wife because of that little girl. That perfect little girl that you’ve given me. That perfect piece of you and me, joined together, entwined in a way that can never be separated back into its component pieces. Because of that little girl, you are mine, and I am yours, forever.”

Her eyes snapped closed and her tears shut off like someone had shut off a faucet. Her hand tightened around the box and she held it to her heart. “I can’t Jakey… I can’t take this from you. Not right now. I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it. I’m not what you think I am… I sully you just by making you love me….”

She shook her head the tears started fresh.

“I’ve loved you since before I walked up to you. I sat there each day and watched the sad little boy that played by himself. I watched him and I felt my heart captured. And as I got to know you I fell deeper and deeper in love with you. I watched you grow into the best man that I have ever, or will ever know. I wanted you more than I have ever wanted anything in my entire life. I fell asleep every night wishing that you held me in your arms…

“And I let that love drive me insane. I let that love make me into a person I can’t even face in the mirror anymore. I took something from you that I had no right to take from you, and in my fear, I let it take even more from you. I can’t give that back to you…”

She held the ring back out to me… “But I can give this back to you. I can make you go and find someone that deserves it, that deserves you.”

I willed every ounce of strength I had into my eyes and poured that strength back into her. I wrapped my hand around hers, making her squeeze the box with my ring. I stood, and still holding her hand pressed her back to the wall.

“No.” I commanded.

My lips found hers and I took control of her. She could say whatever stupid thing she wanted. She could try to force me away. I would use whatever tactic I had to in order to make her realize that she was mine.

Her lips only resisted mine for a split second.

I knew the truth though. She loved me, and she could say whatever empty words spilled into her stupid mind. Her lips knew the truth…

She kissed me with every bit the force that I kissed her.

I felt her breath quicken, felt her arm, the one I didn’t have pinned in my own, come up and circle around my neck. My hand came up and pinned itself behind her neck, pulling her deeper into our kiss. She was mine, and tonight, I was going to make her understand that…

Her body responded to mine, and mine to hers. We fell over the edge together with our kiss…

Somehow, I managed to pull back from her. I pulled the ring out of her hand and held it up in front of her eyes. “Fuck this. And fuck you telling me no.”

I lowered my hand and heard the ring box hit the floor. My lips found hers again as I pressed her back into the wall. Both of her arms circled around my neck and she kissed me with every fiber of her being. My hands found their way down her body. Her sides. Her ass. Down to her legs. I lifted her off the floor, her legs separating and spreading around my body.

My lips found their way across her face, to her neck.

Her body moved eagerly against mine… “Please…” she moaned.

She pulled my head into her harder as she shook her head, “Please… stop… I can’t… if you don’t stop… I need you…”

I kissed her harder, pressing my body into hers, my mind only holding on by the very tips of the nails…

Our lips tangled again, our tongues dancing in each other’s mouth.

“Please…” She moaned, “I need you…” my lips worked their way along her neck, “Please…”

I somehow found the strength to pull back from her, “Say it…”

She pulled my head back into her neck, an offer my lips eagerly accepted…

“Say what?” She whispered.

“That you’re mine…” I growled.

She grabbed my head, forcing it back, so she could look into my eyes…

She shook her head, “Who the fuck am I kidding? I’ve always been yours…”

Chapter 19

We lay in my bed, tangled in my sheets and each other’s arms.

I could feel both our hearts pounding as we both tried to catch our breath.

She crawled up my body and kissed me, her tongue slipping into my mouth. I lost myself in that kiss. It may have ended in a minute… it may have been a year…

I didn’t care.

Her nose rubbed against mine as she spread her legs over me, her bare flesh pressed hot and hard against my chest…

I wrapped my arms around her and felt the single most intense sense of joy I had ever felt…

The suns had crashed together.

The magnets had connected.

“Is this real?” She whispered.

I smiled, “I certainly hope so… if I’m dreaming… I’m going to be pissed in the morning.”

She raised her head, her eyes finding mine. I thought she was going to say something, but instead she just kissed me hard again. When she finally managed to find the strength to pull away from me she whispered fiercely, “Open your eyes…”

I opened my eyes and looked at her.

Her hands played over my face, “I won’t wear your ring, but I will spend the rest of my fucking life making this right. The rest of my fucking life. I will love you, and I will wake up every morning and go to bed every night working my ass off until I deserve the love you give me. Deal?”

I smiled at her, pulling her in for another good, solid kiss. “Deal.”

Chapter 20

We lay in silence for a long time, our bodies pressed together, our heartbeats syncing.

A horrible thought occurred to me…

“When you said I was the only one… you meant… the only one before Roo right?” I whispered.

I felt her head shake. “Nope. The only one. Ever.”

I felt like someone had poured a cup of cold water into my soul. The thought that she had that much discipline. That she loved me that much…

It was overwhelming.

It was also shaming that I had not shown her the same discipline…

“So that was only your second time?” I asked incredulously…

She lifted her head and nibbled at her lip, “Yeah… was I bad?”

I laughed and pulled her head back in and hugged her hard. “Nope…” I shook my head… “In fact, fuck. I think you might be a natural…”

She giggled… “Well, it’s not like I’m a monk… I have a rabbit in my nightstand.

I knew what she meant… but it was just too good of a fucking set up for me to let it slip past me…

“That thing must make an awful fucking mess… what do you feed it?”

She giggled again and pulled herself up my body again, kissing me… “Well… it seems to like kitty…”

I rolled her over and pressed my body to hers… kissing her hard…

Finally, I pulled myself from her and looked into her eyes…

She wiggled herself beneath me, her legs spreading beneath me… “Can we go again?” She whispered…

No way in hell I was going to disappoint her…

Chapter 21

In the morning we got up, got cleaned up, and packed up what I was going to need in the following weeks back at home. I sent my paper to my professor, which closed up school for the year.

As one last thing, I picked up the ring box from where we had left it the night before. I turned around and she was standing there… the sadness was gone from her face, but she still held her ground firmly, her eyes narrowing at me, “I’m not taking that.”

I smiled at her and walked over to her. I took her left hand in my own, turning it over and plopping the box into it.

“Do whatever makes you feel right.” I told her as I grabbed her ass and pulled her close to me, “You’re still mine, ring or no.”

I kissed her to seal the deal.

She stopped arguing.

I went into the kitchen and pulled all the crap out of the fridge that would spoil and ran it all down the disposal. I made a point of sneaking back to the door and peeking at her. She was standing by the little table I ate at, her bag in front of her. She had the ring box open, and she was staring at it, a look of longing on her face…

She looked up and saw me watching her. I wanted so badly to tell her to put it on. I wanted to show her off. I wanted everyone in the entire world to know she was mine…

But I knew…

I knew that there was a reason she didn’t want to put it on. Before last night, that would have made me worry. It would have made me wonder. I would have fretted over it, and chewed at it, trying to find the hidden meaning, attempting and failing to understand what was happening in that beautiful mind of hers. Trying to suss out exactly why she didn’t want to wear my ring. Worrying if it meant she loved me, or if she was settling on me.

Today, well, today I just didn’t care. I would take anything she would give me, and I would be happy with whatever she was happy giving me. Today I decided that I would just be happy to have her in my life…

I walked over and wrapped my arms around her, pressing my face to the side of her neck, kissing her lightly, running my nose up the side of her perfect neck. I pulled her tighter into me, the muscles in my chest and shoulders flexing as I tried to pull her into my body. She reached back and grabbed the belt loops on the side of my pants, one loop in each hand, and pulled me tighter into her body.

“It’s there for you, whenever you choose to put it on…” I whispered into her ear.

She nodded, “I know…”

I kissed right underneath her earlobe… “I know you want it…”

She rubbed her butt into me hard, her head lolling back as she offered her neck to me, “I want it…” She whispered huskily, “I just thought we were in a hurry to get back on the road…”

I giggled and snuggled her neck again. “There’s no hurry. One day you’ll want to put it on, I can wait…”

She didn’t put the ring on, but she put it in her bag all the same. I called it a win.

Before we left, I stopped by my landlady’s apartment. I let her know that I was going to be gone the rest of the summer and asked her to keep an eye on my place for me. She looked at Casey, a knowing smile on her wizened face, and told me she’d do just that. I felt a little bad not telling her that I might not be back…

Honestly, I didn’t really know what my future held right there and then. It felt strange not knowing. It seemed like it had been forever since I had lived day to day, not working towards something, not having a goal that drove my every decision. I thought of Casey, and my little girl and decided that was something I was willing to give up considering what I had gained…

We got back in the truck and Casey sat on the far side.

I shook my head at her, “Nope.” I told her, patting the seat next to me, “Over here beautiful. I’m done sitting away from you and pretending I don’t want to put my arm around you.”

She smiled and my heart sang, as she slid across the seat to me. Her lips found mine, and we both hit the road with a smile on our face…

Our trip home was quiet. We listened to the radio and talked, like we used to do so often, in a time that seemed like a million years ago, and just yesterday all at the same time. I realized how much I missed her. How much I had missed my friend. How lucky that she was my lover now. How much I wanted her to be my wife.

I thought to the secret that she had kept from me for so long, and while it wasn’t easy to forgive, a part of me was grateful for the mistakes that she had made. A part of me realized that without Roo as a catalyst I may have never found the courage to tell her how I had felt. I may have just run off to college, and she may have done the same. We both would most likely have found someone and lived out the rest of our lives pretending to be happy…

She leaned over and put her head on my shoulder as we pulled back into the parking lot at the hospital. We decided that we both wanted to drop by and see my mom on the way home. We needed to get home and rip the Band-Aid off of the situation with Roo, and we both knew that wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, but we both wanted to get it done as soon as possible.

We walked into my mom’s room hand in hand. She was laying down in the bed, her skin pale and exhaustion plainly evident on her face. I could tell just by looking at her she was in a lot of pain, and I reminded myself that I needed to keep the visit short.

Mom looked at us walking in and her face lit up by a million degrees, like some life and energy poured back into her.

Casey and I stood at the foot of her bed and looked at her, finally I gave her a smirk and said, “You look like shit.”

She giggled and put a hissing hand to her neck. I felt a little bad for causing her pain, but the laugh did her good, or so I told myself as justification.

Mom smiled at us and started to sit up, Casey dropped my hand and rushed around the bed, cooing and keeping mom laying down. “Deb, keep yourself flat. You need to get rest. We aren’t going to be here long, we just wanted to stop in and check in on you.”

Casey perched herself on the edge of the bed and ran her fingers over her friend’s face. Mom smiled at her and then looked over at me. A smile filled with pride filled her face, and tears started up in her eyes, “I’m so sorry for you two.”

She tried to shake her head and I could tell the staples in her neck and the pain caused her to stop and hiss again in pain.

“I gave you such bad advice…” She moaned as her tears finally fell free. “I’m so sorry.”

She was talking to Casey but I knew some of what she was saying was for my benefit.

“I should have known Jakey would have forgiven you…” She closed her eyes, “I’m so sorry to you both.”

I sat down on the other side of the bed and held my mom’s hand as I shook my head at her. I looked over at Casey and felt the now familiar sting of love as her eyes caught mine. “It doesn’t matter.”

Mom squeezed my hand a little harder, “I assume since you are all holding hands now that you’re going to make a run at being a couple now?”

I smiled at her, “Nope…”

I could see the pain and regret slam into her as she looked over at Casey, the questioning look on her face was evident it nearly hurt.

I squeezed her hand again to get her attention, “I asked her to marry me last night…”

Her head snapped over to Casey so fast I could see the pain it caused her.

Casey looked at the floor and nibbled at her bottom lip.

“Casey’s not ready yet…” I murmured, saving Casey the embarrassment of having to answer up.

Casey’s eyes met mine and I could see the question written plain there.

Why had I told my mom?

With my right hand, I raised my hand and brushed the hair back behind her ear, “Because one day I’m going to marry you. You’re the only one that has any doubts. I’ll take any ally I can get to get you to accept how inevitable that is.”

She shook her head as tears filled her eyes.

Mom giggled and both Casey and I looked at her. She had an enormous smile on her face. “Finally, one of you pulled your head out of your ass…”

We both smiled at her.

She pulled both of us in for a big hug, and when we managed to extricate ourselves we realized just how exhausted she looked…

“We’re going to go home and let you get some rest… okay?” I asked.

Mom nodded and I could see how much she just wanted to fall back to sleep…

Chapter 22

Our conversation with Roo was so awkward it was nearly comical…

We decided that it would be done best at the kitchen table…

So there the three of us sat. One of us in each chair, and an empty spot on one side of the table. It was something out of a family sitcom…

I felt like I was sitting on a fucking job interview. Like Roo was going to look at me and tell me that she appreciated my application, but that the family was going in a different direction with the position.

Casey looked at her little girl, at our little girl.

“So Roo… this is going to be difficult to understand, but I want you to try, okay? Try very hard, okay?”

Roo looked at her, her little attention sponge turning on. She engaged with other people pretty well, but I could see, when she locked in on her mom the world began and ended right there. With Casey, it was like she was hearing the voice of God.

“Okay mommy.”

Casey smiled as her eyes started to wet.

Roo reached her tiny hand over and patted her mom’s, “It’s okay mommy. You don’t need to worry. I’m going to be a big girl. I’m gonna un’erstand good.”

Both Casey and I had to suppress a laugh, and Roo just sat looking at us both, trying to figure out what was so funny.

Casey looked into Roo’s eyes. “Honey, do you remember when you were asking about your daddy?”

Roo got very serious, her little head nodding. I could see pain in her little eyes and I don’t think it would have hurt more had someone jammed a running chainsaw into my chest…

Casey looked at me, and the misery on her face was so obvious it hurt. I wanted to jump in and just tell Roo. To get it over with. I wanted desperately to spare Roo and Casey any more hurt. To just have the opportunity to jump ahead of all of this bullshit and start getting on with our lives…

I knew I couldn’t do that, however. I knew that this was something Casey needed to do. It was something that she needed to wrap her mind around simply to help her get over it herself. To start to forgive herself. She needed to flagellate herself, to punish herself, and no matter how much I wanted her to skip that part of what she needed to do, I knew it was an intrinsic part of how she was going to need to heal and get past this.

“Honey,” Casey started again, “I didn’t tell you this then, and I should have… in fact, it was selfish of me not to… but Jakey here is your daddy.”

It was a moment I will never forget. Her little mouth formed a perfect O and her head snapped around. Her eyes were filled with such a sense of excitement that my heart broke just looking at her. She clapped her little hands together and let out a babbled mess about how she knew, she just knew I had to be her daddy…

I couldn’t help it any longer. I pulled her out of her chair and pressed her tight to my chest. She gave me her biggest, most awkward little kid hug. Like she was trying to squeeze the life out of me but she just knew that she didn’t have the strength.

Tears fell from my eyes as I held my daughter.

“You’re going to be a good daddy, Jakey…” Roo whispered to me as I hugged her.

I nodded, pulling her in tighter to me, “I’m certainly going to try, Button. I’m certainly going to try.”

Chapter 23

We spent the rest of the day as a family. We made dinner, rested and relaxed. We ended the evening by watching a movie together, the three of us curled up on the couch. Little Roo laid on me and fell asleep. I enjoyed just holding her, looking at her innocent little face as she slept.

An idea occurred to me then. I thought back to the night that Casey had told me about Roo. How I had caught her taking a picture of us as a family. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but I realized now, that was her thinking it may be her only chance, it may have been the last time she would get an opportunity to get a picture of the three of us together. In her mind, that night was going to be the night I started to hate her. The night that would destroy our friendship, all so she could own up to what she had done. All so she could give me my daughter.

As much as I wanted to hate her for what she had done. As angry and sad as it made me to have her hidden the truth from me for so long, I had to realize the absolute iron will that decision had taken to make.

She hadn’t needed to tell me the truth. The reality was, I would have never known. Had she chosen the easy way out. Had she chosen to simply put Roo to bed that night and then come out and crawl into my lap, I would have never known the truth. I would have never suspected it.

It wouldn’t have needed to.

I would be with her, and I would treat Roo as if she were my own.

It made me realize how special she truly was. She had set aside her own chance at happiness forever just to ensure that I had one more little piece of information that would have meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. She had gambled with her own needs just to ensure that the truth was out there…

“Hey.” I whispered.

She looked over at me and smiled.

I held my hand out to her and gave her a come-hither motion.

“Grab your phone and come here. I want to give you a better picture of the three of us together.”

She grabbed her phone with a smile and crawled over on me, snuggling against my right side, while Roo laid on my left. She held her phone out, and just before the picture clicked I darted over and kissed her on the head.

She smiled and looked at the picture. She held the phone to her chest and the look of pure joy on her face stopped my heart. She crawled up my chest and put a hand on either side of my face. Her head shook as her eyes bounced back and forth, focusing on one of my eyes and then the other. She shook her head at me, “I am so fucking sorry…” She whispered.

I smiled at her as she leaned down and kissed me, her lips sending an electric current of pleasure through my body. My hand found its way up under her shirt, my fingers running up her side, climbing higher, and higher…

She grabbed my hand and pulled out of our kiss.

She gave me a smirk, “Down boy.”

She tilted her head towards Roo, “Little eyes and ears are in the room.”

I smiled at her, putting my hand behind her head and pulling her in for another kiss, “She’s got to learn about the birds and bees sooner or later…”

Casey giggled as she shook her head. She climbed off of me, batting at my hands as I tried to pull her back in, “Bad dog!” She scolded as she scooped Roo up, holding her close. I could see her mind clip for just a second, “Do you mind if I put her to bed?”

I smiled at her. “Of course not.” I told her as I stretched and yawned.

She smiled at me, and carried Roo off to bed.

I sat up on the couch and watched TV for a few more minutes, as I waited for her to come back so I could say goodnight before I went back to my own place for the night.

A part of me realized that was a little on the weird side, to ask her to marry me, to want desperately for her to say yes, and then live somewhere else, but I also realized that things were already weird enough. There was enough pressure on us as is without me making a federal issue out of one of us moving in with the other.

She was going through a lot right now, and it was very possible that she needed, hell, that she wanted her own space.

She came back in and leaned against the wall, looking at me as I watched her. I let my eyes wander up and down her body, letting my mind, and my imagination have their way with her. She smiled self-consciously and I saw her eyes bounce down to the floor.

There was a part of me, hell, a very large part of me, that wanted to get laid tonight. The smarter part of me realized that she had sent me some very clear messages tonight that I was not going to be getting laid…

I smiled at her, slapping my legs, “I should probably get going. I know you have work in the morning.”

Panic flashed through her eyes and she walked quickly to me, pushing me back down into the couch. Without a word, she spread her legs over me and kissed me hard. My hands found their way back inside her shirt and this time, she made no effort to stop me.

When she came up for air finally, she ran her hands over the sides of my face.

“Stay? Please?” She begged.

I shook my head at her, “The night? Sure.” I started to pull her closer and she stopped me.

“No. I don’t mean tonight. I mean move in. Stay with me and Roo? Sleep with me?” She settled into my lap and paused for a few seconds. Finally, she licked her lips, “I know it’s not what you asked for… but… I was thinking… if we lived together, that would be a good compromise?” Her face was down, she was looking at my chest.

I put a hand beneath her chin, nodding, “Hey, it’s okay if we go slow. I know this is hard for you. I don’t mind if we take some time…”

I stopped, smiling at her. “Like I told you last night. I want you to be in my life from now on.” I ran a finger over her cheek, “This is your place though, and it isn’t my place to just move in uninvited.”

She leaned in, breathing huskily on my cheek, “I’m done taking my time. I’m asking… I’m inviting.”

I wrapped my fingers in her shirt and pulled her in for another kiss. “And I’m accepting.”

She gave me a radiant smile as she pulled back from me, “I’m going to take a quick shower.”

I smiled at her, thinking of how much I liked her sexy look fresh from the shower. Her hair plastered to her head, the flush of her cheeks, the way the heat from the water brought out the color of her skin…

She got out of my lap, and gently laid me down on the couch. She handed me the remote and gave me another deep kiss. “You stay right there and get comfy, and when I get out we’ll watch a movie together, okay?”

I smiled at her and nodded.

I laid there and thought about her sexy body while I finished the movie that the three of us had been watching together. A part of me wanted to get up and put on something less kid friendly, but the truth was, it had been a long exhausting day, and I was too lazy to get up.

She came back in, wearing a long t-shirt, and showing off a lot of sexy leg. I smiled at her as she bounced her eyebrows at me, giving me a knowing wink.

The movie intro played as she went into the kitchen and came back with a beer for each of us. I started to get up to make room for us both and she stopped me, pointing to my side, “Can I just curl up there? Curl up with you and just lay against you?”

I smiled at her, patting my side, “I saved this spot just for you…”

She set the beers on the table and crawled across my body, wrapping herself around me as I lay contentedly on the couch. As soon as her body was against mine, I started having naughty thoughts…

I pressed my cheek to her wet hair, feeling the soft moisture there. I kissed her head and pulled her in tight as I squirmed around… trying to avoid embarrassing myself with how my body was responding to all that pleasant warmth she was providing…

She looked up at me and the beauty of her face nearly pushed me over the edge. The only thing that stopped me from pushing her back against the couch was the worried look on her face…

“Am I making it hard to get comfy?” She fretted.

I looked into her eyes and shook my head at her, my breath taken away. “No. Sorry. I’m just uh…” I laughed at little, embarrassed to be admitting it to her… “Just… uh… getting a little excited with you this close… it’s a little hard to focus.”

She smiled, her eyes filling with mischief. Crawling up my body, she kissed my jaw lightly, “Getting… harder?”

I threw my head back, laughing.

Her lips worked their way across my neck, her hips grinding into mine…

“All you have to do is ask…” She whispered.

That was too much to take…

With a growl I rolled over, wrapping my arms around her and kissing her hard. She moaned into my mouth and her arms wrapped around me, wrapping me in my own private cocoon of love and warmth.

I came up for air and she ran her hand down the side of my face…

“You know I want it right?” She asked.

I smiled, pushing my body into hers, “And you’re about to get it…”

She threw her head back, laughing. “No, silly.” Her eyes met mine, “The ring. Your ring. I want it. I want to marry you, I really do.”

That got my attention. I wanted to get laid, sure, but I wanted her a hell of a lot more.

Drawing my fingers over her brow I asked her, “Then why don’t you just take it?”

She shook her head, giving me a sad smile, “Because as much as I want it, I don’t think I deserve it. There’s a part of me that thinks you’re just staying because you have Roo. A part of me that thinks that you don’t want me, you just think it’s the right thing for you to do. Almost like you knocked me up and now you have to do the right thing…”

I started to open my mouth to protest and she cut me off, “I don’t really think that’s true. But I still have the thought. And I know you… I know that if you marry me, you’ll stay forever, even if you’re not happy. I don’t want that. I mean… I want you. I want you to be mine forever. I want you to stay with me forever, but I don’t want that if it’s not going to make you happy. I know you’ll stay because it’s the right thing for Roo, but I want you to have more than that.”

She ran her nose along my jaw, sending shivers of sensation through my entire body…

She took a deep breath, her body shivering against me. I could tell I was driving her emotions and her hormones crazy… and it made me feel amazing…

“I feel like a bad mom right now…” She whispered.

That hit me like a brick to the face, bringing me up short.

“Hey!” I exclaimed, surprised. “Why would you feel that way?”

She pressed her body against me, “Because I want you so much. I know that I should be happy for my little girl, that I should be thrilled that she’ll have her dad in her life, but right now…” she shook her head,” right now, all I can think about it is how fucking happy I am to have you to myself… how much I want you for myself.”

I smiled and kissed her… the truth was, I was going through some of that same feeling myself…

When we finally took another break, she smiled at me, her fingers tangled in my shirt, “I think that feeling will go away with time… the worry that you don’t want me… but it might take some time. Can you be patient with me?”

I smiled at her, running my hand down her side, over her hip, as I dipped my fingers inside her panties, “Well, that depends… do I still get to get in your panties?”

She smiled back at me, as she crawled over me, her hips sliding over mine and sending the most pleasant shiver of pleasure through me possible.

She smirked at me, “Just try to stop me…”

I kissed her hard, “Well then I say why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?”

She giggled, as she pulled me in close, kissing my neck and whispering into my ear, “Moo, moo baby!”

Chapter 24

Roo and I were sitting at the breakfast table, watching Casey rush to get ready for work. She looked at me, and for the fourth time that morning asked, “You’re sure you got her today?”

I looked at Roo who was working on what I now realized, once again, was a too big bowl of cereal…

Winking at her I told Casey, “Sure, no problem. I was considering taking her down to the troll market and seeing what kind of deal I could get on her…”

Casey looked at me deadpan, “Ha, ha, asshole…”

Roo shouted, “Trolls! I wanna see a troll!”

I smiled at her and rubbed her head, “We’ll see Button, mommy is notoriously anti-troll.”

Roo looked at Casey, “Momma! I want to see a troll!”

Casey rolled her eyes, and then came over and gave Roo a kiss on the head, and me one on the lips. I wrapped a finger in the belt loops at the front of her jeans and pulled her in, “Stop fretting. I’ll try not to let her stick a fork in a light socket, or burn the house down, or do any light street racing…”

She laughed and shook her head, “Call me if you need anything.”

I nodded, “We’ll be fine. We’ve hung out before.”

Once Casey was out the door I looked at Roo, who was starting to seriously struggle with polishing off the bowl of cereal I had given her…

Smiling at her, I asked, “Pumpkin? Are you done with that?”

She put her spoon down, sighing in relief. “Yes, please.”

I went behind her and grabbed her bowl in one hand, and gave her a quick kiss on the head. “Button, you don’t have to eat everything that I put in front of you. If you’re full, just tell me, okay?”

She smiled and nodded as I ran the rest of the cereal down the disposal. Once I was done, I put the dishes in the sink and turned around to face her, “So. It’s just you and me today. What do you want to do?”

“I thought we were going to the troll market?” She informed me, her face serious, “I really want to see a troll… mommy read me a book about one one time… they sound kind of scary but I still want to see one!”

I laughed and shook my head, “Button, I was being a smart alek. There’s no such thing as trolls…”

A look of intense concentration came over her face, and I could see her adding up the facts. She nodded, “So we can’t go to the troll market?”

Laughing I walked over and scooped her up, carrying her out of the kitchen.

A thought occurred to me then…

“Roo, maybe we could go visit a friend? Would you like that?”

She thought about it for a second, “You mean like Re? Are we going to visit Re?”

I shook my head, “No, pumpkin, Re isn’t a friend. Re’s family. She’s your auntie. She’s daddy’s sister. This would be a friend of mine…” A thought occurred to me then, “A friend of daddy’s.”

Her little eyes narrowed, “Are they nice?” Nodding sagely, she added, “I don’t like mean people.”

I nodded, “Yes, Ben is really nice. You’ll like him.”

She puckered up her little lips, thinking about it. “I think we could go see Ben or at least we could give it try.”

I laughed, giving her a hug. “Glad you approve!”

I got her, and myself ready. Putting her seat in my truck was a little more complicated than I expected, but Roo actually helped me out. She crawled up on the seat and helped me figure out where the straps went, how to get it hooked up. I mean, I wasn’t stupid, I didn’t let a three-year-old install her own car seat, I checked that everything was set up right, but she still cut some time off of me fumbling around on my own.

I got her set up, and strapped in.

We drove out to Ben’s place, where I knew there would be a pleasant surprise waiting for Roo. As we pulled into the driveway, I saw Ben coming out of his barn, carrying a bale of hay. An enormous smile spread across his face as he saw me. He dropped the bale of hay on the back of his truck and threw up a great big wave.

When Roo saw them… she squealed, “Ponies!”

I smiled, realizing that she had probably never seen a llama before. It would be easy in her mind to mix the two of them up. So I told her, “No sweetie, those are llamas.”

“What’s a llama?” she asked.

I thought about how to explain that, and decided to take the shortcut. I pointed, “That’s a llama.”

“So, ponies are llamas?”

Giggling, I shook my head, “No. They’re different. Ponies are a different animal. They’re a lot bigger than llamas. You’ll see once we get close.”

Her eyes got big, “They’re not mean, are they? One of my friends has a big dog, and he scares me. He looks really mean, but my friend says he’s nice.”

I shook my head, “No, pumpkin. They’re not mean, and my friend Ben will help look out for you.”

I got out of the truck and walked over and shook Ben’s hand. He was wall to wall smiles. “Jakey! Been fucking forever man! It’s so good to see you! When did you get back to town?”

Smiling at him, I started back to the truck where Roo was waiting.

“Couple days back…”

Then I realized how much of a mistake this might have been…

When the idea had occurred to me, all I had considered was how much Roo was going to love seeing the llamas up close. The deeper I got, the more I realized that I was going to have a lot of explaining to do…

Ben was a good friend, and had been since we were in high school. He’d known Casey for years, and while they weren’t great friends from way back, they were friendly. He’d been around Roo, and he knew what had gone down with Casey.

I opened the door and Roo cut out any chance I had of spilling the beans slowly, “Daddy! Daddy! Can I go see the llama’s?”

Ben got a look on his face like he’d just been kicked in the nuts… “Daddy?”

I gave him a weak smile as I fumbled with the straps on Roo’s seat.

“Long story?” I tried to explain, focusing on getting her free.

He scratched at his beard, a grimace on his face, “One I’m sure I’m going to want to hear…”

I smiled at him as I got Roo free, plucking her out of her seat and lifting her down to the ground.

She was squirming in anticipation, “Daddy, can I go look at the llamas?”

I looked at Ben, raising my eyebrows to ask permission, it was his place after all.

Ben leaned down and mussed her hair, he looked at me, “Fine with me.”

I crouched down and met her eye to eye, “Go ahead and go over to the fence. Don’t reach into the fence though, okay? Not until Ben is around to keep a closer eye on you?”

She put her little hands together and looked at me, the question plain on her face.

I smiled at her, “They aren’t mean, but sometimes big animals like that see small fingers and get confused. I don’t want them to nip you thinking you have food for them, okay?”

She lowered her head shyly, which surprised me. She had never seemed shy before. She looked at Ben, “Are they mean? They won’t bite me, will they?”

Ben smiled at her, his smile a bright slash in his dark face. “Not as long as you do what Jakey here says. Little while later I’ll give you some carrots and you can feed them.”

She brightened up a bit, “Will they bite me if I feed them?”

He shook his head, “Nope. They know a carrot when they see it.”

I poked her little tummy, “It’s okay, go on now, remember, keep your hands away from the fence, okay?”

She nodded, and then went charging over to look at the animals.

I put my hands on my hips and watched her, seeing her enthusiasm brightened my day. I gave Ben a sideways look, “Thanks for that.”

He put his hands in his pockets and watched her. Ben had gotten married to his high school sweetheart, Annie, last year, and I knew from our semi-frequent phone calls that they were expecting their first in a couple of months, a little girl. I could see him watching Roo, his mind projecting forward to how his own life was going to look in a couple of years.

He looked at me, “So is that some kind of pet name? You and Casey a thing now?”

I grit my jaw and shook my head, “No and yes.”

He looked at me sideways, “The order of those answers means a lot…”

I smiled, nodding as I put my hands in my pockets and stared at the ground, “It’s complicated.”

He raised his eyebrows, “Sounds like it.”

It hit me then how complicated everything was. How complicated it was going to continue to get. How hard all of this was going to be. On one hand, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want Casey to look bad to all of the people I had known and grown up with, and at the same time, I wanted to be able to talk to my friends…

I pulled my hands out of my pockets, “Remember John Key’s party the summer after our Senior year?”

He nodded, “Yeah…”

I clicked my tongue, “I don’t… at least not the end of it…”

He went dead silent and his eyebrows tried to crawl up his head… “You mean you and Casey…?”

I nodded slowly, “Yep.”

He puffed out his cheeks and blew out through his mouth… “Fuck.”

I smiled ruefully at him. “Yep… fuck about sums it up.”

He grimaced, “And she didn’t tell you?”

I shook my head sadly, “She was really embarrassed about it. Thought it was going to fuck up our friendship…”

He put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, his gaze landing on the dirt at our feet, while he shook his head. I could see him trying to process. Could see him putting himself in my shoes, trying to empathize and figure out how he would react in that situation.

He finally settled on, “I’d be so pissed man…”

I shrugged. “I am. I don’t want to admit to myself that I am, but I am. Problem is, getting pissed at her isn’t going to help how fucked up this situation is.” I looked at him, “And I fucking love her too… I asked her to marry me…”

He pulled his hand off my shoulder his eyebrows crawling up his forehead in surprise, “What did she say?”

I shook my head, “No.”

He rubbed his face with both hands, his hands rasping across the stubble on jaw. He was quiet for a long time before he finally said, “Why?”

I felt a deep sadness well up in me then. I wanted so badly to tell myself that it didn’t matter. That if she didn’t want to marry me, it was okay, but I knew the truth. I knew that it mattered to me. I knew on some level that it was a sense of closure to the situation that I needed. Like somehow, in my mind, everything that had happened, all of the choices that Casey had made, wouldn’t matter as long as she was my wife. Like I could just play it off. That I would know that we were family now, and none of what happened before would matter.

The more I thought about it the stupider it seemed. More and more pointless. Did a fucking ring, and some words really change anything? Did it make it any better? I knew the answer to that was no. I wanted her to marry me, to say yes right now for a much pettier reason… I wanted her, and I was using this situation with Roo to pressure her into saying yes. I was doing to her, exactly what she feared doing to me. I was trying to lock her down with guilt because I knew once she married me she would never walk away.

She was so much better of a person than I was, she loved me enough to let me keep an out if I wanted to walk away, I was too selfish to give her the same opportunity.

I loved her, yes, but our love was still very new, or at least it was very new to being out in the open, out in the light. We could lie to ourselves and say that didn’t matter. That we loved each other, and had for a very long time, but the truth was, all of this was new to us both…

We had been a part of each other’s lives for so long neither of us could remember what it was like to not have the other there, but this was so much different. Before, we were in each other’s hip pocket all of the time, but there was always the option to walk away. For me, or her, to go home. To spend some time thinking, but what I was pushing her for?

To be married we’d need to live together. To raise Roo together, we’d have to figure out how to do it. We’d have to be working to constantly be figuring out what we were both comfortable with. What we could both tolerate. We could lie to ourselves and try to say that none of that mattered, that the only thing that mattered was that we loved each other, but the truth was, this was completely new ground to us both…

There was a part of me that wondered if I could handle the commitment. Hell, if I was honest with myself, I had never even lived with a woman before, I had always been too scared, too interested in having ‘my space’, and now I wanted to get married? To just rush out and close that loop?

That made me realize though…

It made me see the truth.

I hadn’t wanted to live with another woman because I had been holding out for having Casey. Even when she was on the other side of the state, I had it in my stupid head that I loved her and that I wanted her…

I also realized something else as I talked to Ben. There was a lot of baggage that needed to be processed. I was angry, and as much as I wanted to forget that, as much as I wanted to tell myself that I was too good a person to let that affect me, I couldn’t. I loved her a lot more than I was angry at her, but I still felt the sting of all the time I had lost with Roo. All of those first moments taken away from me…

It was easy right now to say that none of that mattered. That the only thing that I cared about was Casey and Roo. That I only cared about squeezing every last minute out of the time that was available to me. That feeling was true now, but would it be in a month? A year? Would it eat away at me for every moment of the rest of our lives?

And there was her guilt. There was the fact that every time she saw her little girl and her daddy together she had to be feeling a knife being pushed into her heart. She had to be remembering how many opportunities she had taken away. How many moments that should have been shared that had been stolen. Would all of that just stack up in her mind, every minute driving her closer and closer to the edge of sanity? If I loved her, that wouldn’t be a position I would want to trap her in. To use her guilt to drive her closer to me. Just hope that it went away?

Did I really want her to be miserable for the rest of her life? For what? To make it up to me?

I looked at Ben and smiled, “Because she’s smarter than my dumb ass…”

He scrunched his face up at me, “What do you mean?”

I shrugged, “Think about it. I love her, and she loves me, but you’re married. You realize, it takes a lot more than loving someone to make a marriage work. It takes putting someone else ahead of you every day. It takes being able to sort through your problems and make them work together.”

I nodded to Roo, “Think about all of this. Up until now, I’ve been just trying to push it all down deep, like it shouldn’t matter, but it does. All of it matters. Yeah, there’s nothing she or I could do to make it different, but it still matters…”

My mood started to come up as I thought about it, as I really chewed it all the way down to the bone…

I met his eyes, “Just not as much as I love that little girl right there, and not nearly as much as I love Casey…”

He clapped me on the shoulder again, smiling. “Come on, let’s show your little girl how a llama rides!”

Chapter 25

I watched Roo that afternoon play on Ben’s farm. Watched her ride the llamas. Watched her feed them. Watched her ride Ben’s big, noisy tractor while he dragged some fencing out and mended a couple of spots in his fence where the cattle had started to make holes. I watched her as she took a little nap, pillowed on a few bales of hay as Ben and I worked.

She woke with little strands of it in her hair, and a smile on her face that burned like a thousand suns on her funny little face.

She ran around and played. She asked questions and tried to figure out what Ben and I were doing all day long…

As the day wound down she said goodbye to the llamas, and to Ben, and she and I headed home for dinner.

We got no more than five seconds into the house and she was instantly attached to her momma’s hip, telling her all about her day, and how beautiful the llamas were, and how she wanted one of her very own, so she could keep it in the yard. I sat at the kitchen table and watched my two ladies…

I could see how tired Casey was from work. She was cooking, spaghetti from the look and smell of things…

Casey nodded and talked with our little girl, but I could see she was starting to wear thin…

Standing, I came up and pulled Roo against me, putting one of my big hands on each side of her head, “Roo, Button?”

She looked up and me and smiled.

I bounced my eyebrows, “Momma looks very tired. You think you could go and play with your tablet for a while, give her a chance to recoup from work? Just until dinner is ready?”

She got a serious look on her face and nodded her little head, “Yes, Jakey.”

Casey looked over at her sharply, “Daddy, Roo! Not Jakey, Daddy!”

Roo looked like she had been slapped. “Sorry mommy.”

I pulled Roo’s head up to look at me, “Don’t worry about it Button, mommy’s just tired. Can you go play with your tablet?”

She nodded eagerly and bounced out of the room.

I came up and wrapped my arms around Casey from behind. She was tense, her entire body locked up. I could tell how mad she was. Could sense how much it had pissed her off for me to step between her and Roo…

“Why don’t you let me take over here?” I murmured into her ear. “You go take a nice shower, put on something soft and comfy and try to relax a bit?”

She shook her head, and even from in back of her, I could see her grit her teeth. And then, like someone had taken a needle to the balloon of her anger she pushed it down. “I’m okay. I can make dinner for us…”

I took my left hand from her waist and pushed the hair away from the right side of her neck. My lips found the sensitive spot just beneath her ear lobe. “I know you can… I just want to help…” I whispered into her ear, kissing her again.

I lifted my hands to her shoulders, rubbing them roughly as I tried to work the tension from her muscles. They started out hard as rocks beneath my fingers, but just a few minutes of massage and they started to slowly relax. Finally, realizing I wasn’t likely to get her to relax much more with my hands, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close, going back to kissing her neck, and nuzzling her jaw with my nose.

Her body melted beneath my kisses. The tension drifting out of her as my fingers and lips pulled the stress away…

She shook her head, “How are you so fucking perfect?” she whispered as I nibbled on her ear…

I giggled, “Pure fucking talent.”

I could hear Roo come back into the room, and a part of me thought that maybe it was a good idea to give Casey some space, just to try not to make things awkward for Roo and Casey. Casey felt so good though, I just couldn’t resist…

“Jakey?” Roo asked…

Casey went insane…

She pushed the hot pan full of spaghetti sauce away from her, slamming the pan against the back of the stove as sauce spilled out over the surface. I was filled with surprise as I instinctively pulled Casey and myself away from the stove…

“Goddamn it Aubry!” Casey squealed as she spun away from me, “Daddy! Not Jakey! Daddy!”

I caught her arm as she started to storm over to Roo, pulling her up short. She spun around on me like an enraged badger, the rage in her eyes apparent…

Realizing that she needed space, I took a step back, raising my hands…

She stopped dead, her anger melting away as tears started to fill her eyes. I smiled at her, and put her face between my hands, trying to will away the swirl of emotions going through her right now. She put her hands on my forearms and pulled herself closer to me as shame crowded through her anger.

I smiled at her, letting her know it was all okay, that I understood…

I kissed her on the forehead, “Why don’t you let me field this one?”

She nodded weakly and I could see the anger burn out of her…

I let her go and scooped Roo up, carrying her into the living room and setting my little girl down on the couch…

She looked miserable. I knew she was a great kid, and I knew that Casey very rarely snapped at her. Roo was taking it very rough for her momma to come unglued on her like that…

Her little eyes filled with tears as she looked at me, “I’m sorry daddy…”

I mussed her hair, “Don’t worry about it pumpkin. I still love you.”

She lifted her little arms up and I could tell she wanted a hug so I scooped her up, gave her a big hug and set her in my lap. I just hugged her for a long time, letting her process and calm down. When she finally started squirming I knew she was okay and so I let her loose. She leaned into me, her little head tucked in under my jaw.

“I didn’t mean to call you Jakey, daddy… sometimes I just forget…”

I kissed her head, “It’s okay little one… I get it. I’m not mad at you.”

She leaned away from me, looking at my face carefully, “Is mommy mad at me?”

I shook my head, “Not really sweetie. She’s just stressed right now, so she could use your help if you don’t mind?”

She nodded her little head, “I’ll be good daddy… I’ll do better.”

I put my hand on her head and tussled her hair, wondering at how her little head was so small the entire thing seemed to fit in the palm of my hand…

I wrinkled my nose at her, “It’s not that big a deal, Button. It’s just important to mommy…”

I stopped myself, realizing I was lying to her, hell, I was lying to myself…

“Actually, that’s not true. It’s important to both me and mommy. Can you try to be a big girl and remember to call me daddy?”

She nodded, her face still filled with sadness…

I didn’t like that…

I thought on the situation. Kids were just like dogs. You could correct behavior with a sharp word, or by punishing, but the better way, I knew was to give them some incentive. Some goal to work towards…

“Did you like the llamas at Ben’s place today?” I asked her, trying to get her to refocus.

She nodded eagerly, “I loved the llamas…”

I narrowed my eyes at her and leaned in conspiratorially. “Do you want to see the llamas again?”

She clasped her delicate hands together and nodded eagerly, “Yes please.”

I smiled at her, “What do you say we make a deal?”

“What kind of deal?”

“Well, if you remember to call me daddy all week, that’s seven days from today, then the next weekend, I’ll ask Ben if we can go out to his place again, and see the llamas.” I explained.

Her eyes got wide, “Can I ride one?”

I smiled at her, “They aren’t my llamas, so I can’t promise you that, but I’ll ask Ben if you can ride one of his llamas if you call me daddy all week.” I leaned closer to her, holding my hand out to her, “Deal?”

She looked at me, then at my hand, “I’ll try… but I forget sometimes…”

I smiled at her, “Tell you what. If you forget, then we’ll restart the week, and restart the deal over again. Fair?”

“So, if I forget, I can’t go see the llamas?” She asked.

I shrugged, “Well, Ben told me that he only wants big girls around his llamas. A big girl can remember…”

She grabbed my hand, “I’ll remember. I’ll be good.”

That concerned me, “Button? If you forget, it isn’t you being bad. This is new to all of us. I get that. We need to all be patient with each other, okay?”

She leaned in and hugged me again. I kissed her head as I picked her up and set her back down, handing her her tablet.

She looked at me with those big eyes of hers, “Thank you daddy.”

I tussled her head, “You’re welcome, Button. I’ll let you know when dinner is ready.”

She nodded as her toy sucked all of her attention in.

I went back into the kitchen…

Casey had the pan back on the burner, and she was just finishing up cleaning the mess she had made of the stovetop.

Leaning against the countertop I looked at her. We both knew that we needed to talk about what had just happened, but I didn’t want her to think I was pissed at her, so I let it sit and simmer, giving her time to think, to process what was going through her head.

She put noodles in a separate pan and turned the burner down on the sauce before she looked at me…

Shaking her head, she moved closer to me. I held my arms out, waiting for her to come in and get a hug, she looked like she could use one…

She took one look at me and I could see anger and frustration flash across her features. She clenched her jaw as she looked at me. She was angry with me, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

“What did I do?” I asked.

She deflated, wrapping her arms around herself… “Why do you have to be so fucking perfect?”

I stepped forward, setting my hands on her shoulders, “I’m not perfect kiddo…”

She looked at me, sorrow in her eyes, “I don’t know what to say…”

I gave her a smile, “You don’t need to say anything. I get it, I mean it was a bit of an overreaction, but I get where it’s coming from. Don’t sweat it.”

That look of anger and frustration flashed across her features again as she shook her head… “Why can’t you just get angry like a normal person?”

I raised an eyebrow, “You want me to yell at Roo because she forgot to call me daddy?”

She held her hands out, “Why not? Apparently it’s good enough for me? I mean I can yell at my little girl over that!”

I kneaded the muscles in her shoulders, “Kiddo. This is tough. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but right now we just all need to be patient, with each other, and with ourselves. We need to realize it’s challenging for all of us, and it’s only going to get harder if we start getting frustrated with each other.”

“I don’t want you to get frustrated with her. I don’t want you to yell at her. I want you to get frustrated with me. I want you to be angry at me! For fuck’s sake, you should hate me!” She exclaimed.

I let my left hand find its way to the side of her face, letting my thumb slide against the smooth skin of her cheek. “Do you think I don’t care? That it doesn’t matter to me?”

Tears welled up in her eyes… “I know you care. That’s what makes this so hard. That I fucking know you care, and yet you just keep bottling it up. And I know. I know that it’s going to make you hate me… I just want you to blow up about it. Yell at me. Tell me I’m being a bad mother for yelling at our daughter. Break some shit. Put your hand through a wall, just don’t keep pushing it down.”

She stopped, and I could see her fighting with her emotions, trying to find the right words to let them out. Finally, she settled with, “Just don’t start hating me… I…” she shook her head, “I couldn’t take that. Not now. Not after I finally have you in my life just the way I want you…”

I raised her face so I could see her eyes, “You want me to punch you in the face?”

Her shoulders sagged, “Yes. Something… anything…”

I balled up my right fist and very gently set it against her jaw, “Hadouken…”

The tears fell from her eyes… “Please… don’t joke about it… don’t put it off like it’s nothing…”

I pulled her in tight and hugged her, shaking my head… “See, it’s a Street Fighter joke…”

She shook her head, “I know goofus… I used to play Street Fighter with you, remember?”

Kissing her neck, I nuzzled her face with my nose. “I’m upset. I want those years back, but I’m not getting them, no matter how angry I get. There’s a part of me that does want to yell and scream.” I pushed her back and put my hands on either side of her head, making her look at me, “But I want you more. I want Roo. I love you both, and I’m not going to do anything to lose another day with either of you. Do you hear me?”

She nodded, but I could tell I wasn’t getting through to her…

I could feel her slipping away from me… I could feel her guilt starting to kill her love for me…

I wanted to cry. I wanted to beg for her to stop…

Instead I gave her head a good hard mini-shake. “Stop it. Snap out of it. You want me to hate you? Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep fucking this up. Keep pushing me away from you, because if you do that, I will end up hating you.”

Her eyes softened, and filled with tears again.

I shook my head at her, “Just love me, and let me love you… okay? It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to go away tomorrow. We’re just going to need to keep working at it. We are all going to have highs, and we’re all going to have lows. We just have to figure out how to help each other to figure this all out and how to work through what we’re feeling. I’m not pissed right now, but in a week, who knows? At that point, it will be your turn to pick me up, the way I’m picking you up right now.”

She nodded weakly, “I love you… I’m so sorry…”

My eyes hardened and I gave her head another little shake, “And stop apologizing. Fucking man up, and get on team let’s get this fixed.” I let my hands slip down and wrapped my forefingers into the front loops of her jeans, pulling her close. My lips found hers. “The team me and Roo are on now… and put out like there’s no tomorrow…”

She giggled and shook her head as she wrapped her arms around me, pulling me into that big hug I knew she needed from earlier and I knew that things were going to get better…

Chapter 26

That night we lay in bed together, tangled in the sheets and each other. She snuggled her face into my chest. I sighed, both in contentment, and as a result of the fact that I couldn’t get my brain to shut off…

“What are you thinking about?” She asked me.

I shook my head, “All the shit I need to get done…”

She lifted her head off of my chest and looked at me, “Like what?”

“Like get a job for the summer. Like figure out what the hell is going on with my mom.” I trailed off a bit, letting my brain try to catalog the final big thing that needed done… “Like how the fuck I’m going to deal with dropping out of school…”

“What?” She exclaimed, anger filling her voice.

I was surprised by her reaction. It seemed like the obvious thing that needed doing…

She crawled up my body a bit, “You are not quitting school. Don’t even say something so stupid, hell, don’t even think something so stupid.”

I shrugged one shoulder, “Casey… I have a family to support now… I need to get a job.”

She ground her teeth, sticking her jaw out at me. I could tell that something about what I had said really pissed her off…

“Roo and I were doing just fine taking care of ourselves a week ago. Don’t start pulling that manly bullshit now. You and I are going to work as a team now, you said it yourself. We’re team let’s get this fixed. I don’t plan on becoming Susy Homemaker just because you brought your swinging dick around.”

I looked down, “I don’t really think it swings… I mean, what would be the opposite of swings? I don’t even think it’s all that impressive…”

Her face went blank, and I could tell my attempt at humor fell well short of the goal…

“Ha. Ha. My sides are splitting with laughter.”

I smiled at her, trying very hard to make her understand. “Look, yes. You’re right, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t take care of yourself, or of Roo… It’s just… I mean think about it. What, I’m just going to pack up come fall time, wish you and Roo a happy couple of months and take off back to school?”

She looked at me like I had just suddenly turned into a giant iguana. She shook her head at me, “No. When you have to go back to school, we’re going to pack up, and all of us are going back with you, as a family.”

That took me by surprise…

I shook my head at her…

She suddenly bit her lip and looked down at my chest, “I mean, if you want me and Roo to come back with you… I guess I should have asked that before I just assumed…”

I put my hand against her face in sudden panic, raising her head up to look at me. “Of course, I would want you and Roo to come back with me! I just thought…”

My thoughts trailed off. What had I thought?

“I mean, I can’t just make the two of you uproot and come charging off after me. That’s completely selfish...” I tried to connect all my thoughts together, and found them to be a mishmash in my head. “I can’t ask you to just give up your lives here…”

She put her hand against my face. Her skin was smooth, and cool against my skin. I could see frustration in her face.

Her eyes met mine, “I’m going to say something, and I want you to try not to take it personally, okay?”

I nodded, “Okay…”

She took a deep breath and let it out quick, “Baby, Roo and I don’t have much of a life here without you…”

That slammed into me hard. I suddenly felt like a complete failure. Like I had failed to provide for my family…

She poked me hard in the chest, “You promised!”

“Ow!” I exclaimed, “What?”

“You weren’t going to take that personally!” I saw the guilt slam into her again, and wished very much that I had controlled my reaction better… “I’m going to try it your way, okay?”

I raised an eyebrow at her, “My way?”

She put her hand against my chest, “Yes. I’m going to try to focus on what needs to be done. I’m going to try to put the past behind me. Roo’s life, and my life were okay without you, but I realize now, it’s so much better with you in it. That being said, I realize now, I’m just in a holding pattern. Like I was waiting for you to come in and be a part of my life again, and without that, I just chose not to live. I realize now, everything I was doing was literally hand to mouth. I wasn’t trying to build a life for me and Roo. I was feeling sorry for myself, and that’s not on you. You tried. You tried to get me to come up and live with you, you tried to get me to go to school, and I was so busy feeling sorry for myself and letting guilt run my life I refused.

“I’m not doing that any more. We don’t have much here, and that’s the point. We’re not making a huge sacrifice in giving up what we have here.” I could see her words catching up to her, “All we’re really doing is riding the coattails of your life…”

I pulled her in closer and kissed her forehead, “No, you’re not. We’re going to build a life together. I’m sorry that I said anything different than that. I realize now, how much better my life is with you and Roo in it.”

It was then I realized what was making me hesitate. What was giving me doubts, “I think I realize now why I was willing to give it up…”

It made me feel really guilty…

“I wasn’t really all that happy in school. I just felt like I was going through the motions. I had no real end goal…” I looked at her, and school just felt a lot more important… “now… now I really want to get school done. I want to finish law school. Not just for myself, but for you and Roo too. I want to provide for you both. I want you to both have the best things in life. I want Roo to go to the best schools, and have the best things, to have all of the things she needs.”

She tilted her head, “Don’t be silly, and don’t be one of those asshats that starts talking about how much money makes your life better.”

I shook my head and smiled at her, “And don’t you be naïve. You and I have both been poor. We understand, money doesn’t make you happy all of a sudden, but it certainly helps to keep a lot of misery away. I’m not talking about stuff for the sake of stuff, I’m talking about making sure I can take care of us. Making sure we have opportunities.”

She smiled and snuck me a kiss, “Better.”

A thought occurred to me then… “So how do you want to do this?”

She tilted her head, “Do what?”

“Moving back.”

She took a deep breath… “That depends. Do you want to stay here for a while?”

I nodded my head, afraid to give it breath, “At least until I know what’s going on with my mom…”

She nodded, “I was thinking the same thing.”

I shrugged, “Dad said I could get a summer job with him. I’m thinking that might be a good idea. It would get us through the summer, and then at the end of the summer, we could move back… my old apartment would work for us I think. It has two bedrooms. One is an office right now, but I could clear all of my books out of it, set up someplace else, and there’d be a bedroom for us, and one for Roo.”

She smiled, “And I could get a job.” She play punched at me, “And I’d be a little worker bee while you went to school.”

I grimaced… she wasn’t going to like this… “Kiddo… I think you might be forgetting a few things.”

“Like what?”

This was going to be hard to put in a way that wasn’t going to hurt her feelings… “How much do you pay for childcare right now?”

“Well, your family helps me most of the time…” She admitted.

“When we go back, we’re going to be looking at probably a thousand dollars a month for that alone…”

I could see her face drop. “And if I’m checking groceries…” I could see some life jump back in her eyes, “I still make more than a thousand dollars a month!”

I smiled at her, “I know, but is it worth it to lose all that time with Roo for a couple of hundred dollars a month?”

She moved closer to me and I could feel a fierceness enter her body, “Yes. I’m going to help us. I’m going to help our little home.”

I felt a fierce sense of pride in her. “Maybe you should come to school with me?”

She shook her head, “No. If I did that, I would just need to pay for childcare and I wouldn’t be bringing in money.”

I tilted my head at her, “You don’t want to go to school?”

I could see a sadness come into her face, “I do… I just… I want to provide for us too…”

Smiling at her, I asked, “If you went to school, what would you want to do?”

She pushed her hair back behind her ears, “I want to be a teacher…”

I smiled at her. She had always wanted to be a teacher… “Then you need to go to school. You won’t ever be a teacher unless you go to school.”

That fierceness entered her gaze again, and I knew, the argument was over. I had lost. “You want to give me and Roo the finest things?”

I nodded, “Absolutely.”

“Then finish school. When you get a job, then I’ll go back to school. In the meantime, I’ll find something to take care of us. I’ll help to put you through school, and then you help me. Deal?”

I shook my head at her, “Deal.”

Chapter 27

We all sat in the doctor’s office. Me. Casey. Roo. Dad. Deb and Adrianna.

We all had that hangman at the gallows look on our face. We were all waiting for the shoe to drop.

The doctor looked at us, smiling. It was hard to tell what kind of smile it was. Was it one of those, ‘everything is going to be okay’ smiles, or was it one of those, ‘I really need to seem like I care because I’m about to give you some really bad news’ smiles…

He opened a little folder and looked over my mom’s information, studying it. When he looked up, his smile got a little wider.

“Well, we got the results back from the pathology lab…”

He let the information sit in the air so long you could feel the tension in the room grow.

It was dad that finally had enough, “Well, spit it out doc. What’s the news?”

The doc nodded, smiling wider, “No cancer.”

I let out a sigh, releasing the tension I hadn’t known had even built up.

Deb was still recovering from the surgery, and she still had the staples in her neck from the work they had done to seal her back up. Her voice was still a little on the gravely side, mostly from the damage that had been done to her neck. She tired easily…

“So what was it?” she asked.

He shrugged, “Don’t know.”

All of us kind of looked at him in dumb shock. How could they not know? How could there be thousands of dollars in medical bills. Hundreds of hours of work by trained professionals and nobody know?

He smiled again, this time wider, “These things happen. You’d be surprised how common they are. Sometimes our bodies just do weird things. Grow off weird little tendrils of stuff. Most of the time, we never notice. Deb, you just had one of the ones that causes problems, and that made us notice.”

“What happens now?” Dad asked.

The doctor nodded, “Well, nothing really. We get Deb all healed up. We keep an eye on the area going forward. Maybe do some ultrasounds every year or so to make sure nothing is going to grow back.”

Deb’s face was filled with so much relief my heart wanted to sing for her…

Chapter 28

Casey lay beside me, breathing hard from the effort of our lovemaking.

I held her close, my right arm circled around her, my left hand playing with the hair on her head, brushing at her bangs. I was fighting off that feeling of sleepiness…

That beautiful feeling of absolute bliss that comes after connecting intimately with someone we love…

I felt her stir a bit against me, sensing her looking at me and her desire for me to look back at her. Looking at her, all I could do was smile. She made me so fucking happy…

She nibbled at her lip, looking at me like she was nervous…

“Can you stay there, right there for just a second?” Her voice was quiet, full of doubt…

I smiled at her and nodded, afraid that if I spoke I would shatter her into a million pieces.

She crawled out of the bed and went over to her dresser. She opened the top drawer and took something out. When she came back, she had my ring.

She held the box out to me and I felt my heart drop into my stomach…

She was giving my ring back to me…

She smiled at me, “If you give it to me now… I’ll take it…”

I felt my eyebrows crawl up my forehead like they were trying to escape my face.

She smiled again as I looked at her.

I opened the ring box up and looked at it, “Well… I don’t know…”

She slapped my arm.

“Will you marry me?”

She smiled, nodding her head as she took the ring. My heart sang as she took it out of the box and put it on her finger.

I smiled at her, “It looks good on you.”

She nodded, cradling the ring to her chest, holding it close.

I shook my head, trying to understand, “Why now?”

She lay down against me, pushing her body against mine once again, “I was sitting there in the doctor’s office today and the thought hit me… what if it was me they were talking about. What if I was sitting there with you, and we were wondering if I was really sick? What if we were sitting there and it was you. What if I had to sit there and wonder if it was you that was sick and maybe dying?”

She shook her head, “I’m done wasting my life. I fucked up, and if you were mad at me, I’d have to eat that and learn to live with it. You say you want to be with me. Maybe I need to trust that. In the end, I need to just do what I can and help us both to move on with our lives. Maybe you’re angry with me. Maybe this won’t work out, but one thing I know for certain… I know how badly I want you, and I know how badly I fucked up trying to keep that from you. I’m done with that and I want to spend the rest of my life making my mistakes up to you…”

I grabbed her hand and pulled her close, kissing her, knowing that she was right. In the end, all we were going to have was each other.

We would find a way to make that enough…

The End

Copyright © 2017 by Lukas Grey

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

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Comments (2)
Lukas Grey22 December 2017 19:58
Sam, thanks for the kind comment! It actually is published as an ebook right now. Mainly I'm just working to build an audience and I realize that I need to give a little to the community in order to build that!
Sam what am — 22 December 2017 17:36
An absolutely wonderful story that took me from anger through fear and into tears and back again. This should be published as either a book or an eBook. This could be the story of my life except I never did get the girl of my dreams.
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