A Life Lived

Chapter 9

By Dabeagle

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There were a few dishes in the sink, so I moved them to the dishwasher. I wiped down the table and set the chairs back in place. In the living room I folded Daisy's blanket and laid it on the arm of the couch, unsure what its future may be. Her favorite ball, a red one with faded white stars fell out of the folds and made a small squeak as it hit the floor. Unsure what to do with it, I just left it for now. I climbed the stairs and stood in the doorway to the room Bailey slept in. The light was fading from the day, as it does this time of year, and I flipped on the switch.

For years this room had just been a spare. Oh, I'd put a single bed in it and a dresser, but that was more or less because I had nothing else to do with it. My parents have passed on. I never married and had no one to share the space with besides my dogs. But now...the bed was messy. There were clothes that were...shall we say hamper adjacent. There were shoes in and out of the closet. There should be posters on the wall, or pictures with friends and trips that had been taken, but the room had life now. It was waiting to become animated with the person who was bringing color to an off-white room.

I pulled a drawer open to fix whatever was hanging out and was surprised to find food in the drawer. I mean...on a a plate. Curious I opened another drawer and found a jar of Nutella and a package of powdered cocoa mix. What in the heck was this kid doing? I shook my head and closed the drawer, picked up his clothes and tossed them into the hamper, and then remembered I should call Annabelle.

“Do you have him? Where was he?” she asked.

“No. Ah, no. Not yet.” I explained how things had gone and where we were at for the moment.

“Jesus, you've had a day, Colin. How are you holding up?”

I sat on the bed. “Normally I'd say a day where Fiona Granger was getting a felony charge would be enough to keep my pecker up for a week, but...it's been a hard day. One that still isn't over.”

“Yeah. It has. It's important that it's not over, though. Oh. Someone just – Bailey? Colin, Bailey's here! He's at the lot!”

“What? I'm on my way!” I took the stairs two at a time and stepped awkwardly, turning my ankle a bit. I was into the truck and headed down the road before I'd really stopped to think. I pulled my seat belt on and called Cooper. “I just talked to my mechanic at the lot – Bailey just walked in there! I'm on the way there now.”

“I'll meet you there,” he replied.

Some people might have blacked out the whole drive, but I was hyper aware. “Move your ass!” I hollered out the window and laid on the horn. “It's on the right!”

People gave me dirty looks and selective fingers, which I returned as I barreled through the late afternoon traffic. The suspension shuddered as I clipped the curb pulling into my lot, and then I was hightailing it to the office door.

“Bailey?” His name was out of may mouth before I laid eyes on him.

I don't remember the last time I hugged someone. I'm sure I was doing it wrong. He felt so...thin. I could feel his shoulder blades under my forearms and my fingers pressed into his shoulders. I think he wasn't used to hugging either, as he didn’t respond immediately, but then his arms closed around me tentatively, slowly strengthening.

Then he was shaking. I think maybe I was, too. I pushed him back, the muscles in my arm jumping. I put my hands on his shoulders, then cupped his face, his cheeks warm, his eyes damp – then I pulled him to me again. This time his arms were around me immediately.

“Jesus H Christ! Where were you?” I asked.

“Uh. He was with me.”

“Who's me?” I asked, not letting go of Bailey.

“Me. Uh, Casey. Repecki.”

I let Bailey loose and glanced over to see Casey, dressed in team sweats, and a pretty girl with long, chestnut hair.

“It's kind of...my fault?” the girl said. “I mean. Casey was going to be late to practice, but I told him how mad the coach gets, and Bailey said it was okay....”

“Hold on.” I took a deep breath and looked back to Bailey. “Are you okay?”

He nodded easily. “Yeah. Grandma showed up, and I ran out the door. I wasn't sure where to go, but when I saw the school I started around the side so I could go to the front to get in. But Casey was on the side of the school.”

“Yeah, uh, coach's car was in the shop, so he asked me to grab the bags for practice. I was loading them up, and Bail comes around the corner and said someone was after him. I mean, he told me after that his grandmother tried to get him from school, but I didn't think it was that...um, serious.”

“I went to Casey's practice,” Bailey said. “He's a good swimmer.”

I held my hands out. “Okay, look. First, Bailey's safe, so thank you. But...really? You couldn't have called?” I looked at Casey. “I'm really, really grateful he's safe, but Casey...the state police will be here any minute. He's been missing for hours. This was stress like you wouldn't believe.”

He looked a bit guilty. “I'm sorry. When he said his grandma was after him I just...it didn't sound that serious. I mean, not like...kidnapping serious. I had practice and...he kind of seemed like he wanted to go, so...I'm sorry for the trouble.”

I waved a hand at him. “Look, I appreciate what you did. His grandmother is getting fitted for new bracelets right now because of her little stunt. In the meantime, we were all worried about what happened to him.” I looked at Bailey. “Bail, you know I was picking you and Dan and the girls up. I have to ask you to remember things like that, because you could have asked Casey to give me a call and tell me what was going on. We need to have some communication, you hear me?”

He nodded and looked a little worried. “I'm sorry. I kind of wasn't thinking about anything except getting away from grandma, and when I saw Casey and he mentioned practice, I thought that would be cool, and I didn't even think about being picked up.”

“Well. We need a plan in place in case of things like this.”

Trooper Cooper walked in, and the next little while was filled up with him getting information for his report, Casey repeating that he was sorry, and me telling him he didn't bear all the responsibility but I appreciated what he'd done regardless. I walked Casey and his girlfriend out to his little SUV.

“Look,” I said. “Bailey's situation is strange. I'm really glad he saw you; more that he was right that he could trust you and you'd help him. So thank you.”

Casey gave a smile that made me think of his dad at his age. “Glad I could help.”

I shook his hand and nodded to the girl before heading back in. Cooper was just wrapping up saying something to Bailey, and he said he'd call me with any news before departing. I dropped into my chair.

“What a day,” I said, knowing that complete exhaustion was just around the corner.

“Where's Daisy?” Bailey asked.

My heart just fell. I looked over at him and said, “She passed away this morning, Bailey. She.” My voice hitched and I needed a second. “She's gone.”

He blinked at me a couple of times. “Gone? I just saw her this morning. Where is she?”

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on my thighs. “She died, Bailey. She had cancer. She was old and...and her body just was done. I took her to a place in the country so she'd be out with the trees and bad smells she liked so much.”

He looked down, taking in what I'd said. “I liked her. She slept with me.”

“Well. Part of it might have been because you're squirreling food away in your room,” I said. “You can't do that, kid. We'll get mice and bugs in the house. You'll have to clean that up.”

I thanked Annabelle for holding the place together and took Bailey to get something to eat before we went home. I made him shower, and then we went through his room to removed the food.

“Look, we have food in the kitchen,” I said. “I feed you. You have access to the kitchen; no cameras, no punishment. The only thing I ask of you is that you ask before you take something. Just in case I'm saving it to use in a meal we have planned or something. But please, for the love of doughnuts, no more food in your room. Okay? If you're really worried we'll get you some canned things to keep in your closet so you can check on them if it makes you feel better. Okay?”

“Okay,” he said quietly. “I'm sorry I gave you such a bad day.”

I sat down on his bed and patted the spot beside me, which he dropped onto. “Look. You and me, we're just getting started here. You made a mistake. You're going to do that. It's human. All I ask is that you learn from this. We'll do something about getting you a phone, and if you're in trouble, I'm your first call. I never thought to get you one, but it seems like we could have solved a lot of problems today by having,” I looked at him pointedly, “or using a phone.”

He drooped a little, and I patted his shoulder.

“Look. I'm not mad at you. I'm mad that people can't be trusted to treat you like you matter. I'm mad at the fear someone was hurting you...it's not something I can stand in front of. Fear is this slimy thing you wrestle with, and because you can't hurt it, you sometimes hurt other people.” I put a finger under his chin and lifted his gaze to mine. “I was mad because I couldn't protect you. I was afraid for you. Not because you're bad or because you made a mistake in a very strange situation. Okay? I'm not mad.”

He nodded slowly, as if he really didn't believe me; that would take time.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

The next few weeks were just a whirlwind. Negotiating with the laundromat owner to get the video of that guy tearing out his transmission on the curb, falling into a routine of taking the kids to school, picking them up and watching them at my house until their mom – Tiffany – got out of work. With me doing that, she'd been able to shift to a better schedule that let her be home at night with her kids, and I thought I saw some small change in her. That, too, would take time.

So afternoons were all about having a snack and doing any homework sheets that they came home with – sometimes they had to explain it to me first. There was always something happening. It was one afternoon when I had that houseful that Elizabeth Rodney popped in. I was a little flustered at the door, because Dan and his sisters were arguing – Dan liked coming over without them, probably because he didn't have to be responsible for them. Fair assessment.

“My, my, what a houseful!” she said with a smile.

“Yeah, well, seems like I fell into something. Haven't figured out what yet,” I told her.

We walked through the chaos to the kitchen, and I offered her coffee, which she declined.

“So what's going on? News?”

“Some, yes,” she said, folding her hands one above the other on the table. “Before I get into that, I'm curious how you came to have a houseful?”

“Oh, the circus out there?” I asked, gesturing with my head. “Believe it or not, it's been a help. Daisy passed away the day Bailey's grandmother showed up at school.”

“Oh! I'm so sorry!”

I nodded. “Thank you. I still have a hard time when I have a second to think. But Bailey made friends with Dan, whose mom has a hard time between work and trying to take care of them. So since Bailey has these appointments, and I'm giving the kids a ride to school and blah, blah, blah, I turned into their afternoon sitter slash homework helper. Their mom is supposed to give me some authorization so I'm the kid's emergency contact at school and they have their medical check ups, so I'm doing that.”

“Wow. All this, and you were hesitant about Bailey to start with,” she said with a smile. “And how is Bailey adjusting?”

“He's...great. I mean, he's got his moments, but he's started school and gotten into a rhythm. He's getting a little too attached to his phone, so that's kind of a bit of a tussle between us. His therapy session got pushed to tomorrow – I guess the therapist got sick. So I mean...he's got a friend. He's doing kid things. He misses Daisy; she used to sleep with him.”

“Oh, such a sweet girl she was.” She pulled a folder from her bag and opened it on the table. “So! You've been approved to start your fostering classes. Even though you're going to be approved for three placements, believe me, we are not going to ask you. I have a schedule for you – it's one night a week for ten weeks. There is child care right there, so Bailey can come, or if you have someone who can watch him you feel confident in....” She looked out into the room.

“Their mom? Uh, no. She's not there. Plus Dan pushes back on her a lot, and I don't need Bailey getting those ideas in his bony head.”

She smiled and nodded. “Well, he'll remain in your care through the fostering process on a provisional basis. Once you have completed the training, it'll be official.”

“Okay. Well, I can figure those details out,” I said as she handed me the sheet with the schedule.

“I'll send a soft copy to your email address. We're also in the interview process for a new worker. I hope to get you with him a few visits from now.” She pulled a few more forms out. “So Bailey's physical was as good as we could expect. Did you have any trouble getting his prescriptions filled?”

“No, not at all. He was in the system just as you said.”

“That's a relief,” she said with a small smile. “How did the dentist visit go?”

“He had one cavity.”

She smiled a bit wider. “How about some receipts? As I mentioned, there is a limit on reimbursement, but I'll do what I can.”

“Oh, yeah. I have an envelope I'll get for you.”

She handed me a form. “Use this process. Take pictures of the receipts on your phone and you can process them that way. So. Let's talk after the therapist sees him, just to get a sense.”

“How are things with the, uh, siblings?”

She shook her head. “In flux. The judge amended to specify that none of the adults may have contact with the kids, given they were at least silently supportive of the measures the parents were taking. It's amazing and completely disgusting that they recorded so much of it and presented it as good parenting – and no one said a word. No one reported them; the best they'd do is make an anonymous comment.” She shook her head. “There are better ways, but some people just believe hitting someone is the best instructional method.” She pressed her lips together. “Some people just want to hit kids.”

“Not saying I don't understand the urge, but...” I smiled, and she laughed a little.

“Right? There's this woman down at the DMV. I'd like to slap her silly, but,” she adopted a prim expression, “I'm a mature woman who doesn't slap grown people no matter how much I'd like to in the moment.”

We shared a small laugh. She gathered her things and asked Bailey to show her his room. It took a minute, because he and Dan were in the middle of a 'big, important' fight on the screen. She seemed to be inclined to indulge the pixelated combat.

A several days later we were in the waiting room for the therapist. She was an older woman with a no nonsense expression. She told me she'd like to speak to Bailey first before I came in, so off they went. At the tail end of that conversation a couple came in with a big boy – closing in on six foot, muscled, and looking around the room as if something may challenge him at any moment. He sat down with the woman half of the couple he'd walked in with. The man walked toward me – he looked fit for middle age, clean cut and gave off the appearance of a white collar worker.

“Hi,” he said, sitting down. “Sorry to intrude – did I hear her correctly? Was that Bailey?”

I looked at him with some suspicion. “You are?”

“Oh, sorry.” He smiled and held his hand out. “Mike Garfield. We're fostering Henry, Bailey's older brother.”

I glanced over at the big boy and then back to him. “That's a big kid.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Angry lad, but he takes things out on inanimate objects in a healthy way. We have a punching bag in the basement, and he goes down to work out his frustrations.”

“Oh. Oh yeah. That's better than fighting people.”

“Yeah. He's not a bad kid. We've had a lot of talking around our table already. He was really angry with Bailey, kind of saw him as a reason things had changed – he's a rigid thinker. He can reason, but he needs some time. He's softened his stance a bit about Bailey, but it's shifting his anger toward his parents. Appropriate, but he's still got just so much anger.”

I glanced at him again. I still saw a big, dangerous kid – but I could clearly see he was still a kid.

“Seems like you have your work cut out for you,” I said.

“So. How's Bailey? Read about him on the news before we got the call on Henry. Seems like a brave kid.”

I nodded. “He's a good boy. Adjusting. He has things to work through, but I don't think they're quite the same as Henry.”

He nodded. “I hope they can work through it and have some kind of a relationship some day. Henry doesn't want to talk to Bailey right now.”

“Bailey hasn't said anything about missing or wanting to talk to his siblings, so...I think we're okay on that score for the moment.”

“Hear anything about the other kids?”

“Last I heard was the older sister is terrified of men, and I don't want to think about that too hard. The youngest has some kind of deficiency and was in some sort of professional care setting. I have no idea how up to date any of that is anymore.”

“Disgusting. Have you seen the videos? That app started to take them down and banned the account, but you can still find them. Makes me sick.”

I shook my head. “No. I'm not going to even try.”

“Be tough to shield him from it all. It's in the news. Best thing for everyone if they put the parents away without the spectacle of a trial.”

The therapist came out and invited me to join them, so I nodded a goodbye to the man and headed in. She outlined a few things they had started to talk about, but surprisingly, what she wanted to go over was how much Bailey missed Daisy.

“He's struggling a bit with his feelings, because he said he didn't know her very long, but she meant a lot to him.

“Oh, Bail,” I said. “That's just life. Sometimes people or animals come into your life and they hit you right in the heart, and others come and go without really touching you at all. She knew you needed her, and she poured her doggie heart into you to help you heal and feel safe.”

He sniffled. “I just miss her. I never had a dog before.”

“They're the best. I mean, unless they're eating dead birds, am I right?”

He laughed through his tears and nodded. “That was gross. So gross.”

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^^

A few weeks later I had a milestone – Thanksgiving dinner at home. Tiffany was over with her kids, Annabelle and her techie boyfriend were in attendance, and for the first time my table was full. Dan and Bailey were trying to play without the girls, so Annabelle and her boyfriend ended up entertaining them quite a bit. It was interesting to see them in that light, since I mostly knew her in her mechanic capacity at work.

Later that night Tiffany had gone home with the girls, the boys were up in Bailey's room thinking they were being quiet while on a sugar rush. Annabelle and Flynn, her boyfriend – I don't know why I could never recall his name before – were at my table with some late coffee and the remains of the various desserts.

“I had no idea you could cook or bake,” Annabelle said.

“You should have guessed, I'm fat enough,” I said with a smile.

“Ann says you're taking fostering classes. How's that going?” Flynn asked.

“Like watching paint dry,” I said immediately. “I can't even begin to tell you. It's a singular torture. I think they do it that way to weed out the people that don't really want to do it.”

Annabelle glanced at Flynn and then looked back to me. “Listen, Colin, you've been out of the lot more than in lately...I wanted to talk to you about something, but I wasn't sure when.”

I wrapped my cup with my hands. “Okay. Let's have it.”

“I've been thinking about starting my own shop.”

I nodded and sipped from my cup. “Well, that's just dumb.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”

“Look. It's hard to get a business off the ground, leaving aside that you're an excellent mechanic. You know it had nothing to do with your skill that your first shop had to close, but there will be people that won't come to you just because of that. Then you're leaving out that you're not only doing the work but the books, too. Oh, you have a handle on the running of a shop, no doubt – but you need time and money.”

“Okay, some fair points. But I have a business plan, and I think I can make it work.”

I shook my head. “Annabelle, have I taught you nothing? Always, always stack the deck in your favor.”

She tilted her head. “Meaning?”

“Okay. So let's say you notice I'm not around as much. This affects your bottom line. Maybe you think to yourself 'It's time to get this old fart to think about retiring. After all, he's playing neighborhood grandpa with Bailey's friends, so why don't I propose he rent me the garage and cut his stock in half so I have some parking for my own business? That way I have the work from the lot, but I can also pursue my own customers.' ”

She glanced at Flynn and then back to me. “Well, I....”

“Look. I've been getting busy. I know it. You know it. Right now this is what Bailey needs. As he gets older, maybe not so much, but will I want to ramp up to full time work again when he doesn't need me?” I ran a hand through my thinning hair. “Shit. I've never lived, Annabelle. Sure, I followed my nose and had a successful run with the lot, but I never fell in love. Never took vacations. Never had kids. Never did a lot of things. With it being so fucking cold...I put a deposit on a beach house in the early summer for a week for me and Bailey. For the first time in my life I'm going to go to the ocean and be a tourist.”

Her eyes widened. “You're taking a vacation?”

“Bet on it,” I said. “And you know what? I think you and I can work something out. I'll cut my inventory back so you have space. We'll have an agreement so you can still do what my lot needs, and you can build your own business. Maybe six months no rent, then after that we look at the books and come to an agreement? Maybe one day you'll need the whole lot – for your own sales or collection of cars people got fixed and never came back for.”

“Colin. I. I don't know what to say.”

I pushed my eyebrows up and pursed my lips a bit. “Then say yes.” I looked at Flynn. “Talk to Flynn first. Look over your plan and see how this compares. But we can work it out. Fact is you know how hard it was the first time you ran your own shop. Stack the deck in your favor.”

Flynn rubbed his chin while he looked at Annabelle. She looked at him, and I wondered what that was like. Communicating with someone without words. Dogs could do that with me, though usually it was limited to 'feed me' or 'let me out'.

She looked back to me. “Okay. Let's figure it out.”

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^^*^^

In January I started paring down my inventory and not replacing it. With the girls coming to my house in the afternoon, Bailey and Dan were hardcore into the basketball scene. They had practices and scrimmages and games to attend. I've never been a sports guy, really, but I cheered them on. In the spring it was time for baseball stuff, both rec league and school team. Bailey and Dan were nearly inseparable, and it was good to see Bailey develop that. I took to shopping for sports gear with the both of them, otherwise Dan may have been left behind. I wondered now and again if something more would develop between the two – probably just me wishing we'd have that in common, but maybe because I wanted to live my youth again through him; that wasn't fair to either of us.

In June Bailey and I went on vacation for a week. He'd never seen the ocean, and I hadn't either. We ate seafood until we had gills of our own, swam and laid out on the beach. I took a lot of pictures of us together. We did s'mores at night over a gas fire. It was a miracle neither of us burned, considering we kept forgetting the proper times to reapply the sunscreen and such. I turned a little red; Bail just got a healthy tan. He brought back a few seashells with him and put them on his dresser.

His room had changed a lot in those months. I developed pictures of him and Dan doing all the things friends do. My downstairs had pictures of all the kids on the wall, as well as pictures from the holidays. I'm not much of a fan of Christmas, but I liked seeing Bailey's face when he opened his gifts. Tiffany and her kids came over for Christmas dinner, and there were presents for them, too.

A lot of pictures. School pictures for each of the kids, sports, dance, special trips out for a treat. My walls ran amok.

It was a good summer. The vacation was just the start. Given that Bailey and Dan were joined at the hip, we had some nice trips to fun parks and such. One night we took a borrowed telescope and drove out to the middle of nowhere – which this town isn't that far from – and made the bed of the truck up into an actual bed. We spent the evening trying to get the best view of the stars above and sort-of camped out. They both joined the freshman soccer team in the fall, so I bought a nice camera and started taking pictures of them playing. Bailey fell in love for the first time – a long-legged girl named Morgan. He was obsessed, but got his heart broken before Thanksgiving. Still, it had lasted longer than I'd expected.

I took to taking each of the kids out once a semester to do something just with them for a day. A treat of some kind followed by some activity. A mental health day. I think Olivia needed that most, given her father wasn't in the picture at all.

Every summer Bailey and I took a week of us time. The beach rental was our go-to; on other school breaks we'd take the whole crew. A stay in a cabin by a lake. We did a damn Disney cruise. A pro baseball game. We tried a lot of things.

And my walls kept being covered with picture frames. Recitals, moving up ceremonies, games and dances.

Bailey and Dan were opposites in many ways. For three of the four years they won awards in their class – Bailey unfailingly was nominated as the nicest boy, and Dan was always something along the lines of most likely up to something. Bailey dated a lot in high school, filling out and reaching a potential I'd been sure was in him.

I was more proud of the niceness than his popularity. There were a lot of memories mixed in – teaching him to drive, getting his permit and finally his license. His first car. Dance dates. Putting condoms on his nightstand to stave off unwanted pregnancy. That was a conversation that was absolutely required, and yet something I never really wanted to do.

In his senior year he got his heart broken again, but by the end of the year he and Morgan had become an item again. They seemed better equipped for a relationship, and they settled in really well.

While Bailey was in tenth grade I suffered a small heart attack while in my chair at the lot. That brought into sharp relief that time was still moving forward. All these memories, all these things Bailey and I were doing – all this living – cost time. I went down and made Annabelle my executor and left it all to Bailey, with a few small carve outs for the other kids. Just seemed the thing to do.

We avoided the news stuff. His parents took a plea and, thankfully, there was no trial to turn into a three ring circus. He kept up with the therapy for a few years, but eventually he stopped putting in the effort, and the therapist thought it was time to stop.

The day Bailey graduated is probably the proudest I've ever been. I'd pushed him and held him and kept him on course, but he'd allowed it. He'd done the work. He wanted a future for himself as much as I did.

He was in a rush after the ceremony. We had a cookout to celebrate his and Dan’s achievement, but then they all went out that night. There wasn't much to do in town, but there was little doubt that some of what they wanted that night required some privacy.

We traveled a lot that summer. Bailey wasn't quite as into some of it, since he was away from Morgan and his friends, but we still had good times and made good memories. Lots of good pictures. He wasn't a boy anymore, and yet was still exploring what it meant to be a man.

That fall I moved him into an apartment he and Morgan were sharing for school. They weren't in the same school, but the apartment was close enough to both schools for them to share. Dan went to work for the county road crew, but he and Bailey remained really close, which was good to see.

Bailey and I had just gotten back from a trip to the store to get some basics for his kitchen and some fresh foods after the heavy lifting that morning.

“Dad,” he said with a laugh. “Come look at this.”

He was by the bathroom, holding the door open and pointing to a picture of Yoda he’d pinned to the door. “Remember how you told me never to put pictures in the bathroom with eyes?”

I started laughing. “Morgan's going to kill you in your sleep.”

We put his things away, and finally there was nothing else to do. I looked around the space, his first home on his own. Oh, I'd be subsidizing some of it, but it was his.

“Well. I guess this is it then.”

“Dad. I'll be home sometimes,” he said with a roll of his eyes.

“I can get by on my own,” I told him.

“Don't be grumpy. You know I'll miss you,” he said and hugged me. I hugged him back.

“Don't forget me,” I said softly.

“What?” he asked, leaning back.

“I said I have to go. Beat the traffic.” I paused and looked at him, really looked. He was magnificent. A good person. He'd had experiences to balance out his life. He'd done the work, and he was ready. We did that. “I'm proud of you.”

He smiled like I was crazy. “You think I don't know that? My dad? The one who showed up for PTA and library meetings, every game I ever had – except the heart attack. I mean it took a heart attack to stop you from showing up!”

He laughed, and I chuckled. “I just didn't want to miss anything.”

“I know,” he said, his tone changing. “You...I never said it, but you stepped up when the world was grinding me into the ground. I was so used to it I didn't even realize it was wrong or how bad it really was, compared to normal kids. That night I jumped your fence I thought maybe I could just get some food and water and keep running. Anything not to go back. I had no idea how lucky I got to run to the one person in the world that would love me for me.”

“Okay, I see what you're doing here, and you're not going to make me cry, you brat!” I told him firmly.

“Yeah, yeah. Old softie,” he said with a laugh. He hugged me again. “I know you're proud, and it means everything that I can make you proud, Dad.” He leaned back. “I'm going to do good things, but it's because you were there for me.”

I wiped my eye. “Okay. Stop it. I love you. Don't get her pregnant yet.”

He laughed hard and hugged me again before I left. I thought about that on the ride home, and his words hit me in the heart. Maybe I'd lived after all. No, I hadn't found romance. I'd never become rich or famous, and I hadn't changed the world. But I'd lived. I'd given and received love, and when you get to the end of the day, isn't that all we can hope for?

I got home and parked my old truck. Damn thing was old enough to not have Bluetooth and all that fancy shit, but it still started every day. Little whine in the gearbox, but that was for another day. I climbed the steps and hung my coat on a hook inside, feeling tired. I was sore and thinking about taking a hot shower.

“I'll make something hot to drink and have a sit down,” I said to the empty house. I went to the kitchen and set the pot to brew. I wasn't in the habit of coffee after noon anymore, but I didn't want to fall asleep just yet. I climbed the stairs, swapped my shoes for my slippers and paused at Bailey's room. He had some pictures on his wall, still. A few small things here and there that hadn't fit this trip, but he said he'd come down in a week or two and do them – he'd have laundry as well. I smiled and shook my head.

The room no longer had his essence. Sure, it needed to be swept up, but it looked like what it was – a nesting ground that had been outgrown. A place to safely develop, to learn and grow armor against the storms of life.

“I miss you already,” I said to the empty room. “Damn kid.”

In truth it wasn't so much the young man he was now that I'd miss, but the boy I'd grown to love. I suppose part of it was that he didn't need me like he used to, though he hadn't known he'd needed me then. He was old enough, now, to start to understand all I'd done. Maybe I was wrong for missing getting to introduce him to so many firsts. That trip tot he ocean his first summer with me...I guess maybe I was just sad the 'special' in my life wasn't here with me anymore. Now that he was spreading his wings, what did I have? I didn't want to get to selling cars full time again – not that Annabelle had space for me to do so.

I supposed if I were crazy I'd go see if Brian were single. Maybe he'd like to save rent and live together, if nothing but to stave off the loneliness. I'm sure Casey had moved out – gone to college or maybe just a job in some other town. Dreams. Dreams to fill empty places. Bailey would come home soon. We'd have dinner.

I wondered if he'd still go on vacation with me next year, or if he'd want to stay with Morgan. I shook my head and looked at his room once more, then headed downstairs.

I filled my cup and brought it out to my recliner. Placing the cup, I lowered myself into the chair and let out a sigh. Damn, my arm hurt. I must have lifted too many things that day. Oh, Bailey'd been on me to let him carry things, but I wasn't that feeble yet. Next he'd be asking me if I wanted him to open any jars before he left.

I turned at the sound of claws on wood. Shit. I must have mice or maybe a squirrel in the attic. Fuck. It's never just one, either. My arm flared and I gritted my teeth for a moment. Maybe I should get some cream for my arm – it was more sore than I'd realized. My back felt stiff, but man – that arm felt like I'd pulled something. Oh well, it had been worth it to spend that day with Bailey.

I jolted in my seat. I could have sworn I'd heard a squeak. Not like an animal, more like a – there. I watched a small red ball with faded white stars roll into view. That had been Daisy's ball. I haven't seen it in years. I didn't even know I still had it.

Damn, my arm! I hoped I didn't need a trip to the doctor. Maybe a little of that sore muscle cream in the cabinet would do the trick – I practically bathed in it some days. I went to stand and found my legs weren't having it. I sat back down heavily, only my right arm showing any strength. Too late my mind cleared up, and I realized I was having a heart attack. Son of a bitch! Not now! I didn't have time for this shit! Bailey was just starting school and what would I miss? Him earning his degree? Getting married, his kids? I was hoping he'd still go on vacation with me next year – I had things to live for, damn it!

I used every ounce of my will to try and stand, but only got partway before collapsing back into the chair. I was sweating, and the pain was moving from my arm to my chest. Fuck! I fumbled my hand into my pants pocket and managed to drag my phone out. I struggled to unlock it, but pain lanced through my chest and I dropped the phone.

The last thought I had as my vision dimmed was...the feeling of a cold nose on my hand.




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