Alicia forced a smile once more as she slipped into Hope’s room. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for bed?”
The huge crocodile tears in her daughter’s brown eyes tore her heart out of her ass. All she could do was crawl into bed beside Hope and hold her tightly. She understood exactly how the child felt. How many times had she stared at old photographs of the father she barely remembered or listened to Abuelita and tried to create memories of the man? Her daughter did not even have that.
Well, she did not know that she had memories of her father. Alicia was not sure what she had been thinking. About Hope, of course. But what had possessed her to do something as foolish as telling the man the truth? What had she expected? Certainly not that expressionless silence.
But that did not matter at the moment. Hope did. Her daughter was all that had counted for the past seven years, all that would for the rest of her life. And damage control was the order of business now.
“Miss Mandy was right, precious. Times are changing. Families are not just Mommies and Daddies anymore. That was what she wanted all of you to learn.”
Her daughter stared up at her, “But I hurt you, Mama. I disappointed you.”
When the school had called, Alicia was terrified. Hope was the model pupil, so the only possible reason was illness or an accident. She had rushed from the diner, leaving Alison in charge. But when she arrived to find a red-eyed and perfectly well Hope in the classroom alone with her teacher while the others were out at recess, she had not known what to think.
When Mandy explained the homework assignment and her daughter’s outburst in class, the disappointment she felt was not directed at her child but at herself. The young teacher had apologized to them both.
With her hand on her burgeoning belly, she explained that this assignment was intended to help the children see that the nature of family was changing. That while most children still had a Mommy and Daddy, often they did not live together. Others had two Mommies or two Daddies. Of course, Hope was not the only child of a single parent in the class. It was just that the others had been able to complete the assignment.
Mandy had tried to point this all out to Hope and the others, but Alicia knew Hope felt things more intensely. She always had. And she knew the high price that came with that gift.
She slipped into bed beside her daughter and drew Hope close. Alicia kissed the top of her sandy-blond head, a legacy from her father.
“We have a wonderful family, sweetie. Not only do we have each other, but there is Alison, Damien, and DeShaun. Even Steve. So, what if our tree does not look like other peoples. It is a tree that we planted, grew, and watered ourselves. Not one that we inherited.”
“And Jon, too, Mama. You forgot that he is part of our family now.” Her daughter brushed the tears away with her hands as she beamed with new understanding.
What would her daughter think if she knew the truth? How much Jon actually belonged on that tree? How much he truly was family? Would Hope be angry with her for keeping that from her? How could she possibly explain the ridiculous notion of no-strings-attached to a child? Could she ever forgive her? Or would Alicia lose the one thing that mattered most to her?
What would happen if her revelation had run the man off? How would Hope manage the betrayal? Her daughter missed Steve on those occasions when he lost his battle with the bottle. When he was gone for days at a time, first in drowning, whatever ghosts haunted him, then in shame. Alicia was never sure whether it was hunger or some need to belong that always drove the man back to the diner. But she knew that Hope smiled and hugged the homeless man tighter each time.
It was too late to think of those things right now. As Abuelita always said, you cross those bridges when you come to them. “You need to get some sleep now, precious. Have you brushed your teeth?”
The child nodded, “And read your story?”
“Si, Mama, DeShaun listened to me read Madeline.”
“And said your prayers?”
“I waited for you, Mama.”
Alicia was about to begin the nightly ritual when a knock at the door interrupted them. Who could it possibly be this late at night? “I’ll be right back, sweetie.”
Jon stared at the door. He should not be here. How was he going to explain knowing their address? He had spent the past hour walking, trying to come to terms with the truth that had only been a vague dream, a remote possibility. Until tonight.
He did not doubt Alicia. She was not the type of woman to lie. That much he knew. It was not as if she had anything to gain either. She was not demanding seven years of back child support, as she should. All she had asked was some information.
Granted, he had had to call his mother for some of it. He always zoned out when the woman began to groan on and on about the illustrious Tyler family history. He had been dragged as a child to too many Daughters of the Alamo meetings. While the first bit about his parents, brother, and sister was easy enough, the rest about long-dead grandparents and great-grandparents was not.
He was about to turn, go back to the hotel, and do he had no idea what, when the door opened. Her eyes were swollen. He had done that to her. How many other tears had she shed alone over the past seven years? How many other crises had she been forced to handle on her own? Jon’s throat tightened at the thought.
Before she could ask questions, demand to know how he knew where they lived, he held out the scrap of paper. “I’m sorry. It took me a while. I had to call my mother for most of it.”
She nodded her head in silence. Her trembling fingers grasped the paper like it was a treasure map.
Whether she would have thrown it back in his scarred face or screamed and yelled in anger, perhaps even called the police on him as a stalker, he would never know. That tiny whirlwind of Hope rushed out of nowhere, dancing and singing, “Jon, Jon!”
His child, his daughter. How had he not seen it before? Yes, she had her mother’s warm brown eyes, her skin a light olive denoting generations of mixed blood, and her more golden blondish-brown curls several shades darker than the blond he had once been. Before the fire singed it all away. It was also several shades lighter than her mother’s rich brown with faint auburn highlights. He could almost remember how soft Alicia’s hair had felt between his fingers that night. But it was there. The shape of her tiny mouth, nose, and even those eyes was Tyler too.
“Mama was putting me to bed. I have school tomorrow.”
Was there a slight pout on her lips? Had he been the cause of her pain as well as her mother’s? He wanted to wrap her in his arms, tell her how very sorry he was, promise her she would never hurt again. But he did not have that right.
Not yet, anyway. They needed to talk. He and Alicia. Because if she thought he was going to buy that no-strings-attached line again, she was wrong. He should not have that night. No, this little girl was so much more than a string. She was a tie that bound him to the woman he loved. A living, breathing memory of the one perfect night in his long, fucked up life. And he was not walking away from that.
It was another chance at life. He had already been given a second one, surviving what few men did, what his men had not. So how many opportunities did a man get?
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s late. I should have known. I just stopped by to give your mother something. I’ll let you get to bed.” He was rambling. He wished he had that paper back, something, anything to do with his hands. Instead, he placed them behind his back. There was nothing at-ease about his stance, though.
Hope reached for his hand. It was not the first time she had touched him over the past few days. But it was the first touch of his child. His child. The words still seemed surreal in his mind. He smiled as he treasured the knowledge and her warm touch.
“Mama, can Jon help me with my prayers tonight?”
He heard the sharp intake of breath, looked up into her face before she could mask the pain, saw more tears gathering in her eyes. “I’m sure Jon needs to get home, sweetie.”
But he had no home. Perhaps he never had. And while he was hardly the type for prayers, not even when he had thought he was dying, it was not some god whose name he called, but hers, Alicia’s. Still, if there was such a thing as prayer, his was for the chance to be there for his child and her.
“Por favor, Mama. Please. It won’t take long. I promise to go straight to sleep,” his child pleaded, looking from one of them to the other. Jon smiled, imagining the trouble she could cause with that look in the years to come. How many disagreements they would have over this one.
But right now, this was the argument that mattered most to him, “I don’t mind. I’d love to help Hope with her prayers.”
He watched the movement of her throat muscles, the way that her knuckles turned white on that sheet of paper as she nodded her head. But she had nodded it, given her permission for these precious moments with his child.
Hope took his hand and drew him past her mother, down a small hallway, and into some pink nightmare of fluffy unicorns and princesses.
Alicia was left standing in the living room, holding Hope’s homework assignment. The paper shook as she read – Jonathan Edward Tyler. The other names did not matter. After seven years, she knew his name. The man who had given her one perfect night and Hope. Her no-strings-attached lover.
But this piece of paper boded other questions. The most pressing of which was: what now? Obviously, this changed their no-strings deal. But how? What was he doing here? How did he even know where they lived?
Oh my god, a strange man was in Hope’s bedroom saying her prayers with her. Not a strange man, but her father. While she was relegated to waiting outside. Alicia could count on one hand the number of times she had missed Hope’s prayers. Usually, when she was ill. But things were changing.
Why had he come back? What had drawn him to the diner that day? And why had he stayed? Had he suspected even before she told him? Oh, why had she told him at all? What was she thinking?
Alicia folded the paper and wiped the tears that had begun to fall again with the back of her hand. There was only one way to find out the answers to her questions. They needed to talk.
She walked down the hallway to her daughter’s bedroom. They knelt on the floor. It was usually her there beside Hope. But tonight, it was her father. Alicia studied the man. With his eyes shut, she would not recognize him.
The lower right half of his face and neck was barely scarred, but the rest of his face, head, and neck was covered in shiny, red, and silver ridges. His mouth was drawn down on the left side; his nose and left eye misshapen. The top of his head that had been covered in the short blond hair of a Marine high-and-tight was instead a road map of those scars.
“…and god bless my new friend, Jon, too. Make him all better the way Mama does me when she kisses my boo-boos. Amen.”
Those blue eyes looked up, caught, and held her gaze. She felt the heat rise into her cheeks at having been caught staring.
But it was not the way he thought. She would never, could never, pity him. He had survived. He had survived his wife’s betrayal and death, and he had survived this too. He was strong. A strength she saw reflected in their daughter.
“Okay, young lady, it is time for bed now,” she did her best to be stern.
“Yes, Mama.” Hope smiled as she touched her father’s shoulder, “Thank you, Jon. Can I read you another story after school tomorrow?”
He smiled, though the left side of his face mainly remained an immovable mask of those shiny red scars. “Nothing would make me happier, Hope. But your Mama is right. It is time for bed.”
Her daughter nodded and stood up. Alicia would have sworn that her heart was in a vise, and the screws turned as their daughter leaned over and placed one of her special kisses on the worst of the burns that covered her father’s left cheek. She had never been prouder or more frightened in her life.
Alicia’s nice, comfortable world was changing fast. Too fast. Just as it had that night. This man seemed to be the harbinger of change in her world. And what that meant this time was uncertain. But one thing was for sure, she needed to find out. They needed to talk.
“Buenos noches, Hope. Jon and I are going out for a walk for a bit. But you can call Alison if you need anything.” This was not a conversation they could risk having their daughter overhear.
“Si, Mama. Buenos noches, Jon.”
“Goodnite, my little angel,” that smile was broader as he stood up. His unscarred right hand brushed the hair back from her face. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise.”
Her daughter smiled and turned over, closing her eyes and cuddling her favorite pink fluffy unicorn.
Alicia turned off the light switch. She knocked on the door across the small hall. Alison opened it, her tablet in hand. “Hey, sweetie. Is everything alright?” The woman looked over her shoulder.
“Yes. Jon and I are going for a walk. Will you keep an ear out if Hope needs anything.”
“Of course,” the gentle squeeze of her friend’s hand told Alicia more than her words.
“I’ll be fine,” whether she was trying to reassure Alison or herself, she was not sure.
She nipped into the third bedroom, only long enough to grab the jacket that hung on the back of the door. DeShaun was still out with his friends, so the attic addition was empty. Alicia did not dare look at him. She just assumed that he followed her as she walked down the hall. She walked through the living room and out the door.
It was only when the cool desert night air hit her that she shivered. It was not from chills; her jacket warded those off. But the enormity of the situation had finally caught up with her. “What now?”
Jon kept his hands in his jacket pockets. As usual, the hood covered his scarred head and much of his face. “I was hoping that you could tell me.”
Silence was Alicia’s only response as they walked on for several minutes. They walked not back towards town but further into the cold, barren desert.
Cold, barren desert was an appropriate metaphor for his life. A childhood of being the Tyler that was expected of him, always in the shadow of his father and older brother. Only at A&M and in the Marines had he managed to break free. Even then, he had floundered, uncertain of who he was or what he wanted. His marriage had been a disastrous attempt to be his own man – with the wrong woman. Duty was all he had left, and he failed at even that, losing all of his men in the process, good men. The past few years had been survival. Recovery was impossible.
Only twice in his life had he ever felt complete, whole, a man. And both of those were with this woman. He knew that it was impossible for Alicia to love someone like him. If he had been a bitter fuck up that night, he was a monster now.
But the truth was he did not want to walk away from them. Either of them. That sheet of paper proved that his daughter needed him. Wanted a man, a father in her life. And while he did not condemn Steve, in fact, he could more than understand the power of pain that sent a man running for the bottle. He did not want a homeless man playing stand-in daddy to his child.
“I want to be her father — a real one. Not just a name on some paper, Alicia.” The words were out before he could consider their ramifications.
She sighed and turned to face him, “I don’t know whether I’m relieved or terrified. I know how Hope feels. I grew up with only old photographs of my dead father. I am still never sure if the few memories I have of him are real or just my imagination and Abuelita’s stories.”
She looked down at the ground as she rubbed her hands on the front of her jeans. “That damned homework assignment only made me face the fact. I can’t be both mother and father to my daughter.”
“Our daughter, Alicia. Ours.” Jon knew that he was pushing her. That all of this was too new. He had only just reappeared in her life. Wounded and scarred beyond recognition. Not just physical ones either, but unseen wounds that went far deeper.
But he knew this was his only hope. The only thing that made life worth living. She was the only thing that ever had. That one precious night in her bed was the best memory of his life. And even if he could never have her again. He could be there for his child…and for her. Even if that meant the ‘friend zone.’
She smiled weakly as she nodded, “Our daughter. So, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to tell her the truth? Six-year-olds don’t understand no-strings-attached?”
Jon was not sure he did either. “I think I told you there was no such thing.”
Alicia laughed, and it rang out across the desert darkness, bringing light and joy that he had not felt in a very long time. Jon found a new purpose. If he never made this woman moan beneath his touch and loving again, he would make her laugh like that, and often. He would lighten this load that she had carried for so long all alone.
“I guess you were right.”
“What a woman admitting that a man was right? Don’t ever let your sisterhood hear that.” Her answering smile and nod of her head made him smile. That warmth that had been missing for most of a lifetime spread in his chest.
“Enjoy it. I can’t promise they are words you will hear often. Especially when it comes to Hope,” she stopped and looked up. “Do you know what I felt tonight? When she asked you to say her prayers with her?”
Jon shook his head. Uncertain where this was going. This question, or this situation. But he knew he needed to be here. With them. And he would do whatever it took to make that happen.
Her voice was rough as she chuckled, “I was jealous. Jealous because Hope’s father was taking my place.”
“I’m not trying to take your place, Alicia. You’re a fucking amazing mother. You know why I say that?”
She shook her head.
“Do you know how many kids scream or cry or run or, worst of all, stare when they see my face? But not Hope. Sure, she stared, but it was not the same. And when she asked me if it hurt, it was like something exploded inside me.”
He wasn’t sure what made him do it. He knew he had no right. That he should not have dared. But it just seemed so natural to reach for her hand, to draw it into his. It felt so fucking right. Like the world was, for this moment, a beautiful and wonderous place.
“Maybe it was Hope. You named her well, sweeth…” Jon stopped himself. The words hung in the cold air frozen between them.
He dropped her hand. He would not let how he felt about this woman complicate an already difficult situation. “I’m not trying to take your place. I admire you. The job you have done with her. All alone. I’m sorry about that. If I had known…”
She stared off at the moon, “That is my own fault. You know I made the decision not to ask your name that night. When I first found out I was pregnant with her, I regretted that. Then I decided that it was some sign. That she was some miracle, some gift from a god, I don’t even believe in. My purpose for going on after Abuelita died.”
“That’s how I feel now, Alicia. Like meeting that little girl was some fucking miracle. One I don’t deserve but can’t turn away from. I just want a chance to get to know my daughter. To be a part of her life. Even if I don’t have that right, don’t deserve it, please don’t take that from me. Don’t take that Hope.”
It was Alicia that reached for his hand this time. But she reached for his left hand, the one missing two fingers, covered in scars so deep that they constricted movement. The one that he might still lose.
He tried to draw it back, to hide it. But she would not let him. His throat tightened, and his eyes clouded over with unshed tears. How like her mother their daughter was. Neither afraid of the scars that even he hated. His badge not of survival but failure. He knew he did not deserve either of them. But he always had been a selfish bastard. And this time, he wanted so desperately to hang onto the Hope that they brought back to his life.
“I would never do that to you. Or to Hope. I meant what I said; I remember exactly how she feels. Most of the other children have a Mommy and a Daddy, even when they don’t live together. But not having a father leaves this huge hole, especially in a little girl’s heart.”
He squeezed her hand, as much as that hand was capable of anyway. “I’m sorry.” Jon was not sure if he apologized for not being there for her and his child until now. Or for the depth of pain half-hidden in the ghost of Alicia’s past.
“So, we’re back where we started. What now? How do we tell our daughter that you’re her father?”
“Do we have to? I don’t want to hurt her or you. And like you said, no-strings-attached won’t make any sense to her. She already likes me. Couldn’t I simply step into her life like Steve has? Be there for her – and you, if you need anything.”
While the solution he offered was so much less than what Jon wanted, he knew it was more than he deserved.