Alicia was confused. She had spent the whole night and most of the day in her thoughts, mulling over their conversation. And she was no closer to coming up with a solution to their situation. The bottom line was that as much as Hope wanted and needed her father in her life, Jon’s pain and insecurities could ruin it all.
She wanted, needed, to help for Hope’s sake as much as his. And her own. But she had no idea how to reach him, to get through to him. But she might know who could.
“Alison, since the lunch crowd is over, would it be okay if I took a break? Today, I’d like to pick Hope up from school myself.”
“Of course, suga’. But what do I tell your secret admirer when he arrives?” her friend teased.
“Tell him that I’m picking our…” Alicia caught herself. She had not yet confided the secret in her best friend and savior. But right now, she did not have the time to explain the messy details. “That I’m picking Hope up from school.”
Her friend nodded with a frown creasing her brows. “Sure. No problem.”
“We’ll talk later, I promise.” She felt guilty for not confiding in the woman earlier, but she did not dare risk Hope overhearing at home, and the diner was not an appropriate place for such a conversation either. She promised herself she would make the time for the truth, though.
Alicia rushed to the school; she barely made it as the bell tolled. She looked around the waiting throng of parents. He was easy to spot. Not only was he one of the few dads in the queue, but his wheelchair stood out in the crowd. She pushed her way through, excusing herself with nods and smiles to the people she knew.
“Chris, can we talk?” She got right to the matter.
The man with the greying hair around the temples and deep lines in his forehead and around his mouth looked up at her. “I was taking Amy to the park today. Do you and Hope have time to join us?”
She nodded as she caught sight of their girls holding hands as they came out the door. “I’ll make time. I need your advice about something.”
“Sure, you know that Noah and I will do anything we can for you and Hope. We owe you so much for being there for our girls when we couldn’t be.” He frowned, drawing those lines down at the corners of his mouth. “Well, when I had my head so far up my ass that I wouldn’t, might be more accurate.”
It was her opening, “That is what I need to talk to you about.”
He nodded as their daughter’s joined them. “Let’s get these girls an ice cream before we go to the park,” the man’s face was completely different in the presence of the little girl that Alicia supposed was his step-daughter, if such labels mattered. Looking up at her, “We’ll talk while they play.”
The girls danced ahead merrily as Alicia considered how to begin her tale to this man that she barely knew. But he was the one person that might understand what was going on in Jon’s mind, that might be able to offer her some insight and hope. She had to take that chance.
Jon was nervous. Worried might be a better word. He had been here for over an hour. Not only was there no sign of Hope yet, but Alicia was not around either. Had she given up on him? Did she truly mean what she said yesterday?
If so, where did that leave him? He was not on Hope’s birth certificate. He had only Alicia’s word. Would that be enough to take her to court? Hell, what was he thinking? Would he even do such a thing? It would bring Hope right into the middle of the very mess they had wanted to avoid.
But he could not walk away. Hope needed a father. And the truth was he needed them. Both of them.
“Hey, suga, care for more coffee?” Alison smiled.
“Sure,” at least nursing another cup would give him an excuse for staying a bit longer. Though, it would soon be the dinner rush. He was usually long gone by then. Too many people, too many curious stares. Of course, Alicia had usually sent Hope home by then also. Where could they be?
“Alicia should be back soon. She picked up Hope at school today. Said there was someone she needed to talk to,” Alison seemed to read his mind.
He frowned at her words. They raised as many questions as they answered. And he certainly was in no position to grill this woman for answers. “Thanks. I was just worried…”
He could not explain more. While this woman and Alicia were close, he was not sure if she knew. Knew that he was Hope’s father. “Thanks.”
The woman took the seat across from him, just as Alicia had the day before. He hoped this conversation went better. “You know, since Damien went away to college, and now Steve has found a job and place to live, that little girl could use a good man in her life.”
Her eyes searched his scarred face as if she could see into his soul, which was even more damaged. Would she find him as lacking as Alicia had? Where did that leave him?
“I mean, she has my other son, DeShaun, but even he will be going away to college next year. He is even talking about spending the summer riding his bike across America.” The woman shook her head, “I guess I’m just trying to say they need someone. Someone who is going to be there for them.” Her eyes met his, “Long term.”
If the woman only knew how long term he wanted things to be. But the time for that might have passed, and another dream might have died.
“Jon,” her sing-song voice, laced with such excitement, filled his heart with light. For the moment, he cast those doubts aside as Hope raced across the diner and wrapped her little arms about his neck. His daughter buried her face in his hoodie. And for the moment, the whole world was right.
Until he looked up at her mother’s dark scowl. “Sorry, Alison, I know we’re running late. The dinner rush will be starting soon, and I’m afraid neither of us has time to run Hope home.”
“That’s okay, Mama. I can stay right here with Jon. I won’t get in your way. I promise,” their daughter pleaded.
“Maybe DeShaun could pick her up?” Alicia ignored her pleas.
Alison shook her head, “He has a late practice today. Big game is Friday.”
Alicia sighed; it was laden with her frustrations. Worse yet, she had neither spoken to him nor even looked his way.
“It’s fine. Hope is right. She can stay here with me,” the words were out of his mouth before he had considered the fact that meant he would be forced to endure hours of those stares he did everything he could to avoid.
“I guess there is no other choice. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, Jon.”
It was on his lips to say that his daughter could never be inconvenient, but instead, he just shrugged her words off and turned his attention to their child. “So, what have you been up to today, little lady?”
“Mama and I went with Amy and her daddy Chris to the park after school. We even had ice cream. I got chocolate. Do you like chocolate?” Hope beamed as the women turned towards the kitchen, preparing for the rush that would start shortly.
Jon smiled at his daughter, “Who doesn’t like chocolate?”
“Amy. She prefers strawberry. But I like her anyway.”
Jon chuckled at the simplicity of the little girl’s words. She was pulling a book from her bag as the door opened, and a dark-haired little girl about the same age raced towards them. “Here, Hope. You forgot your sweater.”
A wheelchair glided through the doors with a man, perhaps in his late thirties. The man looked towards Alicia, “We thought she might need it. The nights can get pretty chilly.”
Alicia smiled at him, “Thanks, Chris. I completely forgot that she had been wearing one today.”
“It’s cool. We kinda got distracted with our conversation,” the man smiled at her with a familiarity that caused jealousy to boil in Jon’s veins. Who was this man? And what had he been talking to Alicia about?
“It’s not a problem. I thought I might treat Amy to dinner out anyway. Kacey is working late, and Noah is out on maneuvers this week. So, it is just us. And I hate cooking for just two. Besides, the diner beats fast food or pizza. At least for me.”
“Great. It’s on the house,” Alicia smiled at the stranger. And that green monster bared its teeth, though Jon held it back. Barely.
“No way,” the man argued as he wheeled his chair closer to the table where Jon sat across from the two little girls who were engrossed in their own conversation.
The man held out his hand, “Chris, Chris Bennett. And that’s my daughter, Amy. She and Hope have been friends since nursery. You have to be Jon. Alicia was telling me about you.”
Jon’s mind raced with a myriad of confusing thoughts. What had Alicia told this man about him? And why was it obvious who he was? Because Hope was sitting with him? Or because of the scars? And why would she mention him at all?
“Have a seat,” Jon replied, hoping his voice did not sound as gruff as he thought.
The man laughed and waved his hand at the wheelchair. “I bring my own these days. It is one good thing; I never have to worry about finding a place to sit.”
The other little girl looked up and laughed, “Daddy, you’re so funny.” Then she bent her head back over the book that the girls were examining so closely.
Jon was at a loss as to what to say to the man. But Chris did not seem to share the problem, “I was paralyzed in the same firefight that Amy’s dad was killed in.”
He opened his mouth to say ‘sorry’ then thought of all the times that he had resented those words when others said them to him. Instead, he just nodded.
“I spent the next eighteen months at the VA rehab center wallowing in self-pity and anger while our friend Noah finished out our tour of duty.”
As the man stared at the little girls, his features lost their jovial façade. “I completely forgot the promise we had made to Thomas. Until Noah dragged my sorry ass back to the real world.”
“Daddy, you have to put more money in the swear jar.” Amy looked up for a moment from the coloring page that the girls had found in the bag and moved on to when they tired of the book.
“I won’t tell Mommy about the ice cream if you don’t about that word,” the man conspired with a smile.
“Deal,” the child held out her hand.
They all laughed, and the girls turned back to their coloring. As the man watched them, his look was not the joking one it had been earlier. “That little girl, Kacey, they were just what I needed to bring me back from the world of the living dead.”
He met Jon’s gaze, “But I almost missed it. I almost lost them both. And it would have been my fault. My pity party almost cost them their lives.”
Jon heard the pain in those words. He felt it to his soul. Alison brought them food. A wide variety of dishes and they all began to divide it up as the girls laughed and talked. The men, too, shared secrets.
Alicia was incredibly nervous. This was not how she planned it. Sure, she had sought out Chris’s guidance. His help in understanding the pain, fear, and self-doubt that seemed to eat at Jon. But she had not expected the man to show up here. To spend over two hours talking and laughing with Jon like they were old friends. What was he saying to him? How much did Chris share with him about her concerns?
She had tried to catch snippets of their conversation every time her duties brought her close to their table. She had used the coffee pot on more than one occasion to seek the men out. She had checked in on Hope every time that things slowed down. The trouble was, for a Wednesday night, the diner was bustling.
It was almost eight before the crowd began to thin out. Amy had fallen asleep in Chris’s lap, and Hope was leaning against Jon, her own eyelids drifting downward, too. It would be another half an hour before she could spare Alison to take her daughter home.
Chris smiled at her as she approached with that coffee pot. “No more for me, thanks. I need to get this little girl home and into bed. Kacey is going to have my head already for keeping her out this late on a school night.”
He turned to Jon, “Think about what I said.” He maneuvered the chair towards the door, “And I’ll see you both on Sunday.”
Alicia watched him negotiate the door. Sometimes she would hold it open for customers, especially the elderly, but she knew how much Chris valued doing things for himself. So she held back. As he disappeared through it, she turned back to Jon. She wanted so desperately to ask what Chris had meant for him to think about.
But before the words were out of her mouth, Hope’s head practically fell into her father’s lap. “I’ll have Alison take her home.”
He shook his head, “It’s okay. I don’t have anywhere to be. We can wait here, and I’ll see you both home when you’re done.”
Alicia pondered his suggestion. While she desperately wanted more time with him, she would take as much as she could get, Hope really should be home and in her bed where she could sleep more comfortably.
She considered the dilemma as she finally reached into the pocket on her apron. She pulled out her house keys and passed them to him. “Take her home and put her to bed. Alison and I might be a bit later tonight. This place is a mess.”
Jon looked as if he would argue. While the burn scars restricted his facial movements, making it harder sometimes to read these things, Alicia felt like she was beginning to recognize quite a few of them. “Please,” she added. “It would be a big help.”
He gave her that lopsided grin, the mostly unmarked right side of his mouth turned up in the familiar way that it had that night, even if the deeply scarred left side twisted like that two-faced character from the movies. “Alright. Anything I should know? Do I need to bathe her? Where are her pajamas?”
She shook her head, “I think we passed all that an hour or so ago. If she wakes up, she can show you where her nightgowns are. And remind her to brush her teeth. But something tells me she is out for the count.”
“So, take her shoes and socks off and tuck her under the covers. It’ll probably be a couple of hours before I can get home. If you need to leave, let Alison’s son DeShaun know. He’ll keep an ear out for her.”
He shook his head as he looked down at their little girl, “As I said, I got nowhere to be. At least nowhere that matters. I’ll see you when you get home.”
For some reason, those words rang in Alicia’s mind for the rest of the night as she and Alison cleaned the diner and prepped for the breakfast rush the following day. How right they had seemed – to know that Jon would be waiting when she got home seemed so incredibly right.
Jon brushed a stray strand of curly light brown hair off his daughter’s face. Alicia had been right, of course. Hope had barely stirred as he awkwardly pulled back the blankets with his good hand while somehow managing to keep hold of his precious cargo with his damaged left one. She had not even roused when he slipped off her shoes or socks.
He hated to admit it, but some part of him wished that she had. He remembered that first night, the joy of listening to her read a bedtime story. He craved more of those memories. A lifetime of them. But if he was going to make those with his child and her mother, then Chris had given him lots to consider tonight.
For the past five years, since he awoke in that hospital bed in excruciating pain, he had drifted through life. Time would be more accurate. He had not lived, just existed. More than once, he had considered the alternative as well. When the pain or the memories became too much, once he had even counted out the pills. But something had stopped him at two. Was that something Fate? God? Whatever the fuck had decided that he should live while other good men died.
He took in each nuance of his little girl in repose. Was this the purpose? Did, as Chris said, she need him? Was she the reason that he had lived? Not that they had been free to talk with both their daughters listening in. But the man had undoubtedly hinted at it. His new friend had certainly given him lots to think about tonight.
Jon was glad that they would have time alone tomorrow to speak more frankly. They had planned to meet for coffee, then pick the girls up from school and take them to the park again. Would Alicia be okay with that? Had he been a bit presumptive? Jon did not know where he stood with any of this. But he sure as hell knew where he wanted to.
He bent over and placed a kiss on his daughter’s forehead. His daughter? Just the words made his heart soar and gave his mind the Hope after which she was named. He most definitely knew what he wanted. And it was not just to be a father to his child.
He stood, and with a final glance at the little girl, he turned off the lights and slipped down the hallway. He paused at the door next to it. He wanted to slip inside. To strip off his clothes and fall into her bed. But it was too soon. He was not ready for that any more than Alicia or Hope were. But the memories of that one night when their daughter was conceived beckoned to him.
Would it be as good? Probably not. He swallowed back the bile at the thought of being naked with another human being, a woman, especially her. Even if the essential bits were unmarred from the blast, the scars that covered his head extended down much of his back and almost halfway down his chest as well.
But by far, his biggest worry was his damaged left hand and arm. The doctors continued to debate whether or not it would be better to amputate it. They believed that he would have more functionality from a prosthesis than the damaged limb, missing a finger and thumb. But he was just not ready to make such a final decision.
Walking into the dimly lit living room, Jon was not sure what to do. He felt like he was invading her privacy, being here alone. It made him uncomfortable. In the end, he sat down on the sofa and pulled out his phone. He smiled at the message from her, had everything gone okay, she would be home as soon as she could. He responded, reassuring her that all was well. He checked the news on his feed.
Jon leaned his head back. His mind raced with all that had happened these past few weeks — all the decisions they needed to make. And the possibilities for the future. The truth was – he did not want to leave. He did not want to go back to that lonely hotel room. As his eyes drifted closed, his dreams filled with all the could-bes.