Alicia struggled through the day. Jon had asked to pick Hope up from school today. Combined with coming home to find him asleep on her couch and waking up to him, it was just too close to those could-bes that she had imagined since she looked into his eyes that first day.
There was no doubt left in her mind – she loved him. The question was – how could she make him see that? Make him understand that the scars did not matter. That he was the same man. No, a better man than he had been that night. The only man she wanted in her life. Or Hope’s.
Her thoughts kept straying down those paths. She had messed up several orders already. She felt like a tightly capped bottle of soda. All of this was shaking and shaking her. The pressure was building up inside, and she was unsure when or how she was going to pop.
She wanted to slink away to a corner somewhere and cry. She wanted to walk out into the desert and scream at the top of her lungs. She wanted to hit something hard. And most of all, she wanted him to hold her tight and never let her go. Promise her that they would get through it all somehow.
Her talk with Chris had helped her to understand a bit more. She got that Jon was worried that she might be confusing pity and their history with genuine feelings. But she wasn’t. She was sure of that. She did not pity him at all. In fact, she had pitied him more that night for the emotional baggage his wife’s death had caused than she did the physical scars now.
But how could she explain to him something she did not understand herself? There was just some connection between them. It was what had caused her to do something so out of character as to propose that ludicrous no-strings-attached one-night stand that had resulted in Hope’s conception.
It was that same connection that she had recognized in his eyes that first day, even if his features were changed. And it was that connection that made her yearn for something more with him. The problem was that she had no words to put to that feeling, that connection. And until she found them, she knew the situation was virtually Hopeless.
“Mama, Jon, and Chris are coming to my school tomorrow.” Hope burst through the door like sunshine after a storm.
She held out her arms as her daughter raced to embrace her. She met his gaze as she wrapped their little girl in her arms. “Thank you.”
She was uncertain if she was thanking him for picking up Hope at school or this most precious gift of all. Those tears that she had wanted to slink away and cry gathered in her eyes. She released Hope and brought the back of her hand up to wipe them away. She drew fresh air into her lungs and forced her voice to remain calm just as she forced a smile on her lips.
“So, what is this? Why are Jon and Chris coming to your school, sweetie?”
“Miss Mandy wants to talk about ax-ceptunce?” Hope smiled, revealing a missing tooth, her first.
Alicia gripped her daughter’s chin, “What is this? You lost a tooth? You didn’t even tell me it was loose.”
“It was only a little loose, Mama. But then we were playing soccer with these boys in the park, and I got hit with the ball. It started to bleed, and when Jon checked, it came out.”
“What? You got hit with a ball?” She turned on Jon, “And you didn’t think to call me? Our daughter gets hurt, and you can’t be bothered to even text?” Her eyes went wide as she realized what she had revealed in her anger.
But Jon was not flapped. He crossed the room to stand behind Hope, his good hand resting on her shoulder. “It was not that bad. I had first-aid training, so I knew what to look out for. Hope was fine, except for the tooth, and that would have come out soon anyway. She ran right back to the game.”
“Still, you should have at least texted me. I mean, her first tooth is a big deal,” Alicia mumbled.
Hope smiled as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a scrap of notebook paper folded into a tiny square. “That’s what Jon said. So, we saved it. He says that the tooth fairy gives extra for first teeth.”
Alicia stared over their daughter’s head at him. After being a single parent for so long, she was struggling. Sharing these kinds of firsts with him was not something she had ever considered until recently. And the reality of it was starkly different from what she had imagined.
Jealousy. She was jealous of Jon. Of his new role in their daughter’s life. It was an emotion she had not expected or one that she knew how to handle. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged and forced that awkward one-sided smile that she was coming to realize meant he was as uncomfortable as she was. “No, you’re right. I should have phoned you. I’ll do better.”
If Alicia had thought that Hope had missed her faux pas, her next words disabused her of that notion. “Mama, is Jon gonna be my Papa? I don’t mind if I only have one. Most of the other kids only have one. Amy is special cause she has two, plus her daddy that died.”
Jon saw the deer in the headlights look on Alicia’s face. He knew this was his chance, an opportunity he might not get again, to take this situation under control. To steer things in his direction.
He knelt on the floor next to his little girl. His eyes met hers, just a shade lighter than her mothers. Just as trusting.
“What would you think of the idea, Hope?”
His daughter threw her arms around his neck. Nothing had ever felt better. He looked up at Alicia. He could see that she was struggling to manage the situation. Well, almost nothing. But the feeling of rightness he felt in her mother’s arms was distinctly different.
Hope drew back, her little hand caressed his cheek, the badly scarred left one. “So, that’s why you stayed the night last night? You moved in? Like Chris and Noah did with Amy and her Mom? You’ll read bedtime stories with me? Say our prayers? And tuck me in now? You’ll walk me to school and pick me up every day like Chris and Amy? Oh, I can’t wait to tell all my friends at school that I have a Papa too.”
Jon’s heart stuttered to a stop at her words. He was more than a bit nervous about tomorrow. Chris had volunteered him for the ‘freak show and tell’ as he had jokingly called it. He liked Hope’s teacher and admired what she was trying to do with the children. But Jon knew human nature. There would always be bullies. And he worried about how having him as her father would affect Hope in the long term.
Then again, despite all that Alicia had done, Hope was struggling without a father. Maybe Chris and Miss Mandy were right. Maybe if you taught understanding and acceptance when children were young, then things could be different. He certainly hoped so for his little girl’s sake because the die was cast now. He smiled and nodded his head.
“Mama, I’m hungry. Can I eat, and then Papa take me home?”
Papa. Words had never been sweeter than those. As for the rest, they would deal with it. Somehow.
“I’ll have Jorge make you some tamales. They’re your favorite. But right now, take a seat and do some drawing, please. I need to talk to Jon.”
“Papa. You should call him Papa now, Mama,” his daughter smiled as she danced away like the world was her perfect playground.
That was not how Alicia saw things, not from the thunder cloud look on her face. He tried to prepare himself for the storm that was to come.
“So, what now? What the hell do we do now, Jon? Hope is expecting you to just move-in,” she whisper-screamed.
He shook his head, “I don’t know. Is that such a big deal? I can sleep on the couch like last night. At least until…”
“Until what? Until we get married? Remember, we don’t agree on what that means, either.”
He could see how upset Alicia was by all this. She had been on edge from the moment they came in. That was probably why she slipped up. He wanted to take her into his arms, hold her tight, and promise that everything would work out alright. Except she was his big girl. And they both knew it was not that simple. This was real life, and shit happened. Like unplanned pregnancies and IEDs. Sometimes all you could do was deal with it, roll with the punches.
“I’m sorry, maybe I should have tried to dissuade her.”
“No, this is my fault. I was the one who slipped up. Look at her. She’s even happier than Christmas morning.”
Jon saw the tears in her eyes, watched them begin to trek down her cheek. “I promise I’ll do my best.” It was all he could give her, all he could do, all anyone could.
She once more reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out that set of keys. “If you mean that, then take these. Have another set made at the hardware store down the street. Then move your stuff into my room.”
“Are you sure? I can keep the hotel room for now if you want. Sleep on the couch or go back there once she is asleep. Then come back in the mornings.”
“And what if Hope wakes up in the middle of the night? What if she wants you? No, I put my foot in it this time. And you made a promise to our daughter. I guess we’ll both have to live with it. Figure this shit out as it goes. But I won’t let her down, Jon. And I hope you won’t either.”
He took the keys. This was not how he wanted things to happen — none of it. Having a child he did not know existed until a few weeks ago. Being blown up by an IED in a fucking shithole, fighting for his parents’ wealthy friends and oil more than his country or freedom. And this was certainly not how he had wanted to woe her.
But shit happened. And you dealt with it like a man. Or you gave up, gave in, and died without ever living. Something had kept him alive when other good men died. Maybe it was for them: his little girl and the woman he loved.
“Okay. I don’t have much anyway. Just a few clothes, some books, and my paperwork. I can be back in a couple of hours and take her…”
“Home. You can take our daughter home before the diner fills up with the dinner rush, Jon. Home. Daughter. Those are words you better get used to saying.”
“I can think of loads worse things than taking our little girl home and putting her to bed for school tomorrow.”
Alicia looked at him as she smiled, but he could see it was forced. “It’ll be okay. We’ll figure this out somehow.”
He grinned; his was genuine. “Those were my lines, sweetheart. And yes, we will figure this out. We have a damned good reason to succeed over there.” Now was not the time or the place for a declaration of his undying love for them. But soon. Soon.
Alicia watched him leave. This day had not gone anything as she planned. Then again, nothing had since that night when she threw caution to the wind and invited a hurting, lonely Marine back to her apartment for ‘no-strings-attached’ sex.
“Where’s Papa going, Mama?” Hope frowned as she looked up from the paper.
Of course, this was a string that neither of them planned for, but certainly, one that she never regretted. And she was pretty sure that Jon felt the same. It might not be soulmates, some magical connection that she liked to imagine it to be, or even love, but their daughter was the one bond they did share. And that would have to be enough to build the rest upon.
She slipped into the booth with her daughter and looked down at the picture she was drawing. Tears welled in her eyes at the barely recognizable stick people. The way that the man and woman were holding the little girl’s hand between them. She smiled to see another woman and a bigger boy in the background as well.
“That’s a beautiful drawing, Preciosa.”
“It’s our new family. How long until you and Papa get me a new baby brother or sister like Amy is having?”
This day just kept getting weirder. Of all the things for her daughter to ask? “I didn’t know that Kacey was pregnant,” perhaps she could distract her daughter. At least long enough to come up with an answer that was both believable and not an outright lie.
Hope nodded her head without looking up. “Amy says it takes a long time to make a baby. But she said it was going to be her Christmas present. Do I have to wait until Christmas too, Mama? Or can I have my baby sooner? Maybe for my birthday? That’s still a long time away.”
Alicia could not help but laugh. Three months, hell, it might take her that long to get Jon in the mood for some more baby-making action, though she sincerely hoped not. The idea of spending even one night with that man in her bed without jumping his bones was hard enough.
But at least Hope had given her something to work with. “It takes time to make a baby, sweetie. Babies grow inside the Mamas for nine whole months. That is about the same amount of time from the first day of school until the last, even a bit more.”
“And sometimes it takes time for Mamas and Papas to make those babies too. You know that Kacey, Noah, and Chris have been a family for several months now. They did not make a baby right away.”
“How did they make the baby, Mama?”
This was not the conversation she wanted to have with her six-year-old daughter right now. This was not the place, and Alicia did not have the time this topic deserved. Hell, she had not even considered how she would explain sex to the child. But she knew that she would. No storks, cabbage patches, or watermelon seeds for her daughter.
She had not lied to Hope, ever. Unless, of course, you counted the biggest one of all, the lie of omission – that Jon was her Papa in every way. That one was big enough; she was not about to add this sin to it.
“I need to get ready for the dinner rush, sweetie, and that is a long talk. How about we sit down and discuss it later, okay?”
Bless the child; Hope never gave up. “Not tonight. I won’t be back until late, and you have school tomorrow. Then we have to get ready for Miss Mandy’s commitment ceremony on Sunday. How about we talk about it after that?”
Her daughter frowned, “But Miss Mandy and Sarah and Josh made a baby too. I want to know how. So that we can get one too. Please.”
“Hope, I said that we would discuss this later. I made a promise, and you know I always keep them. Now, please, I need to get ready for the dinner rush,” and explain our new houseguest to Alison.
She was not pleased with the pout on her daughter’s mouth, but at least her daughter nodded her head reluctantly and went back to drawing.
One battle down. Now onto the next one. She hoped this one would go a bit better as she slipped into the kitchen, where Alison laughed at something Jorge said.
“Can I speak with you for a moment, Alison?”
Her friend smiled, “If it’s about the hunk that’s going to be sharing your bedroom, don’t sweat it. We sort of overheard.”
Alicia blushed, “Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to go this way. It’s your home too. We should have talked about this before Jon just moves in.”
Her friend reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Life isn’t always neat, Ali, you know that. Sometimes Fate drop kicks our asses over the goalposts of life. And all we can do is go with the flow.” Alison smiled reassuringly, “DeShaun and I will try to keep out of your way while ya’ll settle into a new routine.”
“No, as I said, that is your home too.”
“No, sweetie, it is not. Don’t get me wrong; you’ll never know how much I appreciate everything you have done for me and the boys. But that is your home. Your family’s roots are in that place. It has just been a rest stop for me, Damien, and DeShaun. A wonderful, beautiful place and time of memories that we will always carry with us.”
“But like I said the other night, it is time. Time for me to move on. To find my Fate. My own home. My sons are grown. Men with lives of their own and their Fates to live out. And that is as it should be too.”
“Now, it is time for you. You and Jon to build upon all those other families that have come before. To create your own home and traditions. Would it be better if DeShaun and I got out of your way? It is only a few more weeks until graduation, and then he is off to explore this whole wide world. Or at least America,” Alison smiled, and the years slipped from her face.
At almost forty-five, she was still a pretty woman. But at that moment, all the cares and responsibilities relieved and something almost ethereal bringing a glow to her countenance, Alicia could see the young woman that she had once been. One that had attracted the attention of a basketball legend.
Alicia squeezed her hand in return, “I wouldn’t hear of it. You’re my best friend. And honestly, I need you right now.”
Her friend shook her blond head and chuckled, “You can’t hide or run from your Fate, sweetie. You gotta met that shit head-on. But yeah, I’ll be here for you for as long as I can anyway. Until mine calls me.”
“When did you get so metaphysical about everything?”
Her friend frowned, “I don’t know. It is just something. Something I feel inside. Something I can’t explain. Or ignore. It just keeps calling me. And it’s getting stronger.”
When Alison looked up, there were huge tears in her eyes, “Please understand. Hell, what am I saying? I don’t understand. But at least, accept. Accept that this is the way things need to be. Has to be. That it is what is best for all of us. You. Me. Jon. Hope. Damien and DeShaun too. It is just something I know deep inside, even if I don’t know how I know it. Damn, none of that makes any sense.” Those tears spilled out the corners of her blue eyes, and black streaks began to mar her cheeks.
Alicia wrapped her friend in her arms, and Jorge muttered under his breath, shrugged, and turned back to the grill, obviously uncomfortable with the show of feminine emotions.
“Of course, Alison, I do understand or, like you said, accept. It’s just that I’m going to miss you. You’ve been my family for so long, all of Hope’s life. I don’t know what I would have done without you. And honestly, I’m having trouble imagining my life without you there.”
Alison pushed back, breaking the embrace. She swiped at the tears with the back of her hand, making a bigger mess of those dark smudges. “I know. I feel the same way sometimes. But I can’t stop this – whatever it is. And you can’t change your Fate either. Not that I think you’d want to?”
Alison might be right about that. This might not be how she would have planned things, but this night Jon would not be sleeping on the couch or in a crappy hotel room. He would be sleeping in her bed. That was a start.