“Hi! This is Stacy. Leave me a message and I’ll call you right back.”
“Good morning, Stace, it’s Dan again. I know it’s a little early, but we’re starting a new job today and I didn’t know if I’d get another chance to call before you head out to school. Call me when you get a break, or after work, or whenever. If I don’t answer, just leave a message or shoot me a text. I promise I’ll call you back. My number’s still the same as it was yesterday. It hasn’t changed. So… Um… Yeah. Have a good day, Stacy… I miss you.”
Every morning, Dan called to say, ‘Good morning,’ to Stacy’s voicemail and start his day off right by listening to her sweet voice on the greeting. She never called him back, never texted, but he never stopped acting as though she would, just in case one day she decided she wanted to. Gina, on the other hand, had started calling him every evening after supper to check in and give him advice he didn’t necessarily need.
“I just want her to call me back, not take out a restraining order,” he reminded his mother-in-law as her suggestions grew wilder and more unpredictable, ranging anywhere from filling Stacy’s car with flowers to asking her fifth grade class to help him serenade her in the cafeteria during lunch.
“If you don’t like my suggestions, quit asking for my help,” she’d always reply.
“I’m beginning to wonder what crazy things Hank did to win your heart,” Dan said after she suggested he literally spell out his love for Stacy in a nighttime blaze of luminaries in her yard outside her bedroom window.
“Oh, you know Hank,” Gina answered with a warm laugh. “He just took my hand in that giant paw of his and said, ‘So, whaddya think?’ How could I say no to that?”
Dan smiled, picturing it clearly. Hank and Gina loved in the same easy way his parents had. The gesture didn’t have to be fancy to be heartfelt. He kept his efforts with Stacy simple, true to his heart, and called her every morning to remind her how much he cared.
But after three weeks without even a hint of reply, he grew frustrated talking to himself.
“You’re lying on your greeting, you know,” he grumbled to her voicemail early one morning while he paced his kitchen, impatient for his coffee to brew. “You say you’ll call right back, but you never do. If you don’t mean it you shouldn’t say it. What would Gram think?”
The next morning when he called, he was greeted with, “Hello, this is Stacy. I am not available. You may leave a message at your own discretion.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny, Stace,” Dan said after the beep, even though he didn’t find the change funny at all, not one little bit.
“At least you know she’s listening to the messages,” Aria said in attempt to comfort his hurt feelings later that night at the Rogan’s.
“I suppose,” he agreed, catching the beer Jimmy tossed to him. “But it’s been three weeks, Aria. Has she said anything to you?”
“Not really,” Aria dismissed with a shrug, though her eyes reflected a different story. “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you should send her flowers,” Brent suggested. “Girls like flowers.”
“She’d just throw them away,” Dan said.
“No, she wouldn’t,” Brent said.
“She’d shove ‘em down the garbage disposal.” Jimmy grinned. “After she stomped on them first.”
“Yep,” Dan agreed and took a long pull from his beer. That’s exactly what she’s do.
“Hello!” Kylie called out as she opened the door and came inside, barely restraining a very excited two-year-old Brayden, who broke free and ran straight for Jimmy.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. Look!” Brayden clambered up onto Jimmy’s lap, waving a Hot Wheel in his tiny hand. Jimmy’s face lit up as he lifted the little boy high over his head, sending Brayden into a fit of giggles.
Kylie dropped his diaper bag and a blanket by the end of the sofa and looked ready to collapse herself, but she still had an eight hour shift to put in at Captain Jack’s before her day could end. “He’s a little wound up today. I’m sorry.”
“Brent gets hyper every night. Brayden can’t be much worse than him,” Aria teased.
“Hey!” Brent protested.
Kylie pulled Brayden’s beloved and well-worn, stuffed Boo Bear out of her coat pocket and added it to the pile. “It was just so nice outside this afternoon we couldn’t pass up a trip to the park after daycare, could we, Bray?”
“Nuh uh!” Brayden agreed with a vigorous shake of his head.
“He’ll be fine, Ky,” Jimmy assured her as he settled Brayden into his lap and looked over the toy car. “Very cool car, Little Man. Can I have it?”
“No,” he answered, drawing the word out. “It mine.”
“Mine,” Jimmy countered.
Brayden tipped his head back into Jimmy’s chest and looked up at him. “Mine!” he insisted with a thrust of his little body.
“Mine,” Jimmy repeated and pretended to take Brayden’s car.
“Mine,” Brayden cried out in woe, his bottom lip out, and he started to cry.
Jimmy gave him a reassuring squeeze. “It’s okay, Bray. The car’s yours. Jimmy’s sorry.”
Brayden sniffed back his tears and curled into Jimmy’s chest, clutching his Hot Wheel tight in his little fist. “Mine.”
“Quit teasing my baby,” Kylie scolded Jimmy as she leaned in to kiss Brayden goodnight.
Brayden squirmed away from her, but she caught him and covered his little face in kisses. He giggled and flopped back in Jimmy’s arms, his tear streaked face glowing with joy. She tickled his belly then gave Jimmy a quick kiss and turned to leave. He caught her wrist.
“You’re not getting away that easy,” he said and pulled her down to him on the sofa. He kissed her for real, whispering, “I love you, Ky,” as he ran a light touch along her jaw. She whispered her love in return, and Brent made kissy noises at them from across the room. Aria smacked him in the chest.
“Hey, real quick before you go,” Brent said, stopping Kylie when she finally pulled herself away from Jimmy. “What should Dan do to get Stacy to talk to him?”
“There’s no magic thing that you can do,” she said after considering it for a moment. “No flowers, no gimmicks, no crazy love songs.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Dan sighed.
“Just be honest with her and keep telling her how you feel. She’s listening to everything you say, even if she acts like she’s not.” She looked over to Jimmy, a warm blush coloring her cheeks as though in apology for her own stubbornness. “Never give up.”
Once Kylie headed off to work, Aria and Brent disappeared into the kitchen to make dinner. Dan stayed behind, enthralled with watching Jimmy and Brayden play. Standing in Jimmy’s lap, he drove his car up one of Jimmy’s arms, over his head, and back down the other arm, mimicking car noises as he went. Little droplets of spittle flew from the little boy’s mouth, landing on Jimmy’s arms and in his face, but if Jimmy noticed, he didn’t seem to mind.
Every time the car went over his head, Jimmy would tip back and pretend to take a bite of the car, sending Brayden into a fresh round of giggles. Jimmy’s hands held onto Brayden’s legs, keeping him secure, protecting him from falling. The love between them was the purest kind there was—the love of father and child. It was the kind of love that had shaped Dan as a child, and the kind he hoped he would one day be blessed to experience from the other side.
As the apartment filled with the aroma of simmering chili and baking cornbread, Aria wandered out of the kitchen and sat with Dan. She snuck her arm behind him on the sofa and wrapped the other one in front, giving him a sideways hug, and rested her head on his chest. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head, grateful for the company.
“You looked like you needed a hug,” she said.
“I did,” Dan admitted.
“Don’t give up, sweetie. I know it’s hard, but she’s worth the wait.”
“Oh, I know she is,” Dan answered. “I’m just beginning to wonder if she thinks she is.”
“It’s your job to convince her.”
“I’m trying,” he sighed. “You know, I honestly thought this was all about Chase. I thought she was having a hard time letting go of him. I can’t believe I never realized she was worried about what Millie would think.”
“I tried telling you that but you didn’t listen,” Jimmy chimed in, even though no one asked him.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did,” Jimmy insisted.
“No, you didn’t. All you did was call me a pr—” Dan started to say ‘prick,’ but at the last second he remembered Brayden was in the room. Since littlest audiences tended to have the biggest ears, he edited his rant to make it more Disney-friendly. “All you said was to quit thinking about myself.”
“Not even close!”
“So, now that you know what’s wrong, you fix it,” Aria suggested. She made it sound so easy.
“Right. Piece of cake,” Dan said, more to himself than to her.
“Easy peasy lemon squeezy,” Aria said with a nod and a smile.
“What?” Dan asked, laughing despite himself.
“Nothing,” Aria said, smiling bigger and hugging him tight. “Got you to laugh though.”
“Yeah, you did.” When she let go of him, he said, “You smell like strawberries again today. Why do you always smell like food?”
Aria laughed. “I didn’t know that I did.”
Brent came in from the kitchen and asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Dan thinks I smell like strawberries today.”
“Strawberries, huh?” Gently, Brent tugged her to her feet and pulled her close. With a dip of his head, he slowly kissed along her neck, working his way behind her ear, taking his time and enjoying the journey. She wrapped her arms around his waist and melted into him as the temperature in the room increased rapidly.
Jimmy groaned in disgust and covered Brayden’s eyes with his hand. The little boy giggled again and wiggled out of Jimmy’s arms, running off across the room to his Boo Bear.
“Today is definitely a cinnamon day,” Brent decided, his voice thick. Aria’s eyes darkened into coal as Brent’s mouth dove for hers and he walked her backward, toward the bedrooms. They bumped into walls and furniture as they kissed with the wild passion of youth. Seconds later, a door slammed shut.
Jimmy grunted. “Way to go, Dan.”
“How was I supposed to know that would happen?”
“Because it always happens with them. And now I’m going to starve to death before they come back out and finish cooking dinner.”
“So, go finish it yourself.”
“I should make you do it.”
“You’re not my boss anymore,” Dan reminded him. “Not since you cashed that check and stenciled my name next to yours on your truck.”
“Your name’s smaller than mine,” Jimmy grinned.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?”
Jimmy just laughed.
“So, you really knew that was what was wrong with Stacy?”
“I could see it in her eyes.” He shifted on the sofa, sitting up a little straighter and said, “I’m sorry, man, but I thought you knew and were just being a selfish as—”
Jimmy stopped abruptly and his eyes shifted to Brayden for a second before he started again, this time with his voice lower, his tone softer, and his words also edited for content. The PG-rating was new for all of them. It was going to take some getting used to.
“I was upset with you, but I figured it was none of my business so I just stayed out of it. She didn’t need any more sh—” He stopped short and grunted in frustration before trying again. “She didn’t need any more poop to deal with.”
“Poop?” Dan asked, with one eyebrow raised. “Seriously?”
“Shut up,” Jimmy grumbled. “You know what I wanted to say. She was already stressed about Chase pressuring her to get back together and the fact that he had his baby—”
“Wait! What?” Dan interrupted. “When did Chase have his baby?”
“In January. Me, and Brent, mostly Aria, we all helped her as much as we could, but what she really needed was you, and you just… bailed on her.”
“I had no clue,” Dan said in his own defense. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought you knew. Everybody knew. It’s a small town, man.”
“I really had no idea, Jimmy… if I had…”
“Whatever. You can’t do anything about it now. It’s done, you know?”
“Yeah, but for future reference, just assume I don’t know anything. Because I usually don’t,” Dan said on a sigh of irritation. “What did he have?”
“Poor kid. Chase is walking proof any as— apple-hole can make a baby.”
“No kidding,” Jimmy agreed. He huffed out a laugh and watched Brayden as he played. “Apple-hole, huh? That’s a good one.”
“I thought so.”
“Stace said Chase is pretty proud though. Maybe he’ll be alright.”
After a pause, Jimmy asked, “Some apple-holes turn out okay in the end though, don’t they?”
“Some do,” Dan agreed, sensing the conversation had turned away from Chase. How Jimmy could possibly still doubt himself as a father was a mystery to Dan. He had never seen any parent love a child as unconditionally as Jimmy loved Brayden. It came to him as naturally as breathing. “Some apple-holes make really good fathers.”
He knew Jimmy well enough to leave it at that. Jimmy wasn’t an onion to be peeled slowly, one layer at a time. He was an onion who insisted on peeling himself, and he had just gone as deep as he was willing to go. “Well, I guess I’ll go finish cooking your dinner. But only because I’m starving, too.”
“Make sure my chili’s hot. The hotter the better.”
“I’ll make it so hot your apple-hole’ll be burnin’ for a week.”
Brayden ran back to Jimmy with his teddy bear tucked tight under his arm like a football, and Jimmy let out an oof! as the boy head-butted him in the stomach. He scooped Brayden onto his lap, snuggling in, and clicked on the television with the remote.
“Oh, and just to let you know, you and Brent are both wrong,” Jimmy called after Dan. “Aria smells like butterscotch today.”