Dr. Garrison couldn’t fit Brayden into his schedule until late in the day. Once he finally had time to see them, he confirmed Kylie’s suspicion with a quick swab to the back of the throat—Brayden had strep. The doctor packed up a goodie bag of Amoxicillin and Children’s Tylenol, prescribed extra sleep, plenty of fluids, and sent them on their way.
It was late evening by the time Kylie and Brayden returned to her mother’s house, which always felt warm and welcoming, even when it was empty. Nessa had already headed out for her date with Chief, and Martha was chairing a fundraiser for the church. She wouldn’t be home until later in the night, but she had left a pot of her homemade chicken noodle soup simmering on the stove for supper. Kylie didn’t feel hungry. Brayden didn’t look as though he had much of an appetite, either. His eyes were still red and hot, and his nose was starting to run as he breathed through his mouth.
“You want a Popsicle while I finish supper?”
“Purp-ple,” he answered, his voice deep, raspy and raw from the infection.
Kylie dug through the freezer for his favorite grape flavor. He sat on the floor in front of the sofa and watched cartoons on television while Kylie made up some rolls and ladled out a bowl of soup to cool on the counter for Brayden.
As the bread baked, she stood in the archway to the living room and watched Brayden stare blankly at his cartoons. His head rested heavily against the sofa. His Popsicle melted down his arm. She wished she could make him feel better just by loving him. If she could, she’d cover him in tiny kisses until he smiled again.
The doorbell rang, and Kylie opened the door to Jimmy.
“Hey,” she whispered, surprised by the relief she felt by his presence.
Jimmy bent down and reached out for Brayden, who had followed her to see who was at the door. His eyes were still red, his lips were purple from his Popsicle, but his face had a touch more color to it than it had all day.
“What’s the matter, Bray? Not feeling so hot?” Jimmy asked, holding him close.
“Nuh-uh,” Brayden said with a shake of his head and a cough in Jimmy’s face.
“That doesn’t sound good.” Jimmy put his lips to the boy’s forehead to check for fever. When he was satisfied Brayden wasn’t too hot, he kissed his cheek and rested him on his hip.
“He has strep and a cold,” Kylie explained.
Jimmy frowned. “Colds suck.”
“Uh huh,” Brayden agreed, mimicking Jimmy’s frown.
“I have something that might make you feel better.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a worn, brown teddy bear with patches of fur missing and only one ear.
Kylie gasped in surprise.
“Boo!” Brayden’s eyes lit up like the sunrise, and he smiled a real smile for the first time all day. He squished the well-loved teddy to his face and fell against Jimmy’s shoulder.
Still in disbelief, Kylie asked, “Where did you find him?”
She had looked all over Allman Falls for the little bear before they’d moved, even finally breaking down and calling Jimmy to see if it was at his apartment. He’d said it wasn’t, and she’s believed him. She had endured many sleepless nights when Brayden wouldn’t stop crying for his beloved stuffed animal. And she had spent a small fortune trying to buy a suitable substitute for him to cuddle with as he fell asleep.
“He was under the seat of my truck,” Jimmy said, meeting Kylie’s eyes in apology. “I found him about two weeks after you left for California. I tried calling but you didn’t return my calls, so I drove over here to give it to Martha to mail to you, but… I just couldn’t let go of it… I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Kylie rubbed Brayden’s back and let her hand slide down to brush against Jimmy’s arm before stepping back. “You want some dinner? I have enough if you’re hungry. Mom made her chicken noodle soup.”
“Sounds good.” Jimmy carried Brayden into the kitchen, keeping the boy on his lap instead of putting him in his booster seat.
Kylie dished up another bowl and set it in front of Jimmy. He slid Brayden’s cooled soup over and tried to convince him to eat some of his noodles, but Brayden shook his head in frustration and pushed against Jimmy.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Jimmy asked.
“Nuh-uh.” Brayden’s forehead crinkled in a deep frown. He picked at the eyes of the teddy bear with his little fingers and curled up against Jimmy’s chest.
“It’ll make you feel better.”
Brayden grunted in disagreement.
“I’ll take him so you can eat,” Kylie offered.
“That’s okay. I think what Little Man needs is some cartoon-therapy. An hour of SpongeBob and he’ll be good as new.” Jimmy carried Brayden into the living room and settled onto the sofa with Boo Bear, and a blanket.
With his head against Jimmy’s chest, Brayden’s red, hot eyes slowly started to close. Jimmy stroked his hair and whispered incredible stories about a gigantic football player named Suh. Kylie allowed them some time alone, listening from the kitchen as she picked at her bowl of soup.
After she finished supper, she kept herself busy with the dishes and tidying the kitchen before she went to check on the boys. The television off, Brayden snored softly from his stuffed-up nose. Jimmy sat quiet in the low light, content to just hold him.
“I didn’t know he’d fallen asleep,” Kylie whispered, feeling Brayden’s forehead.
“Yeah, he zonked out a while ago.” Jimmy shifted Brayden in his arms as he stood. “I’ll go put him to bed.”
Watching him carry Brayden off to bed brought back a flood of memories Kylie could not suppress. When they had been a family, Jimmy had tucked Brayden in every night, sitting with him until he fell asleep. When he had first started the routine, Kylie wondered if Jimmy was trying to earn points, or play pretend. But as he continued to do it night after night, Kylie realized Jimmy didn’t have to prove himself as a father. He was one, naturally.
As night fell and Jimmy didn’t return to the living room, Kylie peeked into Brayden’s room to check on them. She found Jimmy sitting in the dark in the rocking chair, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles in front of him, his head tipped back, slowly rocking as he watched over Brayden while he slept.
Hating to intrude, but desiring to join him, she asked in whisper, “Can I come in?”
Jimmy looked up, startled to see her standing in the doorway. He straightened in the chair. When she walked over to him, he pulled her into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and whispered, “I love you, Ky.”
“I know you do.” She stroked his cheek, silently admitting she loved him in return. “I’ve never doubted that.”
“For what?” she asked, though she knew.
“For hurting you… hurting him. For letting you go. For everything.”
“I had to go.”
“It hurt too much to see you every day and not be with you.”
He nodded, stroked her hair. “I’m sorry.”
Kylie wrapped her arms around him and rested her head against his shoulder. She missed the way he held her. They fit together perfectly, as though their bodies had been designed specifically for each other. For this one, brief moment, she wanted to close her eyes and be held by him, as though nothing had happened. As though they were still together.
“Would you consider staying?” His fingers played through her hair, his touch so light it could have been her imagination. “Can we try this again?”
She lifted her head off Jimmy’s shoulder. In the low light of the room, she caught a mirror of her own heartache reflected in his eyes. “I don’t think we should.”
His eyes holding hers, he traced her jaw line with his thumb, caressed her ear with the tips of his fingers. She wanted nothing more than to shed herself of the anger, let go of her pride and give in to his touch, but they had already caused each other too much pain to ever truly forget. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them to pretend otherwise.
“Because I know now that I never trusted you. Honestly, I don’t think I ever will. I can’t live like that, and neither should you.”
“Is there anything I can do to prove to you how sorry I am?”
“It’s not about being sorry. I can see that in your eyes. I believe you, and I appreciate it, but…”
“But what?” he asked.
“Do you remember the first time we made love?”
“I remember everything,” he whispered out on a pained breath.
“Do you remember what you promised me that night?”
Jimmy nodded and closed his eyes, as though he would cry if he didn’t.
“Oh, god, I was so scared to fall in love with you, Jimmy.” She ran her hand down his cheek, kissed his closed eyelids as tears began to fill her own eyes. “You promised me I would never regret loving you… You said you would never leave me… You promised you would never do what Charlie had done… And you promised…”
“I promised you would never know what it felt like to be your mom,” he finished for her as he opened his eyes.
Her gaze locked into his, and he apologized again, silently, through his heart, and she accepted. But it wasn’t enough. It never would be, and they both knew it.
Delicately, Kylie cupped his face. She memorized every single speck of color in his eyes before pressing her lips to his. He kissed her fiercely, his emotions raw as a tear escaped from the corner of his eye and raced down his cheek, sliding into her mouth. He ripped away from the kiss and buried his face into her neck, holding her tight as he breathed hot and fast against her skin. She closed her eyes and stroked the hair at the nape of his neck, holding him against her, praying this last moment would never end. But, inevitably, it did.
He kissed a trail back up to her lips and held his mouth against hers, his lips slightly parted, barely moving, mingling their breath, tasting her, memorizing her, and then he let her go.
When Jimmy returned to his house, he stood in the middle of his living room and turned in a slow circle.
Everything he had imagined, everything he had worked so goddamn hard to fix—every rotten floorboard and every crumbling plaster wall he had ripped out and hauled off and burned; every length of plumbing he had replaced with new, every support beam he had reinforced and stabilized; every inch of frayed and singed ball and post electrical wiring he had pulled and restrung; every night he had stayed awake and kept swinging and swinging and fucking swinging away until his body collapsed in exhaustion and the sun came up—all of it stared back at him, and waited.
“Now what?” he asked the house. Himself. “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?”
The house had no answer.
Neither did he.