It was my only warning before he leapt down the steps without his feet touching a single one as he sprinted towards me.
Christ…he must’ve grown six inches since the last time I’d seen him.
Hunter was the perfect blend of me and his mother. Her lips and nose. My eyes and jaw line. The blond hair and blue eyes, we all shared.
“Hey buddy,” I smiled and dropped down to my knees to hug him once his too big for him feet carried him to me. I knew it was only a matter of time before he’d rebuff any kind of physical affection from his old man, so I made sure to enjoy it while I could. Kissing the mop of blond hair on top of his head, I said, “You’re getting so big. What’s your mom been feeding you? Miracle-Gro?”
“Blame the vegetables,” he snickered. “You should tell her to stop making me eat them every night if you don’t wanna have to look up at me one day.”
He definitely had his mother’s sass.
And speaking of his mother…
She watched our reunion from the front porch for a few minutes before slowly climbing down the steps and heading our way. Handing over Hunter’s bag, she smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes as she asked, “So are you all settled?”
That was something she’d probably waited for years for me to feel. I knew her question was merely a polite inquisitive into whether or not I was all moved into my new house in Shreveport and not about our past failed relationship. Or rather my failure when it came to our past, but before I could say anything, as I took the offered backpack from her I noticed a ring sitting on her left hand.
A diamond solitaire.
If she couldn’t hear my heart thundering away in my chest, then she definitely caught me gawking at it. ‘Catching flies,’ she would’ve once accused in that southern accent of hers that always made my knees weak. But that was once upon a time and I was no longer her Prince Charming.
Someone else was living my happily ever after.
As if she were telepathic, she started twisting the ring with the fingers of her right hand and said, “Sam and I are getting married.” Since my eyes had yet to reduce from their saucer-like size, she continued to stutter, “He just asked…it’s a new…I would’ve told you, but it only happened the other night and you were busy moving, so I…”
“Yeah, no I…”I stuttered once her words had trailed off, while running my hands through my hair. “No, that’s…that’s great Sookie. Really.”
Great for Sam.
Fucking awful for me.
In my conscious mind, I’d only moved to Louisiana to be closer to Hunter. After we’d broken up four years earlier, she’d moved back to her home state and I’d been all over the country, playing for whatever team would have me until now – when no other team would have me. I’d known Sookie had been dating Sam for a couple of years now, but seeing that fucking marker on her finger, claiming her as his, I realized my subconscious mind had had other ideas.
Ones that didn’t involve Sam Merlotte being around on a permanent basis.
Sookie had once been mine, but I hadn’t really appreciated that fact at the time. I was lucky enough that she’d never held the past against me and hadn’t kept Hunter from me. Consciously, I knew she wouldn’t wait around forever. Consciously, I hadn’t even realized I’d wanted her to. I certainly hadn’t been living a chaste lifestyle, nor did I think she’d grow into an old spinster surrounded by a hundred cats. Sookie was too good of a catch for that to ever happen, but I never really thought about her getting caught by anyone else. I knew Sam was good to Hunter. I knew Sookie wouldn’t have let him into their lives if he wasn’t and had even heard it straight from my boy’s mouth that Sam was a nice guy.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to take a few swings at his head with my baseball bat right then.
“Come ooonnnn Dad!” Hunter whined, pulling at my hand. “Let’s go.”
Saved from making an even bigger ass of myself by my boy, I let him pull me to the car, while Sookie followed him to the passenger’s side saying, “You behave for your father.” Looking up at me, she smiled again and said, “Try to make sure he brushes his teeth and showers at least once a day.”
Had she always been that beautiful?
“Right,” I replied, forcing a smile onto my face. It wasn’t her fault I felt like my internal organs were being crushed.
That was all my fault.
Pretending my lungs weren’t currently being held hostage by an invisible yoke, I forced a smile onto my face and said, “I’ll make sure he scrapes the fur from his teeth and the funky B.O. from his body before I bring him home.”
I had Hunter all to myself for the next three days. It was Friday, but he had off from school for one of those ‘teacher holidays’, so I wouldn’t have to bring him back until Sunday night. But now that I was back to being a part of his life in a way that didn’t involve long distance phone calls, I figured I should say something parental and asked, “Does he have any homework he needs to do while he’s with me?”
I could tell by the smile on Sookie’s face and the grimace on Hunter’s what the answer was before she ever replied, “It’s in his bag.”
I had the top down on the Vette since the weather was nice, but the view became much nicer when I watched Sookie lean down and kiss the top of Hunter’s head.
That cleavage was one of the many things that had first gotten my attention ten years earlier.
It wasn’t a part of my genetic makeup to even be able to blush, so when my eyes caught hers – and I knew I’d been caught staring – she just shook her head with another small smile and said, “If you want to bring him back home around six, you’re welcome to stay for dinner on Sunday.”
Was that a sign from her that she wanted me to stay?
Well beyond dinner?
Chemistry had never been a problem between Sookie and me. In fact, it was explosive whenever we got together and it was likely the reason why our relationship lasted as long as it did. Before her, I never had a steady anything. But once we’d met, I couldn’t see myself with anyone but her. At least, not for the long haul.
It was those short hauls that got me into trouble and destroyed everything we’d had together.
I could blame being young. I could blame the never ending supply of women who threw themselves at professional athletes. I could blame Sookie for not coming along on every road trip once Hunter was born to keep me company. But the fact of the matter was the blame lied squarely with me. I hadn’t blamed her for leaving me. I would’ve left me too had I been in her shoes. I’d always known she’d deserved better than me. I’d always been surprised she’d ever been mine to begin with, even for those short six years we were together.
Maybe that was why I hadn’t tried harder to keep her. I never expected her to stay.
“Eric?” she asked when I didn’t respond. “Dinner? Do you want to stay on Sunday?”
Maybe I still had a shot at getting her back?
“Sure. I’ll stay,” I smiled. “I haven’t had a good home cooked meal since…”
Since she’d left.
Now that my mouth was full with the foot I’d put into it, she put her telepathy to good use and likely figured out where that statement was heading because I could see the glimmer of sadness behind her eyes. But instead of finishing my thought – because she had always been a better person than me – she forced another smile onto her face and said, “Good. I’d like for you to get to know Sam now that we’re…you know…getting married. I figured you’d want to meet the man who’ll be living with your son.”
Cue crushed internal organs.
Sookie and I had never gotten married. I’d known it was something that she’d wanted, especially when we found out Hunter was on the way, but it was an unspoken topic between us. I’d gone out and gotten her a ring months before she’d ever had a reason to take a pregnancy test, but I’d never given it to her. Never told her about it. She never pushed for marriage and I never proposed. But I still had it, having held onto it all of this time.
I guess I always thought I would still have time to make things right between us.
Now I guess I was wrong.
I could still taste shoe leather when I finally choked out, “Sure. I’d love to meet him.”
In a dark alley.
“Great,” she smiled. “I guess I’ll see you then.” Turning back to our son, she gave him another kiss and warned, “Be good. No duping your father into believing you’re allowed a carton of ice cream before bed.”
“Don’t be silly, Mom,” he smirked and gave me the sense I was looking into a mirror twenty-some odd years into the past. Morphing his face into one of pure innocence, he blinked back at her and said, “Ice cream is for breakfast.”
Yeah…that kid took after me too no matter how much he’d grown up while away from me.
With that, we took off for Shreveport where I’d bought a house. I’d played ball in the Major Leagues for the better part of ten years, but I was no Derek Jeter, nor was my salary comparable to his. But I’d done well enough and hadn’t squandered as much as I could have, so if my investments remained sound I could live comfortably for the rest of my life without having to worry about money. But that didn’t mean I would remain idle. I’d have to do something or else I’d go crazy from the boredom, so I was oscillating between maybe investing in a car dealership or a bar. Try my hand at broadcasting, perhaps.
I had some time to figure it out. For now I just wanted to spend time with my son again.
“So what have you been up to?” I asked, as I pulled onto the interstate.
Even after our breakup, Sookie had always been really good about letting me know what was going on with Hunter. She’d email me updates on what he’d been up to: school; friends; hobbies. She was also good about taking a lot of pictures which she’d share with me, so I could still see him even when I couldn’t see him.
Everything about her was better than me.
But she’d always given me more credit than I’d deserved. She’d always told me I was a good man. At least all the way up until I’d thrown it all away on a lousy one night stand. But even with that black mark on my record, she then changed it to me being a good father. It was always something she’d include in her emails whenever I would ask about Hunter, but I got the feeling maybe she was trying to convince herself of that fact more than me.
The fact was I wasn’t a good father. Not in my opinion anyway. I missed most of Hunter’s life being away for the majority of it. Sookie seemed to understand, but I wasn’t so sure Hunter did. He didn’t know any different really, but I still felt like a shit for not being there. When he was off from school during the summers, I was playing ball. When I was off in the winter, he was in school. I’d see him when I could, but it was never long enough for me. Our schedules hadn’t meshed at all, but it was something I hoped to make up for now that I was done playing ball.
“Nothing,” he replied, but I knew him well enough to know there was something to his nothing.
“What is it?” I asked when he didn’t say anything more.
After a few more minutes of prodding, I had to strain to hear him when he finally admitted in a near whisper, “Little league tryouts are tomorrow.”
Hunter had never mentioned wanting to play ball, but he was only eight. And I wasn’t going to be that guy who brow beat their kid into following their footsteps. But seeing him shrug his shoulders and trying to be nonchalant about it, I asked, “Did you want to try out?”
I didn’t think Sookie would’ve told him no had he asked her, so I didn’t see what the issue was until he shrugged again and looked down at his lap, asking, “What if I’m not good enough to make the team?”
Pfft…with my DNA running through his veins?
Okay…so maybe I was a little bit of that guy.
“Why do you think you wouldn’t make the team?” I asked. Bon Temps was a tiny little town. So small I’d be shocked if they had enough kids to make a full team.
“I’ve never played,” he shrugged again, acting like his resume should be impressive at his age. “But everyone would expect me to be awesome because you’re my dad. Sam works a lot so he can’t practice with me and mom can’t throw a baseball farther than five feet, so I didn’t have anyone to teach me.”
Sam didn’t work so much that he wouldn’t be at dinner on Sunday, but I kept that snide thought to myself and couldn’t help the snort that left my lips over his fairly accurate description of his mother’s baseball skills. She also couldn’t sing without sounding like a feral cat dying in a bear trap either, but I kept that to myself too and only said, “We have the rest of the day and nothing to do but practice. What time are tryouts tomorrow?”
I wouldn’t push him into playing, but if he wanted to, I’d certainly help him prepare for it.
“Noon, but I don’t even have a glove,” he replied, but his eyes were filled with hope.
So I smiled in return and said, “But I know where the sporting goods store is in Shreveport.”
An hour later Hunter was outfitted with everything any little leaguer would ever need – and then some – but given my former profession, I figured it was to be expected. I was never an All-Star, so I could walk around in relative anonymity, but that didn’t extend to the ladies. Attention from the opposite sex had never been something I’d lacked, so it shouldn’t have been such a surprise when we claimed a little piece of land at the local park that one of the numerous female joggers just happened to decide to stop and stretch a few feet away from us. Making sure to give me a glimpse of her flexible assets, she locked her predatory stare onto me and said, “I haven’t seen you around before.”
My ass was still smarting over seeing that ring on Sookie’s finger, so the last thing I wanted was to be picked up by her lesser. Never mind the fact I had Hunter there watching our interaction, so I decided to show her a bit of my ass by replying, “I’m not interested in being seen.”
Turning my back to her, I looked at Hunter and said, “How about we break in your glove a bit and then see what kind of arm you’ve got.”
I’d have to oil it up when we got home and band it closed with a baseball in the pocket, but he could still use it for right now. It would just be stiff.
Stiff – like my hackles – when the lesser didn’t catch my drift and instead walked closer, saying, “If you’re new to town, I’d be happy to show you around.”
In uniform or out, some women just seemed to throw themselves at any man. And while I’d partaken in more than my fair share of them, it only served to remind me how different Sookie was. Even back then when I’d spotted her in the stands while playing for the Rangers, she never acted like a groupie. I later learned that she wasn’t even a fan of baseball and had only gone to the game because she’d won tickets and gave one to her brother so he would take her to Arlington.
She’d really wanted to go to Six Flags which is the only reason she went along to begin with.
Instead I’d been the one to take her to Six Flags that night and she didn’t go back home again for four months. And only then so she could pack up her stuff and move in with me.
What I would give to turn back time.
But now I had to give this woman the brush off because I wanted no part of her and Hunter’s hawk-like eyes were picking up everything she was putting down.
Eight years old was a lot older than I remembered it being.
“I have a GPS, so I won’t be needing your help. Now if you’ll excuse me, my son and I are busy.”
“I like kids,” she smiled and touched my arm.
I jerked it back and said, “Then go have one. Mine has a mother and she was never desperate like you.”
Hunter’s eyes grew wide and his jaw fell open. I was sure his mother had taught him to be polite, but this was a lesson only a father could teach.
No man needed a woman like that one.
She huffed out, “Asshole,” and scurried away, but I ignored her and tossed the baseball in my hand at Hunter. When it bounced off of his chest and fell to the ground at his feet, I chuckled and said, “Lesson number one. You have to put your glove out if you’re going to catch the ball, son.”
“But you…and she…and you…” he stuttered and fell silent.
When he spent a full minute catching some flies of his own, I asked, “What?”
I didn’t want to believe Sookie would speak ill of me to him, but with the way his eyes were bugged out of his head, like E.T had just strolled up and asked to use his cell phone to phone home, it worried me. She’d rightfully lost her mind when I’d come home from that fateful road trip and admitted to cheating on her. I’d been drunk and lonely and it had been the biggest mistake of my life, but I couldn’t lie to her about it. Even by omission.
She’d deserved the truth, no matter how painful it was for both of us. For her to hear and for me to admit to.
Hunter was too young at the time to know what was going on and the reason for our breakup wasn’t something he needed to know about. But now that he was a little older, I imagined he could’ve asked her why we weren’t together anymore.
And I kicked myself for never asking her what her answer would be if and when the issue came up between them.
“It’s just that…” he started and then paused, while his face turned beet red. I felt bad for him that he’d inherited that trait from his mother, but I was too busy concentrating on what his next words would be to give it much thought.
Finally, he admitted, “I just…sometimes when you were busy playing ball somewhere across the country and I was missing you, I would Google your name to see what you were up to. I read somewhere that you have a lot of girlfriends. They made it sound like you never turn anyone down, so I guess seeing you do it just threw me for a loop.”
Fucking growing up faster than should be legal.
Fucking society dictating he should learn to read.
I hadn’t given much thought to how I chose to live my life could – or would – affect Hunter. Especially when he didn’t live with me and wasn’t subjected to that side of me, but now it made me question every decision I’d ever made. I wanted more for him. A better life than the one I’d led, so I tried to keep my expression neutral, even if my teeth were grinding hard enough to cut diamonds, and said, “You should know by now that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.”
And I should’ve known better than to think Sookie would’ve painted me as a manwhore in his eyes.
“But is that why you and mom broke up?” he asked, throwing me for my own loop and my guts into a tailspin.
On some level, I knew the day would come when that question would fall from his lips in one way or another, but that didn’t mean I was prepared to answer it. A million excuses clouded my mind, all threatening to pour from my lips, but like I’d said.
Eight years old was a lot older than I’d remembered it being.
Hunter was too old and too smart to be told a bunch flimsy excuses, but that didn’t mean I wanted to give him the gory details either. I didn’t want him to hate me, but I didn’t want him to ever question where the fault lied, so I admitted, “I’m no saint, son. I was young and stupid. Your mother was the best thing to ever happen to me, but I didn’t realize that at the time and I ruined what we had together. It was a mistake, one that I deeply regret, but I’m lucky enough that she is a saint and didn’t hold it against me when it came to you.”
An admission without an actual admission.
I hoped it would be enough for now.
“So you still love mom?” he asked innocently.
I hadn’t given it much thought. In fact, I was pretty sure I avoided thinking about it all once she packed her things and took off with my son and my heart in tow. But now that I was forced to think about it – forced to face the fact that she had already promised her future to another man – I could finally admit to myself at least that yes, I did.
To my son, however, I only shrugged my shoulders in response. I didn’t think it would be fair to Sookie – and Hunter’s relationship with Sam by default – to admit I still loved her. No matter how I felt about her, the fact was Sookie was already in a committed relationship. I wasn’t going to do anything to sabotage her finding her own happiness. Even if that meant she’d be finding it with another man. And I didn’t want him getting his hopes up thinking anything I felt for his mother would change her feelings towards me.
Whatever it was she felt for me. It wasn’t like I had a clue.
But seeing his eyes light up with my silent almost-admission, I kicked myself again and quickly cursed eight year olds and their abilities to read in between shrugged lines, adding, “Whatever I feel for your mom doesn’t matter because it doesn’t mean your mom feels the same way.” And forcing myself to admit another truth both of us needed to hear, I added, “She loves Sam now and they’re getting married.”
His face fell, just like my heart, and I walked over and threw my arm over his shoulder – which was way too high in my opinion – before saying, “You like Sam, don’t you? He’s good to mom? Makes her happy?”
He shrugged just like his old man and mumbled, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“So,” I picked up where his statement had left off, “that’s all that matters. And I think it’s a good idea if we kept this little chat just between you and me.”
The last thing I wanted was for Sookie to get upset, thinking I was trying to turn Hunter against Sam. While I may have wanted him out of her life, that didn’t mean I would want Hunter to feel the same way. It wasn’t fair to any of them.
I’d made my bed and now I had to lie in it.
“Now what do you say we get some practice in? We only have a few hours of daylight left and we need to get your Northman baseball genes to show themselves, okay?”
And because kids are kids and can easily slough off disappointment when offered something more fun to do, Hunter shrugged and said, “Okay.”
And he did more than okay. He was spectacular. My boy had an arm on him that would make any little league coach salivate and since he’d never swung a bat before, I didn’t have to break him of any bad habits. I showed him how to plant his feet and turn his hips with his swing, using the strength in his legs and following through with his arms. And before you could say, ‘All-Star’, I was already planting imaginary stakes in my backyard where the batting cage would be going.
We were exhausted by the end of the night. We stunk to high heavens. We were sweaty and dirty and filled with greasy burgers and fries, having washed them down with milkshakes, by the time we fell asleep propped up against one another on the couch that night.
It was inarguably one of the greatest nights I’d had in a very long while.