“Gam!” I blurted as Michelle and I looked over at Matthew, who was so enthralled with his Lego garbage truck that he didn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, please.” She waved toward him. “Swearing never hurt anyone. I swore around you as a kid, and you turned out just fine.”
“I don’t know that I’d say that,” Michelle mumbled under her breath playfully.
“I’m serious, though. Fuck them.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Did you know I was engaged when I met your papa?”
“Wait. What?” I was confused. That crazy woman could switch topics faster than a preschooler.
“When I met your papa… I was already engaged. Did you know that?” she repeated.
“No, I had no clue.”
“Yep.” She nodded. “To Johnny from Mississippi. He was a sailor. Boy did I have a thing for a man in a uniform. Still do.” She wiggled her eyebrows up and down.
“Gross.” I closed my eyes and shook the thought from my head.
“Anyway, back in my day, people didn’t do that. Once you were engaged, you were engaged, but I couldn’t help it. I’d fallen in love with your papa. So I broke off my engagement with Johnny and married your papa immediately,” she said with a confident nod. “And if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here. But that’s not my point. My point is that sometimes just because something isn’t necessarily the right thing to do or the socially acceptable thing to do, that shouldn’t stop you.”
Damn, I love this woman.
“You come from a long line of rebels, rule breakers, and envelope pushers, Lawrence. You’ve never been one to color inside the lines, and I would expect nothing less of you as a grown man. If those people out there in computer land don’t like what you two are doing, who gives a shit? You love her and she loves you. That’s the only thing that matters when you put your head on your pillow every night.”
Michelle turned her head toward me, pinching her lips together as her eyes turned watery.
“You’re such a softie.” I grinned, shoulder bumping her.
“Okay, enough of that nice shit.” Gam stretched her neck to look through the sliding doors that led to her back deck and stood up. “Come on, Matthew. I want to show you my birdhouses out back.”
Matthew jumped up excitedly and took her hand as they walked toward the kitchen.
“I thought they were going out back,” Michelle whispered as she leaned in close.
Just then I heard pieces of ice drop from the freezer into a cup, and I couldn’t stop myself from lowering my head and laughing.
“All right, now we can go. Do you like squirrels?” she asked Matthew as they went out on the deck, carrying the cup of ice.
OUR SEASON WAS over. We didn’t make the playoffs—again. Losing was frustrating, but at least I had a great little crew to hang out with every night to soften the blow. Before summer officially started and everyone went their separate ways for a few months, Michelle and I decided to have a cookout at her house. Sort of as a thank you to everyone for their support throughout the last year.
We’d been in full-on house prep mode all week: deep cleaning, dusting, raking the yard—all the not fun stuff.
“How’s it going down there?” I looked over at Matthew, who was supposed to be helping me pull weeds but ditched me to collect earthworms in his bucket instead.
“Fine,” he answered flatly as he concentrated on what he was doing.
“What are you doing?”
“I cut a worm in half. Both of his pieces are still moving.” He turned toward me with a devilish grin on his face. “It’s so cool. His guts are out!”
I was both worried and proud at the same time.
“Hey, you hungry?”
Still staring down at his mutilated new friend, he nodded.
“Let’s take a break and see if Mom has any ideas for lunch.” I stood and walked up behind him. “Then you should probably have a bath, huh? You have dirt in places I didn’t know existed.”
Matthew rose to his feet and walked with me to the house, hand in hand, of course. I’d become used to the fact that if I was walking anywhere with Matthew, even someplace close like from the backyard to the house, he would be by my side and holding my hand. I wasn’t just used to it, I looked forward to it.
I opened the sliding door and he ran in, heading straight for his playroom.
“Freeze!” I called as he was halfway down the hall. He spun around to face me and I pointed toward the other side of the hallway. “You. Bathroom. Hands. Worm guts.”
Michelle was standing in the living room with her hands on her hips and her face crinkled up. “Do I even want to know?”
“Probably not.” I shook my head as I washed my hands in the sink. “But if he ever asks for a dog, say no.”
I heard her scoff behind me.
Drying my hands on a dish towel, I walked up next to her and looked down at the cardboard box she’d taped together. I motioned toward it. “What’s that for?”
She turned and faced the wedding pictures of her and Mike that hung on the wall. “For these. It’s time.”
I put my hand on her shoulder, turning her toward me slightly. “You know I’m not asking you to take those down. You don’t have to do that for me.”
“I know you aren’t.” She nodded as she stared at the wall, deep in thought. “But it’s been a year. I think I’m ready.”
“Okay.” This was the part I hated as a guy. Was I supposed to take them down for her? Hold the box? Hug her? Walk away? “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, but thank you.” She gave me a tight smile and then turned back toward the wall, taking a deep breath. “Okay. Here goes nothing.” Her hands shook as she wrapped them around the black frame and gently lifted it off of the wall, setting it in the box.
I eyed her cautiously. “You okay?”
She swallowed. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.” She took the other three wedding pictures down and put those in the box too.
“What are you guys doing?” Matthew asked from behind us.
We both spun around. He was scratching the side of his face as he frowned at us.
“Hey, honey.” Michelle squatted down in front of him. “I’m just taking some pictures down so we can put some new ones up.”
“Oh.” His voice trailed off like he was confused. “So is my dad not my dad anymore? Is Viper my new dad?”
A soft gasp escaped Michelle’s lips as she shook her head. “No, baby. He’s still your dad.”
“Come over here, my man.” I held my hand out to Matthew and we walked over to the couch together, where I scooped him up and plopped him on my knee. He chewed on his lip and wrung his hands together as he stared up at me with his big eyes. “I need you to listen to me, okay?”
His eyes grew wide and he nodded.
I bent down so that my eyes were level with his. “Your dad will always be your dad, no matter what, okay? I will never, ever, ever try to take his place. I loved him, and I know he loved you more than anything in the world, so I promised to help take care of you and protect you, but I will never try to be him.”
Matthew nodded again. I wasn’t sure how much of what I’d just said sank into his four-year-old brain, but I’d repeat that speech over and over for years to come if need be.