Chase had an eight beer hangover the next morning, but he felt awful for a different reason. Once he’d stumbled home from Dawson’s, he’d collapsed on his bed and spent the night picturing Hank and Kevin together. It had been a non-stop hell-ride, whether dreaming or awake. Looking at the bedside clock, he was tempted to call in sick to Allan.
That’s what the old Chase might have done, but this new one was determined not to spend another day immersed in self-pity. For all he knew, they’d been fucking for weeks, and he had to accept it. Hank found someone he thought was better for him.
Sighing, he rolled over. For the umpteenth time, he replayed yesterday’s conversation, and pictured the ugly emotions on his ex’s face. They were never going to be friends, and it was pretty clear they could not be together in a group again. It was a good thing he had Dawson, because his social circle was forever gone. None of them were calling him except for Stacy and, through her, Don. Those two had ended up Switzerland, but that did him no good where the others were concerned.
No matter how they felt or what they really thought, he wasn’t invited to any of their regular gatherings. Yeah… so fucking be it. Getting up, he headed for the shower, scoffing mentally at the ridiculous hope he’d once held that Hank would call him some day, saying he’d reconsidered. Never gonna happen.
Work was hectic, but he still managed to find time to go to the bathroom and cry in the late afternoon. A couple of minutes of gulping down sobs and he was done. Right now, his life sucked. The real end had finally come. To the victor goes the spoils, and Kevin was definitely the victor. He hated him now, but he wasn’t blaming him. Chase had handed him the perfect partner on a platinum platter.
At quitting time, Dawson, who’d proven his worth and been given a steady position in a different department on a different floor, stopped by to see if they were still on for a bike ride, and later, pizza.
Chase was mulling it over when Dawson spoke. “Don’t worry about it, buddy. You look done in—we can bike another time. We haven’t missed a day in weeks… well… except for yesterday.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Hell, no. I feel like vegging out anyway. Still want to do pizza?”
“I don’t think I’m going to be good company.”
“Hey, you said that the first time I asked you to dinner.”
“I did? Sorry, but I really just want to go home and crash.”
“Are you hungover?”
“I was, but no, not anymore. It’s just… Hank… he should have let me have Rex and not said anything. He was way too eager to tell me… or maybe I just asked for it with my fucking attitude.”
Dawson gave him a sympathetic look. “Look, don’t drive yourself crazy. I didn’t want to say anything, but I wondered myself why he did that. It was either cruel, or he wanted to see your reaction.”
Chase lifted his head off his hands. “He’s not cruel, at least, he never used to be. I pushed him… I wanted that confrontation. Backfired, though… big time.”
“I still think it means something that you can push his buttons, but I know it doesn’t help at the moment. Sounds like you caught him off guard, though. You realize you always stick up for him?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. I remember how he used to be, and I guess I still feel guilty. I don’t know… I know we’re over, but….”
“You don’t have to say anymore. I totally get it.”
“We’re a couple of idiots, aren’t we?” He forced a smile onto his face.
“I prefer to think of us as a couple of tragic, romantic head-cases.”
“Get out of here,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Okay… not too early, though. The pizza guy might turn out to be my Prince Charming, come to sweep me off my feet after he feeds me.”
Chase snorted. “The last guy was wearing an apron and a hairnet and smelled like garlic, so good luck with that.”
“Oh, ye of little faith. I happen to like a man in an apron,” he said with a wink. “Okay, I’m off. Call me as soon as you get up. Or tonight if you need to talk.”
“Will do, but I’m hoping I fall asleep early.”
“Well, a little beauty sleep wouldn’t hurt you none,” he teased. “But seriously, I’m right across the street if you need me.”
Chase smiled as he watched him leave. Yeah, thank God he had Dawson.
It’d been another ordeal of an evening, but his brain had finally stopped circling, so he did manage to drift off before midnight. Waking suddenly, he squinted at the blinding red numbers on the bedside clock. Five thirty-five. A thump from the living room had him sitting up in a hurry. He had to think for a second before he realized Rex wasn’t in the condo. His ears strained, but he couldn’t hear anything other than the bathroom fan. Why was it on?
Rising quickly, he went to his door and opened it. A light was on in the living room, and the sudden flush of the toilet had the hair standing up on the back of his neck. The only other person with a key was Cindy… besides his dad. His dad? Looking further up the hallway, he saw two large rolling suitcases just inside the entrance door. Instantly, he relaxed.
The expression on his father’s face was comical when he came out into the hallway and saw Chase.
“Dad? What the heck?”
“Chase… sorry I woke you but my back teeth were floating. I almost didn’t make it.”
Chase smiled as he walked towards him. “That’s okay. It’s so good to see you, but why”—he gave his father a welcoming hug which was returned tightly—“are you home already? I thought you’d be gone for at least a few more weeks… you said you were having a great time.”
“I was, but I wanted to see my kids.” He pulled back and peered intently at Chase. “You look good. A little tired, but none the worse for wear.”
“So do you. You look great… healthy and tanned… and younger.”
His father gave his shoulder a gentle push and laughed. “When you used to compliment me like that you usually wanted something.”
Chase returned the laugh. “And it always worked.”
“Must admit, it did. Both you and Cindy could work me so easily. So, how are you, really?”
Chase took in the sudden seriousness. “Well… that’s a question that’s hard to answer right now, but—”
“You’re still in a bad way?”
He was tempted to downplay what he was feeling—his dad had just gotten home, but he could see the difference in the man already. He looked much better, healthier and less troubled than he had before he left, and Chase was the one who’d made the plea for honesty within their family. “Truth is… yes, I am. It’s been tough, but… I’m really glad you’re back. It’s been lonely with just me here.”
His father nodded knowingly. “It’s nice to be back. And I’m glad you’ve made this place your home too. It’s what made me look forward to returning. It doesn’t seem so bad here anymore.”
“It’s a nice condo, Dad, and it’s pretty much in the same area as the old house.”
“I bought it because I had to live somewhere, and it was close enough to you and Cindy… speaking of which, I guess it’s too early to call her?”
“Ha,” he answered with a snort. “It is early, but do you want to face her if we don’t call her right away?”
“You have a point. She’s a lot like Christine.”
“More and more every day.” Chase smiled, mostly because his father didn’t look hurt when he mentioned his wife.
“Let’s go sit, and I’ll call her. Man, that’s a long ride from the airport when you have to pee the whole time.”
Chase chuckled. “Starting to have troubles, old man?”
“God, I hope not.”
“Well, you are getting up there.”
“Don’t remind me… and you shouldn’t push your luck,” he warned with a grin.
“And you should have called me. I’d have picked you up and even stopped to let you pee.”
His father laughed at the teasing. “I know you would have, but I wanted to surprise you both.”
“Well, mission accomplished. You’re lucky I didn’t hit you with a frying pan.”
Still laughing, his father walked out into the living room, lit only by the entrance light he’d flicked on, but dawn wasn’t far off. Chase followed, thinking just how much he’d needed his father back.
“Oh, sweet mother,” his father uttered. He was standing facing the family painting Chase had placed over the sofa. “I was in such a rush I didn’t see this.”
Chase swallowed down a lump as his father looked at him with instantly wet eyes. “Is it okay? Do you like it there?”
Returning his gaze to the painting, he answered. “I do. I really do. I’d completely forgot about this one. That was a happy time, wasn’t it?”
Chase watched him swipe at his eyes. “It was… and we had a lot of them, Dad.”
“Yes we did, and I can think of them again without feeling the loss of your mom.”
“You can? Really? Because I can too.”
His father nodded. Then he smiled. “I really can. I won’t lie… I still have my moments, but….”
“I think that’s okay—I have those as well, but it’s getting better.” He put his arm over his father’s slightly lower shoulders, and they both stared at their family, captured so beautifully by Christine Leeman.
Chase was surprised when his father, upon finishing the breakfast Cindy had set on her sunny dining room table, proclaimed he wanted to bike ride by their old house. It came completely out of the blue, considering they hadn’t had a family ride in years, and Chase choked on his toast while Cindy spilt some of her tea on the tablecloth. They gave each other a look before staring at the man in disbelief.
“What? You guys don’t want to?”
“No, it’s not that,” Chase answered quickly.
“Well okay then… let’s do it. You still have my bike, Cindy?”
“Ah, yeah, I do. It’s out in the garage with mine. Marshall’s used it a few times lately, so it’s in good working order.”
“Marshall? Is he back?” Chase asked.
Cindy’s eyes grew noticeably wider for a second. “Yeah, he moved back from Calgary a month ago. Didn’t I mention that?”
“No, you didn’t. How’s he doing?”
“Good. And before you ask your next question, no, we aren’t back together, but we still get along really well.”
“Cool. I like him.”
“So do I,” their dad said. “So… who’s in?”
“You’re really serious? Aren’t you tired… or jet lagged? We just finished eating—don’t you need a nap, old man?”
“No, smartass, I don’t need a nap, and I’m not jet lagged. I slept most of the flight.”
“Well, in that case, I’m in. Don’t worry, I’ll go slow for you.” Chase picked up his phone to text Dawson about their plans, deciding against including him in this family reunion.
“Well, I’m not letting you guys go without me, and stop picking on Dad. Who are you texting?”
“Thank you, Cindy… you’re still my favorite child.”
Chase chuckled. This bantering was how it used to be. “Fine by me. She can look after you when you start drooling.”
“You’re terrible,” Cindy answered, but a snicker followed. “So, what’s with the secret text?”
“No secret. Just Dawson.”
“Dawson?” his father asked. “Something I should know?”
“No, it’s not like that. He’s my Marshall, I guess. He’s become my best friend.”
Cindy looked like she was going to say something, but ended up pursing her lips instead.
“It’s always good to have a best friend,” his father said before mock scowling at him. “And for your information, I don’t need you to go slow. I did so much biking and walking on my trip that you’ll have trouble keeping up with me.” He followed up with a cheeky and challenging expression Chase hadn’t seen in years.
“Okay, it’s on, old man. I got to admit you look pretty good for fifty.”
“Hey! I’m only forty-seven.”
“Same thing.” He winked at his sister, and she giggled. “Think you can pedal to the condo so I can pick up my bike, or have you changed your mind about that nap?”
“Come on, Cindy. Let’s show Chase what we’re made of.”
Cindy shook her head at the two grinning men. “Boys! Some things never change.”
But they had, Chase thought. It felt like their family was finally back.
“I never should have sold this place.”
Chase was on his father’s right side, with his feet planted on the pavement. “Do you mean that? I know you said it in your email, but… it’s a really big house.”
Swinging his leg over his bike and putting the kick stand on, his father answered. “I do mean it. I was too emotional to make such a decision. This was our home, with so many good memories. I made a huge mistake.”
Cindy got off her bike and joined her father on the grassy area directly across from their former home. It was a peaceful neighborhood, with houses only on the one side because of a ravine and creek on the other. “I was worried about that, and I tried to convince you to wait for—”
“I know you did. I didn’t want to listen, and I didn’t want to be in there for even a minute more than I had to. Christine was everywhere, but that should have been a good thing. Maybe if it hadn’t sold so quickly….”
“I should have fought you harder, but I thought it was what you needed. When the agent presented that offer in her office, I left because I was panicking. I should have stayed and been a sounding board—I should have tried to talk you out of it.”
“So you didn’t want it sold either?”
She shook her head, and Chase saw tears before he copied her head shake at the inquisitive look his father gave him.
“I should have listened better,” he muttered softly. “I don’t remember much about that day… the whole week was a blur.”
The other two were staring at the home with the four pretty gables, but Chase’s gaze was on them. “What’s going on here, guys?”
“What do you mean?” Charles Leeman asked, meeting his gaze.
“There are way too many shoulds and shouldnts being thrown around. I thought we were coming by to see the old house because we wanted to talk about the good times, yet all I’m hearing are regrets.”
“This is the first time I’m seeing it since it sold, and it’s hard.”
“I know, Cind, but what’s done is done. I’ve been stuck in the past for too long, and I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s cost me too much.” He laid his bike on the grass and flopped down beside it. “Can we not do this? We’ve grieved for Mom… do we have to grieve for the house too?”
“Sorry,” they both said at once.
“No, don’t be sorry… that’s my whole point. Cindy, what was one of your favorite memories of the house?”
“Oh, ah… I don’t know… what is one of yours?”
“What fort,” his father asked.
“The one I built under your work bench in the garage when I was still small enough to fit under there.” He smiled at his dad and sister. “I stacked boxes and stuff and had windows and a door… I had a flashlight and my Gameboy—”
“And food. You had a stack of cookies… you even had cans of vegetables and soup.” Cindy laughed.
“And I found you out when I went looking for my pry bar,” his dad said, joining in with a grin.
“That was my spear against ferocious animals like Cindy.”
“Hey, I thought I was your protector.”
“Only outside the fort.” He chuckled softly. “You know, I had that fort for a long time before anyone caught on.”
“Your mother knew the whole time.”
“Yeah, she told me she was keeping an eye on you after I found your hiding spot. She said not to move a thing… that kids needed their own secret places, and how you’d showed a lot on ingenuity with your construction.”
“Well I’ll be damned. I had no clue, but in hindsight, she sure opened the door to the garage a lot… she was checking on me.”
“Of course she was,” Cindy said, and there was silence for a few minutes. “I remember something now that was pretty special. My grade eight graduation—I came home from getting my hair done for the first time, and I hated it.”
“Oh, I remember that. My little girl was so upset.”
“It was so tight it hurt, and I looked like Grandma, Dad.”
“You did, kind of,” he agreed with a grin.
“Yeah, but Mom just took out all the pins and redid it. It was perfect. She always did my hair perfect.” Her eyes were glistening again, but she was smiling, and Chase understood that bittersweet feeling.
“What about you, Dad?”
His dad looked like he was somewhere else, but he looked happy. Chase’s question brought him back from wherever that was. “Oh, damn. That’s tough… so many. I remember when we brought each of you home. Oh, and I remember when I had to scramble to repaint the nursery for you, Chase. They told us you were going to be a girl… guess you were hiding your little pee-pee.”
Chase rolled his eyes and they all laughed. This was a story told many times over the years.
“Whatever,” Chase responded.
“What else, Dad?” Cindy asked.
“Every day was worth remembering. All of them involve you guys and your mom. Except, there was the weekend we sent you guys off to your grandparents so we could celebrate our ninth anniversary. It was one of the best times we’d ever had where it didn’t involve being parents. Just me and your mom and—”
“Whoa, whoa… keep those things to yourself, would ya?” Chase exclaimed. “Jeez, do you want to scar us for life?”
Cindy giggled. “Yeah, we saw enough of that stuff.”
“Ha ha, very funny. I was just going to tell you we went to “Canada’s Wonderland” on that Saturday.”
“Without us?” Cindy asked. “How could you?!”
Their father grinned smugly. “Yup, we felt guilty as hell, and it was great. We were like kids again—we didn’t have to watch you two little monkeys the whole time, and could go on rides like the Minebuster instead of the Ghostercoaster.”
Chase looked at his sister. “Can you believe this? Our own parents.”
Cindy giggled again.
“That’s not the end of it, either,” their father said slyly. “Christine made us banana splits when we got home, and we cuddled on the couch and watched an old tearjerker movie called “Back Street,” starring Susan Hayward, without a single interruption from little people. It was a weekend I’ll never forget—it was like when we were dating.”
“Oh, it sounds wonderful,” Cindy said softly.
Chase couldn’t look at either of them because now his eyes were watering. “Yeah, it does,” he agreed. As pleased as he was to hear happy family memories, his dad’s had reminded him of wonderful ‘old’ movie nights with Hank, something they did each week, and he had to pretend the semi-sealed rips to his heart hadn’t just reopened.
Thanks to Timothy, my wonderful editor, and thank you to all the dedicated readers who share their thoughts and make this experience so fulfilling. Cheers!