As usual, Jack O'Brien's car was backed up to the rear entrance, he being the owner. The white van backed up against the fence, though, was not a common sight, nor was the way it was bouncing up and down, up and down, like someone was standing on the bumper testing its suspension. While no one was visible, logic would tell you it wasn't moving on it's own. Someone inside was expending a lot of energy.
On some days, there would've been another vehicle parked in the lot, Sam's blue and chrome F150. He often stopped off during his lunch break for a few minutes practice. But, today, he was parked at a distance, two vacant lots away, on a little used side street, his binoculars focused on the bouncing white van.
Damn, he thought.
Melissa had texted him, saying “Chuck thinks it's time for another lesson.” Obviously, she was learning a lot today, or vice-versa.
It was Friday, so she was probably expecting him to pick up some fried chicken, mashed potatoes and biscuits from KFC for dinner and to be home waiting like a faithful puppy whenever she came wandering home. Not today, sweetheart!
He adjusted his binoculars bringing Chuck's van into sharper focus. The way it was bouncing around you might've thought it was speeding down a line of railroad ties. But, it wasn't. It was just sitting there, going nowhere.
Inside, stressing the van's suspension system, was Melissa, his soon to be ex-girlfriend, and Chuck Reynolds, his soon to be ex-pool team captain.
Damn them both.
Of course, being honest, he had to admit this was partly his fault. She usually toured the local bars when he was out playing in the league, but, for some reason, one night, she didn't feel like doing that and begged Sam to taker her along to the poolroom.
If only she had introduced herself, as he often did, as the woman who was living with him along with her son, to which she liked to remark that he liked the boy better than her, which was true, though not in the sick way she liked to put it.
Looking back, he figured it most likely had something to do with the many beautiful women of all ages they encountered as they snaked their way through the raucous crowd on their way to the bar, more than a few of whom greeted Sam with a hug or a kiss or both, one pinching his cheeks and declaring, “I love your face,” that prompted her to step up and declare, “Hi, I'm his girlfriend, Melissa.” If only she hadn't done that, Chuck, at this minute, would have been banging with total abandon the woman who lives with Sam, and not his girlfriend.
When they had returned from the pool room that first night, Melissa had slipped into his room, probably intending to knock all thoughts of those hot poolroom chicks out of his mind, wearing a sheer blue nightie and purring demurely. He probably should have chased her out, but she would have exploded into one of her rages and he didn't think he could handle that at one in the morning. When he left for work, next morning, she was still asleep in his bed.
Unfortunately, her undying devotion didn't last long. Three days later Sam came home early and bumped into one of her “old friends” flying out the front door toward his car, his shirt half-on – the off half flapping behind him like laundry on a clothesline – one hand carrying his phone and the other holding up his pants which were unbuttoned, unbuckled and only zipped half-way up. Everything was back to normal.
Her initial eagerness to join him on league night, Sam now realized, had nothing to do with watching him play and was more about sitting on the rail next to Chuck listening to his long line of shit. When Chuck, as part of his sleazy scheme, had suggested that Melissa join the team saying they could always use someone of her skill level, Sam had stupidly agreed.
Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy.
He chided himself as tears streamed down his face, not because she had betrayed him – that was nothing new – but for the plain fact that by playing Humpty Dumpty with the captain of his pool team she had made it necessary for him to quit. She just as well could have cut out his nuts and wore them around her neck.
Sam, sniffling, not brokenhearted but extremely downhearted and angry, fired off a text telling Melissa he was going to pick up Liam after school and take him to the park He added a smiley face, for effect. She wouldn't be rushing home, now, and that would give him plenty of time to pick up new locks and pack up her stuff. It went without saying that the boy would be staying with him.
Tuesday night heralded in a new era, meaning he would be playing on a new team, in a new league, in a different county. He was not about to let that despicable, conniving ho rob him of his favorite pastime. He had messaged Glenn Johnston, a facebook acquaintance and league operator for Pequot County, who had replied within minutes that his team could really use a 7 since their best shooter had recently moved back to Indiana. Sam, impressed by the speed with which Glenn had accessed his APA stats, replied with his usual admonishment, “Just because I'm a 7 up here, doesn't mean I'll be a 7 down there.” Glenn replied, “You're close enough,” followed by a super-sized thumbs up sticker.
He gave himself plenty of time to travel the twenty miles down Highway 19 to Stroker's. With a hundred traffic lights and the usual number of confused and overly cautious old drivers, he figured it was the worst twenty mile drive in the country. When he had lived in Montana, on the outskirts of Kalispell, he'd been able to drive the twenty miles into town in about ten minutes. This drive to Palm Bay had once taken him two hours. So, to avoid being late, he gave himself plenty of time. First, he had to drop Liam off at his sister's house. Annie liked Liam and he got along well with her ten year old, Cole. Despite his ill-feelings toward Melissa, he was determined not to let anything disturb his relationship with the boy. For most of his life, Melissa had dragged the poor kid along on her sordid adventures in bars, motels, seedy apartments, alleys and abandoned cars. Sam shuddered to think of what the boy must have witnessed first hand.
Of course, you couldn't survive a life like that without scars. When he first moved in with Sam, Liam hardly spoke. He would retreat to his room with his cherished possessions – three old Marvel Comic books and two battered action figures – and amuse himself for hours with fantasy battles, enhanced by a host of sputtering sound effects. If Sam looked in on him, he would stop abruptly and curl up into a ball. One day, after picking him up at school, Sam, instead of going straight home, took Liam to the mall. At the comic shop, they added to Liam's arsenal three new action figures and to his library with a handful of new comic books. After that, the boy allowed him to participate in his games and they read together almost every night. Thus, he gained the boy's trust. The closeness that developed wasn't something he had expected, but he treasured it, now, and refused to give it up. The way Sam saw it, the boy needed him and he needed the boy. No way was he was going to let Melissa open those old wounds by dragging him through the brambles of her unstable world. He told her Liam could stay with him until she got settled and she raised no objections.
Predictably, when it became apparent that staying with Chuck and his wife, Rita, was not an option, Melissa, by necessity, grew extremely remorseful. Her fling with Chuck had been “a big mistake,” she claimed, with a tearful emoji, begging Sam to please, please, please take her back. “Sorry,” he texted her, “not now, not ever.”
Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy.
It had been a while since he'd visited the Palm Bay poolroom and, when he walked through the door, it took him a while to get his bearings. Glenn must have been watching for him because he began frantically waving both hands over his head and motioning for Sam to come over. He navigated across the room to a table Glenn and a couple of his new teammates had staked out for their free pre-league practice. After a sincerely warm greeting, he directed Sam to a table in the bar area that looked down on the pool table and told him to take a seat there. Because he was driving, Sam declined Glenn's offer of a beer, got himself a water with lemon from the bar, and settled in.
He quickly recognized his new teammates as free-time gluttons. A common breed – he'd witnessed this annoying defect in many players over the years. Whenever a table opened up, they'd pounce on it so they could gobble up that free practice time. Not surprisingly, never once during the forty-five minutes he sat there did they ask if he wanted to play a warm up game. Nice way to welcome a new teammate, especially one who wasn't used to the tables.
Glenn won the flip and immediately put up Ernie, one of the gluttons. Ernie played bad. He made a couple shots but inevitably took the balls in the wrong order and didn't put up much of a fight. He lost his match without winning a single game. The opposing captain, apparently set on going up two-zip, then put himself up. He must have been the best on his team because Glenn enthusiastically countered with Sam, the new guy.
Sam won the lag and the first game with a break and run. Normally, when he had been playing with Chuck, the team would've come together for high-fives and fist bumps and a little jubilation, even if they hadn't been paying attention, but there was no celebrating with these guys. He sensed from their scowls that they weren't too happy he played well, like they might have to sit out more now that he was on the team. Nits.
He won four more games against the guy, Roger, including two break and runs and one 8 on the break. If only he'd had a chance to warm up. He watched the beginning of the next match, a race to three, but when the first game seemed to go on forever, he grabbed his case and whispered to Glenn, “I gotta boogie.” Glenn thanked him for coming, adding a “see ya next week.” Sam made it a point not to respond – he would not be coming back.
Driving home, he thought it might be time to give up pool leagues altogether. When he had moved down south ten years ago, he had discovered his father was a fixture in the local bar pool scene, attending local bar tournaments and playing in their leagues. The old man had never been a very good player or even fair, but ,when he had moved to Florida, he had discovered that he could hold his own with the local barroom players. And, pool gave him something to do besides sitting at home listening to talk radio day after day and getting drunk.
Up north, Sam had played a lot of pool as a boy, but mostly for money. Pool as an excuse for socializing was new to him. But, he had promised his mother before her death that he would keep his eye on the old dog. So, reluctantly, he began touring the bars with him.
As he cruised north, he couldn't help shaking his head as he recalled his mother's patented lament, “He's a good provider, Sammy.” That was partly true, but he was also a drunk, and a mean drunk at that, who thought nothing of beating the crap out of his wife and throwing her down the cellar stairs and terrorizing the helpless kids he was providing for. By the time he joined his father in Florida, the old man had mellowed and was far less inclined to express himself with his fists, though he did wack a guy in the head with his cue one night for bumping him while he was over the table trying to shoot.
A promise was a promise, so, for his mother, he had faithfully accompanied his father on the barroom circuit for a few years until the smoking and drinking finally caught up to him. Even after he died, Sam kept going 'round to the bars, keeping in touch with his new found friends, partly for the old man's sake and partly for his own. Though the old man hadn't given him much during his lifetime, he was grateful for these friends – they were good people.
Over time, though, bar pool with it's ridiculous rules became more and more of a drag. One rule, the no safety rule, was particularly annoying. A safety is a defensive shot designed to leave your opponent with no chance of making a ball. Even though he had grown up playing straight pool, a game that required safety play, he had tolerated this rule because everyone else seemed to respect it. But, over the years, more and more players relocating from up north, looking for some easy prey, had slithered into the bar scene. They played safe without shame. Oh, they'd twist their faces into looks of sincere apology as if locking you up had been simply an unfortunate accident, but they weren't fooling anybody. When he realized the cheaters had managed to squeeze every last drop of pleasure out of the game, he quit playing bar pool once and for all.
Oh, he still played pool, mind you. On most days, he'd visit the poolroom on his lunch break and bang them around for a half hour or so. And, on Tuesday nights, if he had nothing to do he'd play in the weekly 8-ball tournament. On one Tuesday night, he trounced a guy named Chuck, who immediately asked him to join his team. “A bunch of good guys and gals,” Chuck had said of his teammates. So, like that, he was a member of the APA , a league, he was soon to discover, whose players were obsessed with qualifying for a trip to Vegas where the national championships were held every year.
At first, Sam was the fair-haired boy beating everyone he played for the first ten weeks. Then, one week, Chuck told him it might be a good idea if he lost a match, here and there. Well, Sam wasn't built that way, so he continued to play all out destroying everyone in his path for another ten weeks. He wondered, now, if Chuck's lusty shagging of Melissa was his idea of payback.
Any worries he might have had that his life would be empty, now, without pool, dissipated within a few weeks and he was soon to discover that he didn't miss it at all.
He stopped at Annie's, carried the sleeping lad out to the car, strapped him in and drove home.
With Liam in bed, he plopped himself on the sofa and turned on the TV. Some nights, he'd tune in to YouTube and watch some classic pool matches, but tonight that held no appeal. Instead, he settled on an old Bill Murray movie with Melissa McCarthy. He lasted a quarter of an hour, then fell asleep.
“Dad... Dad...” He'd been submerged in a dream, not bad or good, in which he and a couple friends whose identities he forgot immediately upon waking, had been searching for a place to plug in a pinball machine. Details of that quest dissolved and were overcome by the sensation of someone jostling him by the shoulder, trying to wake him. Gradually, as he emerged from the fog, he detected a familiar voice. It was Liam's. Sam opened his eyes, stretched and yawned and took a moment to clear his head. “Huh?”
“Dad,” said the boy more emphatically.
Without thinking, he said, “You realize, don't you Liam, (yawn) that I'm not your dad and probably never will be.” He thought it best to be straight with the kid but when Liam's face took on the look of one whose most precious dream had been stomped on by The Hulk, and tears began to streak his face, he realized that he had been a little too quick. Sitting up, he put his arm around the boy and pulled him close. “That's not to say that I don't wish I was your dad. I would be the luckiest guy on earth if I was. Believe me. So, if you want to call me that, that's good. I like it. Just, let's not tell your mom. She's probably out there shopping for a new dad even as we speak. Okay?”
“Okay,” he said. “Dad?”
“Can I have some lunch money?”
Sam jumped off of the sofa and started growling and walking like one of those stiff-legged monsters that peopled Liam's fantasy battles. The boy screeched and tried to get away.
“WHAT'S MY SUPER POWER?”
“I don't know,” squealed Liam as he ducked behind the brown recliner. He took off again as Sam approached, flexing his fingers.
“THE DEATH GRIP! (Growl)”
Later, scrutinizing Liam from across the table, Sam asked, “That's a different shirt you have on?”
“It's one of Cole's. Aunt Annie gave it to me last night after my bath. She said it wouldn't do to put on the same dirty clothes when I was all cleaned up.”
“She said I should call her that.”
“Cool. Maybe, I'll call her that, too,” he chuckled. “Now, finish your pancakes. Don't want to be late.”
Sam guessed Annie had realized Melissa was long gone right from the start. No calls, no texts for two weeks.
He suddenly knew the huge commitment it was to have kids – they leaked into every aspect of your life. In short order, not only had he given up pool but he had stopped making those occasional after work stops at the pub, too – there just wasn't time. Besides, though she was perfectly willing to watch the lad, he wanted to save his sister for emergency situations.
After school, he took Liam to a quiet section of the park. One trip to the batting cages had proven that the lad needed some work on the fundamentals. He had been going on and on about the start of the little league season, so Sam had taken for granted that he had some skills. But, he didn't. He couldn't hit a beach ball with a paddle, and, though he had a decent arm, his fielding was pretty feeble, too. If he had been teaching him how to play pool, he would've started with the basics, so, he decided the same approach would work for baseball.
When he had suggested they work with a tee, Liam had balked claiming the kids would make fun of him and call him a baby. What shits kids could be. Anyway, in this corner of the park, no one would see them.
After a half hour, Liam had stopped squinting and flinching and swinging blindly. Sam thought that was good progress and he told him so.
“Thanks, Dad,” he replied.
He'd been called worse.
They played catch for a while, then he got a text from his sister inviting them over for a backyard barbecue.
“Annie's having a barbecue. Wanna go?”
Liam's face lit up. “Yes,” he said.
“And pass up the boxed mac and cheese?”
Sam chuckled. “Then, let's go.”
After almost decapitating Annie with an errant Frisbee throw, Liam started sulking and refused to play anymore.
“Come 'ere,” said Sam. “Lemme show you.”
After a few minutes of flinging backhand, finishing with his index finger pointing at his target, the boy started to get the hang of it.
“Way to go, buddy. You got it.” They high-fived.
Back on the lawn chair, sitting beside Annie, sipping a diet sprite, he watched the kids play.
“You're good with him,” said Annie.
Sam scoffed. “He's a good kid.”
“Have you heard from her?”
“Not a word.”
“What about her family?” she asked.
“They hate him, want nothing to do with him.”
Annie sighs. “That sucks.”
Liam unleashed the Frisbee and it flew over Cole's head.
“Hey, Dad,” he shouted excitedly. “Did you see that?”
“Way to go!”
“So,” said Annie.
Sam shrugged. “I don't know.”
“What do you want?”
“What's he doing here?” Mr. Pritchard scowled, his eyes on Sam's truck and Liam.
“He's with me. I just wanted to tell you that – Melissa took off again and Liam's with me.”
“I don't care. Understand? I don't give a shit.”
“Well, I thought I should tell you since you're his only family.”
“That little bastard's no kin of mine. You hear? No kin of mine. Don't you ever bring him here again. Don't even drive by. Do you understand me? Stay a-way.” With that, he slammed the door.
Monday afternoon, Sam and the boy drove down to Holiday to a barber Annie had found. She said she didn't trust the locals to cut Liam's hair. When he had suggested he cut it all off, she had threatened to cut off his balls. So, at 3:30 they pulled into a spot in front of Luby's Barber Shop. A sign in the window said “Haircuts $7” so he gave Liam a ten and instructed him to tell the barber to keep the change.
“How do you want me to cut it?” the barber asked.
Sam shrugged. “You'll have to discuss that with him.”
Not wanting to join in the barbershop conversation, he went outside, lit up a cigarette and waited.
The finished product was called a faded mohawk, short on the sides, long on top, and Liam thought it was “cool.” So, who was Sam to argue.
They stopped at the park on the way home and tossed the Frisbee around. Liam was getting quite good at flinging it and, more importantly, at catching it. Sam would deliberately send it far and wide forcing Liam to run it down like an outfielder would run down a fly ball and he liked the way the kid was moving.
For supper, they shared a medium pizza, then headed over to Annie's to show her the haircut.
“What a handsome young man you are, Liam,” she declared.
“Thank you, ma'am.”
“I mean Aunt Annie.” She hugged him hard, gave him a blubbering kiss on the cheek, then they were on their way home.
When he got back to the apartment, Sam found two vehicles parked in the spaces reserved for him, one with its top lights flashing, belonged to a county mounty, the other was all black with its high beams illuminating his apartment's door.
“What's going on, Dad?”
“Don't know. But, I guess we'll find out,” he answered, but the feeling in his gut said it wasn't good.
Liam grabbed his backpack out of the backseat, and the two walked side by side, circling to the far side of the black car, toward the apartment's door. As he fiddled with his keys, a woman climbed out of the black car.
“Mr. Renaldi,” she blared.
By this time, the deputy had exited his car and joined her. He didn't have his hand on his gun, but it was suspended a few inches from the holster.
“Yes, can I help you.”
“I'd like to speak with you, if I may.”
He pushed open the door and ushered Liam inside.
“Would you like to come in?”
The woman turned to the deputy and stated in a formal tone, “Please note that Mr. Renaldi has invited me into the apartment at 12017 Highland Drive.”
The deputy nodded and the woman mounted the three steps to the front door and entered. As Sam was closing the door the deputy said, “Could you leave that open, sir?”
“I'd rather, not.”
“That's fine, officer, I think you can leave, now. We're okay. Right, Mr. Renaldi? We're okay?”
She smiled, then closed the door herself.
Liam was worried. “What's the matter, dad?”
“Nothing, kiddo. Nothing to worry about. Why don't you go upstairs, take your bath and get ready for bed. Okay?”
“Dad?” Liam asked, obviously near tears. “I think something's wrong?”
“Come 'ere, slugger.” He opened his arms and Liam rushed to him and they embraced. “Nothing's wrong, you hear me?”
“Okay, now get ready for bed and let me talk to the nice lady. Go go go.”
Liam mounted the stairs, somewhat reluctantly, his eyes fixed on their visitor.
Once alone, the woman spoke. “You should never lie to a child. You know that?”
Sam nodded. “I try not to.”
“Well, you told him I'm a nice lady. That may not be the case.”
“I can hope, can't I?”
She thought about it and sighed. “I suppose you can.”
The woman took a file out of her satchel, set it on her lap, and sighed. “Mr. Renaldi, a complaint has been made concerning your custodial rights regarding Liam.”
Sam, his face twisted with confusion, turned away from the woman, trying to make sense of her words. Looking up, he saw Liam at the bottom of the stairs, crying.
As he walked toward the boy, “Hey, Buddy, what's the matter?”
Tearfully, “I'm afraid, Dad. She's going to take me away.”
Sam knelt on the floor grabbed the boy by his shoulders and drew him to his chest. “No, no, no. That's not gonna happen. Okay?”
The boy sniffled.
“You believe me, don't you?”
Liam nodded as he continued sniffling with his face buried against Sam's chest.
“Did I ever lie to you?”
“That time I beat you running and you said it was because you had a sore foot.”
“One time! You gonna hold that against me for the rest of my life?”
Looking him in the eye, the boy nodded, a tearful smile on his face.
He rose, lifting the boy, “Up you go.” He started to mount the steps, then stopped. “Sorry, Miss...”
“Hunter. Althea Hunter, CPS.”
“Just give me a minute, Miss Hunter. I'll be right back.” He drew the bath while Liam gathered his night clothes. “Now, wash good. Okay?” The boy nodded. “I have to talk to the nice lady. I'll be up to tuck you in when we're done.”
Seated on the opposite end of the sofa from Miss Hunter, he resumed their conversation. “So, someone made a complaint.”
“Can you tell me who?”
“Yes I can.” She lifted her glasses that had been hanging from a cord looped around her neck, set them into place and read off one her papers. “Mr. Andrew Jackson Pritchard.”
Sam just shook his head. “What a piece of work.”
“He was concerned about his grandson.”
“You think so, Miss Hunter? Do you really think he was concerned about Liam?”
“No, I don't.” He looked Althea Hunter in the eye. “He hates Liam.”
“A couple weeks ago, because he and his wife are Liam's only relatives besides Melissa, I figured it was only right that I should go over and explain to him that his daughter had taken off for parts unknown and that I was looking after his grandson. Know what he said to me? Do you want to know what that poor excuse for a human being said to me?”
She looked at him somberly.
“Well, I'll let you hear for yourself.”
Sam took out his phone and opened up the recorder app. “I went to the his door and left Liam in the car.” He played the recording.
“What do you want?”
“What's he doing here?”
“He's with me. I just wanted to tell you that – Melissa took off again and Liam's with me.”
“I don't care. Understand? I don't give a shit.”
“Well, I thought I should tell you since you're his only family.”
“That little bastard's no kin of mine. You hear? No kin of mine. Don't you ever bring him here again. Don't even drive by. Do you understand me? Stay a-way.”
The recording ended. The two sat in silence, then Sam excused himself while he went upstairs to check on Liam. With the boy tucked in bed, he returned to the living room and joined Miss Hunter on the sofa.
“Can you tell me why you thought it necessary to record your conversation with Mr. Pritchard,” she asked.
“Well, let's face it, Liam's not my son,” he started, never expecting that those few words would cause his eyes to tear up. He sniffled. “But, I wish he was. He's a super kid. (more sniffles) I just wanted to do what's right.”
Ms. Hunter hesitated before speaking again. “Well, during our conversation, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard expressed no desire to become the boy's custodians citing their health as the reason.”
Sam scoffed to himself.
“Where is his mother, Mr. Renaldi? Where is Melissa Pritchard?”
He shrugged and shook his head slowly. “I don't know.”
The woman was taking notes.
“She hasn't called or answered my texts. I'm still paying for it but I don't even know if she still has her phone.”
“When was the last time you heard from her?”
He brought up the texts on his phone and showed Ms. Hunter Melissa's last text. Watch Liam for me. I'll let you know when I get settled. It was accompanied by a picture of a green road sign whose white letters stated “You are now leaving Florida.”
Sam watched as Althea Hunter took more notes. When she was finished, she turned toward him and sighed . He looked into her eyes.
“Are you gonna take him away?” he asked, somberly.
Her large chest heaved as she took a deep breath and seemed to be searching for words. “Let me be honest with you, Mr. Renaldi. If I didn't think you were providing a safe and nurturing environment for Liam, I'd be taking him with me right now. But, based on what I've seen and heard and what you've told me, I don't think that would be in the best interest of the child. To take him away would most likely be traumatic for him.”
Sam sighed with relief. “Oh, thank you, ma'am. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“You have to understand, Mr. Renaldi, this is only temporary.”
“Mr. Renaldi, I am a caseworker, not a judge. At some point, you are going to have to appear before a judge in family court.”
“And you'll tell him that Liam should stay with me, right?”
“I''ll give him my assessment but that's only part of the process.”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
Choosing her words carefully, she answered, “That depends.”
“On Liam's mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you think Miss Pritchard would agree to terminate her parental rights?”
“Uh... no, she would never do that. I mean, Melissa isn't the greatest mother, she probably isn't even a good mother, but when she's not running around doing who knows what, she actually cares about Liam. Besides, that would probably screw up welfare when she applied. No, she wouldn't ever agree to something like that.”
“Then there's another option. It's called consent guardianship. The parent, Melissa in this case, would not lose her parental rights but you would gain custody and the right to make decisions for Liam. However, Miss Pritchard would have to either appear in court or, at least, sign papers to that effect that you could present to the judge.”
“Okay,” said Sam. “I think that would work. She trusts me. She knows I have Liam's best interests at heart.”
“Alright, then,” said Ms. Hunter, rising and extending her hand toward Sam. They shook hands. “I'll be in touch.”
“Okay, thanks. In the mean time?”
“In the meantime, keep doing what you've been doing. I have a large caseload, Mr. Renaldi, and sometimes things don't progress as fast as I would like. Here's my card. Any problems or questions, just give me a call.”
“Thank you, Miss Hunter. Thank you very much.”
He checked on Liam and found him sound asleep, his baseball glove pressed against his cheek.
He wanted to call Annie and tell her all about his encounter with Ms. Hunter but decided it was too late. They both needed their sleep.
Ms. Hunter kept her word and stayed in touch over the next couple months, still Sam wasn't expecting to see her in the stands for Liam's first ball game. And she wasn't alone. Sitting with her was her daughter, Tasha, a very nice looking young woman who Ms. Hunter boasted was a school teacher. “Do you have a boy playing?” he asked. “No, she said. “We're here to watch Liam.”
“Come, Mr. Renaldi, sit here with us.” Not sure if this was an official request, he decided to comply, just in case. He spotted Annie and Cole at the foot of the stands and whistled to get their attention. He made introductions all around as they joined the group and the women exchanged small talk till the game began.
With Liam playing right field, the opponent's lead off hitter blooped a hit over the first baseman which Liam charged with boy-like urgency and trapped in his glove. Sam stood up and shouted, “Throw to second, Liam. Throw to second.” Whether or not Liam heard, he couldn't be sure, but the boy threw a dart to second and prevented the batter from taking an extra base. He was surprised to hear Tasha shouting, “Way to go, Liam. Whoop whoop!” When Sam looked at her in wonder, she smiled and said, “ That's what we're here for, isn't it?”
“I should have warned you,” said Ms. Hunter. “She's a big baseball fan.”
In his only time at bat, Liam lined a ball into the left field gap – an easy double. His little cheering section, led by Sam and Tasha who was whistling like a construction worker, erupted.
When Althea Hunter learned that Liam was out of the game, she left but Tasha, saying she was having too much fun, decided to stick around. She and Annie were getting on like sorority sisters so he invited her to join them for pizza when the game ended. “With pepperoni?, she asked. “We can arrange that,” laughed Sam. “Okay,” she smiled, “I''m in.”
As the evening progressed, Sam fought off the idea that Tasha was there on her mother's behalf. She was just too nice. You would have thought that she and Annie were lifelong friends and her connection with the children was like magic. Everyone enjoyed themselves and, for a change, no worries or tension seeped into their experience.
As they gathered themselves to leave, she asked Sam when the next game was. He said he didn't know but he had a schedule at home. She grabbed his phone and entered her number. “Text me,” she said with a smile and a wink.
Tasha came for every game after that and was, as far as everyone was concerned, a welcome addition. Then, for one game, Annie couldn't make it which left Sam and Tasha alone in the cheering section. When Liam cracked a triple over the center fielder's head in the second inning that scored two runs, the stands erupted. Tasha leaned toward Sam and laid her head against his shoulder. “I really enjoy this, you know,” she said.
“Me, too,” said Sam.
Someone from the top row called down to them, “Is that your boy,” he asked.
“Yes, he is,” came Sam's quick reply. He looked at Tasha and smiled.
“You should do that more often,” she said.
“No, silly, smile.”
“Pizza,” asked Tasha, her big brown eyes filled with hope.
“Well, I've been thinking,” he began.
Her expression was playful and mocking. “Thinking?”
“Yeah, I've been thinking that instead eating the pizza at the pizza place we could bring it over my place and eat it there.”
She eyed him, her lips forming a contemplative pout. “Inviting me over to see your etchings, eh slugger?”
“Uh,” he started, “I don't have no etchings.”
“Oh, well, I guess it'll be okay then,” she said as she kissed him quickly on the lips.
Sam pulled into his regular spot in front of his apartment's door and froze. His headlights illuminated the stoop. Sitting there in a disheveled heap was Melissa.
“It's mom,” said Liam, fear of what was brewing leaking into his voice.
“Yes, it is,” said Sam. He sighed as he opened his door. “Let's see what she wants.”
Tasha pulled in alongside Sam's car and climbed out carrying the pizza. “I got caught at the light...” When she saw Melissa, she froze.
“Who's this?” asked Melissa with a sneer.
“Tasha,” said Sam.
“His girlfriend,” added Tasha.
Melissa shook her head, an unpleasant sneer on her lips. “Girlfriend.” She laughed. “Isn't this rich – a nigger mama for my nigger baby.”
“No need to get ugly, Melissa. What do you want?”
“I want my boy, that's what I want. Get your stuff Liam. You're coming with your mama.”
The boy squeezed close to Sam and pleaded, “I don't want to go. Don't make me.”
Melissa stood and made a grab for Liam's arm, but he ducked behind Sam. Tasha stepped up alongside Sam further shielding the boy.
“Get over here, you little shit. You're coming with me.”
“That's not going to happen,” said Tasha.
“It's got nothing to do with you, bitch.” Melissa lunged at Tasha, pushed her backwards onto her butt and jumped on top of her.
Sam hauled her off and threw her to the side. Helping Tasha to her feet, he asked, “You okay?”
“I'm fine,” she said.
“Well, I'm not,” said Melissa as she struggled to get to her feet.
Sam handed Tasha his keys. “Take Liam inside, please.”
“Didn't you hear me?” shouted Melissa. “He's coming with me.”
“No. He's. Not.” said Tasha, emphatically. “Aren't you going to tell her?”
“Tell me what, bitch?”
“Well, Miss Pritchard, while you were away, after you abandoned your son, a judge in family court awarded custody of Liam to Sam. So, you aren't taking Liam anywhere!”
“Bull shit! You can't do that.”
“Yes we can. And we did,” snapped Tasha.
An old Chevy started up across the parking lot and sounded it's horn getting Melissa's attention. “Just a minute,” she shouted.
The horn blared again and the driver pulled up to the walkway and lowered the passenger-side window. “Let's get out of here before someone calls the freakin' cops.”
“They won't give me Liam,” she said.
“Let it go. He isn't worth it.” He raced the engine.
“You can't do this,” she shouted as she got into the car. “You can't friggin' do this.”
Then she was gone.
Sam tracked Melissa's departure until the taillights faded into the night. Inside, he could hear Tasha upstairs drawing Liam's bath. Walking back to the kitchen, he found the pizza on the table. He opened the box and touching the crust found it only lukewarm, so he turned on the oven. He glanced over his shoulder. There was Tasha.
“We better heat it,” he said, almost apologetically.
Tasha remained silent, her expression brooding. Going to her, Sam took her in his arms. She rested her head against his chest. Sniffling, she managed, “I hate her.”
“I'm sorry you had to see that... to hear that,” he said.
“I'm not,” she said. “Because I'm more determined, now, to make sure she never gets her hands on that boy again.”
As she looked up into his eyes, tears streaming down her face, he couldn't help himself and began kissing her tears away. She pressed her lips to his and soon they were lost in each other, their hands exploring their bodies, their hearts beating as one. Then, sensing he might have gone too far, he pulled back. “I'm sorry.”
“I shouldn't have...”
“I'm glad you did.” She gave him one more kiss, this one filled with the promise of things to come, and then stepped away. “Do you have a pizza pan?”
After pizza and a rousing game of Pictionary during which Sam swore Tasha and Liam were conspiring against him, they put Liam to bed, leaving the door open just a crack the way he liked it.
“TV?” asked Sam, thinking he'd like nothing better than Tasha beside him on the sofa.
“No,” she said, “I had something else in mind.” She took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said.
Sam's and Tasha's lives melded together like two trickles of water that merge to form a stream. She moved in with him, with Mrs. Tucker's approval, of course, but ever mindful that Melissa might show up unannounced, he decided to put some of the money his father had left him to good use and bought a cozy three bedroom house with a pool and, at Tasha's insistence, plenty of room for a pool table if he should want one. The house was in the same school district – he'd been careful about that – so Liam wouldn't be uprooted yet again. His life was filled with love, now, and he couldn't help but wonder what his old man would've thought. He had been a different man at the end – sad and full of regrets. Sam liked to think that he would've been happy for him.
It was late September when word came by way of Tasha's mom that Melissa had died of an overdose out in Oakland, California. The Pritchards had told her that, since there would be no funeral or memorial service, there was “no need for the boy to come around.” She asked if they would be willing to relinquish any rights they had to the boys custody and they were quick to agree and sign the papers.
Sam celebrated his good fortune every day. He and Tasha shared a love that grew deeper with every breathe and every touch and was even more special with the inclusion of Liam. No longer haunted by nightmares and dread, the boy was now part of a loving family. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he was comforted by warm thoughts of home and the tender attention of Tasha and Sam. And no longer dependent on fantasies, he ditched his bedroom games in favor of sports, real sports, with his primary focus, currently, on soccer. Go figure.