I was sitting at my desk at Classy Chassis when Tray walked in. The other mechanics weren’t in yet, nor was the office staff. I usually didn’t come in until later in the morning, so for me to be there before the shop opened for the day was unusual. Josh’s accident had made the news, so any minute now I was expecting to hear from Ben as soon as his current girlfriend sprung him from the drunk tank.
A buyer was interested in the Cobra I’d brought back that morning. My truck was still in the lot waiting for me. I’d used Josh’s key to get in the house, and I had a spare set for the shop I kept in a safe at home just in case.
“I’m emailing a buyer to set up an appointment for the Cobra tomorrow afternoon,” I said as I typed. I hadn’t had a personal conversation with Tray in over a month.
“Alright,” he said as he walked in and took a seat in the chair across from me. “So this thing with Northman is real? More than just sex?”
I stopped what I was doing to stare at him.
“That’s seriously what you have to say to me?”
“Yeah. Look, Sookie, when I found out you were screwing around with him it seriously took me by surprise. I didn’t intend to react the way I did. If you’re into him, it’s not my business, I’m just curious.”
“It’s not your business anyway,” I pointed out. “My personal life isn’t subject to your approval, Tray. If you don’t like who I’m dating, sleeping with or anything else, that’s your problem. Don’t make it mine or anyone else’s.”
“I’m not trying to start anything, I just want to discuss where we are as friends. If you’re happy with him, I’m happy for you. I have to get used to seeing him around, that’s all.”
I narrowed my eyes, mostly in confusion.
“Does he hang out here when I’m not around and no one told me?” I asked.
“No, but I’m sure he’s going to come see you from time to time. We’ve spent the last several years not liking the dude,” he said. “I know it’s not my business who you see, I just wish you would have been the one to tell me. I’m coming to terms with it.”
“Okay, slow your roll. First of all, as friends, I’m still pissed at you for being a big baby for the last six weeks. Second of all, I’m not asking you or telling you that you and Eric have to be buddies now. I’m an adult and so is he. Trust me when I tell you it won’t matter to him if you continue to dislike him. He won’t be coming here looking for your approval. Finally, at the time Stan ran his big mouth there was nothing to tell. He blurted out something very private that he had no business saying to anyone even in confidence, let alone in the middle of my restaurant. I didn’t dignify it with a response because it wasn’t and still isn’t anyone’s business. The fact that you made it sound like I needed your permission to have a personal life didn’t fly with me and it still doesn’t. So let’s just get that straight.”
“I know you don’t need my permission, Sookie. I didn’t mean for it to come off as bad as it did. I was hurt, Sook. I thought we were closer than that. I get why you didn’t tell me… now. I’m glad you’re getting a personal life. I’m probably going to still give Northman a ration of shit whenever I see him, but I’ll give the dude a shot, not that you’re asking me to.”
“Tray, I hate to ruin your game but if Eric can handle me, he’ll have you tamed in two seconds,” I said.
“I know he definitely has balls of steel if he’s willing to put the moves on you,” he snorted.
“Actually, I wouldn’t say his balls are steely–”
“Hey, I don’t need to know the actual texture of his twig and berries,” he said quickly.
I shrugged. “You brought it up.”
“Sadly, I did,” he sighed. “Friend to friend, you’re really into him? He’s good to you?”
“He’s… Well, we’ve never been on a date. The closest to it was when we took the Stingray out that one time. He’s not as bad as I thought, although I still think the cars we produce are ten times better. If things don’t work out here I have a job waiting for me with them,” I told Tray.
“You’d really go work for him?” he asked with an arched eyebrow.
“If things didn’t work out here I wouldn’t have much choice. I know I wouldn’t find another mechanic with your skills to keep this place going. I’m not interested in starting over at this point in my life. I’d like to be able to enjoy this personal life everyone’s been nagging me to get.”
“It might be tough with two businesses.”
“You see my dilemma.” I leaned back in the seat. “Plus I have a kid in the hospital.”
“How’s he doin’? I wanted to go see him, but I wanted to make sure you and I were cool first.”
“He’s got a broken ankle, broken nose, lots of cuts and bruises, a collapsed lung and he’s recovering from surgery to repair internal bleeding around his spleen.”
“So he turned himself into a human pincushion,” Tray said. “He’s a tough kid. He’ll heal up in no time.”
“I hope so. He told me to go home last night. The hospital didn’t call so I’m guessing he’s alright. I’m going to see him as soon as I’m done here.”
“If you’re okay with it I’ll swing by this afternoon,” he told me.
“It’s fine. He’s in the ICU in room 503.”
“Maybe I’ll get to meet his girlfriend. I’ve been interested in meeting her since he’s so ass over elbows in love with her,” he chuckled.
“You probably will. She’s got a doctor’s appointment this morning to check on the baby. Poor girl lost her legs when she found out about the accident,” I told him. Thankfully she landed on a chair.
“Hopefully everything goes well at her appointment.”
“She said the baby was moving around like normal last night, so that’s a good sign.” I sent off the email. “I’m probably going to have to take some time off to take care of Josh. We should have enough projects to keep you guys busy.”
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” he nodded. “Take as much time as you need. Josh comes first.”
“He’ll be sick of me in no time,” I laughed. “The kid inherited my work ethic. He’s pissed he can’t start school next week.”
“He’ll get over it, especially when he’ll still be around for his daughter in a few months.”
“I just hope he learns his lesson.” He needed to slow down and hopefully the accident was enough to teach him that. I was sure it crossed his mind how he’d be feeling if Madi had been in the car with him when it happened. More likely than not, she would have either lost the baby or gone into premature labor. At thirty-three weeks it wouldn’t be impossible for Audrey to survive, but she would be in the NICU for at least a month.
“I’m sure he will. I’m also sure you’re going to be a little more strict with him, as is his girlfriend.”
“I’d like to think I don’t have to. Madi’s got that mean mom look down already. She’s a natural.”
“If she’s been hanging out with you, I’m not surprised,” he teased.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with having that look mastered. It saved me a lot of yelling when Josh decided to cop an attitude.” As good of a kid as he was, he had just enough of his dad in him to test my patience at the worst possible time.
“I didn’t say there was a problem with it. I was just making an observation,” he chuckled.
“Well anyway, I’m going to finish up here so I can get over to the hospital.”
“Alright. I should get out in the shop before it gets too hot anyway.” Tray stood up. “I’ll see ya later.”
Tray left the office, and I got back to my emails so I could be on my way to the hospital shortly. With any luck Josh would still be sleeping and getting the rest he needed, but I wanted to be there for him. Even though I knew the hospital was the best place for him, he couldn’t get home soon enough.
“So… how would you feel if I started seeing Eric?” I asked later that morning after Josh finished his breakfast.
“The fact that you’re asking it like that says you already are,” he pointed out.
“That doesn’t answer my question, smartypants.”
“It’s a little bit weird,” he told me. “Like your kids are having a kid. That’s not strange to you?”
“Nope, but I’m not the one who is going to get teased about having sex with my sister if it works out,” I smirked.
“Hey, I had sex with her before you two got weird. Wait, are you having sex with him? I thought that was just a dumb rumor.” He looked thoroughly disgusted.
“Joshua, do you really want me to answer that question?”
“No. I don’t want to know what you two do behind closed doors. How long has it been going on?”
“Does it matter?”
“A while, huh? You two are just as sneaky as Madi and me,” he chuckled. “If you like the guy and he treats you right, I’m okay with it. I know Eric is a good guy and he’s not going to walk out on you like Ben did.”
“Yeah, about Ben…” I sighed. “He’s in jail again.”
Josh didn’t look surprised.
“When he’s out I still don’t want to see him. I also don’t ever want him around Audrey.”
“I don’t know if he knows you’re having a kid. I never told him.” I was sure without even asking that Josh wouldn’t want him near his daughter. “I knew there was nothing he could teach you about how to be a good dad by leading by example. Everything you learned, it was because he did it wrong. It wasn’t easy watching you go through it, but I’m proud of you for choosing to do better.”
“Thanks. I learned that from you, Mom,” he said, giving my hand a squeeze. “It’s pretty sad that Eric has been a better dad to me in these last few months than Ben has been in seventeen years.”
“Yeah, it is. I’m sorry for that.”
“Stop apologizing for Ben being a shitty dad. It’s not your fault. I’ve never blamed you for it, Mom.”
“I know you haven’t. I do a good enough job blaming myself.”
“You really should stop that,” he told me. “I like to think you did a pretty good job with me. You’re a successful mom and business owner. You’ve done good. No one needs to be blamed for Ben other than Ben.”
“I’ll work on it. Are you going to slow your butt down?” I countered.
“Maybe a little,” he teased. “Yes, I’m going to slow down. Oh, look.” He motioned to the table on the other side of his bed. “I have to slow down for that little one.” There were pictures face down on the table. Madi must have been to her appointment already.
I reached over and picked up the pictures. I gasped at the prints from a 4D ultrasound. It was easy to see she had Josh’s nose; my nose. Of course my eyes welled up.
“She’s beautiful. I’d really like for you to get to watch her grow up,” I said. “There’s really nothing like it.”
“I plan on it. No more overworking myself. Madi gave me the ass chewing of a lifetime when she dropped those off to me. You would have been proud of her. She’s going to be back in a little bit. She went to a late breakfast with her sister and dad.”
“I thought I saw blood on the bed…” I was glad she got through to him.
“I know it wasn’t easy for her. She’s so… tame. It kinda scared me,” he chuckled.
“Well, we all understand you were working so hard to be a good dad to Audrey. No one will argue with that. Just try to remember that your choices don’t just affect you anymore.”
“I know. She reminded me that I can’t be a good dad if I’m not present.”
“And you know I’d barely have your burial clothes picked out before Colt made a move on Madi.” Little shithead.
“I get the feeling he was already sniffing around,” he muttered. “I know money isn’t what’s going to make me a good dad. I don’t need to work myself to death to provide for them. You and your boyfriend,” he chuckled, “Have already promised to help us so we can make it through school. I have to remind myself it’s not a hand out.”
“It’s a hand up,” I smiled. “We want you to have the tools to build the life you want.”
“I appreciate it. I just wanted to do this all myself. The baby is my responsibility, not yours.”
“I know you do. I’m proud of you for taking it on. I also want you to live to be able to enjoy time with your daughter. It’s all going to work out, Josh,” I assured him.
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s a lot scarier than I thought it would be.”
“It’s a lot of change and a lot of responsibility. This is going to sound funny coming from me, but it’s okay to ask for help if you get in over your head. I don’t regret any of my choices, but I’d hate to see you make things harder on yourself than you have to.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. I’m sure Madi will remind me if I get in over my head again.”
“I’m sure she will. She’ll need breaks too. My advice, not that you asked for it, is to not let the baby become your first priority if you want things to last with Madi. The best thing you can do for your daughter is love her mother, and take care of her. If you have a good relationship, it’ll make the baby so much happier.” Poor Josh used to get so upset when Ben and I used to fight. I tried not to do it in front of him, but it was sometimes unavoidable. Josh didn’t like it at all.
“So… do my best to not be like Ben,” he said. “I’ve already gotten that part down. Gracie has already offered to babysit when we want to go on date nights.”
“You’re lucky to have her. I’m sure most of Madi’s friends will disappear after Audrey’s born.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Gracie was around a little less too. She would always love her twin, and of course she would love her niece, but their lives were going different ways. Their responsibilities were going to be very different.
“They’re already starting to disappear,” he told me.
“That’s normal, unfortunately. You’re going through something they aren’t ready for and don’t understand.”
“I’m sure the only reason Colt still talks to me is because he thinks Madi is hot.”
“Want me to sic Opie on him?”
“You don’t have to. Opie already growls when he gets too close to him.”
“Opie’s a better judge of character than you,” I chuckled.
“It’s not my fault Colt is turning into a perv,” he snickered.
“He’ll get his ass beat sooner or later by a jealous boyfriend or older brother.”
“I think I’m going to stop hanging out with him.”
“Can you imagine leaving Audrey with him?” That was how I judged the people I associated with after I had Josh.
“That will never happen,” he said firmly.
“I think that tells you where Colt stands with you.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” he agreed. Josh let out a yawn after that.
“Get some rest. I’ll be quiet.”
“Thanks for being here, Mom,” he said.
“Josh, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” I was sure he knew that, but I had to say it anyway just in case he didn’t. I wasn’t the kind of mom who told him I loved him constantly, but I made sure he knew in the little things I did or the other words I chose to use.
If there was one thing I knew I had done right in my life, it was to make sure my son knew just how loved he was.
Josh was in the hospital for eight days before the doctors released him. He was going to have to stay on bed rest for the next few weeks until he was better recovered from the surgery and the collapsed lung, but he was out of the woods. His face was still pretty badly swollen, and he couldn’t drive until he was off the painkillers he had been prescribed. To make things easier on him I had rented a power wheelchair so he could go back and forth from my house to his during the day. I knew it would bug the shit out of him if I went over there to wait on him, plus it allowed him to be a little independent.
Like me, he didn’t want to have to bug other people to do things for him,
For the next two weeks or so, he was just going to have to get over it and let us help him.
Eric ended up being the one to help him try to take a shower in my bathroom since it was a walk-in stall. The twins were in the kitchen helping me make dinner. Madi had offered to help Josh, but she wasn’t really strong enough to catch him if he lost and balance and started to fall. It was probably first shower Josh ever took with a bathing suit on, but hey, it sounded like it was working.
After a little pow wow the three of us had decided that Swedish meatballs sounded like a good idea. So Gracie was making the sauce while Madi and I were rolling out the meatballs. Eric alone could eat what would feed me and the twins. It was a good thing I was used to feeding a growing boy and his posse.
“So our dad really likes you,” Gracie said randomly when there was a lull in the conversation.
“That’s a good thing, since I like him too,” I replied. I knew the girls knew that we’d been kissing in the hospital, but we hadn’t really talked about me dating their dad. I was still getting to know them. They were nice girls, but I could understand if they were protective of their dad. I knew Josh was protective of me. It came with the territory.
“He’s nothing like your ex,” Madi offered.
“Oh honey, believe me I know that,” I smiled.
“We saw him once,” Gracie said. “A couple weeks ago when we were at the mall he was in the food court. He didn’t know who we were. He asked Madi for money.”
“I didn’t give it to him,” Madi continued. “I thought about it because he looked so pathetic, but then I thought that if the roles were reversed between you and him just on a money level, he wouldn’t do a damn thing to help you. He sure didn’t all those years you were struggling to make ends meet when Josh was still little. He’s had a long time to get his act together, and all he’s done is make it worse. I decided I wasn’t going to waste the money on someone who wouldn’t know what to do with it even if he had it.”
“That’s a thoughtful answer,” I said.
“Plus I don’t have much room in my heart for someone like that. Audrey’s not even here yet and already Josh is a millions times more of a dad than Ben will ever be.”
I couldn’t disagree with her there.
The insurance company was going to jack up Josh’s rates because of the accident, but at least he had full coverage on his car. The insurance company had to officially declare the car totaled. I’d had it been towed back to my garage because if anyone was going to put it back together again, it was going to be Tray. He was the only one I trusted to do the repairs. Tray said it was totaled, but that didn’t mean the inspector from the insurance company would agree to that. Fucking red tape. Not that Josh could drive anywhere anyway, and Madi really was getting too big to be behind the wheel. Gracie would pretty much take her anywhere she wanted to go anyway, so losing the Escape wasn’t a huge loss.
“Are you going to marry our dad?” Gracie asked.
I laughed and said, “Girls, we haven’t been on a date yet. I think it’s a little soon to be worried about us getting married.”
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get married again. I didn’t know if Eric did either. Like I said to Gracie, it was way too soon to be even considering it as an option. If it was an option, it was way far into the future.
“Well, if you do one day we’re not going to mind. We think you both deserve happiness,” Madi told me.
“Thank you. That’s very sweet of you both, and I do appreciate having your blessing. I don’t know if I need to say this or not, so I’m just going to say it. I’m sure losing your mom so young was hard on you both. There’s no way in the world I can ever take her place and I won’t even try to do that. What you had with her is yours, and I won’t ever try to step in her shoes. But… if you need to have a mom moment, I’m all ears,” I told them. “That goes for both of you, even if things don’t work out with your dad.”
All I could do was offer it. It would be up to them whether or not they took me up on it.
“Thanks,” Madi smiled. “I’m sure I’ll need a few of those moments once Audrey is born.”
“You might.” I didn’t know how experienced she was with babies. Then again, it was different when you were on your own, with your own child, responsible day in and day out for this little human that had no instructions to tell you how to take care of it.
“I can’t imagine Dad trying to give breastfeeding tips, can you?” Gracie asked.
I could see him trying and pissing Madi off…
“Oh my God, he’d fumble all over the place,” Madi snorted. “If nothing else it would be funny.”
“I can’t wait to see his face when we sit around talking about episiotomies and vaginal swelling,” I snickered. The baby was a little smaller than I would have expected her to be, but she wasn’t too small, according to the doctor. If she kept growing at the rate she was, the doctor was predicting Audrey would be just over six pounds at birth.
“Okay, there are some things I’m not interested in discussing,” she snickered. “Especially not in front of my dad.”
“Believe me, it’s a great way to horrify him into not ever trying to offer you advice you didn’t ask for, so just keep that in mind,” I said. My own dad had done a little of that when Josh was a baby. He meant well, but it just irritated the shit out of me, considering Dad had never given birth and he had definitely never breastfed a baby. He had no medical training, therefore, his advice wasn’t needed.
“Duly noted. He is good with unsolicited advice.”
“Like the time he told us on the first day of sixth grade to make sure we had tampons in our backpacks in case we went swimming in gym class.” Gracie said.
“No he didn’t…”
“Oh yeah, he did. First day of school, and he was walking away so he had to yell it and everyone heard him,” Gracie laughed. “We hadn’t even gotten our periods yet.”
“Lord have mercy,” I sighed and shook my head. “That’s okay, I had to explain to Josh what a boner was. You can imagine how awkward that was.”
“Clearly you did a good job,” Madi snorted, pointing to her belly. “You should have seen Daddy bra shopping with us the first time. He spent more time putting bras on his head than helping.”
“He what?” My jaw dropped. Why would he… What the hell?
“He’s a giant kid,” she pointed out. “When he has too much sugar we have to reel him in.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“You get used to it. He’s not as bad now that we’re older. Do not let him make his own brownie sundae.”
“Why?” I curiously asked. That seemed pretty harmless.
“He turns into a toddler that’s had a pound of sugar. He doesn’t stop moving. He also uses like half a pan of brownies with seven scoops of ice cream. It’s only happened twice. We forbid him to do it again. Don’t want him tryin’ to pull one over on you.”
“Also good to know,” I laughed.
I appreciated their warnings. I wasn’t so sure Eric would.
We got the rest of the meatballs into a skillet and browning. When Eric and Josh emerged from my bedroom Josh was all cleaned up and dressed. We lost Madi, who went over to check on him and keep him company on the couch. My house had always felt pretty homey, but even I had to admit it felt better with all five of us – and two dogs – in it.
All that was missing was Audrey, and she would be with us soon enough.