~ ~ ~
“WHY DID YOU have to act like such a jerk?” Anneka cried.
“She said I was a jerk?” I asked, suddenly curious. I muted the television.
“No. Emily’s too nice to say something like that.”
“Clearly not something you have a problem with,” I muttered, quickly losing interest again and turning the sound to the game back on.
“You know what, Reid?” Anneka asked. “I’m gonna take that remote control and shove it up your—”
“Now, now, children,” Hale interrupted. “Let’s play nice.” He glanced at their daughter Molly and then back at me and Anneka in a knowing way.
“Play nice,” Molly repeated solemnly, shaking a reprimanding finger at us.
I winked at Molly and then smirked at Anneka. “Yeah, Mommy,” I said. “Play nice.”
Anneka glared at me before scooping Molly from the sofa and stalking out of the room.
“You know,” Hale said, looking after them. “If I depended on her for all of my meals, I think I’d be a little nicer to her.”
“You do depend on her for all your meals,” I pointed out.
“Well, yeah,” he admitted. “But I don’t have to worry because she thinks I’m hot.”
“She doesn’t think I’m hot?”
“I don’t think so—especially not right now.”
I pretended to concentrate on the game again.
“You know,” Hale said again. “Anneka went out of her way to fix the two of you up—”
“Which I specifically asked her not to do . . .”
“So you had to take it out on Emily?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
He looked at me skeptically.
“I didn’t,” I insisted. “I just didn’t feel like talking.”
“So instead of answering her questions you told her to look you up online?”
“Well it’s not like the Internet can’t tell her everything she needs to know,” I reminded him.
I imagined Emily going home after our first date and typing my name into a search engine. I pictured the headlines she’d see . . . the same ones that were forever seared into my mind:
Raleigh Police Detective on Administrative Leave Pending Investigation . . . Detective Brafford Odell Reid Formally Charged on Multiple Counts of Lewd and Indecent Acts with a Minor . . . Former Police Detective Reid Named “Person of Interest” in Recent Disappearance of Ex-Wife and Child . . .
“I think some of it might have sounded a bit better coming from you,” Hale said.
“Oh, really? Which parts?”
Hale didn’t answer. I sat quietly for a moment staring at the TV before turning to face him.
“Look,” I began. “I tried—”
“No, you didn’t,” he cut me off. “You intentionally sabotaged that date and you know it.”
I sighed. I’d only sabotaged it because I wasn’t ready to start dating again—something I’d told both Hale and Anneka a million times. But Anneka was like a dog with a bone once she got her mind fixed on something, and she wouldn’t let up. She was probably thinking if I fell madly in love with Emily that I’d get remarried and move out of her basement, and someone else could be in charge of feeding me for a while. I’d resisted going out with Emily for a long time, but once Hale had joined Anneka’s efforts and started hounding me about how great Emily was, I finally gave in—hoping that both of them would shut up if I just went out with her.
“I told you that I’m not ready to start dating.”
“It’s been two years,” he said quietly.
Two years since my wife and I had split up, but only one year since she and our little boy had died.
I shook my head, sighed, and slumped back into my chair.
“You’ve got to do something to get your life back on track,” Hale ventured gently.
“My life is never going to be back on track.”
Now it was Hale’s turn to sigh. He looked depressed.
“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’ll admit I didn’t give her a fair chance and I might have been a bit of a jerk, but it’s over with now and there’s nothing we can do about it, so can we please just stop talking about it?”
Hale reluctantly nodded and sighed again. That’s when Anneka popped back into the living room and looked right at me.
“Guess who I just got off the phone with?”
I didn’t figure she really wanted me to guess.
“Emily,” she said when I didn’t answer. She sounded proud of herself.
“And how did that go?” I asked dryly.
“She wants to go out with you again.”
“Yeah. She wants to hear your side of things.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You’re telling me that she looked me up online and she knows about everything?”
“And she still wants to go out?”
She nodded again.
“Even after the way our first date went?”
She smiled triumphantly and gave me a final nod.
“There’s no way I’m going out with her again,” I said, shaking my head.
“Why not?” Anneka cried in dismay.
“Because anybody who wants to go out with me after all that obviously has something seriously wrong with them.”
For our second date, Emily and I met at Mahaley’s, a little Irish pub not far from the old apartment I had shared with Hale for our last three years of college. After we placed our orders and were staring at least ten minutes of awkward silence in the face, I said, “So. What do you want to know?”
She looked me in the eye and reached for her water before answering.
“Are your social skills always this impeccable,” she asked, putting the straw between her lips and taking a small sip, “or do you save them up just for me?”
I studied her carefully for a moment, thinking again about everything she had undoubtedly read about me online.
Why is she here? Why in the world did she want to go out on a second date?
I could only come up with two possible reasons, and honestly neither of them were too appealing. Either she was a gossip who wanted the inside scoop on last year’s hottest story, or she was a complete loser who couldn’t do any better than an unemployed, former police detective who lived in his best friend’s basement. So far she hadn’t come across as a loser, so I was betting on gossip.
I shrugged. “Anneka said you wanted to hear my side of things. I’m just wondering what you want to know.”
“I didn’t tell her I wanted to hear your side of things,” Emily corrected. “I told her I wanted to hear what you had to say.”
Now it was her turn to shrug.
We stared at each other a little longer and I remembered how I had promised Hale that I would try to do better on this date. I sighed inwardly.
“Is there anything in particular you’d like to know?” I made an extremely concerted effort to sound nice, kind, and socially skilled.
“Yes, actually. There is.”
Here we go. What part of the scandal is she most interested in?
Emily leaned forward slightly. “I want you to tell me about Noah,” she said.
Ahhh. The sex charges . . .
“I never laid a hand on my son,” I told her.
“No,” she said, immediately shaking her head. “I mean tell me about him. What was he like?”
I stared at her.
“You know,” she prodded. “What did he like to do? What kind of a person was he?”
I continued to stare, puzzled. No one had ever asked me that question before.
“He . . .” I hesitated. “He was the greatest kid ever,” I finally said.
She smiled at me, a warm, understanding smile.
“What was his favorite thing to do?”
“Cops and robbers,” I answered immediately. “We had a fort in the backyard and we’d pretend he was the cop and I was a robber and he’d climb up there so he’d have a good vantage point, you know? And I’d try to sneak around the yard without getting spotted.”
I had let him catch me every time. Noah would stealthily raise his plastic shotgun, take careful aim, and fire at me—watching in delight as I stumbled from my hiding place, collapsed dramatically to the ground, and died a slow, painful death on the grass. Once I was down, he would scramble from his fort, run to me, and tickle my ribs until I opened my eyes and pinned him to the ground, tickling him right back as he squealed in delight and begged me to play again just one more time.
I suddenly realized that Emily was still looking at me. She was also still smiling.
“Do you have any pictures?” she asked.
I pulled out my phone (an old one of Anneka’s with a cracked screen . . . one that Hale was paying for on his family plan because I couldn’t afford one of my own since I’d been fired).
By the time our food came, I had been through nearly every picture on my phone: Noah fishing at Harris Lake, Noah playing in a mud puddle at the end of our driveway, Noah hunting for Easter eggs in the park, Noah on his first day of kindergarten.
There was a close up of him holding a baby chick at a petting farm. “He had your eyes,” Emily noted, and I could do nothing but nod.
“He was absolutely beautiful,” she said gently. She rested her hand on my arm.
It had been so long since anyone had touched me (kisses from Molly and bear hugs from Hale didn’t count—well, they counted, but they weren’t the same).
It felt . . . nice. Really nice to have her hand touching my arm. It also felt really good to talk about Noah the way any parent would talk about their child—sharing everything they loved about them and not having to justify their actions or defend themselves against a bunch of lies.
“Thank you,” I said. “He was great.”
Emily gave me another smile and took her hand off my arm to reach for an onion ring. As I watched her, I realized how much I liked her smile. I reached for an onion ring of my own and studied her carefully as I chewed.
Emily had wavy, shoulder-length blonde hair, tan skin, and brown eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. They might have been artificial, but something told me that was just the way she looked. Nothing about her seemed artificial.
She was pretty. I had to admit that, but my first wife had been pretty, too, and pretty can only take you so far. Given a choice between “pretty” and “sane,” I’ll pick sane every time. I took another bite of onion ring and—as I continued to study her—I thought of what else I knew about Emily.
She was one of Molly’s teachers, so that meant she had dedicated her life to helping children—certainly not a bad thing. Hale said Molly loved her (but Molly loved everybody, so that wasn’t really saying much). Hale liked her too, though, and that was saying more. The people he truly trusted with his heart, with his daughter, were few and far between. He didn’t trust very many people with me, either, and the fact that he was pushing me toward Emily said a lot.
Maybe Hale was right. Maybe it was time for me to move on—time to try to actually get my life back on track. And maybe Emily was just the person to help me do that. She had, after all, just spent the past fifteen minutes helping me feel better than I’d managed to feel in an entire year.
“Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” I suggested, reaching for the horseradish sauce and beginning to like the idea of getting to know her better.
“Okay. What do you want to know?”
“Well,” I began, “how long have you been teaching?”
“Oh,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not teaching yet.”
I looked at her, confused. “I thought you were one of Molly’s teachers?”
“No. I’m just doing an internship in Molly’s class.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I have to do an internship for my Exceptional Children class and then next semester I do my student teaching.”
“You’re . . . you’re in college?”
I looked closely at her and hesitated before I worked up the courage to ask my next question.
“Exactly how old are you?”
~ ~ ~
“NINETEEN!?” I yelled at Hale. “She’s NINETEEN years old!?”
“So?” I repeated. “She’s a teenager!”
“She can’t even drink alcohol!”
“Were you planning on getting her drunk?”
“No. I wasn’t planning on getting her drunk,” I said. “You’re missing the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is that I’m practically old enough to be her father!”
“No you’re not. Not unless you were having sex when you were ten.”
I glared at him.
“Were you having sex when you were ten?” He widened his eyes in mock surprise.
“I hate you,” I said. “I can’t believe you set me up with a college student.”
“I didn’t know she was a college student,” he insisted, finally serious. “I thought she was one of Molly’s teachers. She seems a lot older.”
That was true . . .
“I can’t believe this,” I muttered.
“You know, a lot of men wouldn’t view this as a particularly bad thing.”
“Shut up. Just shut up.”
“What’s the big deal? If you think she’s too young then just don’t go out with her again,” he reasoned. “I mean, it’s not like you got her pregnant or anything, right?”
I glared at him again.
He gasped, feigning shock once more. “Did you get her pregnant? Did you get her pregnant and now you have to marry her?”
“That’s your specialty,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him.
“So then what’s the big deal?” he asked again with a grin. “Just don’t go out with her anymore.”
I was silent.
“Is there a problem with that?”
When I still didn’t answer, he pressed on. “I mean, it’s not like you like her or something, is it?”
I couldn’t help myself—I glanced away. In my peripheral vision, I saw his eyes widen again.
“You like her!” he said, pointing a finger in my face.
I slapped his hand away.
“I didn’t say that I like her.”
“You like her!” he said again. “You like her!” He was practically singing.
“I might like her,” I corrected. “I don’t know. Right now I’m having a very hard time getting my head around the fact that she’s two-thirds my age.”
“Ooooh,” he said dramatically. “How long did it take you to calculate that?”
“I hate you,” I said. “Have I told you lately that I hate you?”
“I love you, too,” he answered, grabbing me in a headlock and rubbing his knuckles back and forth across the top of my head as fast as he could.
“Let go!” I yelled, punching him in the side. He released me and I straightened, running my fingers through my hair.
“Your hair looks great,” he assured me, patting me on the back. “You have the hair of a twenty-five-year-old. Twenty-six, tops.”
“It’s not funny,” I said, smacking him. “What do you think her parents are going to say when they find out she’s dating someone who’s almost thirty?”
“Honestly, I think they’re probably going to be a lot more concerned with your arrest record and everything.”
I narrowed my eyes at him again. “I hate you,” I said. “I really, really hate you.”
“I know.” He winked at me and grinned. “I love you, too.”
In reality I did love him. Hale was the only person I could trust . . . the only person who had been there for me through every horrible thing that had ever happened in my life. I guess I’d been there for most of the bad things that had happened to him, too. Not all of them, but most.
Eleven years earlier, some computer at NC State University randomly paired the two of us up to be college roommates. We got to know each other a bit online after we’d received our notifications, but we didn’t actually meet until freshmen orientation that summer.
“Brafford,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Richard.”
“Actually I go by my last name,” I told him.
This was a complete and total lie. I didn’t “go by my last name,” but I desperately wanted to. I hated my first name. Brafford. Hated it with a passion. Always had.
This was a new school . . . a new start. This was my chance.
“People call me Reid,” I said, putting my hand in his. I don’t think he bought it for a second, but he gave me the first of countless suppressed smiles along with a small, formal bow and replied, “Well, then. You may call me Hale.” And so I did.
Hale had been dating his girlfriend Drew for about a year and a half before they’d both decided to go to State, and it seemed like she was in our room all the time. After our freshmen year—when Hale and I got an apartment together off campus—she somehow managed to come over even more, but fortunately, she was really nice and she did a lot of the cooking and all of the dishes, so no one ever heard me complain.
Hale and Drew were the ones who were at the apartment when the police came by with the news that my mother had been killed in a car accident. Hale broke it to me when I got back and then drove me home to Mt. Pleasant to help me plan her funeral and go through her things. For ten days straight, he never left my side. I think Drew was there most of the time, too, but I’m not positive. What I haven’t blocked out is pretty much a blur.
Hale and Drew got engaged the summer before our senior year and married the summer right after. I was his best man, and when Drew died two years later, I was a pallbearer. She fought her cancer for almost a year before she died, but I think Hale knew from the beginning that she wasn’t going to make it. Five months after her death, he was still a mess. I told him we were going to the beach.
My wife, Tori, threw a fit when she found out I was leaving her for a few days to spend time with Hale. She was very pregnant with Noah by then and maybe I shouldn’t have left her, but I felt that Hale needed me more than she did. (Plus, by this point in our marriage, I was looking for any excuse I could find to get away from her and her ever-increasing bouts with insanity.)
So I went.
Hale owned an imposing oceanfront house in Emerald Isle and we arrived on a Friday afternoon, dumping our luggage before taking a hike on the beach. We hadn’t spent anywhere near as much time together as we had before we’d both gotten married, and even less so since each of our wives had gotten sick in her own special way. I was sure it would help Hale if we could hang out together—just the two of us. Just like in the old days.
What wound up happening, though, was that we found ourselves at a bar and Hale had more to drink than he probably should have. Anneka was mixing the drinks that night and when the place closed she followed us home like a stray. After we got back to the house, she showed off her bartending skills a while longer until I fell asleep on the couch. In the morning, I woke up to find Anneka in the kitchen—wearing one of Hale’s T-shirts and making coffee.
He saw her again the next night, but the following day the two of us drove back to Raleigh. I thought that was the end of it—the end of her—but a few weeks later Hale went back to Emerald Isle without me and paid another visit to the bar. That was when Anneka told him she was pregnant.
The next thing I knew, I was a best man again.
Hale and Anneka got married two days before Noah was born and came back from their honeymoon early just to meet him. When Tori and I split up four years later, they helped me move into an apartment. When Tori accused me of molesting my own son and I lost not only custody of him but my job as well, they let me move into their basement. And when Tori killed herself and Noah, Hale and Anneka kept me from following them.
So, yeah. Hale had always been there for me . . . and, honestly, Anneka had been there for a lot of it, too. They only wanted what was best for me. I knew that. And I knew that they thought they were doing something great by fixing me up with Emily . . .
But there were too many reasons not to go out with her again.
First of all, I was broke. I hadn’t had a job in nearly a year and my unemployment was running out soon. Simply put, I couldn’t afford a girlfriend.
Second of all, Emily was way too young. Yes, she was legally an adult, and yes, she seemed very mature for her age, but she was a teenager. A teenager, for Pete’s sake.
But the biggest reason I didn’t need to go out with Emily again was the fact that after what I’d gone through with my first wife, it was highly improbable that I was going to be able to trust anyone ever again. That didn’t exactly lay the foundation for a healthy relationship.
No. There were just too many things conspiring against me and Emily. Too many reasons why things were never going to work out between the two of us . . .
And so I decided that there would not be a third date.
Surprisingly, Hale didn’t argue when I let him know that I’d decided not to see Emily again. And when I told him that he and Anneka both needed to respect my decision and drop the whole thing, he agreed.
“You’re not going to pester me about it anymore?” I asked suspiciously.
“And you’ll keep Anneka out of it?”
I looked at him for a moment, still suspicious, before finally nodding back. “Good.”
I had turned to head downstairs when I heard him say, “There’s just one little thing.”
I closed my eyes, sighed, and turned back around.
“She’s coming with us next week.”
~ ~ ~
When Hale was in the ninth grade, his father—a shrink at Duke—had decided that he wanted something other than Hale’s mother. Something about twenty years younger and twenty pounds lighter.
It was, according to Hale, a nasty divorce.
Two years later, his mother walked away with their beach house in Emerald Isle and a lump in her breast that she’d been too busy and too distracted to properly address. She died surprisingly quickly—Hale said she didn’t have any fight left in her after the divorce. He inherited the beach house and the little bit of money that remained after all the lawyers and doctors had been paid.
He hadn’t spoken to his father since.
Hale had, however, spent every single holiday since then at the beach house, and more often than not, I had too.
The next week was Thanksgiving, so—from Wednesday through Sunday—Hale, Anneka, Molly, and I were going to the beach.
No, wait. Correction. Apparently Hale, Anneka, Molly, Emily, and I and were going to the beach.
The following Wednesday I threw my bag in the back of Hale’s van and walked to the front passenger-side door, opening it wide.
“Get out,” I ordered Anneka.
She looked at me innocently. “Molly wanted to sit with you . . .”
“It’s only for two hours,” she protested.
She didn’t argue anymore and climbed into the back. Molly reached for me as I slid into the front seat and I leaned far back and took one of her hands, kissing it. She stroked my cheek.
“Sit with me,” she said.
“Not today, pollywog,” I said, shaking my head and facing forward again.
“Just you wait and see who’s going to be sitting on the other side of you,” Anneka told her excitedly as I fastened my seatbelt.
“Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Just you wait and see.”
Fifteen minutes later we picked up Emily, who was waiting for us in the parking lot of her apartment complex near the fairgrounds. It was fairly warm for November and Emily was wearing faded jeans and a navy blue hoodie. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a high ponytail.
Hale got out and helped her with her bags. I didn’t move.
Molly smiled when Emily got in next to her, putting her hands on either side of Emily’s face and drawing her close. They rubbed noses. Emily said hello to Anneka over the top of Molly’s head and then turned to say hello to me. I managed to nod in reply.
Emily had a small canvas bag on her lap and Molly noticed it right away.
“What’s in there?” she asked.
“It’s something for you,” Emily said with a mischievous smile, and Molly clapped her hands and squealed, like a typical little girl.
Molly was not, however, a typical little girl.
I had discovered this immediately at the hospital on the day of her birth. Molly was born in the morning, but I hadn’t been able to get off work until well after dinner. When I entered their room, I hugged Hale and congratulated Anneka, and then Hale placed his new daughter gently in my arms.
“Molly,” he’d said as he handed her to me. “I’d like you to meet my best friend. His name is Reid. Reid, this is Molly.”
I looked down at her, swaddled in a soft, striped blanket with a tiny pink knit cap pulled down over her head so that only her face was showing.
And as soon as I saw her, I knew.
Panic gripped my stomach. I glanced up at Hale only to find him smiling proudly at me as if his wife had just given birth to the most perfect baby in the world. I looked down at her again. Her tilted eyes. Her tiny nose. Her flat face. There was absolutely no doubt. My panic grew.
How did Hale not know? How had nobody told him? How had he not noticed? And how was I ever going to tell him?
But then Hale took a step forward, firmly gripping the back of my neck and pulling me close. He pressed the side of his head against mine and I heard him whisper, “It’s okay.”
I closed my eyes.
“It’s okay,” he whispered again. I swallowed hard as he went on. “She just has Down Syndrome . . . that’s all. She’s fine.”
I opened my eyes and met Molly’s.
She just has Down Syndrome . . . that’s all.
“She’s just the way she’s supposed to be,” Hale said quietly. “She’s absolutely perfect.”
I glanced up. He was smiling at me again. I looked down at Molly once more.
She’s just the way she’s supposed to be. She’s absolutely perfect.
“Don’t you think?” he asked.
Molly blinked at me and I felt myself nod.
Now I watched as Emily proceeded to pull a set of four tiny finger puppets and a small book from her canvas bag. She showed each one to Molly before fitting them on the fingers of Molly’s right hand. Then, together, they read the book.
Each of the puppets represented a character in the story and each was covered in a different material—one smooth, one bumpy, one scaly, and one furry. As the story progressed, Emily guided the appropriate puppet on the finger of Molly’s right hand across the back of her left hand so that she could feel them against her skin.
No wonder Hale thought Emily was so great.
Before he’d even taken Molly home from the hospital, Hale had started obsessively researching everything he could find about Down syndrome, determined to give Molly every advantage possible. One of the things he’d come across that he thought might be helpful was something called sensory integration therapy, so he had studied up on it and started implementing it (along with a multitude of other things). I can’t honestly say that I was up on every single thing he used to help Molly, but it’s safe to say that Emily’s little finger puppets fit in very nicely.
I continued to watch as they read the story together and I had to admit that the way Emily interacted with Molly was impressive. But just because Emily was good for Molly didn’t mean that she was good for me . . .
She isn’t good for me, I reminded myself.
Hadn’t I already thought of a bunch of reasons why I didn’t need to be dating her?
I looked at Emily with her blonde ponytail and her deep brown eyes. She had taken her sweatshirt off to reveal a thin white sweater with a blue tank top underneath. The sweater was lacy and see-through and the tank top was silky and shimmery, and both of them were doing a good job of showing off her smooth, tan skin. She glanced up, noticed me looking at her, and smiled. I turned around without returning it, but—just as I had the night of our second date—I couldn’t help but notice how pretty her smile was.
What were all those reasons that I shouldn’t be dating her?
I stared out the window at the road in front of me, trying to remember why I didn’t need to be dating Emily and trying to stop thinking about her lacy sweater and silky blue tank top and exactly how long it had been since I’d—
Why exactly don’t the two of us need to date?
Wait. I remember now. Money. Money was one of the reasons.
I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have any money. How could I pursue a relationship with someone when I couldn’t even take them out on a date without pawning off one of my few remaining possessions? But, of course, the solution to this problem was fairly simple: Get a job.
Seriously, how hard had I really been trying to find a job? I’d filled out enough applications to stay qualified for unemployment, but had I really tried to get a job? No. Ever since I’d lost Noah, I’d been depressed. I hadn’t really wanted to work. I hadn’t really wanted to do anything. But the reality was that if I wanted to find a job, I probably could, so I shouldn’t count “no money” as a reason why Emily and I shouldn’t date.
Oh, right. Another reason had been that I was never going to be able to trust anybody ever again.
I was never going to be able to trust anybody ever again? So apparently I was going to spend the rest of my life alone?
Wow. Talk about depressing . . .
And for the first time, I realized how much I did not want to be alone. I wanted to be able to trust somebody again. Somebody besides Hale . . .
A female somebody.
Could I trust Emily? Maybe. But how would I know if Emily was someone I could trust?
I thought back to Tori—someone I certainly should not have trusted. Had there been any warning signs when I’d first met her? Were there any red flags?
Tori and I had met at a narcotics abuse seminar that we’d both been required to attend—me for a psychology class I was enrolled in, and her for some pharmacology course she was taking. I was only a junior, but Tori had just started working on her masters in the Physician Assistant Program at nearby Duke University. A full two years my senior, Tori seemed like the proverbial older woman.
I caught a glimpse of her as soon as I walked into the auditorium where the seminar was being held. She had short, black hair pulled into two tiny, tight pigtails at the nape of her neck, piercing blue eyes, and ruby-colored lips that glistened under the fluorescent lights.
I stopped at the front of the room to sign in, then I looked her way again and was not unhappy to discover that she was looking back. She gave me a pretty smile and I headed her way.
Being highly observant and a master of the witty pick-up line, I asked, “Is anyone sitting here?” and pointed to one of the many empty seats that surrounded her.
She flashed that pretty smile again, shook her head, and replied, “No.”