A flare of light catches my eye and I see my phone screen glare brightly. I grab it and wince at the angry text from my sister, Delaney.
WTF Zack? You leave an hour ago to get some milk and you’re not back. Where are you?
Guilt suffuses through me, and it’s not lost on me that I’m actually feeling an emotion. But then again…the acknowledgment of guilt has not been hard for me the past four months.
I wonder what Delaney would say if I texted her back I’m at a strip club. Hoping Candi Apple turns me on.
She’d shit a brick, that’s for sure.
I stand up from the table, ignoring Miss Apple onstage. I fish a five-dollar bill out of my pocket and throw it on the table for the waitress. I had tipped her once when she brought my shot of tequila, since she was fast and nice, and hell…she had a great rack too, so might as well tip her again. Without a backward glance, I leave the lights, music, and bobbing breasts behind, feeling absolutely not one thing from this experience other than a small burn in my stomach from the shot of liquor.
As soon as I get out of the club and into the silence of my car, I dial Delaney.
She answers on the first ring. “You scared the shit out of me. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I murmur as I start the engine and wait for my Bluetooth to connect. When I hear the subtle click telling me she’s on speakerphone, I put the car in drive and say, “Just driving around…thinking.”
I hear her blow out a gust of sympathetic frustration, but her voice is gentle. “Okay. Just get home.”
“Is Ben okay?” I ask.
“He’s fine. Sleeping. Have you gone over the applicants I picked out for you?”
My hands tighten on the steering wheel, and a tiny pain shoots through my wrist, a pain I’d never admit to the team doctors, so I ignore it and tell her, “Not yet.”
“Tomorrow,” Delaney says sternly. “You have to make a decision tomorrow.”
“I know,” I mutter, realizing that the time for dragging my feet and procrastinating is over. “I promise. Tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she says softly. “That’s good.”
I don’t say anything else, my mind already starting to shut down. I abhor the thought of culling through her final recommendations for a nanny for Ben. Because that means this is final…that Gina is really dead and Ben’s mommy is definitely not coming back. In my mind, it’s putting the final nail in her coffin.
“I love you,” Delaney says, almost desperately, into the phone.
I bite my lip…hard, and feel my tooth slice down into the delicate flesh. “Back at ya,” I say, my voice harsh and raspy.
Words of love to my older sister—the woman who has been my rock-solid support the last four months since Gina died—unable to materialize. I disconnect the call and stare blankly out the windshield. I’m practically on autopilot as I drive home.
Out of the silence of my car, an unbidden, sarcastic snort bursts forth from me, and then I start snickering to myself.
What a fucking joke.
My five-bedroom house on Marchand Street feels like a prison, the walls closing in on me and causing me to seek out strippers named Candi Apple at midnight. I can’t escape my memories there, my guilt devours me as I look at Gina’s pictures throughout the house, and every day, rather than rise above my pain, I get swallowed up in it a little deeper. I hate that fucking house now, and I’ve pretty much resolved myself to sell it. Maybe moving will help leave the ghosts behind and give Ben and me a fresh start.
If it wasn’t for Ben…
Beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed Ben.
The spitting image of Gina.
My little boy, who seems to have bounced back fine after losing his mother, giving me toothy grins and cuddling with me on the couch at night. If it wasn’t for him…
No, I don’t even want to think about where I’d be if it wasn’t for Ben. Let me just appreciate the fact that I have the most wonderful child in the world, and it’s only because of him that I at least have some sort of desire to want to feel again.
While I can’t seem to feel outside the bounds of pure and unconditional love for my child, it doesn’t mean I want to be this way. I’m smart enough to know that Ben will look to me for guidance on how to live this life without Gina, and I’m savvy enough to know that if I don’t get my shit together, for his sake, I stand a really good chance of fucking his head up.
So I try the only way I know how—by seeking out the Candi Apples of this world—and dig down deep for something to interest me in this life outside of my child and my hockey career.
Taking a deep breath, I pull onto the outer belt line that circles around Raleigh, and let it out slowly. Yeah, tomorrow I need to start the process of removing my head from my ass. I also know the first step is to do as Delaney says and make a choice from the final applicants and hire a nanny for Ben. Once I start back at practices next week, I’ll need someone to help me with him.