Author's Note: I had said this story would only be two chapters, but it has turned out longer than I originally expected. This is not the ending, and I am not sure how many chapters there will be. Thank you for reading.
I only met Sharon's father once, at her and my wedding. I had met her mother and sister a couple of times, but we had pushed back the wedding when they heard he was being sent home. It's not like Sharon had ever been close to him, not like Loren apparently was, but she still felt like he should be there. My mom came too, so we went through all of the meet-and-greet bullshit, shaking hands and big fake smiles. The only thing I remembered of first meeting Mr. Harper was his handshake; Sharon had warned me, but it was still pretty disconcerting shaking a hand with only two fingers and a thumb left on it. I might have flinched, but he didn't seem to notice, or at least pretended not to. And I was nervous about enough other things that I didn't even think about him again until after the ceremony, at the reception.
Sharon had glared at me when I tried to light up inside, something about not wanting her dress to smell like smoke, so I slipped out a back door into an alley, Marlboro already hanging out of my mouth. My lighter was on the fritz and it had been a long day, so I was about thirty seconds away from going back in and lighting it on a church candle when he cleared his throat. Mr. Harper was leaning back against the wall and holding out a pack of matches. I took the pack, nodded thanks, and we both stood in silence for a bit. He was looking straight ahead, burning a hole in the dumpster across the alley with his eyes, taking long drags on a Lucky Strike held between the two remaining fingers on his right hand.
After a while, he seemed to realize he should probably say something.
"So, Nick, you gonna treat my girl right?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Harper."
He didn't ask any follow up questions, didn't try to turn it into a conversation. He had asked a question, I had answered, that was it. A few more minutes passed.
"You and Sharon thinking about kids?"
"…Not really, sir."
He glanced over at me, just a look.
"You don't like kids?"
"Don't mind them, I suppose. Just don't know if I want any of my own."
He sort of nodded, a little bobbing of the head.
"Better you know that going in. Takes a lot to do right by a child. Shouldn't have one if you're not ready to give them what they need, be there for them."
I didn't know what to say; I had pretty much just told my father-in-law he wasn't getting grandkids. So we just stood there, in a kind of companionable smokers' silence. After a while, he pushed himself up from the wall, stretching as he finished off his cigarette. His eyes followed the last puff of smoke as it floated away, looking up towards the clouds as it went.
"I should head back inside. My wife didn't exactly bring me here to hang out in the back alley. Been good talking to you, Nick."
"Thank you for the matches, Mr. Harper."
He reached out to shake my hand again, and looked right at me for the first time. He smiled, but it was the kind of smile that never reaches the eyes; a smile put there because it's a time to smile, not because the person actually feels like it. And those eyes. Eyes that were open, but you ended up wishing they were closed, because you didn't want to see what was in there. You knew that you didn't want to know half of what those eyes had seen. He shook my hand, giving his dead-eyed smile.
"You're family now. Call me Toby."
Tobe never met his grandfather, at least not that I know. Sharon's dad took off a couple of months after that, hit the road and didn't look back. No one really heard from him again, but I guess it's possible that he's still alive. And maybe Tobe ran into him; life like that boy's had, you never know who he's crossed paths with. But whether or not they'd ever met, Tobe was doing a dead-on impression of his namesake, sitting there at the kitchen table. They named it wrong when they called it a thousand yard stare; that kinda look stretches on for miles and miles.
He went back to looking at the cat rubbing up against him. He wasn't smiling at it, or looking at it fondly, he was honestly just looking at it. Anyone else, and I would have asked them what the hell they were doing there, demanded an explanation for breaking into my house. I might have even done that to him, if I hadn't known what he'd spent the last four years doing. As it was, I just stood there, feeling like I'd walked into someone else's space. Finally, he broke the silence again.
"Do you have anything to eat?"
By some random chance, I had bread, ham andcheese all in the house. It probably says something about how I raised him that he was surprised. It definitely says something about me that I was surprised. I threw together two sandwiches, slid one over to him, and sat down to one of the strangest meals I've ever eaten. I opened a beer for myself, silently offered him one, and put it back in the fridge when he just stared at me.
I had always thought I'd have something to say to him when he came back. I thought I might yell at him for taking off, apologize for making him want to, tell him he was stupid for leaving a decent home, tell him I was proud of him for taking the step. But now, with the boy in front of me, I had nothing to say.
But someone else did. I dug through some paper and trash on the table till I found Loren's number, and handed it to him. He only glanced up from his food, immediately going back to wolfing it down, so I set it on the table in front of him.
"She wants to hear from you."
He swallowed a big bite, picked up the paper and stared at it. He took it in for a while, then set it back down in the mess. When he spoke up, it was in a quiet voice, quiet, but firm and direct.
"How come you never told me about her, what happened to her? Aunt Sharon had stories, but she did about everything. Why didn't you tell me anything about her?"
Finally, something I had an answer for.
"You really think a little boy wants to be told he's been forgotten?"
"Bullshit. I was thirteen by the time I left, I could have handled it. And what, you think I preferred imagining she just took off?"
"Well, lucky her, she doesn't have to imagine; her son did just take off."
That shut him up quick enough. He stared down at the empty plate and I wondered just how often he got to eat, with the life he chose. But he didn't ask for anything else, so we both just sat there, trying not to think about the things we had every reason to be ashamed of.
"I had to leave. I needed to be gone for a while. Get some space. Loren would have wanted me to stay around, stay human. I can't do that."
"Then why are you here?"
He laughed, a small snort of a laugh that looked incredibly out of place on a still face. But when he talked, there was no joy in his voice.
"Honestly? I was gonna come bash your face in."
"…You're a man now. I'll give you one free shot. After that, anyone's game."
He snorted again, sort of shook his head, like I had said something funny, like I was some kind of kid. Went back to petting his cat.
"No thanks, not really in the mood anymore."