I blink against the glare of the summer sun as I step out onto the backyard, wearing nothing but sunscreen, sunglasses and board shorts. The mid-morning sunshine is bright and strong, the sky clear, the weather hot. In less than an hour, this place will be filled with loud laughter and sunbathers on loungers once friends get here.
Over my bare shoulder, Jamie fidgets like he does when he wants to be put down, something he's been quite fond of since he discovered walking on his hands and knees. We have to be careful walking around, stepping back and turning into doorways in case we squash his little fingers. It makes me shudder just imagining it.
"Not yet, bud. A dip is what we're after here, not a crawl."
The water is beckoning us. The plan is to introduce Jamie to a swimming pool, see if he'll like it. I toss the towels by the poolside and walk towards the shallow end.
This was the longest year of high school. Longest year of my so-far life. Losing my wife, believing for months that she was dead, discovering that I didn't lose her after all, which is not quite a distant memory. It has been a really messed up couple of months and I could use a vacation to an island resort.
"Ready for this, Jame? I promise it won't hurt."
I carefully take the steps in. The water is cool, blue, clean and filled to the brim, just the way I like it. Jamie's little chest is bare and he's only in clownfish-print swim pants. His features are scrunched up as he stares at the water, like he's wondering what the hell kind of game we're about to play.
Carefully holding him under his armpits while facing him, I wet his toes on the water surface. Little guy's entire body clenches in astonishment and terror. His face rolls with unpleasantness, his toes curl, and his fingers dig into my skin. It's not going to be as easy as I thought.
"It's just like a bath, buddy, but colder and with more water," I encourage in a soothing tone, taking a farther wade in.
He's making grunting noises and trying to clamber up to me, which is both cute and bemusing. I remove my sunglasses and sit them on the side of the pool, hoping that seeing my face fully will calm him.
"It's me. It's Daddy. I won't let anything bad happen to you, I swear."
He doesn't want to hear it, his shriek loud enough and in close proximity to damage my hearing momentarily.
I assure him that it's alright, but he doesn't want to know. I'm thinking of calling his mom out to use a gentler approach but I just wait until the disapproval towards me has faded from his gaze. Trying again, I don't submerge his feet in. With my arm around his torso, I use my free hand to trickle water over his toes. He stops squirming, curiously looking down at my hand dipping in and out. I hope I'll still get to do things like this with him when we're in college.
It's been my dream to play for the Dale Vultures and I'll make sure I work my ass off to stay on the team and keep my full athletic scholarship. But I wouldn't want to be studying and playing such long hours that I have little time for Jamie.
I don't know about finding a job down in Durham. Haley's steadfast about me not working so that I "don't screw up the program". I lost the argument. She's a sweet one, isn't she?
In the meantime, I still have my current job at Uncle Keith's garage for the summer and it will help us save up for an apartment off-campus. The hunt for a new home begins this weekend, so that we'll have enough time to find a good location and move in fully before school begins.
"A real dip this time, okay?"
I plunge his feet in up to his knees. I expect him to freak out but his mouth turns up in pleasure, which pleases me. I then extend my arms, leaving my elbows slightly bent, and swim him in a slow arc. With my hands helping him, he adapts and soon he's splashing about, slapping his palms at the water and kicking his feet.
"Okay, everything's all set in here. The rest is up to you on the grill."
Haley appears in a dotted halter swimsuit, sarong tied at the waist, sandals, and one of those wide brim hats.
"My, my, aren't you adorable, little one. Is that you, James Lucas Scott?" she gushes, like she wasn't the one who dressed him for this. Out comes the phone that's been surgically embedded on her hand, its little lens on us as I propel Jamie along.
"I heard him scream. He didn't like it?"
I reposition him on his back to let him float, my hands supporting his butt and the back of his head. He squints up at me, and I bend over slightly to protect him from the sun's brightness. "Not at first but he's now having the time of his life."
Haley swam plenty during the pregnancy, and maybe, just maybe, there's a chance that Jamie'll appreciate water in the future more than he does now. She plugs her phone into the portable speaker dock and turns up the volume. Music fills the yard, a mellow tune that has a country feel to it.
She then kicks off her flip-flops, unties the sarong, and walks to the pool steps. There's no hobbling or tottering, which means that the physiotherapy sessions are really helping.
I gently hold Jamie as he paddles his pudgy arms, thinking about where we'll be before summer's over. Haley hadn't heard anything from her first pick college in the duration that people were comparing acceptance letters, so she'd assumed that she'd been rejected. In one of our school hallways, there was a notice board where seniors put up their rejection letters. No one had anything from Southford, so the disappointment had been shared all around school.
When a letter finally arrived, they'd put her on the waiting list. In a proclamation from the university registrar, it was stated that there'd been a mistake which delayed the processing of admission letters. Haley had already accepted Dale's offer, so she sent a nice letter thanking, and turning down, Southford. Deep down, I feel guilty about that, like she was left with no choice but to go to Dale to keep our family together. I wait for the day I stay home with Jamie as she's on the road on tour, going after her dreams.
She's singing along with the speaker as she glides towards us, her held-up hair kept dry. Her feet touch the bottom of the pool and she stands. I put Jamie against my chest. She palms the back of his head, kisses his forehead and murmurs to him, "I'm glad you're not complaining anymore because I'd love to show you around the water."
I try not to, but I still think of the kind of mother that Jamie would have been starved of. No woman would have loved him as much as she does, not my mom or his godmothers. She takes him skilfully and holds him under the arms. Then she lowers him into the water until he's wet up to his waist and lifts him high in the air. Again and again. His joyous screeches overshadow the melody of the music.
I grip the edge of the pool and pull myself up to sit on the edge of the pool, my legs in the water. I watch them, their giggles, their identical fair skin, Haley's gentle movements and coaching, and every so often, she lifts him high out of the water and back in. He loves that part the most.
"Isn't this fun? Soon you'll be swimming your way across the pool."
Another song is playing, and I hear the word 'summer' again repeatedly like in the previous one. I can see what this playlist is about; a celebration of a summer day and youth that sometime down the line we'll reminisce about, a day spent with friends to catch up before we head our separate ways for the rest of the summer, and probably for college.
Music is fitting into Haley's summer. She'll be in the studio recording for the Aster Records' charity album. I really am thrilled for her because it's gratifying to see someone you love doing something they love. I have to tell you that the song she's doing for the album is killer. She played a demo for me on the piano and though it's about death, I like that she's declaring she has a life she'd like to live today, thank you very much. I could sing it to you but I can't carry a tune on a spoon.
After back and forth calls and emails, her contract says that she only performs at particular events hosted by the record label. It's a much better deal than binding her to years of musical slavery. The only catch is that they can call her up whenever, as the events aren't exactly planned out for the next year. They could happen in the next five years or it could be one per year for the next dozen years.
"What are you thinking about?" she asks, nudging me.
I smile down at her. "Good things."
A wet Jamie is placed on my lap, Haley the gatekeeper between him and the pool, her wet arms resting on my thighs. "What good things?"
"Sailboats, baby seals, the circus, clowns."
She flicks her fingers at me, droplets landing on my face. "I think we should get him out. At least for a little while. He has goosebumps."
I stretch my arm to grab one of the towels. "We could do this in intervals. Wouldn't want him to catch a cold from this experiment."
"Yeah. I like that idea. Ten minutes in the water, twenty in the sun."
I scoop him out of her arms and wrap him up in a thick, sun-warmed towel to pat him dry. He seems to longingly look at the water, and it's amusing how he can feel this way about a cold body of water yet reject a small, warm bath. Maybe he'll be a triathlete.
"Are you getting out?" I ask Haley.
She leans into me, standing between my legs, draping her arms around my waist, Jamie sandwiched and hedged in. "In a second."
One of the craziest things that's happened since graduation is that the police exhumed the body of the woman we buried. Can you believe that? It sounds like something out of a crime novel.
Dental records would be the way to go in identifying her, they said. They've had to call the families of the deceased but so far they have no leads. I feel sympathy for them because I would hate to be on the receiving end of that call.
"The sun just feels amazing on my shoulders," she says, her voice low, eyes closed, face up to the sky.
I doubt I would have noticed the sun feeling amazing if she wasn't here with us. A lot of things big and small have changed with her here. At seeing her headstone, she was quite touched. She wanted to keep it but my mom had it ground to powder, vowing to sprinkle the ashes in the ocean the next time she's on Andy's boat. Which was the day before yesterday.
Haley groans in appreciation of the warmth, motionless, half of her still in the water. Haley. Blood in her veins, breath in her lungs, the fine distinction that is life. Haley.
"They'll start arriving in a while."
Her eyes flutter but they don't open. She tips her chin down a little so that she's facing me more than the sun. "Hungry, I'm sure. We can put them to work on the grill and Luke can cook his burgers the way he wants."
Lucas is on his way to Rosecreek in the fall. He's excited about it, and I wonder how well Peyton is taking it. All isn't forgiven but she's not been ignoring me or throwing finger gestures at me lately, which is good in comparison to the frost I'd been getting from her. I could blackmail her by blocking visitations with Jamie but she'll just laugh all the way from NCU Maple Hill. And maybe with her majoring in studio art I'll attend an art show and find sketches in her name that feature me in obscene or inhuman situations.
"That'll make him happy," I grunt. "No one needs to hear him grumbling about how undercooked or overcooked his patty was."
She grins, opening her eyes to reveal the amusement behind them. "He gets so worked up, doesn't he?"
As she's leaning back I kiss her, a quick peck. She loosens the towel from around Jamie, exposing him to the sun. "Swing those sweet arms in here instead, my love."
For an hour, we're in and out of the pool, taking laps or letting Jamie splash about. He loves the water so much, and it seems that we'll be bringing him to the pool this summer more often than I thought.
Briefly the music is cut off when Haley's phone rings. It turns out to be Brooke, calling about being late and furious about chauffeuring her mother from one end of town to another. I can just imagine the temperature in that car with the opposing personalities of Victoria and Brooke Davis. She'll get a time-out soon once she's off to the small, private college in New York to major in fashion design.
"Where the party people at?"
Even without looking, I know who it is. Haley and I state at the same time: "Tim."
He's dressed in a blinding ensemble of a tropical shirt and lime green shorts. Behind him is the River Court band, each one carrying something; towels, knapsacks, platters, drinks. They never have to bring anything when we do this but they tend to make it a potluck.
Jimmy is with the girl he was with at prom. She's shy, tends to stick close to him. I hope we don't frighten her or something. Along with Tim, he'll be attending community college, but I don't think it bothers any of them to not leave Tree Hill.
Mouth nearly trips into the pool, and Skills is quick to yank him upright by the back of his shirt. The guys laugh about it, nothing new to see heavy-handed Mouth close to falling on his face. Maybe his stability will change once he's in Ohio on that full tuition scholarship in sports broadcasting.
While Junk and Fergie are both going to Oklahoma, Skills will be at the Redlands College Maryland on a partial athletic scholarship. We're both looking forward to playing against each other on the court in college, and whoever wins that first game has to…Well, we still haven't decided on what the loser should do.
After the greetings and as the others find their way into the house to put things away, I zero in on Tim's luggage. "Is that beer?"
A proud smile. "The good stuff!"
"Tim, I told you no booze. Not here."
His smile freezes. "I thought you were joking."
Every time. I shake my head, lifting the lid to the grill. I always scrub down the grate with a wire brush after every use to save me time for the next grilling. "I wasn't."
"What, because of him?" he says, indicating Jamie. "He's not having any."
On a lounger with Jamie, Haley laughs. She's changed him into a regular diaper, t-shirt and shorts.
"And neither are you. Take it back outside."
He holds up the pack against his face for emphasis and sputters with that wounded-puppy look of his, "But…but it's light beer!"
My gaze is steady. "No, it's not. You hate light beer. Back in the car."
The protest isn't over. Tim might just be decent target practice for when Jamie is a defiant and argumentative teenager. "I'll drink it all by myself, then."
I point the tongs at him, pinning him with a don't-mess-with-me look. "Do you want to stay and enjoy one last nice barbecue with the rest of us?"
"Beer would have made this barbecue nicer," he grumbles, but does as I ask.
I figure I should start grilling the corn and vegetables. Haley and my mom go all out at these barbecues, and the containers in the fridge of seasoned ribs, chicken, pork chops, hot dogs and sausages are tempting me not to volunteer to cook, but if Luke doesn't get here soon, he'll have to eat whatever's charred or rare.
Lucas and Peyton walk through the doors laughing, both in t-shirts celebrating musicians I've never heard of. In her hands is a covered dish of what I bet is fried brown rice, that Peyton claims is her specialty and still hasn't convinced us. It constantly seems to be lacking something, be it too little or too much salt, too much garlic, chewy meat, too oily, or the flavour's just wrong. We pretend it's delicious. Sort of like Haley's curry that is so hot that you break out in a sweat and swear there are blisters on your tongue.
Peyton pushes her dish into Luke's soda-loaded hands and strolls up to the grill. She looks friendly enough. "I don't like what you did, any of you."
She's not one to beat around the bush. I nod, just standing there with a pair of long-handled tongs.
"But I've stewed long enough to get past it. Besides, we're family and we can't be in a dogfight forever."
I manage to move quickly and give her a hug. My only words are 'sorry' and 'thanks'. She pats my back, a spot too hard, and disengages to walk away. And that is that.
Luke hollers from inside the house about the marinating meat. I yell back that it's his to cook. A few minutes after he's taken over the grill, shirtless to probably show off his new Sanskrit tattoo, Brooke and four of her friends show up. Thankfully, none of them is Rachel, and all of them, it looks like, are blind dates for the single guys. Everyone's here. I head into the house to lock the front door and get a t-shirt.
Except for Peyton who's hanging out with Jamie at the poolside, they jump and dive into the pool. Screams, laughs and general playfulness follow to the accompaniment of Haley's summer music.
She comes up beside me where I stand at the doors with a plastic glass of cold soda, slipping an arm across my waist. Her hair's free of the plait it had earlier and the sunglasses are pushed up into her hair like a headband. "Everything alright?"
I swing my arm across her warm shoulders, saying, "Absolutely."
"Why are you standing here alone?"
She sounds concerned but she shouldn't be. It's a fine day, the sun shining brightly, the smell of roasting meat appetizing, the small swarm of shouting friends entertaining.
I look down at her, and instead of first focusing on her smile, it's her smooth cleavage. "Just watching things."
She playfully taps a forefinger to the end of my nose. "Watch higher."
"I happen to have a great view of some great assets."
A laugh, a firm kiss on my lips. She steals my glass to drink some soda. And then she says, quietly, "I'm mad about you."
Always good to hear that she's not mad at me. I trail my hand down her side, her swimsuit dry from the sun, to set it against the waist of the retied sarong. "I feel the same way."
As she lifts her face up to me, I find myself touching her skin; I still do that, a subconscious move like a part of me wants to make sure that she's not singed flesh or a figment of my imagination.
"When we met…" she starts, hesitating to look across the yard at Jamie and Peyton. "When we first began talking over our tutor sessions, I didn't ever think that I'd find myself so in love with you that I couldn't describe that love. I had never thought I'd want and need someone so badly in my life. I didn't think that you'd be the one I'd want to share every journey with, whether we were exhilarated with lust or arguing over directions."
We chuckle easily. Frantic kisses are then landing all over my face. She's seen me at my best and my worst, she understands me in ways I don't even understand myself, she knows my secrets, she made me whole in a way nothing ever did, and she loves me unconditionally, unreservedly.
She presses closer, wrapping her arms tight around me without sloshing a drop of the drink. Her wide, brown eyes are a little misty as they stare up at me, and I detect a slight tremor rippling her chin and lower lip. It's an expression that has several times made my stomach turn over, but now, I think it's one of those other times that she's not upset.
Her smile is blazing. "You've given me so much. Babe, you are the world to me. You, our son, are everything."
As if on cue, Jamie lets out an ear-splitting shriek. He's trying to reach for the pineapple slice in Peyton's hand, and she has it out of his reach as she quietly chats with him over his agitation. Though his mouth is turned down disapprovingly, he becomes quiet. It's incredible to see him grow, from a newborn without a single memory to an infant who pays attention when someone is talking to him.
I take a deep, satisfying breath, tracing a finger over her mouth. "I'll always love you. You're worth everything."
In a second, I'm turning myself to be front-to-front with her, and unable to help myself, I grab her wonderful ass and boost her toes off the floor. My lips lock on the lips I love to kiss so much, long, slow and deep.
"Y'all make me sick."
Tim, invader of personal moments, materializes from behind us. I equalize the sneer on his face with a hostile glare of my own. "Where the hell did you come from?"
He stabs a thumb over a shoulder. "Had to take a leak in advance before hittin' the pool. Are you done? Man, I thought I was just about to see y'all go up against the wall or somethin'."
A wink is thrown at Haley. The peeping twerp.
He makes kissing noises like a seven-year-old as he slips past, and my hand misses hitting the back of his head. He's cackling as he pulls off his loud shirt, lobs it to the side, and leaps into the pool with a shout and a cannonball.
"Idiot," I mumble, and Haley laughs.
Jamie wails in that grumpy way he does the minute he decides that he won't accept reassurance from anyone but his parents. Haley leans up to rub her nose against mine, and presses a soft kiss on my mouth that tastes of Sprite.
"I better go scoop him up before he sends Peyton into a meltdown," she says, easing away.
Our fingers are still linked when she falters to a stop and turns back. "Hey. Are you happy?"
The scent of summer fills my head. The rays of the sun bounce off strands of her golden hair. A gentle breeze waves past. A sense of tranquillity washes over me and it feels impossible to talk as I look at her sweet smile. My wife, my other reason to be.
I'm not bothered by anything because she makes everything alright. I don't get too troubled about the future because I won't be figuring things out on my own. We'll be fine.
"Happiest I've ever been."
She raises the plastic glass in a toast, tosses me another smile and hurries towards the awning with the loungers. I'd never been surer of anything than wanting her to be my wife. I didn't overthink it on that rainy night when I asked her to marry me. And when she said yes…Best impulsive decision I have ever made.
I gaze over the backyard from the shade of the kitchen doorway, absorbing the noise of friends, barbecue smoke, the carefreeness of the day. I find solace in it. Though the year had a stretch of madness and sadness, my life is full. I'm exactly where I should be, starting out on another journey of forever.
Putting on my sunglasses, I walk out into the fiery sun to play host and attack a burger or two.
There's a Sequel! Read The Darkness before Dawn