This Old Town

Author Note: This first chapter is absurdly long, but I felt it was necessary to set things up. Thanks for reading!

Chapter 1

Tami stood at the kitchen counter sipping her morning coffee. She downed the first cup immediately upon emerging from the bedroom and was already on her second. Things at work had been nightmarish over the past couple of weeks with the start of the school year approaching. She was working late nights dealing with last minute admissions emergencies and a new, well-meaning but extremely incompetent assistant while trying to pay sufficient attention to her husband and keep up with a spunky and rambunctious eight year old.

Since Eric was teaching summer school and she was working, they enrolled Gracie in a day camp to keep her occupied. It cost a small fortune but it was worth every penny. Thankfully Eric had taken pity on her this morning and agreed to be in charge of the daunting task of getting their daughter ready for the day. Gracie was really adamant about picking out her own clothes these days, and while they tried to encourage her independence, there were times when as parents they needed to draw the line, like when she wanted to wear a fringed purple bathing suit with her ballet tutu and cowboy boots.

"And what do we say when we want to advance the ball?" Eric asked Gracie as he carried her down the hallway into the kitchen.

"Go for two!" she shouted. Her hair was in two pigtails, which impressively Eric managed to construct himself from time to time. Sure they were usually kind of crooked but presentable enough.

Tami laughed at the exchange between father and daughter and let out a sigh of relief when she noticed Gracie's acceptable for public consumption outfit of a pink t-shirt, a pair of khaki shorts and sandals.

Eric plunked Gracie down on the kitchen counter and kissed his wife, wrapping his arms around her.

"You're really trying to train this one to take an early interest in football aren't you?" She smiled as she poured some coffee into a mug and handed it to him.

He accepted it and took a sip. "Well clearly I failed with Jules, so I figure I've got one more chance."

Eric put down his mug and grabbed his Pioneers cap off the kitchen counter and stuck it on his head. "I'm going to be a little late tonight," he said.

Tami looked up from packing Gracie's backpack and groaned.

"Hon, I was going to try to come home early tonight so we could spend some time together, remember? I even got some good wine."

She held up an expensive looking bottle of Pinot Noir.

"You got red?" he asked, smiling.

She nodded. "Just for you. And now I'm going to have to drink it all by myself."

He grabbed the bottle out of her hand and studied it for a minute.

"I'll tell you what," he said leaning in close, his voice dropping to a whisper, "I'm gonna come home and we're gonna drink this wine and then we're gonna…."

Eric stopped talking and kissed her neck.

"EWWWWWWWWWWW!" Gracie shrieked.

[****]

Matt tore through the front doors of the emergency room. He had been in the middle of the floor at the gallery with some important international collectors when he got the call from the hospital that his four month pregnant wife had passed out at a client meeting across town. When his phone started vibrating, he had discreetly slipped it out of his pocket to make sure it wasn't Julie. When he didn't recognize the number, his gut told him to excuse himself to answer it.

"I got a call from the hospital," Matt said breathlessly, sliding up to the reception desk. "About my wife." He put his hand on the front desk to steady himself.

A bored looking receptionist peered up at him not seeming to have pity on his obviously frazzled state.

"What's your wife's name?" she asked in a monotone voice.

"Julie Saracen." Matt wiped the perspiration on his forehead with the back of his hand.

The receptionist tapped on the computer with her inappropriately long nails for a moment before directing him to the correct floor. When he rushed into the room and saw Julie sitting calmly on the hospital bed, relief washed over him.

He knelt down next to her. "Jules, what happened?"

"This is why I didn't want them to call you," she sighed reaching out to wipe his sweaty forehead with her hand. "Look at you, you're all worked up. It's not a big deal, I'm fine."

Matt looked at her in disbelief. "It's not a big deal? You're pregnant, you passed out, and you're at the hospital. To me, that seems like a pretty big deal."

Julie slid her hand down the wrap dress she was wearing to rest it on her belly. "Look Matt, I'm fine, the baby is fine. You really need to calm down. You look like YOU'RE going to pass out."

Matt took a deep breath and willed himself not to explode. "What happened?" he asked in as calm of a tone as he could muster.

"I had a meeting. I was waiting in the reception area and when I got up I just got really lightheaded. I blacked out for a few seconds, I woke up and I was on the floor. Everyone was really nice. They gave me juice and cookies and made sure I came straight to the hospital. They monitored the baby, gave me some fluids, they told me to wait for the doctor."

She tapped the IV, still hooked up to her arm. "That's it. I just feel terrible that you had to walk out of that important work thing you had going on today."

Matt couldn't fathom how she was being so casual. Just as he was about to continue grilling her with questions, the ER doctor joined them in the room.

"Hi Mrs. Saracen, I'm Dr. Harris," he said greeting her with a smile. She introduced him to Matt and the men shook hands.

Dr. Harris looked down at his chart, made a note and then took a seat on a rolling stool at the foot of the bed.

"The good news is everything with the baby looks just fine. As long as you're feeling okay, we can release you to go home, but I would really recommend you taking it easy for at least the next two to three days to be safe." He paused and looked at Julie. "From what I can tell, you passed out because you were dehydrated, so you need to make sure you have plenty of fluids and eat regular meals. Be conscious of it. I know you probably get busy during the day but you need to make it priority to take care of yourself so this doesn't happen again."

[****]

Julie and Matt rode home in complete silence. When they arrived back at their condo, Matt unlocked the door, tossed his house keys on the kitchen counter and looked at his wife.

"Jesus, Julie. Dehydrated? Did you even bother to drink or eat anything while you were running around today?"

Julie walked past him and plopped down on the couch. She slid her flats off and put her feet up on the coffee table. "Matt, I really don't need a lecture from you about how to structure my meals," she muttered testily.

Matt sat down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. He was totally unnerved and her flippant attitude about the whole thing baffled him. However, he knew if he was going to try and talk some sense into her he would have to try a softer more soothing approach.

"Julie, I'm not trying to tell you when or how to do anything, but I think it's my right as your husband and the father of the child you're carrying to be concerned after something like this happens, and frankly I'm a little surprised that you're just being so nonchalant about the whole thing." He rubbed his temple and leaned back against the couch. "Pregnant or not you should be taking care of yourself, but it's not just about you anymore."

The second the words came out of his mouth he knew it was a mistake.

"Excuse me?" She jerked his hand off her shoulder in one angry fluid motion. "Are you trying to imply I'm being reckless on purpose? You have a lot of nerve to judge me," Julie said, her voice beginning to shake.

Matt tried desperately to backpedal. "No…I…Julie. That's not what I meant…I…."

"Guess what? You're not the one who practically slept on the bathroom floor for a month and a half from being so sick. You're not the one who is going to get huge and have to worry that your body will never be the same. You're not the one who is going to have to juggle a both a career and a family you love and worry that you'll never be able to give a hundred percent to either."

Julie stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door. He heard her crying and debated for a minute whether he should go in there or just leave her alone for a little while. Before he could make his decision Julie reemerged from the bedroom holding a pillow and a blanket, which she tossed in his direction on the couch, her blonde hair flowing out behind her. "Enjoy the couch!" she sobbed, turning on her heel, returning to the bedroom once again and slamming the door behind her.

Matt was stunned. The pregnancy had been hard on her in the beginning and he knew the hormones couldn't be helping, but he had no idea she was so freaked out. He felt terrible that Julie hadn't shared her concerns or fears with him, and that he was doing the last thing he should have been doing in her current condition, stressing her out with his judgments. Unlike him, Julie had always been physically incapable of hiding her emotions, so the fact that she was keeping this all to herself was even more alarming.

Matt put his head in his hands and sat motionless for a good half hour until he got up and softly knocked on the bedroom door. "Jules, can I come in?" He paused and waited for her response for a second.

Matt took her silence as permission to enter and gently cracked the door open. The bed looked empty but he saw the lump underneath their down comforter. He kicked off his shoes and crawled under the sheets, pulling her into his arms. She didn't resist his touch, so Matt put his lips to Julie's head and kissed it.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. I was just worried about you," he said quietly into her ear.

Julie pulled back slightly from his embrace and he felt even guiltier when he saw her face streaked with tears. "I'm sorry too," she said looking up at him and sniffling. "I need to stop thinking I can just live my life like nothing is different. I'm going to be a terrible mother. I don't even know why you want to have a baby with me." She started to cry again.

"Hey," he said, tipping her chin up so she was looking at him. "That's ridiculous. You're going to be amazing. In fact, you have way more experience with babies than I do. Hell, you spent the first few years of Gracie's life helping your parents take care of her. I'm lucky if I can figure out how to change a diaper."

Julie laughed a little and wiped a stray tear from her face. "Oh please. You're good at pretty much anything you do."

Matt reached over to the nightstand to grab a tissue out of the box. "I know it's scary not to know how something so huge is going to impact your life, but we're in this together okay?" He handed her the tissue and she blew her nose into it. "And if you're scared or upset or concerned, I want you to talk to me about it. I might not be able to fix it but I just want to be there for you, okay?"

Julie nodded. "I'm sorry I flipped out," she said with a yawn and snuggled against him. "I don't really want you to sleep on the couch tonight."

[****]

Coach Eric Taylor stood in the dim light of his office drawing up plays on a huge dry erase board. It was after hours but the Pioneers were playing a particularly tough opponent for their opening game so he figured he'd get a jump on strategizing. The team had come a long way since he started coaching them. They made at least the first round of the playoffs almost every season, and last year had come within one game of State. They had a solid team and he was doing everything in his power to make sure this year would be their year. Even though his job didn't depend on winning every single game, his pride kept him plenty motivated. A state championship would also make him more marketable, as he had begun to think that maybe, just maybe, he would possibly be interested in trying again at the college level if the right opportunity presented itself. He hadn't mentioned it to Tami, but she was voicing some frustrations at work and it was definitely possible she might be ready for a change also.

The phone on his desk started ringing, which startled him since nobody ever really called him on his office line, especially not after school hours. Tami did once in a blue moon, but that was usually only if she couldn't reach him on his cell phone.

Eric grabbed the phone off its cradle. "Coach Eric Taylor."

Buddy Garrity's voice boomed through the phone. "Coach Eric Taylor indeed."

There was a time that a call from Buddy would put the fear of God or annoyance in Eric (sometimes both at the same time) but now that he had no more affiliation with the Panthers or Texas high school football in general, he was actually able to appreciate Buddy and all his quirks.

"What can I do you for, Buddy?"

"I can't just call to see how my old friend Coach Taylor is doing?" Buddy asked with a hint of teasing in his voice.

Eric chuckled into the phone. "Sure you can. What's goin' on?"

"How's Tami? The kids?"

"Tami's good. Gracie is a handful. Julie's doing well in Chicago. She and Matt are expecting a little one in a couple of months."

"How bout' that," Buddy drawled. "Grandpa, huh? Little QB on the way."

"We'll see about that," Eric said. "Don't know if it's a boy or girl yet. How are yours doin'?"

There was a pause and the faint sound of gulping. Eric could just picture Buddy in his sad bachelor apartment, on his old recliner, in his sweats, drinking scotch.

"They're good. Lyla is in law school. Making her daddy proud. Tabby's in college. Was hoping she'd come back to Texas but she decided to stay in California with her mom and the fig growing wonder." Eric heard the gulping noise again. "Buddy Jr. has this genius idea that he wants to open up a combination strip club and car wash. Strippers washing the cars. Imagine that." Buddy let out a hearty laugh. "Entrepreneur. Man after my own heart."

Eric rolled his eyes and stifled a laugh. His eyes wandered to one of the framed pictures on his wall, a team photo the Lions had taken in the locker room right after the State game. Buddy was front and center of course. As much as he hated to admit it, he kind of missed that bastard.

"So, Coach. There actually was a reason I called."

Eric smirked. "I knew it," he said. "Buddy, I'm sorry the new coach won state last year and then took off to some fancy college job in Nebraska, but I am not coming back to Texas to coach the Panthers."

Buddy let out another loud belly laugh. "Eh, I've given up trying to get you to come back Eric. We're actually trying to steal the coach from West Cambria."

"So what do you need exactly Buddy?" Eric asked. He looked at the clock on the wall. It was 8pm and Tami was going to kill him.

"We were hoping you'd come down to Dillon and emcee this year's ring ceremony. Its ten years since you won with the 2006 Panthers. You know that?"

Eric sighed. "Buddy I have a team to coach here. I can't just skip town to relive the glory days."

"Our season starts two weeks before yours does. I'm sure someone can handle summer practices for the few days you'd be gone. No excuses." Eric tried to interject but Buddy kept going. "I was thinking you could bring some of your boys to present the rings. "

"My boys?"

"Yeah, you know, that son-in-law of yours, Smash, Street….I'll take care of Riggins."

"Buddy…." Eric protested.

"Talk to Tami. Think about it. It'd be great. Let me know." Eric heard the doorbell ring in the background. "Gotta go Eric! Pizza's here."