Chapter 1

The Heartbroken Monster

Dean Parker stepped off the bus and craned his neck at all of the buildings towering over him.

He'd grown tall in the midst of tall buildings; spending his early years here in Toronto, and the rest of his life in Dallas. But somehow the skyscrapers seemed threatening today.

His father...a smudgy half-memory, the object of his loving mother's intense hatred...that man worked in one of those buildings.

Dean consulted his phone and headed toward the building it indicated. Once inside, he was sure to find a directory that would tell him which floor he needed.

He comforted himself that, in a way, this was absurdly simple. All too easy. A bus ride, a short walk, a push of an elevator button, and he could face his fears, bolster his self-respect, increase the peace in his home...

...and totally upset the father he barely remembered.

What will I do if he gets angry? If he yells?

He hadn't let himself question his plans yet today. He feared that his resolve wasn't strong enough to face the challenge. So he'd simply practiced his spiel and imagined good outcomes in order to bolster his courage.

But now his resolve wavered mightily.

Just do it. Get it over with. You'll feel so much better when it's done.

He walked into the building, consulted the directory, and stepped onto the elevator.

It will be worth it. It will. It will.

It's really the kindest thing to do, anyway.

I can't believe I'm really doing this.

The elevator door opened onto his floor all too soon.

The room that met his eyes was imposing, to say the least. He couldn't really take the time to register everything, though, because he saw a large reception desk with a uniformed woman behind it.

That's the place to start. Just get it over with.

A buzz of mostly masculine voices came from somewhere just out of sight.

Dean's stomach tightened. One of those might be my father.

The woman at the desk seemed friendly, if her smile and polite tone on the phone meant anything. He steeled himself and walked up to her domain, trying to look confident.

The woman hung up the phone, and then quickly acknowledged him. "Hi, can I help you?"

"Uh...yeah..."

So much for confidence!

His next words came out in a rush, as if they needed to gain enough speed to vault over his defenses.

"I'm here to see Greg Parker?" He hadn't meant to make it sound like a question, but it kind-of did. Maybe he's not in today.

"Sure, can I tell him who it is?"

That means he's here! Dean's stomach tightened, but he had too much momentum to stop now.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a man approaching, but he didn't let himself pay attention yet. This was scary enough without his father surprising him.

"Yeah, um, Dean...Parker."

The woman's eyes darted instantly to the man in the periphery, so Dean had to turn to see him.

The man stared at him, slack jawed. "Hey..." the man whispered, and then, finding his voice, "Hey," again. His eyes took in every inch of Dean's face, and the shock in his expression left Dean in no doubt of who this was.

Shouldn't he look more familiar?

Dean didn't know what he'd been expecting, but this soft-spoken, middle-aged, balding man wasn't it.

"Uh, hey," Dean returned. Evidently awkward babbling was contagious.

"What are you doing here? I mean...it's good to...I just didn't know you were coming, I uh...it's good to see you..."

"Yeah," Dean replied. His skin crawled.

And then came the most unexpected thing in the world.

His father reached out, briefly touched the back of his head, wrapped his arms around his shoulders, pulled him close.

Hugged him.

Somehow Dean had never imagined that.

Nor had he ever dreamed of the emotion he heard in his father's breathing, every breath catching in something like a suppressed sob.

Dean slowly, tentatively let his hands rest on the backs of his father's shoulders, but he didn't return the pressure, didn't make it a real hug like the one his father was giving him.

His father's hug lasted a while, too. Awkwardly long. He even rested a hand on the back of Dean's head, a touch that seemed oddly tender coming from a stranger.

And yet, somehow, this was not a stranger.

Dean found himself patting his father's back, because he didn't know what else to do.

When his father finally broke off the hug, he still seemed overwhelmed by the need to be close to Dean. He cupped Dean's neck, clapped his shoulders, touched his face. His expression of shock gave way to a smile.

A tearful smile.

Still more touches. The smile growing broader. The breath still catching.

The eyes, moist and full...

Dean had to get this back under control. This was nothing like he'd imagined, and the only way he knew to handle the emotion of the moment was to get down to the business at hand.

"Yeah, um, we were just up visiting Shelby...my aunt."

His father nodded vigorously. "Yeah, yeah, I know who Shelby is, I know. But why didn't you tell me?"

Dean shook his head and stammered, "I...I didn't want to call first...I...thought I might back out." He'd had no intention of confessing that, but out it came.

But of course he'd lost his bearings! How could he not feel disoriented by this supposed monster with gentle eyes who held him tenderly, this stranger who wept for the love of him? This demon from his past who was, after all, just a man...flesh and blood in Dean's arms...heartbreakingly vulnerable in a uniform of power...how could he not make Dean's thoughts whirl and his plans crumble?

I have to do this. He shored up his tottering resolve.

"Does your mom know you're here?" his father asked.

"No, she...she thinks I'm at a movie."

"She doesn't know you're here." His father's eyes turned downward, and his whole expression fell. Dean wasn't sure why, but he didn't really want to explore that side of things now.

"Do you think there's someplace we could go and talk?" Dean asked.

"Yeah!" A single syllable packed with enthusiasm. "Yeah, c'mon." He placed his hand briefly onto Dean's shoulder again, then began walking ahead. He kept his body turned awkwardly toward Dean for the first several steps, as if he were unwilling to take his eyes off of him. But he finally straightened himself around and led the way.

They sat down, and Dean studied his father's face. He still found it so surprising, and kind-of sad, to be honest. His mother had made this man seem larger-than-life in his supposed evil. And though Dean was very glad that the impression of evil was rapidly fading, he was sad to see the "larger-than-life" disappearing as well. His eyes appraised all the signs of middle-age as only youth can see it, and he felt sorry for the man.

No way. I can't let pity stop me. I have to put an end to this, for all our sakes.

"Um...I...look, this is hard to say..."

His father's eyes widened briefly, and then almost instantly shuttered themselves behind a wall of guardedness.

Dean dragged in a deep sigh and plunged ahead. "I really appreciate that you want to be back in touch, but...it just won't work out. I mean...I have a family that I love, and we were going along just fine, and...and everybody has gotten all upset since you filed that suit. And...and..." suddenly he couldn't look at his father anymore. "Look...I'm sixteen years old, and I don't want to be forced to have another father. I already have a father, and I love him. I'm even planning to take his last name. So I'm here to ask you to drop the lawsuit. Please."

Dean hadn't actually made up his mind to change his last name. He'd never mentioned it to his stepdad, either. But he definitely had been considering it for a little while.

He looked back up at his father, and he thought his own heart would break right along with his. But the pain only spurred him along, pushing him to bring the whole agonizing episode to a close.

"I thought I should tell you in person," he continued as gently as he could. "You know...it'd be the right thing to do."

Right now he regretted the personal code of honor that had brought him here. Maybe his cousin had been right, when they'd talked it over this morning. Dylan had wanted him to just send a letter to the SRU station and be done with it. But Dean had told him, "I couldn't respect myself if I did that. The guy deserves to hear it from me, face-to-face. After all, they say it's really lame to break up with a girl over text or email. You've got to have the courage to look them in the eye, you know? How much more honorable should you be about breaking up with your father?"

His father looked into his eyes, briefly but deeply, and then turned away to stare into an abyss that no eye could see. He said nothing. His face wore a blank mask, but underneath that mask Dean saw a deep reservoir of pain.

Not anger. Pain. The same shocky pain that he'd seen in his friend Larry's eyes when his older brother had drowned in the family pool. A pain that has no words. Pain that reviews the facts, tries to grasp them, nods in rare moments of clarity, but then trails off, defeated, unable to fathom its own depth.

His father seemed to have folded in on himself.

He was mourning. Mourning for his son.

Mourning for me.

Next - Chapter 2: The Way to a Son's Heart