My shop bell did its standard ding-a-ling signaling another customer. At nine in the morning on a Saturday, it could be any one of my friends here to shoot the shit or any one of the old farmers. Hefting one of the last three bags of milk replacer onto the back counter, I yelled out that I’d be up front in just a second. Thatcher’s Feed Store was located on the main drag of Lone Star. Like any other older building in town on Main, Thatcher’s Feed was an old brick building with a bay of windows overlooking the street. A small but useful parking lot that I used for the obvious as well as a place to keep fence posts and other larger items that I didn’t have room for inside could be seen from the bay of windows. In the warehouse where I was now, there were three square windows, a back door and another door that led back into the store front.
No one responded and I became curious who was out there. Most likely not a local. Anyone who lived around here never had a problem coming to the back to find me, as if they owned the place. I stuck my head out of the door opening that separated the back warehouse from the store part and seeing no one, I called out.
I saw the blond mop of hair just before impact. Umph. Right into my leg, I maneuvered enough to grab the little boy and when he looked up into my eyes, I froze. The subject of my grandfather’s will stood in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. He was oblivious to my world stopping as he kept on going, holding a tiny green tractor in his hand, making what I thought were great tractor sounds.
He looked just like me. At least what I looked like when I was his age. The fluffy blond hair and large blue eyes. He even had dimples just like mine. Seeing him was like a sucker punch to my gut. A desperate ache clung to my heart and I wanted to go after him. Sit on the floor and play with him and his green tractor. It’d been almost three months since I’d last seen him. As I stood in awe at having him in here, the conditions of my grandad’s will sat heavy on my heart as I contemplated how I was going to pull this off.
“Sorry. We just came to get a few things.”
I turned at the polite tone in Abby’s voice as she came up next to me. She was wearing jeans riddled with holes and an oversized t-shirt claiming that she’d rather be reading, which her body was practically swimming in. I knew hidden beneath that sweatshirt were expanses of soft, delicate skin and curves that my hands could get lost upon. I’d seen her with her glasses and without, but today she wore small square ones with purple frames. Fucking hot. Her reddish-blonde hair was piled on top of her head and I had the urge to pull out the band and feel those locks all over my fingers. It’d been a long time since I’d held a woman in my arms. Too long. It had been longer since I’d held this particular woman.
“It’s okay,” I managed. “Y’all are welcome here anytime.”
“I know. It’s just, well, I, uh, yeah. I’ll just get what we need and go. He’ll tear the place up if you let him.”
“I don’t care. Let him.” I could still hear his tractor sounds but I was having a difficult time tearing my gaze away from his mother to see where the little guy was. Every time I saw her, she entranced me. Her hair made her skin look even paler than it actually was, and those green eyes of hers were so deep in color, I never got tired of losing myself in them. Did she still shave the matching-colored hair between her legs?
“What’d y’all come looking for?” I managed to ask.
“A cage,” Thayer exclaimed running around the corner. “For my turtle.” He browsed through some of the shelves he could see at his level before taking off again down one of the aisles.
“I let him get a turtle, but that little pet store on sixth said they’d sold their only two cages today and that I might check here in the meantime. They’re getting more in tomorrow or the next day.” I could tell she was nervous standing there by the way her eyes kept darting around the store. Like she wanted to look anywhere but at me.
“Does it need to live in water? I don't have any aquariums.”
“No. It’s just a box turtle. It doesn’t live in water. Right now, the little guy’s in a cardboard box and every time Thayer feeds him, well, it's making a terrible mess of the box.”
I couldn't help but smile as I imagined Thayer, my son, playing with this turtle.
“You’re in luck. I think I may have something we can use for this new turtle’s home. Follow me.”
I led the way to the back of my store, trying not to think about the hair between her legs or lack thereof, as Abby called for Thayer. “Thatcher might have a home for the turtle. Such a nice gentleman, right?”
I resisted the urge to laugh as she told her son what a nice gentleman I was. Would such a nice gentleman put her in the position of being a single mother? Hook her up with his best friend so they could marry one another and pretend he was Thayer’s father? Probably not. Would a nice gentleman be entertaining the thought of taking her son away from her in order to meet the terms of his grandfather’s will? I didn’t think so.
With the two of them trailing behind me, I led them to the grain bins I had in stock. They came in a variety of sizes and I was sure one of them could do the job of housing his pet turtle.
“A bin?” Abby asked me.
“Why not? No different than a glass cage, except these are larger. The turtle will have much more room to stretch. Don't you think buddy?” I got onto my knees and pulled one of the bins out from under the shelving. Thayer got on to his knees too, making sure to be seated exactly like me and pride swelled in my chest. Abby joined us on the floor, too and I liked how she didn't give a second glance about the not-so-clean floor.
“I think this one might work best. It's fairly shallow but not so much that he could crawl out-”
“What’s shallow?” Thayer asked.
“Shallow means it isn’t very deep. See here. Look at this bin compared to this one. This one is deep and this one is shallow.”
I shifted the bins for his inspection and Thayer seemed satisfied with my explanation. When I caught sight of Abby watching us, a sharp pain stabbed me right in my gut. Her furrowed brows had me guessing that she no doubt was wondering what our lives would’ve been like if things were different. Heck, I was wondering that myself right now as Thayer brushed up against my leg, almost settling into me so he could examine his new turtle’s home. This was as close as we’d ever been as a family. This moment, this proximity to one another, making a decision families made all the time regarding new pets.
If I leaned over just enough, I could pull the two of them in for a family hug. Nuzzle my days old beard into Abby’s delicate neck and tousle Thayer’s blond hair with my fingertips. It was an urge I’d never experienced and seeing the look on Abby’s face, I knew she was thinking along the same lines as me. Why? Why couldn't we be a family? Why couldn't we try? Because if she found out I was going to push to gain custody of Thayer, she’d run as far away from me as she could get.
I swallowed, “How’s Adrian doing?”
“He’s good. He’s out of town for a few days right now.”
“Daddy’s gone but he’ll be back to see my turtle, right Mama?”
That stabbing pain I felt only moments ago resurfaced and settled into my chest as I watched Thayer’s face light up with excitement at the thought of showing his dad his turtle. His dad. Not me. It would never be me because I’d given up that right five years ago when Abby told me she was pregnant with him.
“Yeah, of course buddy. He’ll be home in two days for you to show him.”
She wouldn't look at me and I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking about. Did she resent me as much as I resented myself? No. She was happy with Adrian. They made their relationship work. The few times I've run into her around Lone Star, she was always happy. Always smiling, always giddy with excitement and I couldn't help but think about her when she was my girl. How she’d rarely, if ever, gotten angry at people because she was genuinely happy all the time. I’d never met anyone like her.
I'd stayed as far away from her and Thayer as I could because, well, for the obvious reasons. I had to give them up. The more I saw of Abby, the more that flame burned deep inside me, begging for Abby to be the one to extinguish it. I’ve been doing a great job of ignoring it so far.
“Do you think this will work then?”
“I think so. Do you Thayer?”
“Yes, Mama.” Thayer placed his tiny hand over my arm and squeezed me in excitement. I couldn't tear my eyes away from his hand resting on me. It was so tiny and pale the way it lay sprawled over the dark ink of my tattoo and so innocent. At four years old, I bet he believed everyone was good. He did if he was anything like his mother. Was she still the same woman I remembered? Had her marriage and life changed her innocence and outlook on life? Or was she still that sweet and caring, maddeningly horny woman who couldn’t get enough of sex?
“Does this turtle have a name y’all or are we just going to keep calling him The Turtle?”
“He needs a name. I've been thinking Mr. Turtle, Turtle Turtle, and Spider-Man.”
I laughed, “Why Spider-Man?”
He hadn't moved his hand from my arm and I sat there, stone-still, loving the coldness of his little fingers as they absentmindedly brushed through the hairs on my forearm. I’d met Thayer before, been around him on some special occasions but I’d never been with him like this. This close, relaxing together, naming pets with one another and admiring how beautiful his mother was. Shit, I did that last bit every time I saw Abby. I shouldn't though, considering how she’s been married to Adrian for the past five years. There was always something about her though, that pulled me to her: her beauty, her motherly ways, and all of those things I’d glimpsed underneath the surface and wondered whether or not they were still there. If Adrian got to experience all of those wonderful things I’d immersed myself with and currently longed for. Asshole. It was hard not to be jealous of him even though I was the real asshole.
“Because he’s my favorite super hero.”
“Wow, mom. Isn't that cool?”
Abby smiled at Thayer, eyeing me warily over his head. “Yes, that is so cool.”
“What should we name him then?” That voice resurfaced whispering to me how big of a deal this was to sit with these two and share in this moment of helping Thayer name his turtle.
“I really like Spider-Man. Don't you, Thayer?”
“I do! Alright! His name is Spider-Man. Isn't that great, mama?”
“It's perfect,” she smiled, tousling his hair like my fingers itched to do. She glanced up at me.
“What?” I asked her, my voice clogged with emotion.
“Good different or bad different?”
“Good different,” she laughed. “And a little unsettling, too.”
“Seeing you two this way…”
“And you,” I told her.
“And me?” She cocked her head to the side, not understanding.
“You’re part of this, too. The three of us…”
We sat there watching each other for what felt like forever as our son pushed his tractor around the inside of the plastic bin. Neither one of us were willing to look away this time. Not even her as a light pink blush fanned across her cheeks. Even though we didn’t talk on a regular basis – she is married to one of my best friends after all, there were still things between us. Lots of unspoken things. Unfinished things. Things I'm not sure we would ever be able to discuss. But there they were anyway. Filling the space between us, pulling us in to one another like it had since our last night together when I gave away my rights to her and our child.
Now, it’d come down to this. I had only a short amount of time to produce an heir in order to receive the lump sum of money from my grandpa’s will. The money would no doubt get me out of the red for Thatcher’s Feed Store up in Deer Creek.