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The Wrong Girl - Chapter 3, Part 1


Jake

*

Somehow, I slept in to mid-morning. I couldn’t recall sleeping that late on a Saturday since before Olivia was born. I could blame it on the booze, but some part of me knew it was because of Ellie.

I lounged in bed, letting my mind wander over every delicious detail of last night. The softness of her skin; the taste of her sweat when I kissed her neck; the sweet floral scent of her body and how all her soft curves fit against the hard planes of mine perfectly. 

Even since Cheryl and I broke up, I hadn’t gotten close to another woman. I went on a couple of Tinder dates—total nightmares—at the insistence of my friends. When I decided to get out of the Air Force and move, it just didn’t seem to make much sense to get involved with anyone. I needed to spend that time with my kids.

And here I was, my first week in a new town, getting drunk and making out at a party with the first beautiful woman I met.

Ellie was beautiful in a wild, completely irresistible way. The way the ocean was beautiful—untamed, unmanageable; free. Being around her last night was like unearthing a side of myself I didn’t think still existed. She made me feel charming, funny, even interesting. My life had been about duty and family for so long I couldn’t recall a time in the last decade that wasn’t one or the other. 

I checked my phone—no messages from Ellie, aside from the text sending me her number.
It took a good deal of willpower, but I resisted the urge to text her. Everyone knew a guy wasn’t supposed to come across as too desperate. Three days minimum, according to my single friends in Alabama. That was long enough to let the air settle, but not so long it was weird. I’d text her on Monday—maybe around lunch time. Just a friendly message.

That decided, I stretched and clambered out of bed, immediately fluffing the pillows and smoothing the sheets and blankets. Best way to start the day was with the bed made.

The weekend went faster than I thought. My brain kept flitting back to Ellie the second it wasn’t occupied with something more important. Because my weekend comprised mostly the manual labor of unpacking boxes, I found myself daydreaming a good deal.

I checked my phone far more often than I should have, just hoping she’d text me out of the blue. Obviously, if she messaged me first, it would be rude to delay responding. I didn’t want her to think I was one of those guys who hooked up with a woman, then just ignored her. I almost gave in to the temptation to text, but then my mom called and asked me to dinner, so I accepted gratefully.

When I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. Some part of me assumed my parent’s house would be completely trashed, the shutters hanging crooked, graffiti on the walls, my parents near tears. Even though I knew my kids were typically pretty good, I couldn’t help the part of me that always expected the worst.

Instead, I was relieved to see their house was perfectly in order, and my kids were happy, with bright eyes and excited smiles as soon as I walked in the door. Joy bubbled in my chest immediately to see them this way. 

“Dad!”

“Daddy!”

They both rushed me at once for hugs, then immediately began gabbing about their weekend.
“Gramma and I made like a thousand cookies,” Olivia pointed to a stack of tupperware. “We get to bring some home.”

“That sounds amazing. You know I love Gramma’s cookies, and I bet they’re even better because you helped.”

She nodded proudly. “That’s exactly what Grandpa said.”

“Grandpa and I made a birdhouse. Look!” Ethan tugged my hand, pulling me to the window in the kitchen. Outside, a wooden bird house dangled from a tree branch, painted with the distinctive red-and-white web pattern of his favorite superhero.

“That’s amazing buddy. It looks awesome. Did you have fun?” 

He nodded. “Yeah! And Grandpa said next time we can build a tree house. Can we come back tomorrow?”

My heart stuttered, eyes stinging in the wake of their obvious excitement. “Well, tomorrow you guys start school, buddy. But maybe we can talk to Gramma and Grandpa and see if you can come over next weekend. How’s that?” It was so much easier engaging them when they were already happy. I needed to compare notes with my parents and find out how I could replicate this joy at home.

“Hooray!” they cheered, then rushed into the kitchen where Mom was pulling a dish out of the oven.

“Daddy said we can come back next weekend!” Olivia picked up a pitcher of iced tea and carried it to the table. “Can we make the lemon cake Saturday, Gramma?”

My mom laughed. “Alright, Livvie, one thing at a time. Why don’t you go wash up? Ethan, will you go tell Grandpa dinner is ready? He’s out in the garage.”

“Kay!” Ethan raced off, and my eyes followed him in wonder.

Mom caught me watching him, and she smiled fondly. “He’s just like you at his age. Did you know that? All he wants to do is whatever your dad is doing.”

“I hope they haven’t been too much trouble.” I helped move bowls of mashed potatoes and beans to the table.

“Of course not. They were absolutely wonderful the entire time. Such happy, well-behaved children, like always.”

“Are you sure we’re talking about the same kids?” I raised an eyebrow, thinking how I couldn’t get through a day without at least five total meltdowns from Ethan.

Mom just laughed. “Of course, dear. You and Cheryl have done an amazing job with them. I know you have some challenges, but I promise, they’re doing just fine.” She patted me on the cheek. “Now go wash up so we can eat.”

Dinner was a whole new experience. Around my parents, my kids were… just kids. Goofy, playful, a little mischievous, but they mostly minded their manners. Not a hint of the serious little soldiers I had at home.

Of course, my parents spoiled them with too few vegetables and way too much dessert, but it was worth it to see them so happy. It’d been months, maybe a year, since I’d heard that much laughter.

My throat clenched as I realized the reason. I couldn’t recall a time in the last several years that I made them laugh like that. They modeled their serious personas on me. Moving here was beneficial, and giving them access to my parents was a good move. They needed to be around family, and I still had a lot to do to create a similar atmosphere in our home.

And true to my revelation at dinner, they were quiet on the drive home. I tried to prompt them with some questions about their weekend and received short answers in response.

I thought they’d be excited to discover I’d unpacked most of the house—including their bedrooms—but their only response was a dutiful ‘thank you’ and they immediately started getting ready for bed. 

We read a story, and I tucked them in like our usual routine, but the radiant glow from the weekend was already gone.

I got ready for bed, laying out my suit for the next day, and resolved to find a way out of the funk that our home life had become. Tomorrow they’d start school and hopefully it’d give us some opportunities to build a new life, a happier life, together.


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