I frowned at the memory the text message invoked.
Jay had been in the middle of his sentence, car door open, the same stupid smile on his lips, and I fled. I didn’t glance over my shoulder at him; didn’t want to catch the surprise – or worse, concern – that would contort his brow. We had barely exchanged a word since his admission, but I had found myself staring at his ring finger involuntarily. Barren. Yet, he was married, and that made him a liar.
He followed me, of course. Trailed behind me in his car, desperately trying to get me to join him inside. I had ignored him and, when I finally arrived home, I slammed the door in his face.
In retrospect, it seemed childish. Jay had done so much for me since I had arrived in Willow Creek, most of it without me even knowing at the time. He deserved a chance to explain himself and, honestly, I needed to know.
If I left now I would make it in time.
Magnolia Blossom Park.
I had spent many summer afternoons here as a child – both with my parents and church groups. I could picture my father fishing by the willow trees, draped over a lazy river, Spanish moss dangling off gnarled limbs like lace. I saw my mother in the women laying out an oversized blanket, all the while keeping a careful eye on her roaming toddler’s legs. And then there was Jay whom, though he had grown quite tall over the years, used to chase my lanky pre-teen body across the flower-dotted fields. Now he was seated at a picnic table, face set in a scowl, all signs of our laughter gone. I scooted in beside him, tempering the tightness in my chest.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, “Sorry about last night.”
“It’s my fault. I should have been honest with you from the beginning but…” I felt Jay tense as my hand brushed against his arm. He trailed off with a heavy sigh.
I waited for him to continue, but was only met with a locked jaw and conflicted expression.
“Look, I’m not going to lie. I’m mad at you. I only came for the explanation you promised but if you don’t want to tell me… I understand. I get it. It’s your life and I walked out of it four years ago. You don’t owe me anything.”
He laughed, soft and self-deprecating, “Will, I wanted to tell you but it’s embarrassing. You know it took less than two months to ruin my life without you to guide me?”
“You didn’t ruin your life, Jay. You’re a police officer. You have a wife and a house.” I argued.
“I only have a wife because I knocked her up during a one night stand after an all-night bender. When Helen told me she was pregnant I yelled at her, told her to get lost, called her some horrible names. Jesus, Will, I turned into my father the minute you left the state.”
I wanted to ask him about the pregnancy, shocked that he might have been a father out of wedlock, or worse, condoned an abortion, but I knew that Jay needed reassurance, not accusations, “You’re not your father. She ended up marrying you. You must have made it up to her.”
“You’re not your father. She ended up marrying you. You must have made it up to her.”
“I made it up to her by asking for a divorce three months ago.”
My stomach churned, making a connection that might not be there. Three months ago I had moved back to Willow Creek. I desperately tried to recall our brief encounter at my parent’s funeral; had he been wearing a wedding ring that night? Had Helen been there? Was I the reason he wanted a divorce? I bit my tongue, the words too heavy to ask.
“She won’t sign the papers, Will.” Jay said.
I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have either. Divorce was a sin – even if you weren’t the one initiating it. “She doesn’t live with you anymore?”
“No. She agreed to time apart for now. She insists that I’ll change my mind.”
“Maybe you will,” I whispered.
“I know you don’t agree but I’m doing the right thing. For both of us. Helen is an amazing woman and mother. She deserves someone who loves her. Not someone who is there out of obligation.”
Mother. The word stuck in my mind the way the humid air stuck to my skin, “You have a kid?”
For the first time today, Jay smiled. It was small but proud, “A son named Jason. Helen dropped him off last night. He’s playing in the sand right there.” He pointed to a young boy, about two years old, with hair like an angel and a laugh like one too.
“He looks just like you!”
Jay laughed, “Sure does. Couldn’t deny he was mine once I laid eyes on him.” Jay paused, “Do you want to meet him?”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’ll love you.” He turned away from me, calling out to the toddler that had made his way on top of a slide, “Jason, come here.”
“Bye bye?” Jason asked as he slowly made his way over to him, his bottom lip jutting out to show his displeasure at this turn of events.
“No, little man.” Jay wrapped him in a brief hug, “I want to you to meet someone really special.”
“Special?” He echoed. His lisp was the most adorable thing I had ever heard.
“Her name is Willow and she’s a good friend of Daddy’s,” Jay said as he led Jason over to me.
“Hewwo.” He waved, flashing me a wide smile. It wasn’t just his father looks he had inherited.
“Pretty,” He said confidently. “Build wid me?” He asked, looking between myself and his father.
“Sure thing, little man.” Jay answered, “but a little later. Daddy and Willow are talking right now.”
“No, it’s fine.” I interjected, “I would love to build with you, Jason.”
As the three of us managed to build a sandcastle, I couldn’t help but hope that one day I would have a family too.