As the wheels of our plane touch down in Lincoln, Nebraska, I know today will be anything but easy. Today may be one of the most difficult days of his life.
We rent a car and drive straight to the storage facility Natalie’s parents have been renting for almost six years. Brady makes them out to be villains, especially her father, because he robbed him of those last few hours with her. But I have to believe they knew this day would come. Why else would they have kept the stuff from his apartment all this time?
Brady shows his ID to the man in the front office who then gives him a key. We follow the man’s directions, walking back to storage unit thirty-eight. Brady holds onto my hand for dear life, his steps becoming slower the closer we get.
We stop in front of the unit and he looks at it for several minutes before putting his key into the lock. The unit is much bigger than I anticipated and when he pulls the large door open, I see that they must have put everything from his apartment in here.
Along the back wall, there is a couch, a dining table with chairs piled on top, and a couple of beds. There are larger boxes lining one side of the unit and smaller boxes lining the other.
Brady walks around, appraising the boxes, running his hand along the tops of them as if he doesn’t know where to start. He stops when he sees a box labeled ‘photo albums.’ He freezes.
I grab a chair from on top of the table and set it down next to him. Then I squeeze his arm. “I’ll be outside.”
He nods and then sits down in the chair. And before I turn the corner, his painful sobs echo down the hallway.
I wait out by the car for almost an hour trying not to think of the agony he must be going through. I stand here the whole time hoping I’m not wrong about him needing this.
He comes walking out with two boxes. I open the trunk for him and he places them inside. He looks down at me with red-rimmed eyes. “I want to go on campus for a bit, is that okay?”
“Of course. Anything you need. Our flight back isn’t for three more hours.”
He drives us onto the University of Nebraska campus and finds a place to park by the baseball stadium. He pops the trunk and gets something out. A small baseball glove. He holds it as we walk the perimeter of the stadium, peeking through anywhere there is a break in the fence.
We come to an opening where we can see the team practicing. He pulls me inside. “Do you mind if we sit and watch for a minute?”
“Not at all.”
I can see so many emotions cross his face as he watches the team practice. And the whole time, he rubs on the glove like it’s a bottle with a genie inside.
After thirty minutes of complete silence, he turns to me. “Do you think Stryker would want this?” he says, holding up the glove.
Tears collect in my eyes. “I think Stryker would love to have it, baseball man.”
He nods and smiles weakly.
Then I notice something written on the wall of the stadium. “This is called Hawks Field?” I ask.
He laughs. “It is. Pretty apropos, huh?”
When we get up to walk out, someone comes over to Brady. “Well, I’ll be. Brady Taylor, nice to see you. What are you doing in our neck of the woods?”
Brady holds his hand out. “Hi, Coach Brown. Good to see you too. I’m just here for the day. This is my girlfriend, Rylee.”
“Good to meet you, Rylee.” He shakes his head back and forth like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. “You’ve done well for yourself, Brady. I was sorry to hear about your injury. How’s that coming along?”
Brady holds up his left arm. “It’s getting better every day. I’ll be back in the game soon.”
Several of the players are coming up behind their coach. I back away and let them talk to Brady. I watch as Brady signs several Nebraska ball caps for them and answers their questions about the big leagues. He’s in his element talking about baseball. I see the gleam in his eyes return. I smile knowing that maybe all of this is part of his healing.
“Come on,” he says, grabbing my hand after he says goodbye to his coach and the players. “I’m taking you on a tour of campus and then we’re going to eat at my favorite lunch place.”
He walks me past a building called Oldfather Hall, talking about the classes he had there. Then he takes me to the student union, pointing out all the changes they’ve made since he’d been here. A few blocks beyond that is downtown Lincoln where he takes me to a place called The Old Spaghetti Factory.
“Athletes love this place because it’s all-you-can-eat,” he says as we walk in.
The hostess tries to seat us in the far corner, but Brady refuses. “We’d like to sit over there if that’s okay,” he says, pointing to the opposite wall.
I look at the corner table wondering if that was where he used to sit with Natalie. Or perhaps he would bring Keeton here.
When our meals arrive, Brady laughs at my voracious appetite. “Natalie was the same way,” he says. “She was small like you, but she could eat her weight in spaghetti.”
I smile, thinking this is the first time he’s ever shared a happy memory.
“Does that bother you?” he asks. “Me talking about her?”
I shake my head. “No. It doesn’t. She was an important part of your life and you talking about her keeps her memory alive.”
“It’s her shirt I wear under my jersey,” he says. “Well, it’s mine, but we got it together a long time ago when we were still in high school.”
“Your lucky shirt,” I say. Then I cover my mouth. “Oh, Brady. That was the shirt I put on that night at your hotel, wasn’t it?”
“I’m so sorry. I never should have—”
“You didn’t know, Rylee. It’s fine.” He sighs deeply. “A long time ago when we first met, you asked me why I chose number three for my jersey number?”
“Natalie’s and Keeton’s birthdays were both on the third day of the month. Nat’s in November and Keeton’s in March. And we got married on the third day of the month as well.”
“What a lovely way to honor them, both then and now. Don’t ever change it.”
He grabs my hand across the table and kisses it, but he doesn’t say another word about them for the duration of our lunch. He tells me about playing baseball for the Cornhuskers.
On our way back to the car, we’re stopped by a few groups of students for more autographs. I caught some of them taking pictures of Brady and I walking together hand in hand. I’m sure it won’t be long before those get posted on the internet. It’s happened a few times before, and my name even got published last week. Brady doesn’t seem bothered by any of it, other than he talks about keeping me safe, so I try not to let it bother me either.
After he calls his former in-laws to make arrangements for Goodwill to pick up anything in the storage unit they don’t want to keep, we’re back on the plane by three thirty.
“Murphy said she’d hold dinner for us since I have to go there anyway and pick up Stryker. Are you okay with that?”
He looks at the glove that he’s still holding. “Yeah. That’s fine.”
“Maybe you should buy Stryker his own glove and keep that one in a special place,” I say.
He shakes his head. “I’d rather give it to him if it’s all the same to you.” He turns to me and holds my eyes with his. “Would you mind if I taught him how to play ball? He’s almost four, isn’t he? He should start now.”
I can’t help my smile. I was hoping he would ask. “I would love that. And so will he.”
Brady shrugs. “Maybe it’ll help us, you know … bond or something.”
“I think that’s a fine idea.”
He puts the glove on his tray table and stares at it.
“Will you tell me about Keeton?”
He closes his eyes for a second and I’m not sure he’s going to talk.
“I knew he was a carbon copy of Natalie the instant he was born. They had the same hair. The same eyes. The same smile. He was going to play ball, that’s for sure. When he was a baby, he loved to roll baseballs across the floor. When he started walking, you’d be hard pressed not to see him carrying a ball. And when I gave him this glove for his third birthday, he took it to bed with him. He was always swinging a bat or throwing a ball. He broke more than a few things around the house, but we never punished him for it. He was just taking after me.”
Those last few words were hard for him to choke out and he turns away and gazes out the window.
“Thank you,” I say. “I want you to feel comfortable talking about him—about them—whenever you want to.”
He nods. “I brought all the photo albums back with me. I’ll show them to you someday.”
“I would like that.”
He grabs my hand and turns back to me with misty eyes. “Thank you, Rylee. If it weren’t for you, I’m not sure I would have done this.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help.”
He runs his finger across my knuckles. “You did. You helped more than you’ll ever know.”
He motions for the flight attendant. “We’ll take those drinks now.”
“Right away,” she says, rushing to bring us the champagne we refused earlier.
He raises his glass to me. “To the future.”
“To the future,” I say, tapping my glass to his.
~ ~ ~
It’s almost nine o’clock when we get to Caden and Murphy’s. It smells divine when we walk through the door.
“Hey, you two,” Murphy says. “I hope Mexican is okay. Caden requested it. He just got home himself. Stryker crashed on our bed about an hour ago. He had tacos earlier.”
“I can’t thank you enough for watching him,” I tell her. “I know it was a long day.”
“Are you kidding? That child is an angel. I’ll watch him any time.”