I nod. “Yes. And no one knows this tent is here, so we need to keep it between us, okay?”
He smiles and nods, like he’s excited to have a secret. “I can keep secrets.”
“That’s good,” I say to him. “Because it’s not muscles that make men strong. Secrets do. The more secrets you keep, the stronger you are on the inside.”
He grins. “I want to be strong.”
I’m about to tell him to go back to the living room before any attention is brought to me, but I can hear the opening of the bedroom door.
“AJ, come give Nana Lydia a hug,” the woman says. Her footsteps grow louder and AJ’s eyes grow wide.
“Lydia, wait,” I hear Auburn say to her with panic in her voice. But she says it a second too late, because I don’t have time to pull my feet inside the tent before Lydia walks into the room.
I can see her steps come to an immediate halt. I don’t have to see her face to know that she’s not very happy about the fact that AJ is in this tent right now.
“AJ,” her voice is firm. “Come out of the tent, sweetie.”
AJ grins at me and puts his finger to his mouth. “I’m not in a tent, Nana Lydia. There’s no tent in here.”
“Lydia, I can explain,” Auburn says, bending down. She motions for AJ to come out of the tent, and her eyes only meet mine for a second. “He’s just a friend. He was helping me put up this tent for AJ.”
“AJ, let’s go, honey.” Lydia grabs his hand, pulling him out of the tent. “You may be okay with allowing your son to be around complete strangers, but I’m not.”
I can see the disappointment wash over Auburn. It washes over AJ, too, when he realizes Lydia isn’t letting him stay. I follow after him, crawling out of the tent, standing up. “It’s fine, I’ll go,” I say. “We just finished setting it up for him.”
Lydia looks me up and down, unimpressed with whatever she thinks she sees. I want to eye her the same way, but I don’t want to do anything to make this worse for Auburn. When I get a good look at her, I realize I’ve seen her before. It’s been a while, but she hasn’t changed a bit, other than having a little more gray in her straight, black hair. She still looks just as stoic and intimidating as she did all those years ago.
She faces AJ.
“AJ, get your toy. We need to go.”
Auburn follows Lydia out of the room. “Lydia, please.” She waves her hand in my direction. “He’s leaving. It’ll just be me and AJ here, I promise.”
Lydia’s hand pauses on the front door, and she turns to face Auburn. She releases a quick sigh. “You can see him Sunday night, Auburn. Really, it’s fine. I should have known not to stop by unannounced.”
She looks over Auburn’s shoulder to AJ. “Tell your mother good-bye, AJ.”
I can see Auburn grimace and then just as fast, her frown turns into a smile as she turns around and kneels down in front of AJ. She pulls him to her and hugs him. “I’m sorry, but you’re gonna go with Nana Lydia tonight, okay?” She pulls away from him and brushes her hand through his hair. “I’ll see you Sunday night.”
“But I want to stay here,” he says with genuine disappointment.
Auburn tries to hide it with her smile, but I can see how his words have gutted her. She ruffles his hair and says, “Another night, okay? Mommy has to get up really early and work tomorrow and you won’t have any fun if all we do is go to sleep.”
“It’ll be fun,” he says. He points toward the bedroom. “You have a tent and we could sleep in—” AJ’s eyes cut to mine and he realizes he just mentioned the secret tent. He looks back at Auburn and shakes his head. “Never mind, you don’t have a tent. I was wrong, you don’t.”
As shitty as I feel about what’s happening right now, the kid makes me smile.
“AJ, let’s go.”
Auburn gives him another tight hug and whispers, “I love you. I’ll love you forever.” She kisses his forehead and he kisses her cheek before taking Lydia’s hand. Auburn doesn’t even turn around to tell Lydia good-bye, and I don’t blame her one bit. As soon as the door closes, she stands and brushes past me, heading straight to her bedroom. I watch as she pulls back the flap and crawls into the tent.
I stand at her door and listen to her cry.
It all makes sense now. Why she was so upset that Lydia stood her up on her birthday, because that meant she didn’t get to spend it with AJ.
Why she said his favorite color is blue.
Why she moved to Texas, when she seems so unhappy here.
And why there is no way in hell I’ll be able to walk away from her now. Not after witnessing that. Not after seeing how incredible she is when she loves that little boy.
I hear the partition being unzipped, and then I feel a hand on my arm, followed by an arm sliding beneath my pillow. Owen pulls me against him and I immediately want to pull away, but at the same time I’m surprised at the level of comfort I feel wrapped in his arms. I close my eyes and wait for his questions to come. I’ll just lie here and enjoy the comfort until he strips it away with his curiosity.
His hand moves up and down my arm, stroking me gently. After several minutes of silence, he finds my fingers and slides his through mine.
“When I was sixteen,” he says quietly, “my mother and older brother died in a car wreck. I was driving.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. I can’t even imagine. Suddenly my issues don’t seem like issues at all.
“My father was in a coma for several weeks after that. I stayed by his side the entire time. Not because I necessarily wanted to be there when he woke up, but because I didn’t know where else to go. Our home was empty. My friends had lives they continued to live, so I rarely saw them after the funeral. I had relatives who would stop by in the beginning, but even that faded. By the end of that first month, it was just my father and me. And I was terrified that if he died, too, I wouldn’t have anything left to live for.”
I slowly roll onto my back and look up at him. “What happened?”
Owen reaches his fingers to my forehead and brushes back my hair. “He lived, obviously,” he says quietly. “He woke up right before the one-month anniversary of the wreck. And as happy as I was that he was okay, I don’t think reality sank in until I had to tell him what happened. He couldn’t recall anything from the day leading up to the wreck, nor could he recall anything after that point. And when I had to tell him that my mother and Carey were dead, I saw it. I saw the life seep right out of his eyes. And I haven’t seen it return since the night it happened.”