I wipe tears from my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I tell him.
He shakes his head, like he doesn’t need my condolences. “Don’t be,” he says to me. “It’s not something I dwell on. The wreck wasn’t my fault. Of course I miss them, and it hurts every day, but I also know that life has to go on. And my mother and Carey weren’t the type of people who would want me to use their deaths as an excuse.” His fingers move gently, back and forth, across my jaw. He’s not looking me in the eyes. He’s looking beyond me, over my head, contemplating.
“Sometimes I miss them so much, it hurts me right here,” he says, making a tight fist with his hand against his chest. “It feels like someone is squeezing my heart with the strength of the entire goddamn world.”
I nod, because I know exactly what he means. I feel that way every time I think of AJ and the fact that he’s not living with me.
“Every time I get that feeling in my chest, I start to think about the things I miss most about them. Like my mother, and the way she used to smile at me. Because no matter what, no matter where we were, her smile would always comfort me. We could have been in the middle of a war and all she had to do was kneel down and look me in the eyes with that smile, and it would take away every single fear or worry I had. And somehow, even on her bad days, when I know she didn’t feel like smiling, she would anyway. Because to her, nothing else mattered but my happiness. And I miss that. Sometimes I miss it so much, the only way I can make myself feel better is to paint her.”
He laughs under his breath. “I have about twenty paintings of my mother stowed away. It’s kind of creepy.”
I laugh with him, but seeing how much he loves his mother puts the ache back in my chest, and my laugh turns into a frown. It makes me wonder if AJ will ever feel that for me, since I’m not able to be the type of mother I want to be to him right now.
Owen cups my cheek in his hand and looks me very seriously in the eyes. “I saw the way you looked at him, Auburn. I saw the way you smiled at him. You smiled at him the same way my mother used to smile at me. And I don’t care what that woman may think of you as a mother; I barely know you, and I could feel how much you love that little boy.”
I close my eyes and let his words seep over every doubtful thought I’ve ever had when it comes to my abilities as a mom.
I’ve been a mother for over four years now.
And in those four years, Owen is the first person to ever say anything that makes me feel like I’m capable of being a good mother. And even though he hardly knows me, and he doesn’t know a thing about my situation, I can feel the belief he holds in the words he’s saying to me. The simple fact that he believes what he’s saying makes me want to believe it, too.
“Really?” I say quietly. I open my eyes and look up at him. “Because sometimes I feel like—”
He cuts me off with an adamant shake of his head. “Don’t,” he says firmly. “I don’t know your situation, and I assume if you wanted me to know, you would have told me. So I’m not going to ask. But I can tell you that what I just witnessed was a woman who takes advantage of your insecurities. Don’t allow her to make you feel that way, Auburn. You’re a good mother. A good mother.”
Another tear escapes, and I quickly turn my head away. I know in my heart that I could be a good mother if Lydia would give me the chance. I know that the way things have turned out isn’t my fault. I was sixteen and unprepared when I had him. But I never knew how good it could feel for someone else to believe in me.
Finding out about AJ could have sent Owen out the door in a flash. Finding out I don’t have custody of my son could have filled him with misjudgments about me. Neither of those things happened, though. Instead, he used this opportunity to encourage me. To make me feel better. And no one has made me feel this way since the day Adam passed away.
Thank you just doesn’t seem like enough, so instead of speaking, I face him again. He’s still hovering over me, looking down on me. I reach my hand up and around the back of his head, and I lift my mouth to his.
I kiss him softly, and he does nothing to try to stop it, nor does he try to prolong it. He just accepts the kiss as he inhales slowly. I don’t part my lips, and neither of us attempts to take the kiss further. I think we both know that this kiss was more of a “Thank you” than an “I want you.”
When I pull away, his eyes are closed and he looks as peaceful as he just made me feel.
I lie back against the pillow and watch as he slowly opens his eyes. A smile forms on his lips and he lies down next to me, both of us staring up at the top of the tent.
“His father was my first boyfriend,” I say, explaining my situation to him. It feels good to tell him. I don’t tell a lot of people much, but I want to tell Owen everything for some reason.
“He passed away when I was fifteen. Two weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with AJ. When my parents found out, they wanted me to put him up for adoption. They had four other children to care for besides me, and it was hard enough for them to put food on the table for all of us. There was no way they could afford an infant, but there was also no way I was going to give up my son. Luckily, Lydia came up with a compromise.
“She said if I agreed to give her legal custody after he was born, I could live with her and help raise him. She wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t end up putting him up for adoption, and primary custody of him would give her that reassurance. She also said it would be easier for medical and insurance reasons. I didn’t question her. I was young, I had no idea what any of it meant. I just knew it was my only guarantee that I could keep AJ, so I did it. I would have signed whatever she wanted if it meant I could be with him.
“Once AJ was born, she took over completely. She was never pleased with how I did anything. She made me feel ignorant. And after a while, I started to believe her. After all, I was young, and she had raised children before, so I assumed she knew more than me. By the time I graduated high school, Lydia was making all the decisions for him. And one of those decisions was that he was going to stay with her while I attended college.”
Owen finds my hand and pulls it between us, holding on to it. I appreciate the encouraging gesture, because this is a hard confession.
“Instead of attending a four-year university, I decided to attend cosmetology school, since it was only a one-year program. I thought once I graduated and got my own place, she’d let him live with me. But three months before graduation, her husband passed away. She moved back to Texas to be closer to Trey, her other son. And she took my son with her.”