Sometimes his father was playful, other times, extremely cruel.

His father would come home so cruel that the boy would oftentimes close his eyes at night and convince himself that he’d made up the actions of the drunken man, telling himself his father would never be so cold. He’d tell himself no person could hate his own flesh and blood so much—even with the aid of alcohol.

Yet the truth of the matter was, sometimes the ones we loved most were the monsters that tucked us in at night.

“Come here, son,” the grown man called, making the boy stand up taller. He hurried himself into the living room where he spotted his father sitting with a woman. The father grinned as the woman’s hands rested in his hold. “This,” he said, his eyes light, practically shining, “is Rebecca.”

The woman was beautiful with chocolate hair that fell against her shoulders and a slender nose that fit perfectly between her brown doe eyes. Her lips were full and painted red, and when she smiled, she kind of reminded the boy of his mother.

“Hello there,” Rebecca said softly, her voice brimming with kindness and misplaced trust. She extended her hand toward the boy. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”

The boy stayed at a distance, uncertain of what he should say or feel.

“Well,” his father scolded. “Shake her hand. Say hello, son.”

“Hello,” the boy said in a whisper, as if he was worried he was walking into his father’s trap.

“Rebecca is going to be my new wife, your new mother.”

“I have a mother,” the boy barked, his voice louder than he meant it to be. He cleared his throat and returned to his whispering sounds. “I have a mom.”

“No,” his father corrected. “She left us.”

“She left you,” the boy argued. “Because you’re a drunk!” He knew he shouldn’t have said it, but he also knew how much his heart hurt thinking that his mother would walk out on him, leaving him with the monster. His mother loved him—he was certain of that. One day she just got too scared, and that fear had driven her away.

He often wondered if she realized she’d left him behind.

He often prayed she’d come back some day.

His father sat up straighter, and his hands formed fists. As he was about to snap at his loud-mouthed son, Rebecca placed her hand on his shoulder, soothing him. “It’s okay. This is a new situation for all of us,” she said, moving her hands to rub his back. “I’m not here to replace your mom. I know she meant a lot to you, and I’d never want to take her place. But, I am hoping that someday, you’ll somehow find a place for me in your heart, too, because that’s the thing about hearts—when you think they’re completely full, you somehow find room to add a little more love.”

The boy remained silent, unsure what he should say. He could still see the anger in his father’s eyes, but something about Rebecca’s touch kept him calm. She seemed to be the beauty that somehow tamed the beast.

For that reason alone, the boy secretly hoped she’d stay the night, and perhaps the morning, too.

“Now, on to the fun things,” Rebecca said, standing up and walking over to the dining room table. She came back with a cupcake in her hand, and it bore a yellow and green striped candle. “Rumor has it that it’s your eleventh birthday. Is that true?”

The boy nodded warily.

How had she known?

His own father hadn’t even mentioned it all day.

“Then you must make a wish.” Rebecca smiled big, like his mother used to do. She reached into her purse, pulled out a lighter, and flicked on the flame. The boy watched as the candle wick began to burn, the wax slowly dripping down the sides of the candle, melting into the frosting. “Go ahead, blow out the candle and make your wish.”

He did as she said, and she smiled even wider than before.

The young boy made a mistake that night, and he didn’t even notice. It happened so quickly, between the moment he opened his mouth to blow out the candle and the moment when the flame dissipated.

In that split second, in that tiny space of time, he accidentally opened his heart and let her in.

The last woman to remember his birthday was his mother, and how he loved her so.

She reminded him so much of his mother, from her kind smile and misplaced trust, her painted lips and doe eyes to her willingness to love.

Rebecca wasn’t wrong about hearts and love. Hearts were always welcoming to new love, but when that love settled in, heartbreak sometimes began to creep in the shadows as well.

In the shadows, heartbreak poisoned the love, twisting it into something darker, heavier, uglier. Heartbreak took love and mutilated it, humiliated it, scarred it. Heartbreak slowly began to freeze heartbeats that had once been so welcoming to love.

“Happy birthday,” Rebecca said, taking a swipe of frosting from his cupcake with her finger and placing it in her mouth. “I hope all of your wishes come true.”

It was the middle of the night when my cell phone started ringing. I rolled over in my bed in search of Richard, but he wasn’t there. I glanced toward the hallway, where a light shined and light jazz music was playing, which meant he was up working on his artwork. My phone kept ringing, and I rubbed my eyes as I went to answer. “Hello?” I yawned, trying my best to keep my eyes open. The shades were drawn in my room and no sunlight was peeking in, clearly indicating that it was far from morning.

“Lucille, it’s Graham. Did I wake you?” he asked, his voice shaky.

I heard a crying baby in the background as I sat up in my bed and yawned once more. “No, I’m always awake at three in the morning.” I chuckled. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Talon came home today.”

“That’s great.”

“No,” he replied, his voice cracking. “She won’t stop crying. She won’t eat. When she’s asleep, I think she’s dead, so I check her heartbeat, which in turns wakes her and leads to the crying again. When I put her in the crib, she screams even louder than when she’s in my arms. I need…I—”

“What’s your address?”

“You don’t have—”

“Graham, address, now.”

He complied and gave me directions to his house in River Hills, which told me at least one thing: he lived a comfortable life.

I got dressed fast, tossed my messy curly hair into an even messier bun, and hurried into the living room where I saw Richard sitting. He was intensely staring at one of his charcoal drawings.

“Still working?” I asked.

His eyes darted to me, and he raised a brow. “Where are you going?” His face was different, his full beard shaven, leaving only his mustache.

“You have no beard,” I commented. “And…a mustache.”

“Yeah, I needed inspiration, and I knew shaving my face would bring about some kind of expression. You like it?”

“It’s…” I wiggled my nose. “Artistic?”