Hey, baby.

Out of all the words I’d thought I’d hear my mother say after fourteen goddamn years, Hey, baby weren’t among them. Maybe Hey, Ian. Sorry for abandoning you and, oh, I don’t know, fucking up your mind for fourteen years. Or Hey, son. Sorry about missing those fourteen birthdays. Or Hey, son. Still a fan of those Dallas Cowboys?

Honestly, I’d thought I’d hear anything else in the whole fucking world other than those two words.

I didn’t know how it happened, but somehow the three of us ended up sitting inside a diner down the street. It was as if I were moving on autopilot—too stunned to realize what exactly was happening before me. The two of them went ahead and ordered pretty much everything on the menu and stuffed their faces as if they hadn’t eaten in years.

I hadn’t an appetite at all.

“We just wanted to thank you for meeting with us tonight, son,” Dad said, tossing a few fries into his mouth. His foot tapped repeatedly against the tiled floor. He wore a worn-down winter coat with holes in it and a winter hat. He had a beard that hadn’t been trimmed in God knew how long, and he couldn’t stop . . . fidgeting. I didn’t even know if he knew he was fidgeting so much, but he hadn’t stopped.

Mom was the same way, but her movements were not as intense as Dad’s.

They looked . . . fucking awful.

As if they’d left Eres and had been riding the shit train ever since.

It was clear they were still using, and that broke my heart. I’d figured one of two things had happened since they’d left: (a) they’d overdosed and lost their lives, or (b) they’d found their way to living a happy, clean life and just left me in the past.

Obviously, option B made it easier for me to sleep at night.

But finding out that there was an option C—they were still as fucked up as before—broke my heart.

“We’d been meaning to reach out for so long, but I doubt Big Paw would’ve wanted us to come back like this,” Mom said, shivering as if she were cold, but sweating at the same time. I tossed off my jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. She smiled. “Looks like they ended up raising a southern gentleman,” she commented, nudging Dad in the side. “I told you he’d turn out to be great, didn’t I, Ray?”

“She sure did say that,” he agreed, sipping at his cola.

“What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

“Oh, you’re an easy one to spot. We saw you were performing in town tonight, and your face has been broadcast all over the internet and magazines and television. I don’t know if you know it, son, but you’re kind of a big deal around these parts.”

I gave him a tight smile. If only he knew the uneasiness he gave me by calling me “son.”

I hadn’t been their son in years.

“But why are you here?” I asked again. “What do you want?”

I saw how taken aback Mom was by those words, but I didn’t know how else to ask. I’d envisioned the two of them and me reuniting many times before, but unfortunately, I’d hoped it would’ve been before fame came—not after. Now that I was on the path of making something of myself, it came off as quite suspicious that they were approaching me for a family reunion.

Mom reached out toward me and placed her hand on top of mine, and fuck, it felt good to hold her hand. I hated how good it felt. Even though her hands were ice cold, her touch was enough to warm up the chilled parts of my soul.

“We wanted to see you, Ian; that’s all. To make sure that you are doing okay.”

“You could’ve checked in a long time ago to make sure of that. My address hasn’t changed. You knew where I was.”

“Yes, but we didn’t have the money to travel back down to Nebraska,” Dad argued.

“I’m guessing you didn’t have money for a pay phone either. Grams and Big Paw’s number has been the same since the nineties.”

Dad’s brows lowered, and a coldness washed across his stare. “What are you trying to say? We didn’t try hard enough to get in contact?”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to say,” I said straight out. “It’s just odd that you happen to reappear after all this time now that you saw me on TV. It’s fucked up.”

“Watch your tongue, boy!” Dad barked, pointing a stern finger in my direction, causing people to glance over to our table.

Mom reached out and lowered his arm, shushing him. “Calm down, Ray.”

He grumbled. “I just don’t like what he’s getting at.”

“Why, because I’m right?” I asked. I pulled out my wallet and began thumbing through the bills. “So what are we thinking? How much do you need? I mean, you are after money, right? It’s clear we aren’t here to reconnect and share memories.”

Mom’s head lowered, and she shook it. “We did want to see you, Ian. I swear, but it’s just . . . we’ve fell on some hard times and were wondering if you could help us out.”

The regret I got from allowing my heart to beat again after all these years came storming back toward me. The problem with beating hearts was that they could break in an instant.

I pulled out the cash in my wallet and set it in front of me. Their eyes glazed over in wonderment as they looked at it, showing me that the money was exactly what they were after. “I got five hundred.”