It happened again like it had on numerous occasions since I’d gotten the news that my best friend, lover and husband of my heart—if not paper—had died while stationed in Germany. The remnants of the nightmare trapped me in its wake as I lay in my empty bed in a cold sweat, shaking and crying. After serving two tours in Afghanistan, it was inconceivable that something so mundane as a car accident had taken my Pete. You’d think after four years raising our infant daughter alone, the nightmares would disappear.
I surrendered myself to another sleepless night, padding down the hall to check on Nik. She slept like always, curled around her stuffed bear with a thumb in her mouth. I watched the rise and fall of her chest, thinking about the too-few evenings we’d shared with Nicole before Pete had reported to Ramstein Base. I still found it unthinkable that three months after he’d left home, the military police had knocked on my door with the life-altering news that he had died.
People said it would take time, but dammit, how long did I have to wait for a decent night’s sleep? That was all I wanted, having resigned myself to devoting my life to Nik. I wasn’t complaining, but there were nights like this one when I’d welcome a warm body to share my bed. Nik begged me to buy a dog so I wouldn’t always wear a sad face. Poor kid. She never knew her daddy and had only ever had me, her heartbroken papa. She needed more than a parent who tried to hide his pain behind a façade of false cheer. She deserved a happy and fun-loving father.
I sat on the couch, staring at the blank television and thinking of Pete. I still saw his rugged good looks, the tilt of his lips when he smiled and the way his eyes twinkled whenever I did something silly. He’d loved me, and I ached for those treasured moments we’d spent, sharing our plans and a cigarette after Pete had fucked me blind. I could use a smoke to help me go back to sleep but cursed myself for having given them up for Nik’s benefit. Before she’d come into our lives, I’d chain-smoked, occupying the lonely nights of Pete’s deployments and concentrating on the mesmerizing tendrils curling into the air. Now, fading memories were all I had left.
The little voice startled me, and I realized I must have dozed. I shook my head, chasing away the cobwebs and settling my gaze on the winsome face of my daughter. She hugged Winston, her ever-present friend. It was time to wash the plush bear and sew his eye in place again. The poor thing was ready to go to stuffed-toy heaven, but because Pete had placed it in Nik’s crib the morning he’d left for Germany, I couldn’t tolerate Winston’s demise. So, I kept washing and sewing him, doing whatever I could to hold on to this small piece of Pete for Nik—and for me.
“Papa? Did you have more bad dreams?” My little girl crawled onto my lap and put her arms around my neck, watching me with her big brown eyes. She saw into my soul and held my heart in her small hands. I sighed at the comfort she offered with her sweet voice and clean scent. Guilt swept through me for needing her to fill my empty spirit.
“I’m fine, Sweet Pea. Are you hungry?”
“Are you sure, Papa?”
“Yes, I’m certain. I dreamed of Daddy, but they were good dreams,” I lied. “What do you want for breakfast?”
“Can we go have pancakes? Please?”
Most of the time I was frugal with our money but Nik loved going out and eating breakfast, a ritual we indulged in once a week.
“Hmmm. All right, pancakes it is. You get ready while I shave.”
“Yay! Can Winston go, too?”
“How about if he guards the house while we’re gone, since he has a bad eye? Okay?”
“Oh no. Does he need another operation?”
“Maybe just a small one.”
“Aww. Winston, you be a good bear until me and Papa come home.”
I chuckled, listening to Nik’s one-sided conversation as she dressed. I hurried to my room to get ready for a date with my best girl.
“You ready, Papa?” She burst into my room, waving her hair brush and ponytail holders. It only took a second to put her hair in order. I grabbed my keys and wallet, and we were off.
We filled up on blueberry pancakes and bacon while making plans for the day. Nik offered her suggestions while licking syrup from her fingers. “Let’s go to the zoo! I love the ducks and giraffes and elephants and the lions and the Winstons.”
“So, what you’re saying is you like all the animals.”
Nik wrinkled her nose and giggled.
“Hold on, kiddo. What’s a ‘Winston’?” I asked, knowing full well what her answer would be.
“Oh, Papa. You know.”
“Let me think. Must be a gazelle.”
Nik shook her head.
Again, a no.
“I’ve got it. A penguin!”
“No, Papa! A bear, just like Winston. Can we go, please, please, please?”
I pretended to consider her request then smiled. “You win. Potty first and don’t forget to wash your hands, not only wet them. Use soap.”
I paid the tab and waited for my precocious companion, agreeing with the cashier that she was a little beauty. Nik ran out of the bathroom, holding out her fingers and wiggling them for my inspection, wanting me to smell the soapy fragrance so I’d believe she hadn’t just used water.
I took her hand with every intention of walking to our car and driving to the zoo. But sometimes the best-laid plans were set awry by furry, four-legged creatures in cages, howling to be let out when they spotted pigtailed little girls skipping and giggling next to soft-hearted papas.
“Look! Puppies! Can we take them home? Please?”
I smiled as Nik knelt to play with the rambunctious fuzzballs. I realized too late that I’d parked in front of Awesome Animals, and today was Thursday, the day when the humane association brought in their adoptable pets. I watched as one curious canine nibbled Nik’s fingers, laughing out loud when the showboat rolled onto his back and whined before standing up and giving Nik his best doggie smile. “He likes me, Papa!”
I nodded, unable to tell which of the two made bigger puppy-dog eyes—Nik or the furball.
“Looks like instant love,” a strange voice said.
I glanced to my right to find a youthful-looking man with shoulder-length blond hair grinning at us. He was my height, with clear, tan skin and tiny laugh lines, so probably not as young as I’d first thought. A pretty boy, not at all my type. Why is that important? Do I even have a type?
“Please, don’t encourage her,” I suggested, even though I knew I was fighting a losing battle. Between Blondie’s sparkling blue eyes and Nik’s cheerful laughter, I’d lost the war before it had begun.
“Why not? Look at her. She’s in puppy love. And Cinco? He’s smitten.”
“Cinco?” I questioned and wondered why someone named a dog ’five’.
“Yep. Came from a litter of five and he was the runt,” Blondie answered, while I wondered if he had super mind-reading powers. “The previous owner let him go, cuz he moved in with his daughter who’s allergic. Cinco’s housebroken, and you can see he adores kids. He’s gentle, doesn’t take up much space, and if you adopt him, I’ll give you a coupon good for three groomings.”
“Pretty please, Papa?” Nik begged, sticking out her bottom lip and batting her eyelashes. I held onto my amusement at her over-the-top antics, but next to me, Blondie giggled. The joy in his laughter brought a smile to my face but still I tried holding off the inevitable.
“We won’t be able to visit the zoo,” I said, praying the allure of a menagerie had more appeal than one scruffy pup.
“S’okay. A doggie is way more better than an ostrich.”
“You can’t argue with that logic, Dad.” Blondie grinned, tilting his head and daring me to disagree. Who would ever contradict such a beautiful face?
“No, I suppose not. I guess you’ve made a sale,” I said, giving in and extending my hand to solidify the deal.
“Before we can complete the purchase, I need to know if you have a wife or other adult in the household who might not want a dog?”
“Nope,” Nik replied before I could answer, though I wondered why he’d asked.
Is he hitting on me?
“I used to have a daddy and a papa, but my daddy went to heaven when I was a baby. There’s only me. Huh, Papa?”
“Y-Y… That’s r-right, Sweet P-Pea,” I answered, mortified at being outed by my daughter in front of the crowded kennels. Living in the closet was a way of life for me. Behind us, somebody huffed, and out of the corner of my eye, a woman tugged at little boy as if I might infect him with ‘the gay’.
“I’m sorry about your daddy. Though, you’re a very lucky girl to have had both a daddy and a papa,” Blondie said, glancing my direction. I was no doubt red-faced and sweating.
“And now I have a Cinco! Can I hold him?”
“Why don’t we wait until we take him inside and have my friend Lisa give him a bath first. Is that okay, Papa?”
“Wh-what? Oh, yeah. S-sounds like a good idea. P-please call me Mason.”
“Sure thing, Mason. I’m Jeremy Coulter—dog wrangler extraordinaire. See? It says so, there on my business card.”
I took the card from his hand and grinned at the embossing that declared he was indeed ‘extraordinaire’. I appreciated him taking the focus off me and my discomfiture before Nik realized something was amiss. To her, two fathers was as natural as breathing. She didn’t need to find out from strangers that we were the exception and not the rule. Though there was time aplenty for her to learn about bigots and homophobes, I hoped by some miracle that the world might change before she discovered the ugly side of humanity.
“Nik? Shall Jeremy’s friend wash him first?” I asked, ignoring the disapproving stares among the crowd. Four pleading brown eyes stared up at me, and I said, “Let’s go with Jeremy and adopt Cinco.”
“Yay! Thank you, Papa!” My sweet pea’s ecstatic shriek echoed off the surrounding buildings and settled into my heart, filling it with her joy. Beside me, Jeremy beamed and one little lady holding a chihuahua smiled as if she’d never heard a more wondrous sound than my child’s exuberance. Her beatific expression held the promise that things would change one day.
We brought Cinco home after his grooming. Lisa had tamed his dusty scruffiness, trimming it short while leaving him a lion’s tail and mane. With his black-tipped ears, he transformed from scruffy to adorable. Best of all, he made Nik laugh. Her joyous giggles and Cinco’s excited barking rang through the house as they ran up and down the halls. It didn’t take long for me to send them out to play in the fenced yard. I was learning rapidly that peace and quiet were now a thing of my past.
Besides the fresh-smelling dog, we had bought all the items Jeremy had helped to select. “Who knew one scrappy little pup required so much stuff?” I mumbled as I put away kibble, doggie treats, a water bowl and food dish. I jogged up the stairs and set the forty-dollar bed in Nik’s room. I suspected Cinco would never use it. Near the pantry, I left the assortment of toys in a bag, to pull out one at a time whenever Cinco grew bored. Then I started dinner.
“Time to come in,” I called out to the yard, unsurprised to find Nik covered in grass stains and being lavished with doggie kisses.
“Do we have to?” she whined.
“Only if you want supper.”
“That’s okay. We’re not hungry.”
I chuckled, knowing she must be starving. With Cinco demanding her attention, she’d already skipped her lunch.
“I made SOS,” I yelled out the door, laughing at Nik’s speedy about-face. SOS—or creamed ham on toast—was one of her favorite meals. Mine, too.
“I’m coming!” She and Cinco scampered inside, leaving a trail of fun behind them. While I acquainted the pup with his eating arrangements, Nik ran upstairs to wash. After dinner, we watched Disney videos with Cinco occupying Nik’s lap and licking her always-sticky fingers. Following a bath, I tucked her in, promising that Cinco could sleep next to her in his bed.
“Good night, Sweet Pea. I love you to the moon—”
I kissed her on each cheek, stopping to rub Cinco’s belly as he lay curled in his blankets, giving me his most innocent puppy face. They had fallen asleep before I left the room. With one last glance at the little beauty who’d captured my heart, I disappeared to my bedroom. After my shower, I tried reading, but my thoughts kept straying to Jeremy. I didn’t understand why he captivated me, but he did. He was nothing like Pete, who’d been all chiseled muscles and gruff masculinity. Jeremy’s long, lean lines enticed me and his easy personality saw through my defenses, scaling them with virtually no effort. With a smile that could melt chocolate and intelligent, guileless blue eyes, he was everything I’d avoided since Pete’s death.
After Pete had died, I’d isolated myself, grieving and caring for my infant daughter. Men and pursuing another relationship hadn’t yet hit my radar. My unexpected interest in Jeremy frightened me, because my memories of my lover were fading—not his physical appearance, but how he and I interacted. I no longer recalled how it felt to awaken next to him and hear his snoring, nor could I remember his touch on my cock whenever he’d wanted sex.
I set my book down, intending to masturbate while Pete occupied my mind, but after several minutes tugging and squeezing my dick, I realized it was an exercise in futility. Unbidden tears trailed down my cheeks at my inability to maintain an erection from my fantasies of Pete. Sparkling blue eyes kept replacing his warm hazel ones, and short-clipped, dark hair faded into long golden locks, begging to be touched. Frustrated, saddened and unable to concentrate, I accepted it would be another short night of sleeping before the nightmares took hold.