Authors: Anie Michaels
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary Fiction
The Presence of Grace
The Presence of Grace
© Copyright Anie Michaels 2016
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Edited by Hot Tree Editing.
Cover design © Hang Le byhangle.com
To anyone who has ever lost hope,
Table of Contents
Have you ever seen a grown man cry?
cry? Not the single tear that gets wiped away before anyone sees it. I’m talking about the body-wracking, lung-seizing, shoulder-shaking kind of crying.
I hadn’t, not before that night.
Sure, I’d seen a few guys get choked up, but they were usually always drunk and the tears were sports related.
But not that time.
He was hunched over, elbows on his knees, leaning against the brick of the building, face in his hands, and he was sobbing.
I’d just left the school, but he hadn’t heard the doors open. They took their sweet time closing thanks to the little gadgets that kept them from slamming shut, so I got a good three-second look at this man crying right in front of me. Three seconds is a really long time when you’re witnessing someone have an emotional breakdown. They were the longest and saddest three seconds of my life. Granted, it was dark outside, and he was huddled against the wall, but I could tell he wasn’t a small man. He was built. Large.
. And watching him cry was almost painful. I never could have imagined what would make a man like him sob.
When the door finally closed, the soft thump jarred him and I watched as his head snapped up and he finally noticed me.
I was frozen, stunned really, afraid to move or speak, hoping maybe I could spare us both the embarrassment of the moment. I didn’t know if I should continue the short distance to my car, turn around and go back into the building, or acknowledge the crying man.
He stood up fully, raking his hands down his face, which immediately and unconsciously awakened my kindergarten teacher reflexes. I reached into my giant purse and pulled out a few tissues, took the last few steps between us, and held them out.
“Here, take these.”
His eyes met mine, then traveled down to my outstretched hand, and he slowly accepted them. He used them to wipe his eyes and nose, then just let his head rest against the wall, taking deep breaths.
“Are you all right? Do you need me to call someone?” My question trailed off at the end. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do to help this crying, albeit handsome, stranger.
A few moments later, a very deep and raspy voice answered, “No, thank you. There’s no one to call.”
His answer sounded more painful than factual, as if my even asking him that had opened the wound up further. I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
“You seem really upset. Do you want to talk about it?” Why did I ask him that? He didn’t know me and there was no reason he should want to unload his problems on me, but he was breaking my heart with his tearstained cheeks and breaths that were stuttering in and out while his lungs tried to catch up with his emotions.
His eyes met mine again, bravely, but his face scrunched up and his bottom lip found its way between his teeth. Then he started crying again.
“Oh, shit,” I whispered, upset with myself for making him cry. I hurried to his side just as he bent at the waist again, and awkwardly rubbed my hand up and down his back. I’d never known it was possible to feel so uncomfortable and so helpless at the same time. “Please, please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m sure everything will be just fine.” I was grasping at straws, saying every clichéd thing you would think to say to your crying girlfriend when she broke up with her asshole boyfriend, but it didn’t seem to work on this man, whose back, I noticed while trying to comfort him, was nothing but firm, taut muscle. Tendons moved in tandem as his breaths pulled in and then rushed back out.
A few minutes passed, long minutes of him crying and me offering him a gentle hand at his back. When he finally stood up, I handed him more tissues and waited for I don’t know what.
Eventually he spoke.
“My wife died a few months ago,” he murmured, his words both shaky and sad. “This is the first time I’ve been to parent-teacher conferences without her.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say honestly. It was the saddest thing anyone had ever said to me, and with just those few words, the tears started to well in my own eyes. I managed to push them back, to swallow the pinching in my throat. This man might not have needed me, but I felt as though I was supposed to help him, not cry along with him.
“I’m a mess,” he whispered, standing at full height again.
“I think you’re allowed to be a mess.”
We were both silent for another moment, standing against the brick wall, nothing but the sound of night between us, and then he spoke again.
“Every day I think to myself, ‘It has to be better today. It can’t be any worse than yesterday.’ But then something else happens and I realize I’m alone, and that she’ll never be here again, and it’s like a sledgehammer to the gut.”
I wanted to know how she’d died, but I didn’t dare ask. I hoped though, for her sake, she hadn’t suffered.
“I’m no expert, and I’ve never dealt with this kind of loss, but I think it does get better eventually.” I hated the sound of my words, hated the way they weren’t helpful, especially since all this man seemed to need in that moment was help. “What grade is your child in?” I hoped distraction would work.
“Ruby,” he said wistfully, and I swore I saw the pain fade from his face for just a moment while a tiny smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “She’s in second grade.”
“Fun age,” I mused.
“You have kids?”
“No,” I answered, hating the somber intonation of my voice. I nodded toward the building. “I’m a teacher.”
His eyes widened slightly. “You’re a teacher… here?”
“Yeah. But don’t worry, I don’t teach second grade.” I laughed, trying to make him feel better, trying to offer a joke to lighten the mood. It must have worked because a moment later he let out a soft laugh.
“I’ll let you get back to your evening,” he said, straightening up and wiping his hands, damp from his tears, on his thighs.
“Are you sure you’re all right? I’m in no hurry, if you need to talk to someone.”
“No, I’m honestly really embarrassed you caught me crying to begin with.” He let out a real laugh then, and all the muscles in my body that I hadn’t realized were tense let out a sigh of relief.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’m sure you’re doing a great job.” He didn’t respond, but he did give me a sad smile, so I took that as my cue to leave. I gave him a tiny wave and continued toward the parking lot. I hoped he got his wish and that tomorrow would be better than today.
Three Years Later
“Ruby, you have ten minutes to be outside waiting for the bus. Jax, you absolutely have to brush your teeth this morning. I never should have let you skip last night.”
I said practically the same thing every morning, gave the same warnings and the same countdowns, but it seemed like we were always just seconds away from disaster. Well, disaster in the form of missing the bus. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it definitely would throw a kink in my plans for the day.
“Dad,” Ruby whined as she came into the kitchen where I was packing Jaxy’s lunch. “I don’t have anything to wear.”
“That is statistically impossible. Grandma just took you shopping last weekend.” Not to mention I’d just stuffed her drawers full of clothes the night before after an evening of folding laundry.
“I can’t find anything I want to wear.”
“We passed finding what you
to wear twenty minutes ago, Ruby. You need to go put on a top and some jeans. Your bus will be here in”—I looked at the clock on the microwave— “eight minutes.” She puffed out an irritated breath and marched back to her bedroom. As soon as she was out of sight, Jaxy waltzed into the kitchen and hopped up on one of the barstools. “You brush your teeth?” I asked, not even bothering to look up. I was good at making lunches, but not blindly.
“Yeah. Did you fill out my book order form?”
“I did last night. It’s all in your backpack.”
“Did you get me the books I circled?” he asked excitedly. At that point I did look at him. I loved watching my kids getting excited over books. Jaxy, being in second grade, was just getting to the point where he really excelled at reading independently, and books without big, colorful pictures were becoming appealing. Olivia had loved to read and I was so glad both our kids had gotten that from her.
“I got you a
of the books you circled, but I supplemented those with a few that I think will challenge you.” A smile spread slowly across his face.
“Cool. Thanks, Dad.” His lips pulled up to form the exact same smile as his mother. My eyes darted to the large photo of her hanging over the fireplace across the room. The ache was still there, still burned in my chest when I thought about everything Olivia was missing out on, but what gave me hope was that the ache was slowly dulling.
When we’d moved to Florida two and a half years prior, just months after Olivia’s death, I’d been a mess. I’d wanted to stay in the town and house we’d raised our children in, thinking it would be best for Ruby and Jax, but I couldn’t function there and needed the support of my parents. Moving to Florida had been hard—starting over was not something I’d ever thought I’d have to do—but having my mom and dad so close proved to be invaluable. My kids now had a strong bond with my parents, and I’d had the help I needed from the right people. People who were supposed to hold me up, supposed to love me through the hard times.
My concentration was broken when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw Evelyn’s name across the screen. Hesitating for more than one reason, I convinced myself that five minutes before the bus was scheduled to pick my kids up wasn’t a good time to take a call. I sent her to voice mail and hoped she didn’t take it personally.
My phone went back in my pocket and I zipped up Jaxy’s lunch box, setting it in front of him on the bar just as Ruby emerged from her room again, this time dressed for school.
“Oh, look. You managed to find some clothes to wear.”
“Barely,” she mumbled under her breath. The closer Ruby got to preteen, the mouthier she became.
“I think you look nice,” I offered sincerely.
“This skirt squeezes my fat belly.” Her eyes cast down over her body.
Red flags were flying in my mind. Lately, Ruby had become more and more aware of her body, and I’d known this was coming, but that didn’t mean I knew how to handle it. Ruby wasn’t overweight, not by a long shot. Honestly, her stomach was the softest part of her, but it wasn’t something she needed to worry about.
“Ruby,” I said gently as I ran a hand down the back of her hair. “Your belly isn’t fat. You’re not fat. You’re beautiful. If the skirt doesn’t fit, we can find something else.”
Her eyes slowly met my gaze and she looked sad. “It’s okay, Daddy. I don’t have any time left.” She turned away and locked her gaze on her brother. “Jax, let’s go. And don’t try to sit next to me on the bus this time.”
Jaxy simply walked behind her, mimicking her with a high-pitched, singsong voice. I smiled because little brothers were jerks. I followed them until I got to the threshold of the house, then leaned against the doorjamb, keeping a safe distance. Ruby had informed me earlier in the school year that it wasn’t
to have your dad at the bus stop. I told her I wasn’t about to let them wait unsupervised, to which she rolled her eyes. We compromised by agreeing I’d wait at the door. Luckily for Ruby, the bus stop was at the end of our driveway.
The bus came, collected my children, and drove away while Jaxy waved at me from the window. Taking one last sip of coffee from my mug, I grabbed my keys and headed out the door.
Before we moved to Florida, I’d had a suit-and-tie job as a business consultant. It had been really good money and that was mainly what kept me there. Raising a family was expensive and Olivia had wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. But in Florida, my priorities changed. I was the only parent they had left and I couldn’t spend fourteen hours a day at a desk anymore. When I was ready to go back to work, my dad offered me a position at his hardware store. He’d built a thriving business, and every summer from ages thirteen to eighteen I’d worked for him. He’d always wanted to pass the business down to one of his children, and was more than happy to hire me when I needed a job.
Working for my dad allowed me to leave the house after the kids got on the bus, and to be home in time to make sure they ate dinner and finished their homework. Four days a week the kids were dropped off at a care center until I could go get them after work. Jaxy still liked going there, but Ruby was reaching the age where she definitely didn’t think she needed a babysitter. There were a few kids there her age, but not many, and I knew she hated it. I also knew that once she hit sixth grade, I’d have to let her stay home alone after school.
I parked my SUV and walked toward the happy-looking building where I could hear the elated screams of children playing on the playground out back. It wasn’t quite spring yet, so the temperature was still cool enough that playing outside was feasible.
I pulled open the door and anticipated the cool rush of air that blasted me in the face. Air-conditioning was no joke here. Approaching the front counter, I tried to keep my head down, not wanting to bring too much attention to myself. But my efforts to remain unseen didn’t work—they never did.
“Mr. Roberts.” I heard her overly friendly voice coming from the office to my left, then heard the slap of her heels on the linoleum floor. I kept my gaze down on the sign-out sheet. “I was beginning to worry about you. Running a little late today.” Candace was, for all intents and purposes, a very nice woman. She was probably just a few years younger than I was, pretty in the I-spend-an-hour-in-front-of-the-mirror-every-morning-to-look-like-this way, and very,
persistent. When the kids first started going there, she immediately tried to catch my eye. I wasn’t in a good space then, and turned her down, eventually having to straight-out tell her my wife had just died and I wasn’t looking to date anyone. She’d obviously taken that as an indication that when I was ready to date, she’d be up first.
“Traffic,” I replied evenly, finally bringing my face up and meeting her gaze, giving her a forced smile.
“Jaxy is full of energy today.” She laughed. “But that’s not different from any other day, I suppose.” She crossed her arms and leaned down on the counter, her low-cut shirt falling completely open as a sly grin spread across her face. “I get off in twenty minutes. Maybe we could all go to Joe’s Pizza and let the kids play video games while we sit and have some adult conversation.”
It had been a while since Candace had asked me out, and I’d hoped she’d gotten the hint, but apparently I was going to have to find new ways to turn her down. “It’s a school night, and the kids still need to do their homework.” I gave her another forced smile and entered the security code on a number pad that opened the gate to the part of the facility where the kids were.
“Pity,” she said with an exaggerated pout forming on her lips. “Maybe some other time.”
I didn’t answer, just kept walking, hoping she’d think I hadn’t heard the last part. I wasn’t accustomed to telling women I didn’t want to date them. Candace was pushy, but she didn’t mean any harm. One day, I’d have to just tell her, straight out, I wasn’t interested in her.
“Dad!” Jaxy saw me through a window and ran inside, greeting me with a big hug. Ruby wandered in slowly, but still managed a halfhearted side hug. I’d take it. I’d take any show of affection from my moody preteen.
“You guys ready to go home?” I asked, my arms still wrapped around them.
“Yeah,” Jaxy said.
“Definitely,” Ruby added.
“Let’s go then.”
“Okay, kids. Homework time,” I said as I placed the dinner dishes in the sink. It had been spaghetti night. I wasn’t a master chef, but there were a few dishes I managed without burning the house down that tasted decent. They were on a weekly rotation and when the kids got tired of the same seven meals, I tried to throw something in to surprise them. The surprises only worked out about 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent were pizza nights after my failed attempts ended up in the trash.
Schoolwork was one area where both the kids excelled. Rarely did I ever have to get after them to do their homework, and I enjoyed helping them if they needed it. They each grabbed their backpacks, took a stool at the bar, and made themselves comfortable. As I did every evening at homework time, I poured them each a glass of chocolate milk. In about a half hour, I’d pop some popcorn and let them munch on it as they worked.
“What do we have going on this evening?” I asked as I set the glasses down in front of them, flinging a kitchen towel over my shoulder.
“I have to read this story about the Oregon Trail and then write a paragraph about it,” Ruby said, holding up a small book.
“I can sum up the Oregon Trail in two words: wagons and dysentery.”
“What’s dis-sin-tury?” Jaxy asked, slowly pronouncing the unfamiliar word.
“It means they pooped themselves to death.” Both kids immediately broke into fits of giggles and I leaned back, watching my children laugh. Even if it was at the word poop, I could listen to them laugh forever. When the laughter died off, and it took a few minutes, I asked Jaxy, “What about you? What are you working on this evening?”
“I have a math packet,” he replied, opening his backpack. “Oh, and Miss Richards sent home this letter.”
My gut immediately dropped. Letters from teachers were notoriously bad things. My mind buzzed with what Jax could have done and how much trouble he might be in.
“What’d you do?” I asked, my tone indicating I believed him already guilty.
“Nothing, I swear! I was just sitting at my desk and Miss Richards told me there’s a letter in my bag for you. I didn’t get into any trouble.” He shoved the envelope at me like it was proof of his innocence.
I took it from him with a skeptical look, but proceeded to open it.
Dear Mr. Roberts,
It is with great excitement that I write to inform you of Jax’s invitation to join the Talented and Gifted Program at North Elm Elementary. Jax has always been a bright student, so I am not surprised he has earned this honor. I would like to discuss plans with you at a parent/teacher conference. Please e-mail me to discuss possible meeting times.
Jax is a pleasure to have in class and I can’t wait to help him with this next big step in his education.
North Elm Elementary
I read the letter once, and then I read it again. I looked up to Jaxy, who had started his math worksheet, obviously not caring too much about what the letter said.
“Jaxy, this letter says you got into TAG.”
“TAG is an acronym for talented and gifted.”
“What’s an acronym?” he asked, faced scrunched up.
“It’s when they use the first letters of words to make a new word. Kind of like a shortcut,” I answered with a laugh.
“Oh,” he said slowly. I could picture the wheels turning in his brain. “Cool. Can we have popcorn now?”