“But I hate the park! Are you listening to me? I don’t want to go to the park.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked, mainly to let Morgan know I was listening to him. I wasn’t going to change our plans just so he could spend the entire day holed up in his room with his computer.
“I want to play games.”
“You can play games at the park.”
“But I don’t want to play stupid games at the park. I hate everybody there anyway. And they hate me.”
The tone of his voice pulled my attention away from the sizzling bacon on the stove. “Nobody hates you, Morgan. Don’t talk like that.”
“They do. They call me names.”
“Who calls you names?”
Morgan folded his arms and sank deeper into his chair, his mouth pulled into a tiny pout. He wouldn’t meet my eyes either. Morgan is very bright, but he seems to have problems making friends. He doesn’t play with anybody at recess. His mother had shrugged off Mrs. Johnson, claiming that Morgan came from a long line of introverts. Which was certainly true enough. Both of us had been outsiders in high school, drawn together out of a shared sense of loneliness more than anything else. But there was a difference between being shy and being bullied.
He still wasn’t speaking to me by the time I finished scrambling the eggs. He barely looked up when I set the plate in front of him, though his nostrils did flare at the tantalizing and irresistible scent of his favorite breakfast. I even added a bit of ketchup to the eggs for the reddish tint that delighted him so much. Why he found the thought of bloody eggs so appealing, I didn’t know. There was a growing list of things I didn’t know about the boy.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I hate it.”
“You don’t hate eggs and bacon. It’s your favorite breakfast. Would you like some toast with it?”
“No. Toast scratches my tongue.”
“Not if you put enough jam on it.”
Morgan picked up his fork and poked at the eggs without any real interest, his face still set in a sulk. The extended lower lip and silent treatment probably worked on Christina, but only because she didn’t have the patience for such theatrics. It was certainly quicker and easier just to give in to him. I’d been tempted more than once. I was tempted right that minute to toss the whole thing in the sink and tell him to go to his room. Morgan found a way to test my high ideals at least once an hour.
“Do kids bug you at school?”
“Do they bug you when you go to the park?”
I mentally sighed and made a show of digging into my eggs, sans ketchup. Morgan stared at his feet, ignoring all my attempts at demonstrating what a great meal he was missing out on. One of my ideals of parenting involved sticking to my guns and never negotiating with a hostile party. I was his father, I got to make the rules.
“If you eat your breakfast, you can have some extra time on the computer tonight.”
He looked up from beneath his bunny lashes, his green eyes thoughtful, almost calculating. Not unlike his mother’s. “How much?”
Maybe I should have been proud of him for not agreeing to anything without studying the fine print first. Now the negotiations were beginning in earnest. I took a swallow of my orange juice and pretended to contemplate the answer.
“No. You haven’t finished your homework.”
“What if I finish my homework?”
I decided to overlook that his homework should have been finished last night before bedtime. I also didn’t want him to figure out that the deal was more heavily weighted in my favor. Breakfast and homework were big victories.
“If you finish your breakfast and your homework, then yes, you can have an extra hour tonight.”
Morgan grinned widely and dug into his eggs with such sincere gusto that I had a feeling I’d been played. I didn’t interrupt him again, but made a mental note to ask about the name-calling later. After he finished, he carried his plate to his sink and washed his hands without being told, then tried to hurry by me. I caught him before he could make his escape and hauled him close, giving him a good squeeze and planting a kiss on his cheek before he squirmed away.
He rubbed his cheek with affront. “Da-ad.”
“What?” I wiggled my fingers at him. “Better go get your shoes on before I start tickling.”
Morgan huffed his I’m too old for these games huff before marching away. He probably was too old for those games. When he was four, nothing delighted him more than a quick hug and visit from the tickle monster. But now he was eight—going on nine as he so often reminded me—and tickling wasn’t quite as amusing as it used to be. I wasn’t even sure how he got to be so old. We didn’t spend as much time together as I’d like, but that didn’t explain how he’d sprouted two inches in the past six months, or why I needed to buy him a new pair of shoes every six weeks.
I busied myself in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the pans from the night before, and sweeping the floor. I expected Morgan to resume his place at the table and wait for me, feet kicking impatiently at the chair legs.
“Morgan!” I waited several beats, then tried again. “Morgan! Come on, we’ve got to get moving. Let’s go.”
Still no response.
I knew what I’d find before I opened his door, but I still made a show of being utterly astounded that he didn’t have his shoes on or his hair combed. In fact, he was even less ready than before, since he’d changed into a ratty green T-shirt that should have been tossed in the trash last summer.
“I just needed to do something real quick,” Morgan protested.
“No, you didn’t. You needed to put your shoes on and get ready to go to the park. Now get up.”
“Get off the computer right now.”
“I just need to get to a save.”
“I’m going to unplug the computer if you don’t get up. Honestly, Morgan. You know better than this.”
“Why can’t I just stay here? I don’t get to play at all when I’m at Mom’s.”
“So I should just let you sit in front of the computer all day? Come on. Grab your baseball mitt. We’ll play catch.”
“I don’t want to play catch. I suck at it anyway.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do. The ball always hits me in the face.”
“The ball hit your face once. Two years ago.”
“No, it was last year.”
“But you admit it was only one time. Fine, we won’t play catch. Just please put your shoes on.”
Morgan was a good kid, and generally, I didn’t have to ask him more than ten or twelve times. He stepped over to the bed and pulled his Keds on with jerky, short gestures.
“You don’t have to watch me,” Morgan grumbled.
“Yes, I do. Don’t forget your hat.”
We got out of the house only thirty minutes later than I planned. Morgan grudgingly agreed to hold my hand, but he made it clear that it was another thing he absolutely detested about the day. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let him stay on the damned computer? Unfortunately, the path of least resistance usually wasn’t the path to great parenting. But Morgan clearly resented every minute we spent together, so I wasn’t sure if I’d even recognize the path of great parenting.
The park was just around the corner, four city blocks long and three wide. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it and it was pretty much the deciding factor when I chose my apartment. I envisioned spending hours there with Morgan, playing catch, running laps on the jogger’s circuit, maybe even bringing hypothetical dogs there for their hypothetical walks. Since I couldn’t afford a house with a proper yard, this seemed an excellent compromise for fresh air and sunshine. The closest Morgan would ever get to the simple pleasure I had growing up in the country, away from the city’s noise and pollution. I don’t know exactly what Morgan saw when he looked at the park, but I had a good guess that it didn’t involve carefree joy and hours of entertainment.
“Why don’t you go start on the swings?” I suggested.
“Okay.” Morgan dragged his feet like I’d sent him to his executioner. I followed at a slower pace, surveying the play area for any familiar faces. I recognized a few of the fathers and nodded at their small waves. Some of the mothers waved, too, a few with smiles that seemed a little too welcoming. The park after dark was more my style—not that I’d ever cruised the park—but apparently women had the same sort of idea when the sun was out. At least a percentage of the single mothers there seemed to be interested in dating. Specifically, they were interested in dating me.
A blond man on the other side of the sandbox caught my attention. He was definitely new—I’d remember that face and body. A blind man would. He seemed a little out of place, standing by himself on the grass with his arms folded and a heavy frown that was definitely out of place among the laughing kids. He didn’t seem unhappy, like Morgan who wasn’t even pretending to swing at that point, but I had the sense that he didn’t know what to make of the chaos in front of him.
“Come on, Morgan. I’ll give you a push.”
I pulled him off the ground by about a foot and sent him sailing forward. He kept his knees bent and didn’t even try to swing the momentum backward. He came to a stop with the bottom of his shoes sliding over the sand.
“I think you’re missing the point of the swing,” I said lightly, pulling on the chains again. Morgan twisted his body just as I let go, legs outstretched, the chains winding together. A blond boy happened to run by the swings in the same moment, as Morgan’s foot connected with his shoulder, knocking him to the sand.
“Are you okay?” I asked, rushing over to help him to his feet. He seemed dazed as I pulled him upright. “You took quite a hit there.”
“You should stay out of the way!” Morgan shouted from beside me, his face red with anger.
“Morgan Irving. First, apologize for shouting. Then, apologize for kicking him. He just didn’t see you.”
A shadow fell over the ground, and the boy yanked out of my grasp to run to the new arrival. It was the blond I noticed earlier, and that close, he looked even better. The sort that you don’t approach in a club, you just hang back and admire the view and take bets on who he’d be going home with that night. He wrapped a possessive arm around his son, his face hardening as the boy’s shoulders started to shake.
“I’m sorry,” I started. “We were playing on the swings and we didn’t see him.”
“Why don’t you try to keep your kid under control?”
“Hey, it was an accident. No reason to get upset.”
“And I heard your little brat shouting at him.”
“Don’t call my son a brat.”
“Tell him to stop acting like one.” The stranger held his son away from him, inspecting the smaller body for damage. There wasn’t any. I’d seen and been in much worse collisions involving swings. He’d probably be back to running around like nothing happened once the sting faded. The blond ushered his son away, and I barely caught the soft, “Are you hurt?”
“I didn’t mean to hit him,” Morgan muttered, now looking more sorry than upset.
“It was an accident.”
I nudged him over to where they were both pointedly ignoring us. “Go tell him that.”
“His dad looks mad.”
“I know, but apologizing is the right thing to do. I’ll be right here.”
Morgan set his shoulders and walked with purpose across the sandbox. The boy’s dad did look mad, though I hadn’t seen any torn clothes or traces of blood. Honestly, he was blowing the whole thing out of proportion. I watched with trepidation as Morgan approached, hoping that the blond wasn’t the sort of jackass who’d call a child a brat right to his face. Because then there would have to be a fight, which wouldn’t set a good example for the children. Not to mention that Blondie was built and could probably pound me right into the ground with a single blow. How much would it screw Morgan up to see his father beat and humiliated on the playground?
“Excuse me,” Morgan said loudly when neither acknowledged his approach. I swallowed a sigh and moved closer.
The boy looked up and wiped a hand over his watery eyes. He was probably about Morgan’s age, though he was probably a good ten pounds lighter. He wasn’t as tall as Morgan, either. He was pretty adorable, though, his father’s handsome features translating into unbelievable cuteness on the smaller face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”
The boy sniffed and nodded.
“My name’s Morgan.” When the boy didn’t respond, he impatiently added, “What’s yours?”
Morgan reached out and brushed some sand off Sammy’s arm. “Do you want to swing?”
Sammy shook his head.
“Come on,” Blondie said. “I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
Sammy made a distressed sound. “I wanted to go on the merry-go-round.”
The merry-go-round was a plastic contraption that didn’t spin very much. It was nothing like the sphere of sheet metal that I’d spent most of my childhood flying off. Morgan didn’t like it. I’d never seen him go anywhere near it. But he scuffed his shoe against the sand and nodded at the toy.
“I was going to go on the merry-go-round.”
Sammy peered up at his father, the tears drying from the corners of his eyes. “Please, can I?”
Blondie gave him another once-over and brushed more sand off his legs before nodding. “Yeah, but be careful, okay?”
I watched with no less than complete amazement as my anti-social child took Sammy by the hand and practically dragged him across the playground.
“He better not hurt him again,” Blondie muttered.
My hackles rose like a wet cat, but I summoned a smile instead of an indignant hiss. “I’m sure they’ll be fine. I’m Peter and that’s Morgan.”
Though he kept his arms folded across his chest like a shield, the man jerked his head toward the boys. “That’s Sam. Or Sammy. Some days, he thinks it’s a baby name.” He sighed. “I guess today’s not one of those days.”
“It’ll probably be a baby name by tomorrow.” I waited for Blondie to add something or introduce himself, but he was still watching the boys like a hawk. Which gave me the chance to study him from the corner of my eye. He was even better looking this close. It was only too bad that he was a bit of an ass. “Is your name a baby name?”
The question took him off-guard, and he looked at me sharply, heavy brows pulled together. “It’s Aaron. Hardison.” The last name came as an afterthought. I could practically hear the period.
I might have walked away from him then if Morgan wasn’t happily pushing Sammy around the merry-go-round. I’d never seen Morgan take so quickly to somebody, though I vaguely remembered my own flash friendships at that age. It was easy to meet your soulmate on the playground between the ages of six and nine, only to forget them as soon as you stepped outside the boundaries of the park.
“Pleased to meet you, Aaron Hardison. Are you new to the neighborhood? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“Because we haven’t been here before. The pollen count’s been too high this year.”
“For you or Sammy?” I asked lightly.
Another sharp glance. “Sam. He has problems breathing sometimes.”
I was beginning to sense that Mr. Aaron Hardison didn’t like me much. “I’m sorry to hear that. It looks like he’s doing well today, though.”
“Yeah. His last lung function test came up strong. We had a deal if it improved, we’d work out a park schedule. Today’s our first time.”
“Wow, good for him.” I said a quick prayer of thanks that for all of the issues with Morgan, there were no allergies or lung issues to contend with. He’d always been healthy and strong, at the top of every scale, scoring well in every test. But if this was his first time, it might explain why he didn’t know to avoid the swings—he probably wouldn’t forget again, though. “Is it just you and him today?”
His head turned away as he watched the boys clamber off the merry-go-round and race toward the climbing structure. “It’s always me and him. Should they be going over there?”
I watched them long enough to confirm they were indeed going toward the climbing structure and not some hazardous waste I hadn’t noticed before. “Sure. The kids love it. They like to race to the top.”
“The top?” He started to march toward them. “Oh, no, that’s too high.”
“They’re fine, Aaron.” I quickly caught up with him, but his attention was locked on Sammy, who in turn was clinging to the structure about three feet off the ground. “You know how it is these days. Any dangerous equipment is ripped out and replaced with foam rubber.”
“He could still fall. Or someone could kick him and knock the wind out of him. Sammy!” The little boy looked up at the sound of his name, his excited smile fading a little at the sight of his approaching father. “It’s time to go.”
“No buts. You got to play on the merry-go-round, didn’t you?”
Slowly, Sammy disengaged. “We were having fun.”
I knew better than to interfere on Sammy’s half, but Morgan didn’t. “It’s not time to go yet. Dad, tell him that we’re playing.”
“If Sammy’s dad says it’s time for him to go home, then it’s time for him to go home.”
“But we were going to build a sand castle next!”
“Yeah,” Sammy added, “and then kick it down.”
The silence stretched as Aaron regarded his son’s expectant face. Hope shone in his bright blue eyes, vivid enough to make me wish I could pull Aaron aside and explain exactly how safe the playground really was.
“Next time.” Taking Sammy’s hand, Aaron surprised me by turning back in my direction. “Maybe we can make a play date or something with Morgan’s father.”
I think I did a good job of hiding my shock. A better job than Morgan did of hiding his excitement at the suggestion. I was just glad that Aaron’s suggestion was enough to take the heartbreak out of Sammy’s eyes and the growing frown from Morgan’s face.
“A play date would be great. What about Tuesday afternoon?” I didn’t want to make the boys wait a week, if only because Morgan might forget about how much fun he’d had with Sammy.
“Tuesday’s good, isn’t it, Dad?”
When Aaron met his son’s gaze, he visibly softened. The man might be kind of a jerk, but there was no denying he loved his kid. “Yeah. We’ll make that work.”
After agreeing on the time and location, Aaron herded Sammy away, making a quick escape. I ruffled Morgan’s hair until he smacked my hand away with irritation.
“So you like Sammy?”
“Yeah, he’s all right.”
“The two of you seemed like you were having fun.”
“He’s pretty funny. Did you know he’d never even been on a merry-go-round?”
“No. So you’re going to show him the ropes?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re going to show him around the playground.”
“I guess so. He’s pretty small.”
“I don’t think he’s that much smaller than normal. But you should be a bit careful when you’re running around. He has allergies, and he might have difficulty breathing.”
“Okay. Can we go home now?”
I’d dragged him there for sunshine, exercise, and socialization. Satisfied that all three requirements had been met for the day, I nodded and held my hand out. Morgan’s hand was clammy and gritty with sand, his chubby fingers closing around mine with an unconscious confidence I never wanted him to lose.