Damaged Goods: Chapter 31


Lev

Miserable Fact #15: In one version of the telegraph code, “LOL” means loss of life.

Glancing at the time on my phone, I decide to drive to Goodwill.

I can probably catch Bailey still. But when I arrive there, she isn’t around.

I go to every charity store downtown, texting her whenever I’m not driving, before the evening rolls in.

Better to go home, take a shower, make myself presentable, and continue my groveling later.

When I push the door to my house, the sound of laughter comes from the kitchen.

I barely step inside when I see Dad standing in front of me, looking like a ghost of himself. Wide-eyed and distracted.

“Hey, bud. Heading out now. Call if you need anything.” He shoulders past me and disappears inside his car, like a burglar in the middle of a heist.

What the shit?

Dad never leaves without stopping for a few minutes of conversation (read: interrogation about football and how my day has been). I’m barely able to recover from the shock when I step inside and find something even more disturbing—Dixie sitting at the dining room table with her back to me, her face covered with her hands.

She is not laughing, like I initially thought when I walked in.

She is bawling her eyes out.

The scene unfolds in front of me, and I realize what I just stepped into.

The table is laden with homecooked food. Seeing as it isn’t a burned omelet or in a restaurant container, I’m pretty sure it was Dixie who made it.

There are candles burning in the middle of the table. Soft, old-ass elevator music is playing in the background. Perfect for boring, missionary-style sex.

Dixie is wearing a tight red dress, and her hair looks like some kind of a fancy dessert.

Shit, this was a seduction dinner date.

Or was supposed to be one before Dad lit outta here like Julia Roberts in…well, any ’90s movie I can think of.

Holy shit. Dixie decided to go for broke, and in return, Dad broke her heart.

And I just stepped into this whole mess.

Honestly, I should be filing for a restraining order against my luck today.

I’m about to step in and offer some kind of comfort, but then I hear her talking.

“I tried, Brooke.”

Last time I checked, my name wasn’t Brooke, so I take it she is on the phone.

I tilt my head sideways and notice that one of her hands is pinned to her ear, her phone tucked inside it. “I gave it all I have. Everything. The dinner. The sexy dress. The pitch.”

I’m now torn between tiptoeing my ass out of here, making myself known, or continuing to watch this train derailing not only off of its tracks but flinging itself right off a cliff.

“I told him I loved him. He said he only sees me as a friend. I can’t do this anymore. I have to move on. If I want to have a baby—and God, there is nothing I want more than having a baby—I have to give up. I’m cutting it close as it is. If I want to get pregnant, it needs to be this year.”

Dixie wants Dad to be her baby daddy. That means Dad would have a kid younger than his grandson. That I would have another sibling.

Though, judging by the look of horror on his face when I arrived, sending baby shower invitations is premature. Ya know, as an understatement.

My phone pings with a message and blows my cover.

Dixie twists her head, her mouth opening in surprise. “Um, I’ll call you later, Brooke.”

She hangs up and hurries up to her feet. I check the text message, in case it’s Bailey. Even though I know today is too trash to deliver any sort of good news.

Thalia: Fixed everything with your little girlfriend yet?

My gaze snaps back to Dixie, and I raise my hand. “It’s okay. I…” Didn’t hear anything? Bullshit. She knows I was here for the entire conversation.

So instead, I say, “I know what it’s like. I’m the president of the Unrequited Love Club, remember?”

Dixie sniffles frantically, busying her hands with gathering the delicious bowls of food.

“Sorry! I’ll clean up here and get out of your way.”

“No. You can stay and eat.” What the fuck am I saying? Why would she want to sit here and gnaw on disappointment and heartbreak in the house of the man who just denied her?

She inhales. “I know you don’t like me…”

Hold on a minute—what? “Hey, that’s not true.” I scowl. “I like you a whole bunch.”

“I don’t blame you. I know I can be annoying, the way I butt into your business—”

“Yeah, you do. So does Dad. And Bailey. Knight. Jaime. Vaughn. Grim. And pretty much everyone who gives a shit about me. I still love them. Look, who cares what I say? I’m a sulky teenager. We know jack shit. It’s your job to civilize us.”

She snuffles and chuckles and cries at the same time. There’s a lot going on, on her face.

“Well…if you’re hungry…”

“I’m always hungry. Let me call Knight. I bet he’s hungry too.”

A look of pure horror crosses over her face. It is one thing for me to know that she is pursuing Dad, but she isn’t sure how Knight is going to react to it.

I step toward her, touching her elbow. “Knight knows you’re in love with Dad.”

“How?” Her red-rimmed eyes flare in alarm. “Did you tell him?”

“Um, no.” I give her a look. “You aren’t very discreet about it. I mean, you look at him like he found the cure to cuntiness.”

“He probably could. For your mom.” A twinge of disappointment touches her tone.

I smile ruefully. “Probably, yeah. But since she isn’t here anymore…”

She looks up, looking miserable and hopeful at the same time.

I smile. “It’s time for plan D.”


Two hours later, Dixie is long gone.

Knight and I hugged her and comforted her and told her she is pretty.

Now my brother and I are sitting in the second living room, knocking back beers (Knight’s is alcohol-free), arguing about who was hotter, Yasmine Bleeth or Tiffani Thiessen (you’d be surprised to learn they are not, in fact, the same chick).

The front door slams shut and Dad enters the room, looking like he ran a fucking marathon in his three-piece Armani. All in all, I live in an extremely normal family, as you can see.

“Did you go jogging in your work suit?” Knight snorts into his beer bottle.

“Yeah,” Dad answers matter-of-factly, falling into a recliner and pushing his wet hair off his forehead. “Yeah, I did.”

“Great!” Knight says cheerfully. “That’s not strange at all.”

“We need to talk.” I put my drink down.

Dad looks between us, scowling. “Why do I have a feeling I’m about to be grounded by two people whose credit cards I foot the bill for?”

“Because you are,” I say at the same time Knight wags his finger.

“Now, this is fake news, Pa. I’m financially independent.”

“Only because there’s a billboard of you in a thong in Times Square, showing a high-definition imprint of your erection,” I remind my older brother.

“Please.” Knight tosses his head back, laughing gravelly. “That was half a chub, max.”

Dad turns to Knight. “You done licking your own balls?”

Knight sighs dreamily. “I wish. No matter how many yoga classes I attend with Luna, I can never quite get there. Can you imagine the freedom in doing that, though? Endless possibilities. And Luna could sleep in too.”

As you can see, TMI runs in the family.

Dad snaps his fingers in front of both of us now, becoming increasingly agitated. “Focus. Anyone gonna explain to me why this looks like an intervention?”

I turn to look at Knight. Maybe he should start this topic, since he’s closer to Dixie.

“You’re being shitty to my mom.” Knight throws him a levelheaded, deadly serious glare.

Okay. Maybe not.

“Watch your mouth, Son.” Dad’s expression bleeds ire now. He’s no longer confused—he is pissed. “I gave your mother everything I had. I sacrifi—”

Knight cuts him off, “Not Mom-mom. My birth mother.”

Dad stares at him like he’s crazy. “What?”

“I overheard Dixie talking on the phone after you ran away.” I lean forward in my seat.

“I didn’t ru—”

“Don’t even, Dad.” Knight brings his palms up, shaking his head. “You look like the Ridiculously Photogenic Marathon Guy meme. Sans the inner light. Ever since Mom died, you have the aura of dry cement.”

“Em, thanks.” Dad narrows his eyes at him.

“Look.” I sigh. “She’s in love with you. Doesn’t take a genius to see that. She wants to have a baby, and she’s…what? Forty-two? Forty-four?”

“Thirty-eight.” Dad squirms in his seat like a schoolboy in trouble. “She still has time.”

“Yeah, but you seem to be an expert at making her waste it on your ass.” Knight stands up, sauntering over to Dad. Dad shoots up to his feet. They’re almost toe-to-toe now. This looks way too confrontational, and I realize Knight actually likes Dixie a lot.

Maybe even loves her.

And that Dad does too. In his own unromantic way.

Knight raises his hand. Dad doesn’t flinch.

I suck in a breath, but Knight just wipes lint off Dad’s jacket. “Don’t be a douchebag, Dad.” His voice comes out soft, calm. “She wants your happily-ever-after, while you aren’t even sure there could be a post-Mom. Either you man up and give her what she wants or let her go. Give it to her straight—she has no shot. It’s never gonna happen. Have you ever told her that?”

By the way a muscle jerks in Dad’s jaw, I can tell the answer is no.

He’s never rejected Dixie outright. Just kept her at arm’s length. Knight continues.

“Don’t give her false hope just because it’s nice to have someone to take to charity galas and dinners. Either you take the plunge or you leave the pool. Dipping your toes every once in a while is damaging for both of y’all. Stop wasting her time. She spent most of her life missing out.”

I’ve never seen Knight stand up for Dixie like this before. It’s kind of touching.

Suddenly I’m filled with screwed-up jealousy because at least he still has some sort of mom.

Dad rubs the edge of his jaw, staring at the floor. “I’ll take nothing.”

It’s my turn to jump up to my feet. “Mom made you promise you’d move on.”

“Well, no one measures up,” Dad barks out, looking between us wildly. Like we’re ambushing him. That’s when the penny drops. He’s lonely. Lonely in rooms full of people.

At work, and parties, and vacations. His soul mate is gone. His only flashes of normalcy are my football moments.

Things that anchor him to his shared past with Mom. The good ol’ days.

Instead of my usual anger, I feel sad for him.

He never meant to suffocate me with expectations.

“Besides, what’s it to you?” Dad’s eyes narrow. “You should be happy I love your mom so much that I don’t jump back into the dating pool, catching every floating STD out there.” We should definitely put the pool analogies to bed.

“Loved,” I correct him quietly. “Loved, Dad. Mom’s gone.”

“It’s been four years.” Knight’s eyes are twinkling with tears. “We miss her so much, Dad. We do. But her legacy was making sure we’re happy. Fulfilled. Choosing life over grief isn’t betraying her—it is honoring her.”

“And your love for Mom was never put into question,” I add. “You paid your dues. We want to see you happy. Actually…”

This is my perfect in to tell him about my own hopes and dreams. How he is standing in the way to all of them.

The Air Force Academy is not in my cards for this year, but who knows? Maybe the next one.

Knight and Dad cock their heads, zeroing in on me.

“What?” they ask in unison. Knight gives me a don’t you fucking dare glare.

But I’m done living for other people.

“Actually, Dad, the fact that you put all of your happiness chips in our corner puts a lot of pressure on us. Well, on me. I…well, I hate football.”

He stares at me but doesn’t say anything. I think he knows.

I think he might have been actually paying attention the last few days.

“Despise it. As a game. As a concept. As a fucking hobby. And I mean…” I rub the back of my neck. “The Brits are right. Soccer is football. Football is…handball, I guess?”

“Very catchy,” Knight mutters.

Dad stares at me like I just announced I’m in love with the kitchen sink and we’re running to Vegas to elope.

“I’ve never liked it,” I continue. “I mean, yeah, in elementary and middle school it wasn’t so bad, and it brought the family together so I didn’t mind so much. But when it started getting serious…well, I only kept doing it because I knew it made you happy. That you liked coming to games and dreamed that one day I’d get drafted.”

The look on his face makes me want to vomit.

He is grief-stricken. Horrified.

“Look.” Knight steps between us, trying to diffuse the situation with a chuckle. “No harm done, okay? All Lev’s saying—”

“Bullshit.” Dad worms out of Knight’s embrace, stepping in my direction. He is deep in a trance. “You mean it, Levy? You really only played football because of me? Because Bailey told me I was clipping your wings the other day, but I figured she was just…” He licks his lips. “Overreacting.”

She wasn’t.

She was spot-on.

Dad believed what he wanted to believe.

I shrug helplessly, staring at my socked feet. “I love you. I wanted you to be happy. Playing football made you happy.”

“Fuck, how far were you going to take this?” He threads his fingers through his hair.

I think about it for a moment before walking over to my bedroom. When I return to the living room, Dad and Knight are exactly where I left them.

I hand Dad the letters of acceptance held together with a rubber band.

He snaps it off, sifting through them. “TCU. Michigan. Ohio State. Clemson. South Carolina. Holy shit…”

Knight turns his head to look at me in horror. I feel like a fraud. And supremely stupid.

What was God thinking, giving me this talent? Should’ve given it to Mitchell Schwartz.

Dad balls the letters in his fist. There are tears in his eyes.

“If Rosie were here, she’d kill me. What have I done?”

“Mom’s not here, so your secret’s safe with me.” I take a step toward him.

I’m not going to pretend everything is dandy, but there’s no need to be an ass about it, either. “Actually, I don’t know about Knight. He has a big mouth, he might spread the news.”

I tilt my head in my brother’s direction. The three of us chuckle. “The important thing is that I’m done chasing other people’s dreams. It’s time to chase mine. I’m going to become a fighter jet pilot.”

Dad doesn’t say a word, only pulls me into a hug. One where he uses all of his muscles, including the one in his chest.

One that says I’m sorry and I love you and I’m going to fix this, you’ll see.

I don’t expect him to, but I feel like six tons of deadweight just dropped off my back.

He squeezes me so close to his shoulder he nearly cuts off my oxygen supply. “You have my blessing, Son.”

When we disconnect, he thumbs away a desolate tear from my cheek. I’m not even embarrassed. Boys don’t cry, but men do. The good ones, anyway.

“Coach know?” Dad runs his fingers through my hair to fix it. Old habits die hard.

I nod. “I retired as captain.”

“How do you feel about it?”

The question gives me pause, because I’m not used to being asked how I feel about things when it comes to football. Only to keep doing my best, to push harder. “It feels…right.”

Dad sucks in a breath. “It’s the end of an era.”

“More like an error,” I murmur. We grin back at each other.

He rolls his eyes. As supportive as he might be, it’s still too soon to joke about the One True Sport.

But even his most sardonic scowl can’t hide the pride lingering at the edges of his mouth.

Even if I don’t end up fulfilling his dream, at least I’ve finally shown I’m capable of standing up for what I believe in. Perhaps that’s all he ever really wanted.

“Sorry to interrupt this Oscar-worthy performance,” Knight drawls, looking between us.

I’d be mad at him if I didn’t see the relief on his face. “But can we get back to the topic?”

“Your erection commercial?” I blink.

“Tom Ford,” Knight corrects. “And I maintain it was barely a semi.”

Dad pats his back. “It’s okay that you got a little excited, Son.”

“What are you gonna do about Dixie?” Knight growls.

Dad’s face falls. “Undecided.”

“Well, decide in the next week, or I’m telling her to cut off all communication with you, myself,” Knight threatens.

I believe him too. And if there’s anyone who could attest to Dixie’s loyalty, it is him. “One week, Dad. That’s all you’re getting.”

He nods solemnly. Dad raises the acceptance letters in his hand. “Can we burn these in the backyard?”

“HOW DID YOU KNOW!” I’m laughing because that’s what I’ve been wanting to do each time one came in the mail.

Dad locks my head in his arm, ruffling my hair as he leads us out. “Burning shit down is a recreational activity in this cul-de-sac. Just ask Uncle Vicious.”


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