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The Good Guy

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“Go talk to him. If anyone can fix this, it’s you.” His father’s words ran around Brad’s mind, playing a grueling game of ping-pong with his brain. Talk to him. He said. Fix this. Like it was that easy.  It was supposed to be, but as the days wore on and Christmas drew nearer Kurt Mayron was beginning to prove himself more than just the ‘easy fix.’

 “You boys are friends, now, right?” Dad asked him, patting his back in a passing gesture of encouragement (dear old dad, always knowing just how to instill confidence.) Really, he did. Brad felt on top of the world with his father at his side. The same, he was learning, did not apply to Dusty.

Dusty Mayron, Kurt Mayron’s reformed son, as Brad called him (internally, there was no mention of that word out loud), and his wife’s ex-husband. His children’s father—birth father, because ‘real’ parenting had nothing to do with blood. A lesson he and Dusty learned together, a little while ago. They’d fallen into a co-dad relationship, tag-teaming holidays, alternating school activities and filling in where the other fell short. Does that make us friends? Brad wondered, padding down the hall to Dusty’s room. They definitely behaved like friends. Laughed, smiled and even shared a beer, now and then (as in they would drink beers together, there was no sharing of a single bottle.) Hell, they’d even agreed on a joint-Christmas vacation and up until…really the last two days, were having a lot of fun, together.

Whenever Kurt stepped in and graced them with toe-stubbing advice or Adriana undermined him, Brad genuinely felt for Dusty. So much explained so suddenly…

Did that make them friends?

I don’t know, he thought, halting just outside the room. Maybe if he’d had friends, growing up, he’d have a better idea.

Dusty had shut the door; unusual, but understandable. Whenever he’d gotten upset in the past, Dusty tended to shout and threaten things—accompanied by a plethora of colorful expletives. Rarely did he close himself off in such a way. Unless ‘close’ meant ‘bar’ and ‘off’ meant ‘drink beer.’

Oh, but the old Dusty would have done that. The new one, he was...better about expressing himself. Still fell into shouting and threats but at least he had the sense to tone it down around the kids.

“Dusty?” Brad called, knocking on the door. He kept his voice low, throwing a glance around, just in case someone (Kurt) caught wind of his intentions. For whatever reason, the old, cranky bastard seemed determined to run over his son’s feelings. Those are Dusty’s words, not yours. You’re better than that. Maybe, but he didn’t care to see his co-dad upset.

“Dusty are you in there?” Said Brad again. He leaned into the door, speaking just a fraction louder. “It’s me, Brad.”

A beat. “I know it’s you, Brad. No one else whispers in the middle of the day.”

“I didn’t want to—” Oh, still whispering. “I didn’t want to draw attention to you.” Said Brad, louder now.

“You standing outside my door is drawing attention.” Dusty sighed. He did sound upset; moments like these Brad really wasn’t sure Kurt deserved the benefit of doubt. Dusty talking, not you.

“I know, I know.”

“What?”

“I said ‘I know I know.”

“I heard what you said.” Said Dusty. “Why would you stand outside my door if you know it draws attention?”

“What?” Brad scowled, shook his head, and placed his fist against the door. “No, I was talking to myself because…look, can I just come in? I feel like I’m talking to a wall.”

He waited for the inevitable witty comeback. It never arrived. Instead, a delicate click shimmied free, and the door slid open. Just open, allowing a sliver’s-eye-view into the room. Or rather, Dusty glowering up at him.

“What do you want, Brad?” He asked, in a low voice, himself. Brad thought to mention this. He let it go.

“I told you.” He chose instead. “I want to talk.”

Beat number three; a tight line pulled Dusty’s mouth closed. Gradually, shoulders rolled forward and he sighed. “I don’t need to talk, Brad.”

“You look like you need to talk.” Brad held up his hands. “I’m just saying, as one co-dad to another, we should keep communication open.” His turn to pause, studying Dusty, closely. Had he always seemed so (short, the word is short.) No, not short…small. Worn. A glimpse of the average Joe behind his bad-boy-greaser bravado. He’d come so far in the father-game, jumped on board (almost) with everything the Whitakers tossed his way. He’d even mastered the Cones, a feat that forever impressed Brad. For a man who claimed it beyond him, that really showed development.

If only he could apply the same to his feelings.

“Come on, Dusty.” Brad tried again. He threw in a half-smile for good merit. “Just for a second. I’m worried about you.”  

Dusty’s frown faltered. His gaze dropped along with it. It only lasted a moment—gone before Brad had time to digest that it happened. Or what it meant.

“I don’t need you to worry about me.” The now-scowling Dusty replied. Nonetheless, he swept the door sideways, stepping further into the room. “You have one second.” He said, twisting around. For emphasis, he held up his index finger, then pointed for another kind of emphasis: warning.

“Dusty—”

“One second, Brad. I’m counting.”

“You can’t just—fine.” Brad shut the door, stalking over to the other man. The room was larger than Brad and Sarah’s, with a well-lived in atmosphere; clothes bunched in a heap on the hardwood floor, makeup brushes strewn about a squat and also dresser—winter wear lying carelessly against a bed that was, at best, only half-made. An indent in the plush comforter suggested Dusty’s previous position before getting up.

 “I think your dad is getting to you.” Brad said finally. “I’ve never seen you stressed—I wasn’t actually sure you were capable of stress—and I’m worried it will ruin—”

“Second’s up.” Dusty cut him off. He swiveled back around, raking through his hair. It always looked greasy, Brad noticed, yet somehow, avoided dirty. Like he used some special secret ingredient that sucked out all the expected grossness that tended to accompany greasy hair.

 “Brad.” Continued Dusty, severing the train of thought. He took a few steps forward; raised arm joining the other in a sweeping gesture. “I told you this was going to happen, and you didn’t prepare yourself. If anything” he went on, and now he was pointing again “I should be worried about you. Have you seen what my dad is doing to us? Have you?”

He tilted his head, dark eyes wider than Brad had ever seen them. He swallowed, daring a step forward.

“I think,” he said again, and now he was forced to look away (those eyes, damn, those eyes were so intense) “I think he’s an old man set in his ways who needs a fresh eye’s-view of things. He just needs time to—”

Dusty whirled on him again. That brave step retreated two paces. “No, he doesn’t. My dad isn’t like me, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. You can’t win him over with a charming smile or cute stories or any of that—that—” He gestured up and down, indicating Brad’s (good nature? Optimism?) “—heartwarming tidings and cheer. It’s not him.” Hand fell against Dusty’s side with a thwap. It didn’t last long, up again and pinching the bridge of his nose.

Brad watched the display wordlessly. In part because he’d apparently lost his window and in part because, well, he just felt bad for the guy. It was as if Brad had spent the last couple of years coordinating with a ghost, a figment of some man-sized-child’s imagination. That child, the real Dusty Mayron, appeared to him, now, for the first time, unprotected. Unraveling. Drifting away in the open sea, waiting for the current to pull him under.

“Talk to him, if anyone can fix this, it’s you.”

Thank everything Brad always packed an extra life-jacket.

“Dusty.” He began, speaking slowly, deliberately. The shorter man paused in his distress, shifting from prickly to open to prickly to that same something Brad noticed before. The something he couldn’t read. A plethora of thoughts filtered through Brad’s mind like an old flip-book, everything from ‘I once knew this girl in college’ to ‘you need to stop doubting yourself.’ He decided to go with the latter; daring, again, that step towards his—but were they friends? Did the real Dusty Mayron care about Brad the same way the fake Dusty did?

Doesn’t matter. You care, right?

He did. He cared a lot.

“Stop doubting yourself.” Brad said, forehead pinched in concern. “You’re a great dad, and an even better co-dad. That doesn’t mean what you think it does.” He hastened, should Dusty take it the wrong way. (He’d gotten past that with fake!Dusty. Real!Dusty might take things more personally…)

“I mean we’ve got a good thing going, here. It’s working.” Brad went on. That same worry bled into his voice, coaxed his arms out and towards his fellow co-dad. Dusty froze, and it almost looked like he might actually embrace the pending-hug. At the last second, he swiveled out of the way, sending Brad staggering towards the wall.

“Yes.” He said, either ignoring or missing Brad’s recovery (so close, but not close enough. Take that, wall!) “Yes we do. We do have a good thing going. That’s what I’m worried about. I—ack…”

He trailed off in a string of soft swears, the muscles on his neck clenching as his teeth did the same. Concern for the man spiked again and coordination be damned, Brad clasped Dusty’s shoulder.

“Fuck…” Dusty sighed. He raised his head, and any would-be scolding evaporated from Brad’s mind. There weren’t any kids around. Just them. Co-dads. Maybe friends. A few slip-ups hardly mattered.

A heavy, ragged breath dropped from Dusty’s lips.  “I like you, Brad. I like this…this thing we have going. I’ve worked hard at it. I don’t want…” Again, he faltered, and again, Brad witnessed something he never believed Dusty capable of.

He bit his lip. Actually bit it, brief and tentative but very clear in what it was. If Brad’s bleeding heart weren’t aching before, it certainly was now, and he squeezed his co-dad’s shoulder, again.

“Hey.” He said. “Hey. Nothing’s going to change, okay? Yeah your dad’s not like you, but that’s a good thing.”

“How is that a good thing?”

“Because you’re not like him. You’re…better than him. You’re Dusty Mayron, greatest co-dad in the world.” He smiled—a fleeting, uncertain thing. Dusty mirrored it, then looked away.

“You want to know something, Brad?” He said, suddenly quiet. Brad’s attempt at humor fell away. Suddenly, he wished his own dad were here to lift the mood.

“What?” Brad asked. Dusty paused. He clapped his own hand around Brad’s wrist.

“You’re the better co-dad.” He said.  It sounded more like a confession.

“Don’t say that.”

“No, I’m serious. You’re like…the co-dad master. I’m…” Again, his voice fell away. His grip did not. “I’m still tryin’ to figure all this out.” He looked up again when he said this, those sad eyes suddenly honest, piercing. “All of it.”

Brad stared at him. He knew he should probably say something, offer a counter argument, help re-establish self-esteem. He kept staring. Who are you, he thought, and what have you done with the Dusty I know?

He knew that answer, too.

Dusty’s gaze dropped, squeezing shut those dark, vulnerable eyes. Vulnerable. Brad thought. Another concept he hadn’t thought Dusty capable of. At least, not to this degree.

“I like you, Brad.” Said the other man, again. He let go of Brad’s wrist, hand returning once more through his greased hair.

“I know, Dusty.” Brad said. His own blue eyes remained glued to his (pending) friend. “You told me. I like you, too.”

“No.” Dusty shook his head. He blew out another breath, tugging harder at his hair. “I mean I…I like you. I don’t want to lose what we have.”

He stared at Brad, breath trembling on his lips. Brad stared right back. He blinked. Blinked again.

“…oh.”

Dusty swallowed. Color bloomed on either cheek. Brad continued staring.

 “Oh.” Dusty liked him? Like full-blown high-school-have-a-crush-stuck-in-the-friend-zone liked him? He tried to speak, but no words came to his aid; his brain felt like someone (Dusty) had come along and unplugged it, leaving it only with sluggish processing skills until it shut down completely. Or damn near just about.

“You…okay. You…” See? Sluggish. Brad licked his bottom lip. Like his baffled brain, his tongue felt dry and useless. Heavy. Too big for his mouth.

You have to say something. He did, because right now only his eyes felt functional, bulging from his skull like a stress-relief doll he’d (coincidentally and as a joke) gotten for Dusty last Christmas.

“U-Uh. Okay. You…like me.” Brad managed at last. He blinked—hard—and rubbed his chin. Dusty, still quiet, still hunched and almost frighteningly out of character, crossed his arms.

“Yes Brad, that’s what I said.” Dusty retorted. He didn’t meet Brad’s eye. Just as well. While Brad succeeded in forming one coherent sentence, he’d had a decidedly difficult time carrying conversation. Something—be it his heart or his tongue—lodged itself in his throat; try all he might, it wouldn’t budge. Once more, Brad found himself wishing for his father’s guidance. Surely dad wouldn’t freeze at a time like this.

Think he could handle something like this?

Yes, yes he had to! Brad hadn’t the slightest idea how to proceed! How could he? Where would he even begin?

“Uhh—um—can I ask…when…?” That worked.

“No you cannot ask when.”

“Why—why not?”

“Because I said so.” Dusty replied, and it wasn’t just his cheeks red, now. The flush spread down his neck and across his cheekbones. If this were any other conversation—any at all than the one they were having—Brad would more closely identify that color with fury.

“…can I ask why, then?” Tried Brad, again. This time, he did spark some irritation.

“Why.” Dusty echoed. “You want to know why?”

“Yeah…that’s what I’m asking.”

“It was a rhetorical question, Brad.” The other man snapped. He pulled at his hair so hard a wince finally withdrew his hand. Instead, Dusty rubbed the back of his neck, then his chin, finally returning to nest under his arm.

“You come into my life—out of nowhere—and offer me a beer off the bat. I try to rain on your parade, I belittle you—I would’ve let you stay dead, did you know that?”

Brad gasped. “No.”

“Oh yeah.” Dusty went on. “I didn’t like you Brad. Didn’t like you at all. You were too nice. Too perfect. Too everything Sarah and her kids needed. I couldn’t touch that. I’ve never been that guy. But…” As before, he seemed to deflate, and as before Brad found himself wondering why he’d ever felt intimidated by this man. (Are you kidding? He’s stronger, smoother, more attractive and you saw what was between his—)

The point was, he’d never stopped and consciously considered the other man was just that. A man.  A man struggling with more than Brad ever expected. Maybe he’s not the only one still putting things, together. Silence fell over them, a heavy, dense silence that reminded Brad of the air before a storm. Thick and electric. Suffocating.

Brad took stock of Dusty again; he’d withdrawn into himself, expression, body language, a clear display of frustration. Flustered frustration, Brad thought, and in another place and time he might have chuckled at his own alliteration. Right now, his chest felt tight, stifled, under his Christmas sweater.

Dusty…had a crush on him. A crush on him. A crush. On him. No matter how he said it, Brad couldn’t make sense of those words. Hadn’t the other man just recounted their difficult past? At what point did someone who took pleasure in his literal demise develop feelings for him?

And what about their families? He’d remarried after all. Was a step-dad, himself. Did all of that happen while this was going on? Dammit! If only Dusty would stop with these half-guarded, half-answers.

“Hey Dusty?” Brad asked. He caught himself immediately. Direct inquiry hadn’t worked so far. Why continue? “Never mind.”

“Never mind?” Dusty looked up again. “You’re not a ‘never mind’ kind of guy.”

Was it Brad’s imagination or did a fraction of that weariness suddenly give? Didn’t matter, he decided, and now it was he who shook his head. “I’m not.” Brad agreed. “But you are.”

 Upper lip curled in a sympathetic half-grin. He stepped away again, this time towards the door. “If you don’t want to talk, that’s your call. We can’t all follow the Whitaker—you know what? Not helping. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.”

Maybe it was the slight flush that followed Brad’s conclusion, splashing uncertainty over his face. He cared about Dusty. Wanted to help him. Show him Kurt’s pick-apart criticism wasn’t the end-all, be-all of manhood. Manhood. Really? Nice choice of words.

It was an accident!  Brad hardly knew how to wrangle in the ladies (he still lay awake at night, wondering how and why Sarah remained content with him.) He had no idea—none at all—how to approach this side of things.  Especially when it was Mister-Macho-Badboy-tried-to-sabotage-him-at-every-turn-now-extended-family (friend? Oh geez, where did this leave them in that regard, now?) with his heart peeking out beyond his sleeve.

Brad scratched his head, at last turning away. He did his best, that’s what his own father would say. Offered the olive branch and left it dangling. If Dusty wanted to reach for it, that was up to him. What if he doesn’t? What if he pretends to carry on like nothing happened? I can’t pretend nothing happened!  Every time I see him I’m going to wonder if—

“Brad.” Thoughts staggered to a halt. Brad paused, one hand on the sliding door latch.

“Yeah?” He looked up and over at him. Dusty stood exactly where he’d left him, the same pained expression and unwavering gaze. Something stuttered in Brad’s chest. The next thing he knew, his head hit the back wall, pinned and held against it as Dusty kissed him. And boy, was it a kiss. Not the tender, romantic kind, not the best-buddies-I-appreciate-you-kind, not even a familial-co-dad kind. Dusty lunged at him, scraped his teeth against Brad’s lip and stuck his tongue in his mouth. Brad’s brain sparked and he squirmed, eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

“Mmf—Dus—Dusty!”

The shorter man at last broke away, beet-red and panting. His hands, buried deep in Brad’s knitted lapel, did not let him go.

“Yeah?” Dusty asked, warm breath rolling off his tongue. Again, Brad’s chest hiccupped and again, he found himself searching for his words. What was he going to say?

“U-Uh…” Think! Think, dammit, this is important! (Family, conflict, crush and holy S-word Dusty kissed him.) “You…uh…”

The other man’s face broke into a grin. It hovered between them, then shrank into something closer to nervous but not quite slipping under the title. “Yeah.”

“W—why?” That lingering smile dropped. “I mean—” Brad stammered. “I mean I know—I know why but you…what about Karen?”  

It was all he could think of. Dusty’s grip loosened but still, he didn’t let go. Conflict pressed into his forehead, and for a moment he seemed to look through Brad. Brad himself saw the window and this time, leaped for it with open arms. “She’s your wife. You—you made a commitment. To be with and love—”

“I do love her.” Dusty said.

“You kissed me.” Dusty glared at him.

“I like you, too. I—shit.” Now, at last, he let go. As it had so many times during this conversation, Dusty’s hand combed through hair now disheveled. Brad, meanwhile, tried to collect himself. His heart had gone rogue inside its ribbed cage, thudding erratically. At some point, his knees buckled, one hand splayed now against the wall for support.

“See?” Said Dusty finally. He trailed a few steps away from the taller man, then backtracked. “This is what happens when I talk, Brad. Mayrons don’t discuss their feelings. It never ends well.”

Brad blinked. Climbed his way back up the wall. “…you kissed me.”

“Yes, we’ve been over that, are you not paying attention?”

“Hey.” Brad said, surprising himself with the sudden edge accompanying the word. Fingers buried themselves in the fabric of his sweater. He inhaled a steadying breath. “That’s not what I meant. You...you kissed me. Me.”

“Brad, I swear—”

“Hold on.” He said. “Just…think about this for a second, okay? Please?”

 Tension pulled and strained Dusty’s photogenic features. Photogenic? Really? He’d always been (unfairly) handsome. The first time Brad saw him… but that wasn’t important, right now.

“Look.” Brad went on. “I don’t—I don’t know how long you’ve had…you know.”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do.”

“Brad.”

Feelings for me, okay?” Brad snapped—as well as he could snap. He wasn’t the snapping type. “I don’t know if it happened before you got married or not, but you made a commitment. You can’t just…”

 A thought occurred to him then. One that, like a spiraling case of vertigo brought him back to their original conversation.

“If you…” Careful. “If you cheat on her, doesn’t that…how does that make you any better than your dad?”

He expected the old Dusty to rear his head, shoulders squared and bristling like a cornered porcupine (Brad would know, an unfortunate high school retreat involving woods and three very uncouth classmates brought him face to face with more than just scarring memories.)  He waited for the flared nostrils, the pursed lips, for the fists poised and ready to hit him—that probably would hit him if he didn’t stop talking. Indeed, his fellow co-dad (crushcrushcrushing co-dad Brad what are you going to do about this) approached, and indeed, both hands balled on either side. Brad flinched and shied away, arms thrown up over his face. If Dusty was going to hit him, it was best just to let him get it out of his system and make up some story for Sarah about falling down stairs or—ooh, maybe he could pin this on Kurt. He looked like he wanted to murder Brad half the time, anyway.

“Are you serious, right now?”

What? “What?” 

Brad lowered his arms. Dusty hadn’t moved. Oh he was shocked, alright, but it wasn’t an ‘I’m-going-to-beat-the-crap-out-of-you’ shock. It was…

“Are you serious.” Dusty repeated, this time more demand than a question. Gradually, Brad climbed back to his full height.

“I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You said if, Brad. And-and it wasn’t a dismissive If.” Dusty added, pointing at him again. Brad’s brows shot up his forehead. Was he stuttering, just now?

“Were you—”

“Would you cheat on Karen with me, Brad?”

“What?”

“Would you—” Dusty looked away, rubbed his chin as he’d become prone to doing. The color hadn’t drained from his face. It seemed almost comfortable there, which was strange because—just like stress and vulnerability Brad hadn’t thought Dusty capable of blushing.

“Would you cheat on her.” Said Dusty again, abrupt (maybe stumbling a little?) He touched his chest—his own chest, still broad, still defined under his hoodie. “With me. If I asked you.”

“Uh…” Just like that, Brad forgot how to speak again. “Are—are you asking?”

“No.” Hasty, dismissive. “I’m just saying if I were, would you do it?”

Okay seriously, what was happening, right now? “Dusty, I hardly think this is the time for—”

“No?” Dusty asked, and it was here that old behavior bled through. The other man rounded on him, crowded him, furrowed brow casting a shadow over his piercing eyes. “When is a good time, Brad? Tomorrow? Christmas?”

Brad found it remarkable that someone as flustered as Dusty was managed to hold his ground. If Brad had summoned such behavior he would have, well—but he had tried that, and with each faltering blunder, Dusty gained ground. Gained ground? This isn’t a sports game. No? He’d sure started sweating like it was. And Dusty most definitely acted like he’d stumbled onto opposing territory. Unexplored and ready to conquer.

Now Brad was blushing, too.

“I’m not—” he began, tripping over a breath. “I am not going to have this conversation with you. You can’t cheat on your wife. You’re better than that.”

I’m better than that, Brad thought, then wondered why he might think such a thing. He’d never been the cheating type. To do that, he’d need to have options. And a weak resolve.

 “Dammit Brad.” Dusty snapped around, stalking towards the other side of the room. Halfway through, he turned around, hovered by the bed, then threw his fist into a pillow. Brad watched this all, starting only when hell rained down upon the bedding.

“Damn it.” Said Dusty again. He stood back up, dragging both hands down his face. Brad continued his silent observation. His heart, muddled and sagging from the aftermath of this confession, began to ache again.

“If anyone can fix this, it’s you.”

Damn you, dad.  

Chewing the insides of his mouth, Brad inched forward. He stopped some feet behind his co-dad, and they were co-dads, he realized, with or without this...this out in the open. Still quiet, still cautious, he reached for Dusty’s shoulder again. The other man stiffened. He didn’t pull away.

“I’m sorry.” Brad said. To his surprise, Dusty scoffed.

“You’re sorry.” He said. Brad nodded, then realized it wouldn’t be seen.

“Yeah.”

“Why are you sorry, Brad.” Brad paused. Thought about this.

“I…don’t know.” He confessed. “Just felt like it needed to be said.”

This time, the sound out of Dusty’s mouth resembled a laugh. A soft and horribly bitter laugh, but a laugh all the same. “See, this is why I like you. You’re a pain in the ass, but you’re a good pain in the ass.”

There was a double-entendre in there somewhere. Brad didn’t have the heart to bring it up. Dusty looked over the same shoulder he held onto.

“You’re a good guy, Brad.” He said, dripping with such heavy self-deprecation it actually hurt to hear. “You’ve always been the good guy. Me? I’m just the bastard product of a sonuvabitch who never gave a damn.”

“Dusty…” Brad croaked. Like a very lost and neglected puppy, the shorter man met his gaze. Brad held it and silence returned, stifling all but the jittery breath between them, and the sound of Brad’s heart in his ears.

“I…should go.” He said finally. He let go of Dusty, arm falling limply by his side. Dusty said nothing. He turned away again, his own hands retreating to his pockets. Back cracked and straightened, but somehow…somehow Brad knew he wouldn’t brush this off. The new Dusty, the real Dusty, didn’t just rebound like he used to. He felt things. Held onto things. Opened himself up and what, what had Brad done?

The taller of the two took a step back. Then another, three more, until his heel knocked against  hard wood of the wall. Color rose and fell from his face, condensing in the pit of his stomach.

“For what it’s worth,” Brad murmured, hovering by the door “I think you’re a good guy.”

Dusty sighed. “I know you do.”

On that final, dismissive (heartbreaking) note, Brad at last clasped the sliding latch. He pulled the door aside, and slipped out into the hall. It was darker now, he noted, the Christmas decorations downstairs emitting a warmer, humbling glow. It was almost poetic—would have been, too, if he didn’t feel like he’d been punched in the gut. Brad sighed, running a hand through his own curly hair. He needed a shower. And somewhere quiet to collect his thoughts. And maybe a drink.

Taking care to ensure Dusty’s door closed behind him, he made his way towards the bathroom. He reached for the knob, but before he could grasp it, it swung inward, and the face of Don Whitaker emerged.

“Oh hey,” He smiled.

“Hi dad.” Brad didn’t have it in him to return it. His father, of course, noticed immediately.

“What’s the matter? Did you talk to Dusty?” The mention of the other’s name so soon hit him in the gut, again.

 “Oh…we talked, alright.” Talked to him, argued with him, trampled all over him. It’s not your fault. You’re the good guy, remember?

He didn’t particularly feel like one, right now. His father’s voice pulled him out of it.

“And?”

And. Hoo boy. And…what? What could he say? Where would he even begin? Thoughts drifted to the man down the hall, a man standing alone with no one to buffer the storm most certainly brewing inside him.

And what, Brad? What are you going to do?

“…and I think he needs more time. Not every father-son duo can be like us.” This time, he did try to smile. Hopefully, the elder Whitaker would buy it. He seemed to. Inquiry slipped into a natural grin. Don chuckled, clapping his son across the back.

“You’re darn right.” He said, then shuffled past Brad into the hall. “By the way, Sarah and I are thinking of taking the kids for dinner, tonight. You should join us. Get out of this house.”

“I’ll do that, dad.” Brad replied. The old man beamed. He headed for the stairs. The moment he disappeared from view, Brad sagged.

Definitely going to need a drink.