Chapter 1: Sparklers
Kenny was not a surprise child, but he did arrive late into his parents’ marriage, almost ten years after the wedding and only a few years before the divorce. He arrived on the Fourth of July, like the world needed an extra cause for celebration. For the first three years of life, his parents avoided fireworks, because they seemed too dangerous for a baby to be near or to hear.
On Kenny’s fourth birthday, his mom bought a pack of sparklers. She planted him on the driveway, dressed in bright red overalls and a striped t-shirt. He was small for his age back then, skinny even with his baby fat.
“Stand up strong, Kenny,” Mom said. He planted his feet, in Ninja Turtle sneakers, on the concrete, staring intently as she pulled back. She set her lighter down as she tied her shoulder-length blonde hair behind her head in a ponytail. “I’m going to light it, okay? It’ll make noise, but don’t worry. It’s just part of the fun.”
Kenny nodded. He wanted to do what his mom wanted. He loved his mom, and she always had the best ideas. She was the most fun. He watched as she lowered her hot pink lighter to the tip of the sparkler in his hand. At first, nothing happened. Then it sparked, too bright to make out colors. When the sound started, Kenny joined in the shrieks. He jerked his hand back, and the sparkler fell onto his chest.
Mom snatched the sparkler off of him, while his dad ran from the open garage door. He scooped Kenny off the ground. Kenny sniffled, but he didn’t move, letting Dad fuss over the singes on his overalls.
“What the hell were you thinking, Lena?”
“It’s a sparkler, Jim. It’s the easiest firework!”
“It almost burned him!”
Kenny huffed out his sobs, chest rising. He lifted his left hand, stared at the bright red welt on his wrist. “Daddy—”
Dad turned to look immediately, big fingers wrapping around Kenny’s wrist with a careful grasp. He gave Mom a look that would have made Kenny cry. “Let’s go inside. We need to put some cream on this.”
At twenty-eight-years-old, Kent Parson is proud to say he can take care of himself and his cats adequately. His apartment is always clean. (Which doesn’t say much. Kent is compulsively neat, and when he has nothing to do and isn’t in the mood to go out, cleaning is one of the few things he can pour himself into. Not to mention he hires a cleaning service for the long roadies.) His cats have food on time every day, and their fur is always smooth and unmatted. (Again, a service comes when he’s out of town.) He can make a variety of meals that work with his meal plan. When he goes out, he almost never blacks out, and he’s even been the DD a few times. (Mostly for rookies who are so young and dumb that he has to be the DD, but it still counts.) His life is functional enough, and Kent can be proud of that.
Taking care of himself and his cats does not mean that Kent is ready to take care of a baby.
Clara tells him she’s pregnant one Tuesday afternoon in the hallway. Kent has just come home from an early morning practice, and he has the rest of the day free. He’d been planning on trying to wrangle the cats for a claw trim until she stops him.
“Hey,” she says. She looks normal. Her hair, the roots black and the rest a faded brown, is pushed back with a bright red headband, and she’s wearing a loose t-shirt dress that tells him she has the day off work and absolutely no plans to go anywhere.
“Hey,” he says back. Kent likes Clara. He really does. But he wants to get inside, where his cats may be tearing up his furniture, which would suck because it’s leather. He’s had a damn hard time finding good leather furniture that’s both comfortable and durable when faced with five hockey players piling themselves on top of each other. He is speaking from experience.
Clara seems to sense his desire to leave, so she doesn’t beat around the bush. “I’m pregnant.”
At this point, Kent has his key in the door. The key chain slips from his fingers. It falls to the floor, where it bounces once, leaving a slight nick in his key fob for his car. “Uh,” he says, always eloquent.
“Don’t get me started. It’s yours,” she continues, resolute. “I don’t exactly run around with other guys when you’re on the road. I know my cycle, and I know the timing. Congrats, Kent. You’re having a kid.”
He turns to look at Clara again. “You don’t look pregnant.”
If she weren’t infinitely patient and far too used to Kent jamming his foot in his mouth, she would have slapped him. “I’m nine weeks along,” she says, careful and sharp. “I won’t be showing for a while, dumbass.”
“Oh. So you’re . . . keeping the baby.” Kent finally regains his senses enough to bend down and scoop his keys off of the floor.
“Uh. No,” Clara says.
“Abortion?” Kent splutters.
Clara’s eyes, the sharp line of her eyeliner and the piercing depth of those dark browns, burrow into his chest. “Is this how you talk in interviews?” She drapes herself against the wall now. “No. I’m not having an abortion. It just . . . doesn’t feel right, for me.” She pauses. “I told you before. I don’t want kids, Kent. I’m not about this . . . family thing. But it’s yours. So you can have the baby. Or someone will adopt it.”
“I—” Kent can only choke out the one word. He wonders how Clara can be so eloquent. He thinks maybe she rehearsed this speech, like she knew everything Kent would ask beforehand, so she could take center stage with her monologue and bow out before he even gained a sense of what had happened.
“You don’t have to answer now,” she says. “It’s not something you should decide fast anyway. I just wanted you to know. And give me an answer when you figure it out. I’ll need to start looking into adoption programs.”
Clara looks at him for a moment longer. He thinks she might come forward and hug him, but she’s never been very affectionate outside of the bubble of her apartment. She turns back to her apartment and heads inside, so Kent does the same.
The locker room has not changed from the day before. Kent’s stall is still in the same place, and there are still the same guys next to him. He smells that funk that’s been there for the past three years—and he is damn sure it’s from the time Bloomer brought a smoothie and spilled it and no one has ever found that last drop that has to be moldy and possibly toxic by now. He hears the pitchy argument starting between two vets on the third line from across the benches. He tunes it all out as he undoes his watch, fingers tracing over the scar along his left wrist.
“Are . . . you okay?” Scraps asks, in that neutral tone he maintains when he decides it’s not safe to chirp Kent. Whatever others may say about Scraps, Kent thinks he has a sort of wisdom to him: the wisdom to know when to shut the fuck up, as well as the wisdom to know when to ask questions without asking the real question.
There's a mirror on the opposite wall. Kent stares at his reflection. He looks kind of shitty, so pale that his freckles seem dark, like someone grabbed a marker and tried to draw on his face. Kent does not even think about how he looks. He undoes his watch and slides it off of the scar he still has from the sparkler incident. He opens his bag and starts to lace up his skates.
“Parser?” Scrappy prods a moment later.
“Don’t poke the bear,” Bloomer calls from the other side.
“Parser is more like a cat. He’ll scratch up your legs, but that’s all,” says Troy.
Kent does not register any of their chirps. He starts packing his belongings in his stall, and his phone tumbles out of his hand.
This is the point at which the rest of the Las Vegas Aces catch onto something. They return to their usual conversations, building a bubble around Parse and leaving him to his own devices. There are still fifteen minutes until practice will start.
“Parse,” Scraps says, his voice more serious this time. “Are you sick?”
Kent stays quiet for one heartbeat. “No. I’m going to have a baby.”
Scraps’ face is suddenly blank, and he glances down at Kent’s stomach like he expects to find a baby bump that magically appeared. Kent wants to start laughing so he doesn’t start crying or some other dumb shit.
“My neighbor Clara is pregnant,” he clarifies.
Scraps nods. “Hot Clara?” he says, like there was another one. Kent is pretty sure she wanted to murder his entire team the first time they stopped by and called her that to her face. He kind of wanted to punch his team too. So he’d called her hot after first meeting her. He couldn’t explain to his friends that she was more than Hot Clara, his fuckbuddy. She was a good cook who sometimes took pity on him after games and let him in for a late snack. She was the woman who would let him rest his head on her shoulder after sex and listen to his thoughts like Kent’s thoughts mattered. She was someone who was passionate and strong, totally uninterested in romance or family, and still managing to carve her future out in a way that made her happy, with no regards to anyone else. Aromanticism is different from the queer limbo Kent finds himself in, but she doesn’t let society push her into a heteronormative role like Kent does.
Kent doesn’t think he could ever be as strong as Clara. She always makes him want to try harder.
“Being your neighbor doesn’t make it yours, Parse,” Scraps adds.
Kent snorts. “It’s mine,” he says. He glances over at Bloomer out of the corner of his eye. Bloomer is determinedly looking at his skates.
“You’re sure?” Scraps asks.
“Clara isn’t a liar. She’s my friend,” he says. “Shit, I—”
The time is passing too quickly. Half of the team has already filed out of the locker room. Kent pushes himself to his feet. He’s still the captain, and he needs to be on the ice, ready to direct the team through their warmups. Scraps follows behind him.
“You’re not together, are you? You’ve never talked like—” Scraps makes kind of a funny face, the sort of blank look Kent remembers from every time the subject of love lives came up, as well as the night Jack Zimmermann kissed his boyfriend on live television. Kent isn’t sure if this means Scraps has caught onto the fact that there’s a reason Kent’s love life has always been so discreet or if he’s just going to make that face any time someone mentions love and Kent in the same sentence. Which is . . . kind of sad. Maybe it’s true. Maybe they don’t belong in the same sentence.
“No,” Kent assures as he sets onto the ice. His skates cut through evenly, and he lets himself glide forward. It’s easy, and it’s a smooth ride. He turns around to face Scraps. “I know. I gotta talk to PR. Deal with this shit. It’s fine. I can handle it.”
“Okay,” Scraps says. He doesn’t look like this okay. He presses his lips together until his nose scrunches and pushes the scar up his face.
“It’s not that big a deal,” Kent says with a shrug. He knows it’s a big deal. He thinks of how soon he has to decide what he’s going to do. He thinks for a moment of telling Scrappy.
But Scraps smiles a loose smile. “I know you can handle it, Parse. You’ll make a good dad,” he says. It seems simple when he says it.
Kent starts on laps to warm up. He spends the rest of practice feeling like he’s skating in circles.
When Kent comes home from practice, Clara is not standing in the hallway. He lets himself into his apartment and stares at his cats. Purrs has climbed to the top shelf of his kitchen cabinets, and he panics as he tries to make his way down. By the time he’s landed on the kitchen tile, he’s found the bravado to saunter into the living room like he hadn’t been disobeying the no-kitties-on-furniture rule. Kit is sitting on the coffee table. She makes no effort to move, and the most she does to acknowledge Kent’s arrival is flick her tail in defiance.
Kent does not have the energy to fight this battle today. He sits down on his couch and slumps back. The cushions press against the bruise from his last game. He furrows his brow before letting his head bob to the side. Kit catches his eye. She still doesn’t move.
“How would you feel about having a new brother or sister?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer. Kent does for her. Pitching his voice into his best imitation of a smoky, solemn woman, he says, “You already brought Purrs home. I do not need another cat.”
Kent considers the correct response. “It wouldn’t be a cat. It would be a baby. A human baby,” he explains. “What do you think, Purrs?”
Purrs has decided to bat at the toy mouse on the floor. He is clearly not paying attention. Kent answers for him anyway. “I will play with the Human Baby and probably scratch them up because I have no sense of self-control!”
Now, as if he knows Kent is mocking him, Purrs turns and lifts his long black tail indignantly. Kit sneezes, but Kent chooses to see it as a laugh.
“You guys could behave, right? If I brought a baby home? Come on, I could be a dad,” he says. The words feel hollow. He bites them into nothing in his mouth.
Neither cat answers, and Kent can’t make up a reply because he can’t tell himself he thinks he’d be a good dad. Kent does not believe that, and clearly, his cats’ opinions don’t matter. He sighs as he stretches forward to stroke Kit’s back. She purrs and arches into his hand. For one moment, he feels that sharp ache in his chest, a reminder that he only truly feels comfortable around cats.
“I’m a good dad to you,” he says. That, at least, is true. But when he thinks about it like that, it only reminds him that would mean there would be another life in his hands. Kent has mastered caring for three—and Kit and Purrs can bathe themselves as well as eat without being held. A baby is way more complicated. It’s not something he can do.
Kent’s resolve to tell Clara he can’t raise the baby strengthens, but he doesn’t know if she’s home. Instead of checking, he pats Kit’s back before snatching the laptop she has been resting her butt on.
“If you didn’t sit on the furniture, this wouldn’t happen,” he says, unsympathetic. He opens Chrome and begins to type in the address bar, which automatically fills “twi” to “Twitter” and more specifically, Jack’s boyfriend’s page.
He keeps promising himself he’ll stop compulsively checking social media accounts of people he hates and/or who hate him. When he has nothing to do and his mood is already slipping, Kent figures he’s better off to throw himself down the slope. If he hits rock bottom, he has nowhere to go but up. He clicks on the address.
Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease * 3h
The time between when I put something in the oven and when it comes out is time to start baking something else. And, thank you, I am not procrastinating!
Eric Bittle’s Twitter is obnoxious and bubbly as ever. He posts less often since he and Jack came out, but what he does post gives the impression that he’s content with his lot in life. He, annoyingly, seems like a decent person. Even more annoyingly, Kent remembers him being a cute kid from that one party at Jack’s college, aside from his eavesdropping. Kent used to think he’d left a hole in Jack’s life, but if he had, Eric Bittle has stepped in and filled the cracks.
It’s time to pour salt on his wounds. Kent searches for the Falcs Twitter and skims their feed. Most of it is the usual PR crap. He stops on one of their videos, scanning the background. No Jack. But he does see Tater in the background. It’s a blurry image, but Kent traces the lines of his shoulders and the slope of his nose, that wide, beatific smile visible even from so far away. His heart thumps. Firecracker. The stupid nickname he’d thought was so romantic at 23, for Tater and all of his energy that shot straight through Kent’s chest. He hadn’t thought of that in a long time.
Then again, he tried not to think about Tater at all.
He scrolls on. Finally, he comes to a picture of Jack and a few of the other Falcs from one of their recent games. Kent did not watch that game. If he has to, he thinks the highlights will do. He really has tried not to torment himself with Jack’s image any more than he has to. It’s too much to think about how Jack has everything Kent dreamed of and more.
If one of them got a girl pregnant, they’d probably raise the baby happily together. Of course, that would require cheating or some other agreement that would end up in them raising a child like a real, stable family.
Kent had never dreamed of a family. He’d never wanted children. Between his own parents, he figured he was likely to end up on either end of the spectrum of hanging onto a relationship that fell apart years before and ignoring any warning signs to cheating and abandoning people who depend on him.
It’s another reason he can’t be a father.
It’s 4:39. A little early to start dinner unless Kent makes something that takes a while to cook. Hell, why not? He’s got the time. He can even make his cats a treat. He scoops Purrs up from the floor and kisses his head. Purrs bats Kent’s ear, which he takes as a love tap.
Kent has exactly four friends on the Aces.
First, there is Bloomer, who is his rookie, even though it’s his second year. Bloomer is a sweet kid with a bright smile. His Cuban grandmother also lives in Vegas and comes to almost every single game, as well as occasionally sending Bloomer with home-cooked meals to share with his teammates. Kent feels a sort of fraternal protectiveness over the kid. He’s also positive that Bloomer is too young to actually deal with Kent’s life crises.
Second is Socks, his goalie. Goalies are all off the wall, and Kent thinks Russian goalies are a special breed. He’s brilliant on the ice, but he’s also the sort of guy that Kent thinks genuinely lives in another dimension. He’s not the kind of guy Kent would ever talk to about real problems, but he makes a damn good partner at ping pong.
Scraps would be the third, and the first that Kent would qualify as a best friend. Scraps is loyal. Scraps is tough, and like all defensemen, he has the sort of aura that he’s got everyone’s back. He doesn’t ask the questions Kent doesn’t want to answer, and he’s good at reading signs from Kent. It’s always easy to talk to him, even though he seems overconfident in Kent’s ability to handle his life.
The last is Troy.
Troy is the most stable person on the Las Vegas Aces. Kent is convinced of that. On the surface, he’s like many others. He has a beautiful wife and two precious kids. The difference is that he holds a monthly barbecue, and he does not make his wife take care of much. Most of the guys bring beer or dates. It works out well.
Two weeks after Clara tells him, Kent stands next to the grill while Troy is flipping another round of steaks. It’s not comfortable in the Vegas sun, but it’s the spot safest from rambunctious children and rookies. Kent doesn’t feel up to dealing with anyone between the ages of 0 and 23.
“Rowan is still hungry,” Lillian Troy says as she grabs another steak for her older daughter’s plate.
“Not everyone has eaten yet,” Troy replies, though he looks more amused than annoyed.
“Too bad. The kids go first.” Lillian shrugs before leaning in to kiss her husband. They make a cute couple, Lillian’s dark skin glowing in the sunlight and Troy’s pale cheeks starting to sunburn. Kent thinks of all the times they’d chirped Troy for getting with a woman who looked like a supermodel and had the brain of a genius, but he can’t think of any chirps staring at them. What they have is something special, like real, true love, and Kent aches all over for watching them.
Troy is only two years older than him. Somehow he’s managed to fall in love and cultivate a real life where he and his wife can coordinate caring for their kids, as well as both focusing on their own careers. They have it together. Kent isn’t naive enough to think that things are perfect in Troy’s life. They’ve been friends long enough that he knows better. Still, it’s something like jealousy that settles in the pit of his stomach.
“Don’t pout, Parse. We have plenty of steak. You wouldn’t starve your goddaughter, would you?” Troy jokes.
“Huh?” Kent says. He blinks. One of his contacts has moved off of his iris, and he has to blink again before it goes back into place. “I don’t care. Let Rowan eat ten steaks.”
“She’s not in that much need of protein yet. She hasn’t even started mites,” Troy says.
Kent spares a glance over to the Troy children. Rowan looks especially cute today, with two fluffy pigtails coming off the side of her head. Her little brother, Michael, has covered his face in steak sauce. He smiles and waves a hand that is also covered in steak sauce. “You never know. They start training young these days.”
Troy scoffs. “We’ll have to see if Rowan gets into hockey anyway. She keeps jumping between what she wants to do. One day it’s basketball. One day it’s soccer. One day it’s gymnastics. You don’t understand how bad it is until you have kids, Parse.”
Kent’s fingers curl around the bottle of beer. A drop of condensation slides across one of his fingers and lands on the web between two.
“. . . Parse?”
“I got my neighbor pregnant,” he says. It’s easier to say this time, in the sort of liminal space offered by a friend’s backyard on a hot day.
Troy can’t completely turn away from the grill, but he gives Kent a real look nonetheless. His eyes are solemn as a bead of sweat rolls down his forehead. “You’re serious,” he says, like he hadn’t already guessed something. It’s funny how Kent’s friends call him easy to read. They’ve never delved into any of his real secrets.
“She’s like . . . ten weeks along,” Kent continues. “And, uh . . . she doesn’t want kids. But she said she’s not going to have an abortion. So . . . .”
“So you’re going to be a single dad,” Troy supplies.
Kent does not like the sound of that. “Or the baby will be adopted.”
Troy raises a brow as he tosses another round of steaks on plates. Guys rush in and scoop them up as fast as they’re set down. Kent hasn’t eaten yet, but he doesn’t really care. He’s not sure he could stomach anything at the moment.
“So . . . you’re telling me about a baby you’re not planning to keep.”
“It sounds weird when you say it like that,” Kent protests. “It’s not like— Look, I wouldn’t be a good dad. So this is for the best.”
Troy nods knowingly. “Ah. You want me to convince you,” he says. “Hate to tell you, Parse, but I disagree. I think you could be a good dad.” Before Kent can protest, he gives that look he sends his children’s way whenever they need to be quiet. “ If you wanted to be. And that’s the difference. I'm not going to talk you into raising a kid. It's not a decision to make lightly. If you don't think you'll be able to provide your child with love and affection, then you're making the right decision. But if this is you and your hang-ups—"
"I don't have hang-ups."
"If this is you and your hang-ups again," Troy continues, "then maybe you should think a little harder about what you think you'd be so bad at."
Kent narrows his eyes at Troy's ruddy face. "You are trying to talk me into this."
"Absolutely not," Troy says.
"Look, you don't understand. Clara and I—"
"I don't want to hear about your sex life," Troy says.
Kent bites his tongue. It's not about sex. He's not sure how to explain it.
"Look. Nothing about what leads to this matters. Sure, if you were married and having a kid, that'd be different. But marriage isn't a guarantee you're going to be ready for a kid, or even that you want kids. So forget about what you did to bring it into the world. All you can do now is think about you and where you want the baby to fit in your life." Troy flips another round of steaks, and they sizzle. A bit of fat flies off the grill and lands on Kent’s arm.
“I can’t be a father,” Kent insists.
Troy shrugs. “Maybe not. But what’s stopping you is either you not wanting kids—or stuff you can fix.”
Kent doesn’t understand that. “Stuff I can fix?”
“Look. You live in an apartment that’s good for a single guy and his cats. You keep your fridge well-stocked. You’re good at cleaning. But it’s different for a kid. You’d need a better home. You’d need to think more about how what food you buy fits into a kid’s diet. And cleaning with kids is like 80 times harder.” Troy’s face suddenly grows grim, like this is the biggest secret of parenthood. “I know you, Parse. You like your life neat and organized. But it isn’t going to be if you have a kid.”
“So I won’t have a kid,” Kent says again. He doesn’t understand why they’re still having this conversation.
Troy doesn’t answer this time. He passes off another round of steaks, and Kent looks back to his goddaughter and godson and the picture of domesticity.
Chapter 2: Fountains
Mom left on June 23rd. Kenny didn’t know where she went. He tried asking Dad, but Dad didn’t have the answers. Or maybe he just wasn’t telling Kenny. Kenny tried to pester it out of him, but that only seemed to make things worse.
“Please, go play in your room,” Dad said. He had a stack of papers on the kitchen table. Some of it was mail. Kenny wished Mom was there because Mom let him play with the mail she didn’t need. Dad just snatched it all up and said it wasn’t a toy.
“But Dad,” he whined. He suddenly clamped his mouth shut. He was five-going-on-six, and that meant he wasn’t going to whine anymore. “Fine,” he huffed. “But when is Mom coming home ?”
Dad didn’t answer. He sat very still for a long time, until Kenny felt his only option was to do what Dad suggested originally: play in his room.
On the Fourth of July that year, they didn’t buy any fireworks. Dad bought a cake and rented an apartment.
“We’re going to live in Rochester, where Nanna lives. That’ll be fun, right?” Dad said. Kenny thought it sounded terrible, but the look in his dad’s eyes told him not to say that. Everyone said Kenny and Dad had the same eyes, but he hoped that wasn’t true. Dad’s eyes looked glassy, empty, gray.
“Okay,” Kenny said. When Dad set the cake down on the table, he shifted to prop himself up on his knees in the chair. On the cake, in dark green icing, swirls spelled, “Happy Sixth Birthday, Kent!” He couldn’t read the first part, but he recognized his name. This was how his kindergarten teacher made him spell it. Not K-E-N-N-Y. K-E-N-T. Kent.
“Is my name Kent or Kenny, Dad?” he asked.
Dad ran a hand through his hair before looking back at Kenny. “Oh. It’s Kent. Kenny’s just a nickname. Your mom thought Kent was too much for a little boy,” he said.
“Oh,” Kent said. “Like how Fourth of July is a nickname for Independence Day?”
Dad’s lips pressed into something that could almost pass for a smile. “Not exactly. If anything, Independence Day is a nickname for the fourth of July.”
Kent didn’t understand. He thought about his birthday again. Everyone else in his class had normal birthday. He’d watched as they’d brought in cupcakes to celebrate theirs. Only one other girl had a summer birthday, but hers was in June. Kent had the distinction of being the kid born on the Fourth of July.
He decided he liked the way Independence Day sounded better. He was going to be Independence.
When faced with a life crisis, Kent thinks most people turn to those around them and seek advice until they finally get the answer they want or the answer they’re given is beaten into their head. Kent has spoken to two, and he has no intentions of continuing on this fruitless quest. He goes through the motions for another two weeks, and then he ends up at Clara’s doorstep on a Wednesday at 2 p.m.
Clara looks tired as she answers the door. At this point, Kent calculates that she’s almost three months along. The bump is almost noticeable now, but her loose clothing hides it a little.
“If you’re here for sex, I’m going to kick your ass,” she says, hyponasal and flat.
Ah. She’s sick.
Kent opens his mouth. He was going to say he was there for food, but that sounds just as bad. “Want me to run to the store for you?” he offers instead.
Clara eyes him for a moment before she hands over a double-sided list of groceries and medicine.
“Listen to me, Kent,” she says. “You buy exactly what I wrote down. Do not deviate. I’ve done my research. These are what I can have while I’m pregnant. If you do this wrong, I will be forced to kill you.”
It would be easier not to laugh if she didn’t sound like she’d stuck a cactus down her throat. He ends up also obligated to bring her cookies from that one bakery on the other side of town.
By the time Kent has finished and returned to the apartment building, he finds Clara asleep on the couch. Her planner is open and laying on her stomach. He carefully removes it from her hand and sets it down on the coffee table before covering her with a blanket and tucking a pillow under her head. None of this disturbs her. He knows far too well that she’s a deep sleeper.
He’s not upset. He wanted to spend some time with her, but Clara rarely gets sick. If this made her fall asleep, she probably needs the rest. He sets the box of cookies on the table so she can grab them when she wakes up. He puts the groceries away and reads over the labels on the medicine to prepare her first dose for when she wakes up. At this point, it’s almost five. Kent debates whether it’s worth the risk of ruining one of her recipe plans for the week by using whatever is in her kitchen. He decides that removing the burden of cooking for one night will probably save him whatever punishment she could think of.
Clara finally wakes up to the smell of chicken soup. “Please tell me you’re done cooking,” she calls from her position on the couch. Kent can’t see her from where he stands in the kitchen, the faded blue backing her cover, but he smiles and taps his fingers against the counter. The plastic cookie container crunches as Clara pulls it open.
“Sorry. I just put the noodles in,” he says. He abandons the kitchen to step back into the living room, taking a seat just by her head. He rubs his fingertips against the couch for a moment before biting the bullet and pressing his palm against her forehead. “You feel warm.”
“I feel like crap,” Clara counters. A few crumbs dribble down her chin.
“I’ll get you some medicine.”
He hears the couch creak as she sits up, feels her eyes tracing the lines of his back. This was a game they played before they’d started hooking up, taking any opportunity to ogle each other’s bodies. It was something she’d told him when they became friends: “What’s the point in hanging with a pro athlete if I don’t get to look at the goods?” But this isn’t about sex today. Clara isn’t looking at his ass or thighs. She’s looking at his back, his chest and arms when he turns around. As Kent returns to the living room, passing over a teaspoon of crappy cough medicine, which she downs like a shot, she drops her head onto his shoulder. He wraps her up in his arms and not for the first time wishes they were straight and could be together.
“Why am I doing this, Kent?” Clara grumbles. She presses her face into his t-shirt, old and faded. He settles a hand on her hip but doesn’t pull her any closer. “Never let me forget condoms again.”
“Was that what we forgot?” he asks. His fingers brush against her stomach, and he jerks away.
Clara is quiet. “I think it’s like . . . a combo. I fucked up my birth control. You know that dumb bastard who wanted me to get his penthouse done before he got back from vacation and kept changing what he wanted?”
“You shouldn’t have done it for him,” Kent argues.
“It was money. Not all of us are rich,” she says. She closes her eyes. Her face, normally a little tanner, seems strangely pale and frail. “Ugh. I didn’t sleep for like a week. Forgot which day was what.”
Kent brushes her hair from her forehead. He could offer to help her with rent, but Clara wouldn’t accept. It’s almost like a rule for her. She won’t let him fall into the habit of thinking she’s his girlfriend, no matter what else they do.
He wishes he could explain to her what he wants to give her as a friend. He thinks she’d take it the wrong way because he can’t explain where she falls. (It’s somewhere between Jack and Scraps on a scale of Tater to Bloomer.)
“Sorry,” he says.
“You should be. We both fucked up,” she says. She scrunches her nose before shifting. “Hey. Carry me to bed. And just let me lay on you.”
That Kent can do. He’s careful about picking her up, a little worried about jostling the baby bump or banging her head on the back of the couch. Clara curls into him a little more.
Clara’s bedroom is peaceful. She only keeps one set of curtains open, ever, so it’s almost completely dark as they sit down on the bed. The air is cool, which must be good for someone with a fever. Kent braces his back against the headboard and lets Clara curl around him. He’s slept with more women than men or nonbinary people, but he’s only ever had men as long-term partners. Having someone smaller than him like this is novel. He settles one hand in her hair, stroking it like he remembers liking back when he still had hopes for his relationships.
She doesn’t answer right away. He wonders what’s going through her mind. “Please tell me you’re not going to propose.”
Kent snorts. He’s not stupid enough to do that, even though the idea sends a flash in his mind of a peaceful life, married to a woman with a career that kept her busy enough and they only had to intermingle in the bedroom and take care of their child. It’s not a bad fantasy, but it’s not something he longs for intensely. He knows it’s something that would make Clara want to run away.
“Nah. I want to know something.” He stops as he thinks about how to say it. “You being aro. Does it get lonely?”
Maybe it isn’t the time to discuss this. She’s pregnant and sick, and Kent can feel how she tenses up like she wants to move off of him. He doesn’t move. He hopes she’ll settle down.
“Define lonely,” is her only answer.
Kent lifts one hand and looks at the bruising down his forearm. “Okay. I know you don’t want to be with me. You don’t want to get married. You don’t want to have a family. But what do you want? It can’t be to live alone forever.”
Clara turns so her head faces the other direction. She places one hand on Kent’s chest. “I don’t know,” she says. “I like living alone. I like the peace and quiet.” She pauses and curls her fingers into the fabric of Kent’s shirt. “But I like having you near. I like that you can come over and I don’t have to be alone.”
“But you don’t want to be with me,” Kent says again.
She sits up. She still looks tired and haggard. Kent thinks maybe he should tuck her into bed and leave her alone. But Clara is too resilient to let this conversation end up. “Kent. You don’t want to be with me,” she says carefully.
He doesn’t answer.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be with you either. Because I know who you are. You can say what you want, but you are the family kind of guy,” she says. “If you start thinking you want to be with me, you’re going to be imagining marriage and kids, and then you don’t want to be with me. You want to be with someone who can play that role.”
“I’m not into marriage and kids either,” Kent defends because he’s never imagined that for himself.
Clara gives him a look. Her brown eyes skit around his face. “Can I be honest?”
“Are you ever not?”
She smacks his arm. “I’m serious. I’m going to tell you something that’s going to piss you off.”
“Fine,” Kent says, even though he’s not sure he wants to hear it. “Shoot.”
“You’re saying that because I’m a woman.”
Kent stares blankly.
“Kent,” she says, her voice softer now, “I know you. And I know how you treat me is different than how you— You’re my best friend. I hope you know that. But that’s all we are. We’re best friends who have sex. And this is why I know you. I can see how you react to people you’d actually want to date. I remember how you talked about your ex—”
“Don’t mention him,” Kent interrupts. Clara gives him a sharp look. “I know you’re not straight, and I know you don’t think you’re gay. But whatever middle ground you’re in, you may be attracted to women, but I don’t think you want to spend your life with one.”
He can’t think of any decent protest. She lays back down on his chest, and he sets his hand on her hip again.
“It’s not a middle ground,” he says finally. “I’m not straight. And I’m not gay. I’m just—”
Putting a label on it has never felt right. What Kent knows about queer shit comes from people like Clara, who appear in his life and sometimes take off without a word. They’re the only people who know there’s anything more to Kent than a party boy who would sleep with any woman who taps his shoulder. He doesn’t want to do research on his own because thinking that he’s not straight still leaves a knot in his stomach like he’s seventeen and afraid his dad might find out he kissed his best friend.
Being with Clara doesn’t feel like that. But it doesn’t feel straight either. This isn’t something he can tell anyone else.
“I know,” she says. He thinks she does. He loves that he doesn’t have to tell her everything.
“I love you,” he says. This, for once, is the right thing to say.
“I love you too, Kent. And . . . I’m not trying to pressure you or say I know you better than you. I hope you know that. But since you haven’t given me an answer about the baby—”
Kent opens his mouth before she can finish. “I’m still thinking.”
Clara holds up one finger. “You didn’t ask me about the baby. But you asked me about being lonely. I’m not going to be married, not in the way I think you might get married one day. And I don’t want kids. I don’t think I’ll be lonely if I keep living alone. What I have right now is enough for me. But it’s not enough for you. So you should think about keeping the baby.”
“Keep the baby . . . so I won’t be lonely?” Kent says, careful to be sure.
“Keep the baby because you want a commitment,” Clara elaborates. “People are complicated. Romance is complicated. But there’s something simple about being a parent. You either are or you aren’t. I may give birth to this baby, but I’m never going to be a parent.”
“You think I could make the commitment.” Kent thinks back to Scraps in the locker room and, “You’ll make a good dad,” and Troy and, “I think you could be a good dad.” His instinct is to fight back and list all the reasons he wouldn’t. He bites his tongue.
“I think you want the baby, and that’s why you haven’t given me an answer.” Clara shifts again and closes her eyes. “I’ll give you another month. I won’t mention it again. But that’s what I think.” She groans. “No more talking. Throat hurts. Wake me up when dinner is ready.”
Kent lets her fall asleep against him, stroking down the length of her spine. He thinks the baby is changing something between them, and he doesn’t think he’ll have this much longer. He wants to remember it.
Kent goes home after dinner. Kit is sitting on his laptop again. Purrs is curled up and sleeping at the end of the couch. He pulls his laptop out from under her and lets him sleep, since he made it home so late anyway.
Twitter is the same thing as usual. He checks on Eric Bittle, lets himself feel jealous, and avoids Jack like the plague.
Today, he checks a different account.
Alexei Mashkov @amashkov7 * 6h
am being deprived of pie! so cruel! ((( @omgcheckplease b have no heart for poor, sad russian man
Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease * 6h
@amashkov7 This is punishment for your crimes. Please learn to text at a reasonable time.
Dustin Snow @dustinsnow * 6h
@amashkov7 @omgcheckplease lol cockblocking crimes
Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease * 6h
@amashkov7 @dustinsnow Excuse me for wanting peace and quiet at home with my boyfriend on his one day off.
Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease * 6h
@amashkov7 You are a dear friend, but I cannot deal with any more girl problems today. I will send you one pie tomorrow though. Only because you’re so sweet.
Alexei Mashkov @amashkov7 * 6h
Something cold washes over Kent’s gut.
It’s not like he didn’t know that Tater could move on. They haven’t been together in five years. Kent sure as hell hasn’t gone celibate in that time. But celibate is one thing, and being with someone is another. Kent feels—
He closes his laptop.
Jack has moved on. He has a boyfriend who makes him happy, who seems like he’s happy himself. They’re both friends with Tater, and none of them waste any part of their day thinking about Kent.
He pushes himself up from the couch and leaves the cats behind as he goes into his bedroom. This apartment was one recommended by a veteran player when he first joined the Aces. He moved in imagining that it was supposed to be Jack’s place. Some days, he even imagined he was just visiting Jack before flying back to his own team because, in an ideal world, Jack would never have ODed. He would still be at Kent’s side.
For the first time, Kent doesn’t think that’s ideal. He was the only one who ever wanted it. He doesn’t want it anymore.
When he tries to think of ideals, he thinks of nights spent at a beach house along the east coast, calling a man firecracker like it meant I love you. He can’t have that either.
Kent has lived in Vegas for almost ten years, but the east coast has always felt a little more like home. It’s unfortunate that that extends to Providence as well.
It’s been a long time since he’s been in Providence for anything but a game, and unfortunately, this is no exception. They had an early game with the Falcs, one they lost thanks to Kent’s complete fuck-ups (one assist that he’s not convinced he was totally present for, and a string of missed shots), so he took to wandering the town. Providence isn’t one of the cities that is completely foreign to Kent. He’s been here enough that there are places he likes to go. He just can’t go there without the risk of running into the person who introduced him to these places.
He counts it as a step up, at least, that Providence is Tater’s city, and not Jack’s, in his mind. Moving on from pining for one failed relationship for years to another is not exactly healthy, but it’s got to be progress. In some shape or form.
He counts it real progress that he doesn’t go actively seeking Tater out. After debating his options, Kent checks his phone for a nice waterfront restaurant and finds one new enough that there’s no chance he’s ever been there with Tater. Success. He gets a seat outside and orders seafood that actually tastes fresh from the ocean.
The meal is almost gone when he sees a figure settle into the seat opposite him. Kent lifts his head to see Tater as he always is off the ice: in a t-shirt that’s a little tight around his shoulders, sweats that are loose around his legs, and ugly sandals. His expression isn’t the one he wears on the ice, focused and serious. His face looks almost pinched as he stares over at Kent.
Kent grabs a napkin and dabs at his mouth. “What do you want?” he asks.
“Is my favorite restaurant,” Tater says. He swings his legs underneath the table and grabs one of the menus tucked into the condiment holder. “Good food. Good view. Until now.” Now his expression has grown sourer.
Kent rolls his eyes. “I didn’t know you were going to be here,” he defended. “I just wanted seafood.” He wants to ask why Tater took a seat there anyway, but this isn’t the place to be getting into personal issues. He doesn’t exactly trust himself to not end up in one of two precarious situations, and neither of his secrets are ones he’s willing to spill to the press just yet.
Tater doesn’t answer this. He thumbs through the menu a few times, always so scrutinizing. It almost makes him look picky, even though Kent knows Tater has a harder time choosing what not to order than what he wants.
He reaches for his glass of water, feels the condensation on his fingers as he brings it to his lips. A breeze rustles through the patio, and his hat almost blows from his head. Kent uses his free hand to clamp it back down. “You know, you could pay for my meal. Since you won.”
Tater snorts and stretches back in his seat. His knees bump against Kent’s. It’s funny how only a few years before, that’d been a gesture for them. They couldn’t hold hands, but Tater and his long chicken legs could bump against Kent without losing a plausible no-homo excuse. Now, Kent thinks he’s doing it just to be annoying. “Is loser supposed to pay, no?” he replies, raising one brow. “You treat, Parson.”
Kent rolls his eyes, but he figures he might as well. For some reason, Tater is actually willing to sit with him again. It makes his stomach twist uncomfortably. If he had any room in his head to think about this, maybe it would have been exciting. As it was, he figured he should just accept it.
The pinched look on Tater’s face comes back, even as he flashes a bright smile and jokes around with the waiter who comes to take his order. It’s only when his order is in, and he sees that Kent is no longer eating that he finally decides to speak.
“You know how your hockey is usually rat kind of hockey?” he says. “Today is bad different way.”
That shoots an arrow through Kent’s heart. He takes it out and lets the blood run free. “Why do you care?”
Tater shrugs. Kent tries to make up reasons. The one he keeps coming back to is that Tater knows Kent isn’t very open with most people. They’d never had a serious relationship, per se, but for a long time, if something went wrong, if he needed advice, Tater’s number would be the one he dialed. It’d been an even longer time since he’d dialed that number, but maybe Tater never forgot how to read him. That’s almost embarrassing.
“I’m fine,” Kent protests anyway.
Tater narrows his eyes. “Maybe. But when we play, mind not in game. So . . . is something can be fixed? Or . . . ?” And here, Kent can finally recognize that pinched look. It’s worry. He’s not about to tell anyone, but Tater is worried about him.
Kent taps his fork against his plate just to hear the clink. “Nah,” he says. His heart is still draining, but it’s pressing against his chest with nowhere to go. “I mean . . . I’m not sick or anything. Nothing wrong with my family.”
“Okay,” Tater says, giving one slow nod. This is an encouragement to continue, which is something else that confuses Kent. He still wants to talk to him? Even now that he’s sure it’s nothing big?
His throat is dry, sticking to itself, so he takes another drink of water before dipping his head forward. “I got my neighbor pregnant,” he says softly, just under his breath.
Tater frowns for a moment. Soft voices are harder to understand, and Kent knows that. He couldn’t take the risk of anyone overhearing. As he goes over the words in his head, like he’s making sure he understood right, Tater’s expression goes from perplexed to shocked. “Okay. Is not American phrase, right? I am not miss something?”
Kent’s cheeks flush, but he hopes Tater can’t see that from where he’s sitting. “No. It’s . . . It’s exactly what you heard,” he says.
Tater stares blankly. “You move?”
“What?” Kent says. It takes him a minute to remember that, oh, yes, he has moved since Tater last came to his place. Tater’s never met Clara. He wonders if it’s really a reprieve that Tater won’t be calling her Hot Clara. “Oh. Yeah. I live closer to the Strip now.”
“Not fair. You always say can’t take me because too far,” Tater protests. His bottom lip juts out into a pout, which should look ridiculous on a guy like him. It does look ridiculous, but Kent’s heart swells fondly anyway.
In response, he just shrugs.
Tater drums his fingers along the edge of the table. “Okay. So neighbor is pregnant,” he says carefully. “And is your baby?”
Kent nods. He has no desire to say that again.
“Congratulations?” Tater offers.
Kent swallows. “I don’t know if I’m keeping it.”
Now Tater seems to understand. He always goes quiet when he’s thinking of the right words to say. It’s something not enough people appreciate, Kent thinks. Tater loves to talk, and he normally lets his words come together without worrying too much. It’s admirable in its own way; Kent has never had that confidence in French, and he thinks it’s a strength to speak a foreign language without any reservations. But when things get serious, Tater always tries to say the right thing.
God, he’s really fucking overemotional. All he wants Tater to do is hug him.
“Okay,” Tater says. And that’s it. Kent looks up to him, waiting for more, and Tater stares back, waiting for his response.
Damn. Maybe Kent expected too much.
Tater shrugs. “I ask what make you play bad. Is good answer. You have lot on mind. Is okay. No one perfect 100% of time, Parse,” he says, the nickname sounding warm from his voice, even if he never called Kent that before.
“Yeah, okay, but,” Kent stammers, “you’re not going to tell me what you think I should do?”
“If you keep baby? Is not my decision,” Tater scoffs. He looks up as the waiter comes back with his order, eyes lighting up. His whole face looks so warm, so open, like getting this food is the best thing to happen to him in years. He immediately starts to eat, still talking as soon as the waiter is out of earshot. “Only you choose that. I not know what make you think one way or other. And not fair to ask someone choose for you. You want someone tell you what you already choose. Make you feel like you make right decision. Can’t live like that, Parse. Are grown man. Choose for self.”
Kent presses his fingers against the glass again. The water on the outside is cold against his fingers, and he waits for his fingertips to grow numb. “Okay,” he says. It makes sense. He’s already decided not to keep the baby. It’s just that everyone is telling him that he should. So he’s been confused.
Tater looks up from a crab leg and stares for one moment at Kent’s hollow expression. “Whatever you think right now—think it’s still wrong,” he offers. “If you choose what you want already, you not still worry about it. If you still looking for right answer, must be other one.”
He’d just resolved this situation. That is exactly the opposite of what Kent wants to hear right now.
“No. No, I’ve made my decision.”
“Then why it still bother you?” Tater asks.
Kent doesn’t have an answer for that. Tater keeps gnawing at the crab legs, and Kent kind of wonders where he stuffs it all. But he knows better than to dwell on that too long. Even for a hockey player, he’s always had a hell of an appetite. He stares at Tater’s mouth while he eats. It’s not particularly attractive, and Tater doesn’t try to make it into something it isn’t. He isn’t putting on a show for Kent. He’s going about his day. It’s a long cry from the way they used to be, and Kent still feels more at ease than he has in a long time.
“I want the baby,” he admits.
The legs are almost gone. Tater still lowers the last one so he can look at Kent directly.
“Okay. Know what you want. Is all good?” His voice is soft and warm. Kent wants to jump over the table and into his arms. He wants to press his cheek to Alexei’s chest and feel his words reverberate.
“I don’t know how I could do it,” he says.
Tater shakes his head. “Wrong thought. You think, ‘How I do it?’ now. Think about what you need to do for baby. You want baby, you make plans. Simple.”
“How am I supposed to make plans when I don’t—? I don’t know what I’m doing,” Kent cries. He leans forward and drops his head into his hands. “The baby is going to be here in six months. How am I supposed to get ready for a baby in six months?”
“How you lead team to Stanley Cup? How you get first pick in draft? How you learn to skate on ice?” Tater replies. “Is not something you know before it happen. Baby is come, and now you learn. Know you have friend with baby. You ask question. Get wrong, try again. You always think too hard.”
Kent lifts his head and looks over at the slope of Tater’s nose. “I’m scared.”
Tater’s face shifts a little, and Kent is reminded of the night he left. “You always run when scared.” Something in his voice is disappointed. Something is challenging, like he wants Kent to step up for once and not run away.
Kent is twenty-eight years old. He can handle being a father. “Is there a thing where single dads can have baby showers?” he asks.
Tater cracks a small smile. “You rich. Don’t need shower. Pay for own baby, don’t be cheap.” He pops the last bite of crab into his mouth as he continues. “Is bad luck anyway. You buy thing for baby before baby born. Not good.”
“Wait, what?” Kent leans forward and braces his head on one hand. “Is this a Russian thing?”
Tater launches into an explanation of his traditions, full of his playful jibes at Kent’s Americanisms, and everything else melts away.
Here on the terrace of Tater’s new favorite restaurant, Kent feels the sea breeze. He’s still a long way from New York or Quebec, but he feels at home. In a few months, he’ll have a baby, and now that feels real. The weight of it blows away, and Tater is still smiling across the table.
When Kent gets home, he stops by Clara’s place. She’s not sick anymore, and she’s back to working like usual, tapping at her laptop with that serious expression. He brings food from the Thai place she loves to eat and loves to criticize.
“This is not Tom yam. It’s like . . . Campbell’s Tom YUM! Canned, overprocessed, and masquerading behind fresh shrimp. Yaa would cry,” she says.
Kent pats her on the shoulder. Clara is a decent cook, but he remembers how frustrated she gets trying to recreate her grandmother’s dishes. Her father never cooked much traditional Thai food while she was growing up, and her mother cooked dishes from her home country: Denmark. He only had the opportunity to meet her grandmother once, but he remembered the look on Clara’s face. She loved her grandmother, and she loved cooking with her. Now that she’s gone, Clara rarely has real Thai food.
“It’s okay,” Kent says, knowing this will start her on another rant about something else. He thinks the Thai place makes good food, but Clara insists it’s just because he’s never had her grandmother’s cooking. He’s happy to let her talk for a while. He doesn’t know how much longer they’ll get to be like this.
“Yaa left me a recipe book,” she says abruptly. She’s almost finished with her soup now, and she lowers the bowl onto her knees. “I think I should make a copy of it for the baby.”
Kent lowers his bowl as well. “Oh.”
“Because if the baby is adopted— I mean, if the adoptive parents—they probably won’t be Thai. But I think it’d be good. For the baby to be able to have this. Yaa would want—” Clara grows quiet now. “I know if you raise the baby, they’ll know me. But—”
“I’m going to raise them,” Kent says.
Clara looks up. “You are?” She sounds shocked, which almost hurts Kent. He reminds himself he only just decided this.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m . . . I think I can do this,” he says.
Clara lifts her spoon to her mouth, then pulls it out slowly. “Okay,” she says. She stares at Kent’s face for one moment, then offers a small smile. “Guess I’m going to be Aunt Clara.”
Kent nods. It’s something they need to talk about. Clara will never be a mom to the baby. But she’s not going to disappear. And that’s good. Kent doesn’t want to lose her. Things are already going to change enough.
“Aunt Clara,” he repeats, and he reaches for her hand. “Shit. I guess I have to think of a name for this thing now.”
Clara snorts. “Don’t call your baby a thing,” she says.
“Whatever. Mm. I’ll figure it out.” He gestures vaguely at Clara’s stomach and says, “Don’t worry, firecracker. I’ve got it.”
Clara almost laughs, but then a frown crosses her lips. “Didn’t you used to call—?”
Kent shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. Between you and me, this kid is going to be wild. A real firecracker. So until I find their name—”
“It’s firecracker,” she fills in. “Guess it’s too much to hope you’ll find a name soon?”
“You don’t like little Firecracker Parson?”
Clara shoves at his knee, and he pushes back, almost enough to spill her soup. She spouts off some equally horrible names, and they laugh until their food grows cold.
Tater sends a package. It arrives a month later.
“Mr. Parson, you have a package,” says the doorman when Kent tries to book it to the elevator after a particularly grueling practice. He wants to groan and send his best glare the doorman’s way, but the doorman is nineteen with big puppy dog eyes. Kent has a heart after all.
“Thanks,” he mutters as he grabs the brown paper box. When he walks in the door, he tosses it on the kitchen table, hops over the back of the couch, and flops onto the cushions. The cats, lucky for them, are not there at the moment. He doesn’t bother thinking about where they’ve ended up.
When Kent wakes from something that must have been a nap because hours have passed, though he feels as if he just laid his head down, he hears the sound of claws from the kitchen. This is concerning. Kent does not have a scratching post in the kitchen.
He finds Kit in the midst of the mess. She bobs her gray head up, and a piece of the paper falls to the floor. Purrs is conspicuously on top of the fridge, and he struts to prove his innocence.
“I don’t believe you,” Kent says as he bends down to salvage whatever is left from the package.
Apparently only the outer cardboard interested them. The contents has been left mostly alone. This is surprising, as the contents is a large book. Kent leans down to scoop it up. “I’m a Pawsome Big Sibling!: A Cat’s Guide to Human Babies,” Kent reads. He stares for one second before looking at the two kitties strutting around the room.
He looks down again. A neon yellow sticky note clings to one of the cardboard scraps. He picks that up as well.
You are not training kitties before. When your baby comes, kitties need to be ready. I find this book, and I think it is helping you.
I will send second package when your baby is born. Babies need many new clothes. Uncle Tater is happy to help and make sure she chooses best hockey team. Send pictures.
Whenever Tater writes, he writes carefully, like he expects to be graded on his penmanship. His handwriting is nice, smooth and almost illegible for all its finery. Kent finds himself tracing over the letters of his name.
This is an olive branch, and Kent thinks he was hit in the face with it. Tater doesn't hate him anymore, but he's relegated himself to the role of a friend. Kent isn't going to have much time to date as he takes care of a baby. He doesn't know if he'll have an opportunity for years. Between hockey and a kid, his schedule will be full. He's not entirely displeased by that. He's not interested in meeting someone new, dealing with everything that comes with a new relationship.
He thinks of buying a house, and he wonders how big he can buy before it feels too big for one man and a baby.
Chapter 3: Poppers
In Canada, the Fourth of July wasn’t a thing. Kent only spent part of one summer away from his father, invited by the Zimmermanns to a cabin trip for three weeks, which just happened to overlap.
“Oh, we forgot!” Mrs. Zimms said when Kent said he wasn’t sure if he could go because his dad would hate it if he missed the Fourth of July. “It’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
It made Kent pause. He’d grown used to calling his birthday the Fourth of July because that was what it was. The one time he’d tried to have a birthday party, his family had approached it as if they were celebrating the holiday. Kent was an afterthought of gifts, all suited mostly for the holiday. They bought him fireworks, a red-white-and-blue baseball cap, and (from his favorite aunt) a pair of tickets to a hockey game. He gave the tickets to his dad for safekeeping and tossed the baseball cap on immediately. As for the fireworks, he liked the snaps, playing with the twisted edges that almost looked like candies. He liked throwing them to the ground behind the adults, waiting to see if they’d pay him any attention.
“Yeah. It’s my birthday,” Kent said. “I’ll ask.”
Kent didn’t really have to ask to do things at sixteen-almost-seventeen. Spending most of a year living on his own, he’d grown used to doing his own thing. When he told his dad, he wanted to go with the Zimmermanns on a cabin trip, which would cross over his birthday, his dad didn’t say no.
“. . . Right,” he said. “We can celebrate when you get home.”
It was a win. For the first time, Kent would spend his birthday as his birthday.
On the fourth of July, the Zimmermanns bought a cake that wasn’t red-white-and-blue. Kent wiped the icing off of his cake anyway and dropped most of it on Zimms’ nose.
“You suck,” Zimms muttered. He pulled the icing off with his thumb and shoved on the edge of his plate, mostly picking at his own cake.
Kent got it. He thought cake was too sweet too. After he ate one piece to be polite, he talked Bad Bob and Mrs. Zimms into letting them play in the basement game room for the rest of the night. They played air hockey and pinball until they heard Zimms’ parents’ door click shut. For the rest of the night, Zimms peppered kisses along every freckle Kent had.
When Kent came back to Rochester, his father had a red-white-and-blue cake. One side said Rangers, and the other side said Americans. Seventeen candles lined the rim.
“Did you get it half off, like a leftover Fourth cake they decorated?” Kent asked. He didn’t feel the need for a second birthday cake, and coming back after his time with Zimms was like getting slashed in the wrists.
Kent’s dad pressed his lips together. “I asked them to make it. It’s a fresh cake. It’s just— You know it’s the same colors, Kent.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, and the guilt had already come. But he’d already said too much. He didn’t want to apologize. Maybe he’d said something shitty, but his dad was doing something shitty and didn’t even know. He wasn’t going to tip the balance. He blew out the candles and cut one piece of cake for his dad.
Kent waits a week before he gets the nerve to approach management. For all of his reputation, he hasn’t had many real scandals. He likes to dance, to party, but he’s also a simple man who wants a fair amount of nights spent home alone with his cats. There’s also something about growing up that means it’s less fun to do stupid shit, which means he ends up on the other side, realizing just how stupid shit can be. But even if Kent hasn’t caused a problem in a while, he’s not dumb enough to think he’ll get out of putting some work into framing this well.
He goes in early and lets the beasts feast upon his misery. He wants to think he deserves it after all the trouble he gave them before. Within a couple hours, they’ve drafted what seems to be a decent plan, and Kent is released, though he walks out of the meeting with PR wondering why hockey ever had to become something that involved so much fame and why he has to deal with that now, when his personal life for the first time feels personal.
He lets the rest of the day pass in a haze. Eat lunch. Warm up. Get on the ice. Run drills. Kent thinks he could keep it up until he finds himself sitting with his team in the locker room, and it feels—real. In a few months, he’ll have a kid. And being the captain, it’s not like it won’t affect the team.
He pauses in the middle of unlacing his skates, sits up straight, and clears his throat. “Hey,” he says, in a sharp tone that can cut through the locker room. All eyes turn to look at him. He only spares a few glances to friendly faces.
“I’m going to have a baby in March. With Clara. My neighbor,” he says. He takes a deep breath before returning to his laces, yanking them loose. “So when that happens, things are going to be different. We still have our A. Troy, suck it up. I had to deal with shit when your kids were born.”
The locker room is quiet. Kent wishes he didn’t give a shit.
“So Parse not meaning baby like cat again, yes?” Socks asks. He’s discarded his skates, but (appropriately) he still has socks. He slides from the opposite end of the locker room and plops down on the bench between Kent and Bloomer. (“Hey!” Bloomer cries as he hangs one leg off.)
Kent bristles. “I have never called my cats—”
“I have like . . . receipts from when you got Purrs.”
“Is it a cat?” one very confused rookie asks.
Kent rolls his eyes. “It’s a human baby,” he says. “God. You think I can’t reproduce?”
“It might be hard for you to find the hole,” Carl says. Kent tries to block him out.
“It’s easy to fit something that small into any hole.”
Of course. More jokes. Kent takes this as an okay sign. He can withdraw.
Scraps nudges his arm. When Kent looks up, his eyes are wide and bright, and he’s holding his phone up with a long list of— “Look, Parse. I have ideas for a baby shower.”
“I thought baby showers were for the mom,” Bloomer says.
“Parse said Clara doesn’t want to be involved,” Troy volunteers.
“Big mouth,” Kent mutters.
“Hm. Never go to baby shower before. Not thing in Russia,” Socks muses. He exchanges a look with Scraps. “We plan this. Hey, team! Need volunteer to plan baby Parse shower. Bonus is spend time with me. Bad thing is spend time with Scraps.”
“Fuck off,” Scraps scoffs. He scans over his phone again. “We need to plan this soon. The baby will be here in March? Only five months.” He hums in thought. “You have room in your apartment?”
Kent shrugs. “I, uh . . . think I’m going to move,” he says. It’s weird to put the thought into the air.
“Parse hosts the next BBQ,” calls Tady.
Troy laughs. “Yeah, right. He’s going to avoid going out for a year.” As he heads to the door, he pats the top of Kent’s head. “Call me when you want to look for houses. I can help.”
When the time comes to look at new houses, Kent calls four people. First is Troy. Second is the realtor Troy recommends. Third is Scraps, who seems hellbent on being involved in everything and who is probably the one to spill the beans to Socks, since he invites himself along. At this point, it feels wrong to leave Bloomer out, so Kent calls him.
“What are your must-haves?” Manuela, the realtor asks. She has a warm voice over the phone, and Kent almost feels comfortable spilling out everything he’s been thinking about.
“I’d like a garage, and maybe a pool—but I’m going to have a baby, so maybe a pool is a bad idea. Oh, uh, I need at least three bedrooms, probably more. Same for bathrooms? And a room for workout equipment—I don’t know. I like space for my shit, but not too big? I don’t want to have to clean—”
At this point, Manuela interrupts him and slides in her own neat, organized questions that apparently lead to narrowed options.
“Yeah, she was brilliant when Lil and I were looking,” Troy says as they stand outside the first house. “We told her what we wanted, what we thought we needed, and once she heard more about our lives, she thought of things we hadn’t even considered. She’ll make sure you find a good home, Parse.” He’d picked everyone up in his minivan, and Socks and Bloomer are still sitting in the back, watching a cartoon the kids left in the DVD player. Scraps took over the front seat once Kent abandoned it, for the sole purpose of escaping the Vegas heat.
(“It’s not even that hot,” Kent scoffed when he climbed out.
“Your legs are tiny. Why ride in the front?” Scraps countered.
“My house, my rules.”
“You haven’t bought a house yet.”
Troy was on his side: “To be fair, that’s why we’re here.”)
“It seems like a nice area,” Kent says. He looks at the lines of neatly trimmed lawns. “Is there an HOA?”
“Fuck if I know,” Troy says.
“I don’t want to live in an HOA.”
“I already made a note of that when we spoke, Mr. Parson.” Manuela walks up looking perfectly composed, her short hair pinned to one side with a white bobby pin. She looks professional and in control, even among hockey players a foot or so taller than her. “I can tell you’ve been looking at the outside. Let’s take a look inside the house.”
She controls the situation easily, doesn’t react when three other men stumble out of the van, and leads them inside. Kent likes her for this. It’s nice to be able to focus on the house, even if his friends are acting like idiots.
This first house has mostly tile and carpet. They step up from the entryway to an open dining room and kitchen. The colors are a little blah—medium browns and reds.
“You can always paint,” Manuela says before he can even comment.
“Hm.” Kent frowns. “Kind of a small kitchen.”
“But the rest of the house is nice. And there’s a good elementary school just down the road,” Manuela counters.
“There’s a nice window here!” Bloomer points out. He has to crouch down to look out. Socks crouches down beside him, and they mess with the blinds.
Kent rolls his eyes. “Why did I bring you?”
“For help!” Scraps supplies brightly. He swings his arm around Kent’s shoulders and leads on.
The rest of the house is nice enough. Four bedrooms, four bathrooms. Kent especially likes the main living room, spacious with large French doors to a patio. But the bathrooms are small, and the house reminds Kent of his grandparents’ house: old-fashioned and overcrowded-feeling even when there was no one there.
“There are other houses,” Manuela says, like she expected this. “I’ll meet you at the second house. You have the address?”
“Got it,” Troy confirms.
Whereas the first was in a neighborhood, the second was farther out, with decent space between neighbors.
“This is a quiet area,” Manuela explains. “It still falls in a good school district, but it’s a farther drive.”
Kent hums in response.
“There’s a large pool in the back, but there’s a gate around it. You can lock it, and no little ones can get inside,” she explains. She waves the group inside as she steps beyond the front doors.
Kent thinks he likes this house a little better. The interior is mostly grays and whites, which he could paint if he wanted to. He likes the hardwood floors and the marble counters in the kitchen. In the living room, there’s a gas fireplace. Socks and Scraps eat it up.
“We live in Vegas. I don’t need a fireplace.”
Socks rolls his eyes. “Fireplace is necessary,” he says solemnly.
The staircase to the second floor is beautiful, and Kent almost wants to linger there.
“Why the fuck do you care so much about a staircase?” Scraps asks. “You see the fireplace, and nothing. Staircase? Oh, perfect!”
“I like it,” Bloomer offers.
Kent throws his arms around his neck and almost hops onto his back. “You old fucks need to retire, so I can replace the entire team with Bloomers.”
“Careful, or I throw you over the ledge,” Scraps says, gesturing to the railing that just keeps them from the first floor. The upstairs is equally nice, with spacious bedrooms. The master bedroom has a balcony off of it that could fill all romantic desires. Manuela points out that the bedroom next to the master could function as a nursery or an office. It’s a good option for the little firecracker, and Troy reminds him that he’ll need to be as close to the baby as possible. The other bedrooms are on the opposite side of the landing. On the other hand, the basement isn’t well-lit, and Kent isn’t convinced about the bathrooms.
Troy reminds, “You can renovate the bathrooms. Seriously. Why are you so picky about shower heads?”
“They are big enough, I guess,” Kent agrees.
“No house will be perfect when you find it. You have a good budget, Mr. Parson. You can make changes to make it your home.” Manuela smiles as she says this, but she’s already packing her belongings. “I have one more viewing booked for you today. Let’s move on.”
The third house has a beautiful exterior, two levels with a three-car garage. The yard is carefully maintained with natural flora.
“Fuck. I’m moving here when I buy my own place,” Bloomer decides.
Scraps elbows him. “You can’t move here if Parse moves here.”
“Parse, don’t move here.”
As Manuela leads them inside, it seems to be a medium of the first two. Mostly hardwood and carpet, the rooms are more spacious than the first house, and the kitchen is large with gorgeous black marble, though it lacks a dishwasher.
“The dining room is small,” Scraps notes. “No hosting team parties.”
Socks shrugs. “You think team ever sit down for dinner? No. Eat on couch, make mess. Is why I’m not inviting team to my place.”
The living room leads to the back patio and a pool, which is nice. Upstairs, the bedrooms are smaller, but the bathrooms match Kent’s dreams. It’s all fine until they step into the basement.
“This is unfinished,” Kent says. It smells almost dingy, which makes him want to turn around and walk out. Now.
“It would take a little work,” Manuela replies. “But as I’ve said—you have the funds to make changes.”
Troy leans on top of Kent’s head. “You need to think about how it’s laid out. This place has all the bedrooms together. You’ll need to be close when the baby is little, so you wake up when they cry.”
“But you want space for when the baby gets older,” Scraps interjects. “It’d be killer on your sex life.”
“Sex life? Not with baby.” Socks snorts as he leans against the kitchen counter.
Kent ignores all of them as he looks over details with Manuela.
“There is no reason to decide today,” she assures. “You can consider what you liked best from all three properties, and if none of them make you feel at home, we’ll take a look at more. But when you like a house, you need to decide. You never know when another buyer will come along.”
Kent thanks her, rounds up his friends, and takes them out for a late lunch. He thinks over his options for nearly a week before he decides on the second house. It’s a place he can imagine raising a child, and he tries to picture what Firecracker will look like, probably with Clara’s dark hair, a beautiful smile, running through the house, swimming in the pool. He’ll have that nursery-office next to his bedroom, like Troy said he’d need, and when Firecracker is older, he’ll move them to another room for more space. It’s all perfect.
For a second, he thinks back to the third house and its bathrooms, but he brushes that aside. The basement really was terrible. He’s so picky about bathrooms anyway. At least if he’s doing some work, he’ll make it exactly like he wants it.
Kent returns to his apartment the night after signing for his new house. Clara’s lights are off when he passes her door, so he doesn’t disturb her. As he walks in, he stares at the sterile off-white walls and dull carpet. He’s reminded that this place isn’t his; it’s only a place he rents, and now that he’s going to have a house of his own, a real place that he owns, the apartment feels like nothing more than a hotel room on a roadie. The only people who know he’s moving are his friends on the Aces, and while he knows he has to tell Clara, he isn’t ready for that yet. He shuts the blinds in his bedroom and curls up under the sheets before grabbing his phone and texting Tater.
Just so you know, I’m going to move.
So when you send baby clothes, send them to the new house.
You move? Again? Away from Strip?
Never even give me chance to stay!!! ((( Not fair!!!
Whatever, it’s a better spot for Firecracker.
Oh. I’m still picking a name for the baby. So… firecracker for now. My firecracker.
If she’s anything like Clara, she really will be a firecracker.
If she anything like you.
Kent stares at the phone screen while Tater starts to type, then stops, then starts again.
You call everyone firecracker?
Kent’s heart twinges.
No. Only the ones who are.
Firecracker mean special?
Yeah. Special to me.
Tater doesn’t answer this time. Kent is glad. He plugs his phone in and goes to sleep, trying not to think about the juvenile nicknames he had for exes or why he’s still using it for his kid.
Chapter 4: Fireworks Show
When Kent moved to Vegas, he had no desire to return to Rochester, or New York at all. When his parents divorced, they’d sold his childhood home, and his dad no longer lived in the apartment he’d spent the rest of his childhood in. After a couple years in Rimouski, he felt no attachment to his home state, and that was fine with him.
When Kent moved to Vegas, he received a phone call from his mom.
“Hi, Kenny,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. He didn’t hear from her often, but he always knew the sound of her voice.
“Hi,” Kent said, sitting on the floor of the bedroom he was using, in the Aces captain’s house. He wanted to find his own apartment and move out as quickly as possible. It was time for him to strike out on his own. He was eighteen now.
“I heard about your friend, sweetheart,” Mom said. Kent’s stomach twisted. Why had she waited so long to call? She hadn’t even called to say congratulations—not that he would have wanted to hear that, knowing what happened to Jack. But still—
“It’s whatever,” he muttered. “Do you need something?”
Mom sighed. “Kenny,” she said.
“If not, I’m busy. Unpacking.”
Mom grew quiet. “Kent, you know I love you. Right?”
Kent didn’t answer. “Do you need something?”
Mom still had nothing to say. Kent was ready to hang up on her when she finally opened her mouth again. “I miss you, honey. Please—”
It wasn’t enough. But sitting alone in a bedroom in a stranger’s house, Kent let himself turn back to his mother for comfort. Just this once.
Six months before Kent’s twenty-ninth birthday, he calls his dad.
“Hey,” he says, and he suddenly feels guilty for pushing off all of his dad’s attempts at getting him to come back to Rochester for a visit. His dad always tried to spend his birthday with him. Last year might have been his last chance. It’s too late now. Kent won’t have another birthday until after the baby is born, and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to travel with a baby. Too many germs.
“Hey, Kent,” Dad says. “Are you having fun in Vegas?”
Dad always asks that, like Vegas is all about fun and not home after all these years. Kent feels the distance acutely. He curls his fingers around his phone, feels the chips in his phone case.
“Dad, I need to tell you something,” he says.
Dad is quiet. “Okay?” he prods.
Kent swallows. “There’s two things,” he amends. “First, I— I’m going to have a kid. My neighbor, Clara— She, uh— She doesn’t want the kid, but I’m going to raise it. Her. So, I just—”
“You’re having a baby,” Dad says. He sounds like he’s doing something from the other side of the phone, but Kent isn’t sure what it is.
“Yeah. In two months,” Kent exhales.
“Two months,” Dad breathes, and it crackles through the phone. “Why did you take so long to tell me?”
Kent feels words threaten to spill out. How much could I ever tell you? I already have so many secrets. The fear and the guilt melt and cling to his insides. He swallows again. “Because— Because I— Dad, I’m—” not straight, I fucked Jack Zimmermann all through juniors, and I fell in love with Alexei Mashkov, but you've never even heard of him because I can't tell you— “I like men.”
There’s no sound from the phone but faint static. Kent thinks of hanging up and running away.
“You’re having a baby with a woman,” Dad says.
It’s not the worst thing he could say. Kent still feels sick. “Yes, but . . . . I don’t . . . . If I ever get married, I’m going to marry a man,” he says, a little more definitively.
Dad is quiet again. Kent feels the tears press against his eyelids. “How long have you been keeping this a secret?”
Kent wants to cry. He doesn’t know if it’s relief or fear. “Since I was seventeen,” he whispers.
Dad sighs, and Kent almost gives up home. “That’s over ten years. All this time— Kenny. You know I love you. Right?”
They’ve never been great with words. Kent can’t remember the last time he and his dad said that to each other.
“Yeah,” Kent chokes out.
“Let me know what I can do to help with the baby,” Dad says. “And— And it’s okay. I don’t— When there’s a man, you just tell me. So I can meet him. You know I want to meet him, right?”
Kent can’t answer. Kenny cries.
Kent opens the door to Clara who pushes her way in like it’s not 10:00 at night on a Wednesday.
“My back is killing me. I want to cuddle your cats,” she says. She bends down, which looks difficult for her at this point, and scoops Purrs from where he’s trying to slip into the hallway. “God. Being pregnant sucks. Never let me do this again.”
“I won’t get you pregnant again,” Kent replies.
Clara snorts and strokes Purrs’ back as she carries him to the couch. “Thanks. Good to know,” she says. She lowers herself ungracefully and presses a kiss to Purrs’ ear. He squirms. Clara lets him escape. He’s clearly in a mood where cuddles are not an option.
Kent pours a glass of water for each of them before he joins her. “Is everything okay? Are you just in pain?”
“I’m fine.” Clara grows quiet as she leans back into the couch. “I guess I didn’t know what being pregnant would be like. How long it would be.”
He nods and sets his glass on the coffee table. She shifts and pulls away.
“I forgot things were going to change. I mean—you’re going to have a baby.” She stops and runs a hand through her hair. It’s late, and Kent knows she’s not wearing makeup. She looks tired, with bags under her eyes. “I—saw that your apartment is for rent.”
Kent pauses, winces. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I was going to tell you. I bought a house.”
“A house,” she says.
“It’ll be a good place for the baby. There’s a good school. More room. Quiet,” he tries to explain.
Clara closes her eyes, gives a wane smile. “Yeah. This is you being a dad,” she says. “You’re going to be a real dad, Kent.”
He huffs out a laugh and shakes his head. “I don’t know about that.”
“You will,” Clara says. “I’m just . . . going to miss you.”
Kent reaches over and pulls her into a hug. She resists for just a second before settling her head on his shoulder.
“You’re going to be Aunt Clara, remember? It’s not like we’re never going to hang out again.”
“I know. But it won’t be the same,” Clara murmurs. She stays quiet for a long time. “Guess I better start coming to your games, huh?”
“I’ll visit you on my nights off. Bring the baby.”
“A girl,” Clara says.
“You’re going to have a baby girl.”
“Oh.” Kent blinks. “A girl.”
“A girl,” Clara repeats.
Firecracker is going to be a girl. Wow.
They stop speaking. Kit pads her way over and plops down on Clara’s leg. She pets her back, and they sit for the rest of the evening.
Kent has had a tenuous relationship with his mother for most of his life. After she left, she called only sporadically for most of his childhood. Around fourteen, she picked up the pace, which made Kent wonder if it was his rising chances at going pro in hockey that actually took her notice. At sixteen, he dropped the ball, mainly because he was too busy to call his dad, much less his mom.
When Kent turned eighteen, and she finally called him with actual apologies, things got . . . better. Kent can say that he doesn’t hate his mom, and most of the time, he doesn’t actively hate her. He knows things were more complicated than a child could see, and sure, she should have done something for her son, instead of running off and starting a new family. But he tries not to think about. She wants to call every so often and talk about getting Kent to visit. Kent can indulge her.
With the baby on the way, all of those feelings of resentment come back for a day. He stews as he makes his coffee. He fumes as he runs through drills. He steams as he steps back into the apartment for one of the last times. As he sits down on the couch, watching the cats run around, Kent bites the bullet.
“Kenny!” Mom says brightly over the phone. “I wasn’t expecting you to call today. Is everything okay, sweetheart?”
All of this only makes Kent’s stomach twist all the more. He curls his fingers into his palm and thinks about what to say. “Mom, why did you leave?”
There’s a sound on the other side that makes Kent think Mom might have dropped her phone. He waits for her to recover. It takes a moment, more of the shuffle against the speaker, and then she says, “Haven’t I told you before that I regret that?”
“Yes,” Kent says evenly. “But— why wasn’t I enough to make you stay? Why didn’t you— Why didn’t you try to take me with you?”
“I thought you were happy growing up with Jim. I know you said he’s a good fath—”
“That’s not the point!”
Kent’s voice is loud enough to stir the cats from their playtime. They stare up at him with wide, bright eyes. He looks away with guilt.
“Mom,” he tries again, “I just— I need to know. How could you have a baby and want to leave them?”
Mom sighs. “Kenny, this is something you can’t understand unless you’re—”
“I’m going to have a baby,” he says. “In a few months.”
“What?” Mom says. Her voice echoes over the phone, a bad connection.
“I’m going to have a baby. She— You know, that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told you now. And I want answers. How could you leave me?” Kent asks again. Once upon a time, that question felt like a scar, left by a sparkler shooting off, too much for him to control or understand. Now he feels like he’s ripping a bandaid off.
“Kenny, I want to— I’m going to be a grandma! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s not the point,” Kent says again. “You don’t— You don’t get to do this, okay? I need to know what’s going on in your head. Before I can let you in on this. This is my life. You left once. And I need to understand.”
“I came back,” Mom protests.
Kent nods. Then shakes his head. “You called,” he said softly. “And— I don’t know. Maybe it was too late. But answer my question. We’ll— We’ll see.” He shifts on the couch and stretches back while he waits for his mother to answer. No matter what she says, he knows it won’t be good enough. Surprisingly, he thinks he’s okay with that. He knows he won’t do this to his baby. That’s enough.
For the first time, Kent feels ready to be a father.
Moving into a new place takes time. Or it takes money. Kent has the second, but he hates the idea of movers getting into his shit, so he makes some time on an off-day in January to move the important shit into his new place. He bribes some of the rookies into helping with food. By the end of the day, the majority of his shit is in place. Kent is now home.
He’s not sure how to feel about it. It’s weird not to live in a place where he has immediate neighbors. It’s especially strange that Clara isn’t around.
It’s only 7:00. Kent still has plenty of time to do things. He goes through the kitchen a few times, moving things around mostly just to see how he likes it. He pushes the living room furniture around once and decides he likes it better the way it was. He considers calling Clara to get her opinion. Maybe he’ll have her actually decorate the apartment once she’s back on her feet. At this point, he gives up on settling in. When Kent first moved out on his own, it took a while to get used to a new place. He just has to give it time. At least the internet is on.
He sits down on the couch and tries to coax Kit and Purrs to sit with him, but they’re still skeptical of the new home. Kit has taken residence on top of the cat tree, while Purrs is prancing around and hissing at anything he finds suspicious. Strangely, Kent almost feels sympathetic. His apartment wasn’t exactly small, but the house is significantly larger. He feels like there should be someone else here.
There will be, he reminds himself. Firecracker will be there soon. He only has two months left. Two months to get the house ready. Two months to put together a nursery. Two months to pick her name, and then she’ll be there. Kent will really be a father.
God. How is he supposed to be a father?
He defaults back to old habits. He pulls out his laptop and heads to Twitter. For the first time, he doesn’t go to Jack’s boyfriend. He goes to Tater.
Alexei Mashkov @amashkov7 * 10m
good day = get goal and win game. best day = crab legs and pie after.
Tater. Tater. He always makes Kent feel better. One tweet and the anxiety ebbs. But—
Kent sets the laptop aside and picks up his phone.
“Hello?” he hears. He thinks, belatedly, that it’s 10:00 on the east coast. Alexei definitely does not go to bed that early. Maybe he’s not even home.
“Tater. Hey,” Kent breathes.
“Parse?” Tater fumbles with his phone on the other side. “Why you are calling? Everything okay?”
Kent exhales and pulls his legs onto the couch with him. “Yeah. Yeah, I just— Sorry. I’m freaking out.”
Distantly, Kent hears someone—a woman—say, “Who are you talking to, Alyosha?”
“Friend,” Tates answers. Kent ignores the sting. “Have to take the call. Be right back.”
So he’s with someone. Great. Kent swallows. He thinks back to a few months ago, when he saw the tweets between Jack’s boy and Tater. Girl problems.
“Hey, if you’re on a date, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just—” Stupid. So Tater is kind of his friend now. It doesn’t mean—
“Date?” Tater’s voice doesn’t sound so nice over the phone. Kent misses hearing it in person. He doesn’t know why he misses it so much now. “Am not on date. Is dinner with sister.”
Kent exhales. “Oh.” He can’t really relax, not knowing that Alexei does have a girlfriend somewhere, even if he’s not on a date at the moment.
“Parse—” Tater huffs out his name like a laugh, warm and fond. “You think I’m having girlfriend?”
“Well—I saw that you were having girl problems on Twitter,” he defends, and now he sounds creepy. God, why does he ever check his exes’ Twitters?
“Ah, is in past. We date for a while, but she’s having problem with hockey schedule. Break up. Is sad, but it is over,” Tater replies. Kent can almost hear him shrugging.
“Oh,” he replies.
Tater laughs. “Always so jealous. Think everyone want me when we go out. Have to know who I’m being with.”
“I am not jealous,” Kent replies. That was an old argument, but it still stings like a fresh bruise when Tater presses on it. “I’m just . . . . Look, I called because—”
Tater’s voice softens. “Yes. You say are freaking out? I’m listening.”
Kent exhales. He cradles the phone closer to his ear. It’s been so long since he’s had this with Tater. But the moment he opens his mouth, it all comes. There’s never been anyone he can talk to like Tater.
Tater always listens. Kent wonders what his dad would think of him. Dad would like him. Everyone likes Tater.
PR ordered Kent to take a picture of the nursery in progress. Build up the excitement about the baby. That’s fine with Kent. He’s kind of excited about showing off the nursery. He painted the walls a soft blue he found at the hardware store. He has a white crib with good reviews from the troves of parenting websites, made with soft bedding supposed to be gentle on a baby’s skin. There’s even a rocking chair so he can rock her to sleep.
Two hours after he posts the picture (captioned: work in progress, firecracker’s nursery), he gets a text from someone he thought lost his number a long time ago.
Hey, Parse. I heard about your baby. Congratulations.
It takes another hour to figure out how to reply. Three hours after that, Kent has arranged one of Jack’s high school friends (Larissa, the one who is crazy good at beer pong) to create a starry night mural on one wall of the nursery. For now, the wall is blank, and Kent wonders why it took so long to realize everything that happened with Jack is in the past.
He has a game on February 27th, and afterward, he goes out with the guys. He doesn’t drink, and he’s home by nine, which is good because he receives a call when he crawls into bed from Clara.
The rest of the night is a blur. Clara doesn’t want him in the hospital room, so he sits in the hall for the first three hours of labor. After that, she changes her mind, and then he’s in there, holding her hand, thinking he may be out for the rest of the season if she squeezes any harder.
At 5:57 a.m., the baby is born. After she’s cleaned and brought to them, the nurses pass her to Clara, who immediately hands her off to Kent.
“Oh,” he says as he stares at her little face. Her hair is dark and sparse, and her face is squishy. She doesn’t look like one of the gorgeous, picture-perfect babies from TV. Kent loves her.
For months, all Kent has thought about was preparing for her, how that would change his life. He’s thought of his exes and how they’ve moved on, and how he’s been stuck in the past. Now she’s here, and all he can think is now. Everything else has disappeared.
“She has your eyes,” Clara says. He thinks time has passed, but he’s been too busy watching the baby’s face. Sure enough, her eyes are his glassy gray.
“Your hair,” he counters.
Clara smiles. “Mine isn’t that thin,” she protests. “Hey, Kent?”
“Yeah?” he asks.
“What did you decide to name her?”
Kent watches as the baby’s lashes flutter. “Hanna,” he says.
Clara hums. “You choose a middle name too?”
“Maybe Sophie? I don’t know. That’s my sister’s name,” Kent shrugs. “You don’t have a middle name, right? Maybe she doesn’t need one.”
“No, but— Mali,” Clara says. “It . . . It was what Yaa called me. My nickname. It means jasmine. I think it’d be nice—”
“Hanna Mali Parson,” Kent says. It’s pretty.
Clara laughs and corrects his pronunciation before she slumps back in the bed. “Mm. I’m tired. I’m going to sleep now, okay?”
“If anyone deserves sleep, it’s you,” Kent says. She shushes him, and he returns to the only thing that matters now: Hanna Mali Parson.
The Aces don’t have a great end to their season. With their captain focused on caring for a newborn (and that’s a lot of work, even after Dad flies in to care for Hanna), they fumble before they even get a shot at the playoffs. The team is disappointed, but there’s always next year. Kent is kind of glad to get more time with Hanna.
Tater sends another package when the Falcs make it to the Finals again. This one includes actual baby items, notably a Falconers onesie with MASHKOV and 7 on the back.
When Kent gets it, he texts a picture to Tater of Hanna sleeping in the middle of the afternoon. She’s curled up tightly, and his name is lit up with light from the window.
so pretty. how you make so pretty child, kenny?
ha ha. just wait until you see her smile.
invite me for visit?
No time right now. But you come to Providence for games?
wait, are you serious? i don’t want to bring hanna on a plane. she’s too little.
you can visit though.
Which is how Kent gets Tater at his new house after the Falconers lose the Finals. Kent is sympathetic, Tater is a little sad, but they spend most of the time cooing over Hanna.
“Ah! Where is little Hanna?” Tater gasps as he covers her face with her blanket. He pulls it back, and she shrieks. He places the blanket back down. She throws it off on her own this time. “Ah! It’s Hanna!”
“She’s screaming because she keeps seeing your face,” Kent remarks. He tests the warmth of her bottle on his arm before he plops on the floor next to them and winces. “Ugh. I really need to buy rugs. This is cold as shit.”
It’s one of the many things he’s realized he wasn’t prepared for as a father. When he told his mom about it, she laughed and said no one is really ready for a baby.
“You’ll make mistakes, Kenny,” she warned, “but that’s part of it. You figure it out, and you do better.”
A long time ago, those answers from her would have stung. But Kent’s grown up, and he takes his mother’s advice in stride. They’re both trying to do their best, and he can accept his mother for as much as he has her.
“We are shopping tomorrow. Get cute rugs for floor here and in nursery. And I’m buying little Hanna anything she’s wanting,” Tater says. He reaches out and tickles her tummy. She giggles, but thankfully, she doesn’t resist when Kent scoops her up for feeding.
Tater leans his back against the couch. Kit and Purrs trot up for their turn at attention now. They’ve been surprisingly gentle with the Hanna. Purrs sleeps on the floor of her room at night, as if to guard, and Kit hisses at anyone new who comes to visit. “Oh, such good kitties! Good big sister and good big brother! Kenny is very good papa, yes?” he coos as he scoops them up.
“Why are you like that?” Kent asks, even as his heart swells.
“Kitties need love too,” Tater replies loftily. He plays with them while Hanna suckles on her bottle, and Kent feels . . . happy. He looks back down to Hanna’s face, her tiny nose, her dark hair, and he loves her.
The older she gets, the more of Clara Kent sees in her face. There’s also something uniquely Hanna. She smiles much more than either of them, and she really likes anything Tater gives her. When they go shopping the next day, Tater holds her the whole time, and (Kent thinks) he guides her into picking out the ugliest monkey: mostly blue and yellow with a hint of red in the tie-dye, it’s a primary color disaster.
“I am not buying this for her,” Kent says.
“I’m buying, is okay,” Tater scoffs. He wiggles it in front of Hanna until she chews on its ear. “Hanna love!”
It’s easy to get used to Tater being around. He’s only supposed to stay until the beginning of July, when Kent’s dad will fly in to visit, but already Kent can’t see him going. He watches Tater as they check out. He balances Hanna on one shoulder and pays with his free hand. As they walk out to the car, Kent calls, “Alyosha.”
He turns around. “Kenny?”
“You, uh . . . You ever think about having kids?” Kent asks in the most awkward, stupid way.
Alyosha smiles and waits for Kent to open the back seat before he starts to buckle Hanna in. “Sometimes. Maybe little girl for start. More after. But yes. Love kids. You know this.”
“Yeah, I just—” He laughs and turns to the driver’s seat. “Let’s go, alright?”
Alyosha is quiet as he moves to the other side of the car. He climbs in the car and waits as Kent gets everything started. Just as Kent pulls out of the parking lot and hits the road, he reaches across the console and takes Kent’s right hand.
“Hanna is sweet baby,” Alyosha says.
“I love her,” Kent replies. He peeks back at her through the rearview mirror. “You know, it’s funny—how important everything seems before you have a kid. I just—”
“You seem different,” Alyosha fills in. He always gets what Kent wants to say before Kent even knows what he’s trying to say. “You are more adult now. I can see. Feel like you know what you want.”
Kent thinks maybe there’s some truth to that. His dad sent a ton of baby advice, some about caring for a baby, and some about managing his own feelings. He thinks he’s never understood his dad before. “Do you want to stay longer, Alyosha?”
Alyosha hums. He’s turned around, trying to peer into Hanna’s car seat. “Stay longer?”
“Yeah,” Kent says. His throat is tight, but he pushes through. “Maybe you could, um. You could meet my dad. When he comes.”
Alyosha slumps back into his seat and squeezes Kent’s hand. “Meeting parent is big step, yes?”
“Yeah. But I mean— If this isn’t—” Kent starts to draw his hand back. Alyosha holds on tighter.
“Will be nice. Want to know what Kenny’s dad do to make son like this,” he says. “And grandparent is good babysitter. Maybe we go for dinner one night.”
Dinner. Like a date. Kent smiles and stares at the sun ahead of them on the road. “Sure. That’ll be good,” he agrees. He lifts Alyosha’s hand to his lips. When they pull into the driveway, Alyosha lifts him from his seat for a real kiss. Kent hears Hanna gurgling behind them. He places his hand on Alexei’s cheek, and the firecrackers shoot off around him.