Studying the grid of yellow and red pegs, I focus on a decidedly barren area. Leveling a confident smirk across the top of my game board I say, “D-6.”
I whistle—my missile firing from my destroyer to sail over to Aiden’s side, where he should take over the sound effects and give me a definitive explosion.
Instead, he grins. “That’s a miss.”
“What the hell?” I mutter, plugging the D-6 hole with a yellow peg. I glance up at him suspiciously. “You do have all your ships on the board, right?”
Aiden rolls his eyes, something only an eleven-year-old can do with utter perfection. “Don’t try to put this on me just because you suck at this game.”
“Whatever,” I say with a wave of my hand. “Make your move, dude.”
“J-2.” I don’t have to look at his face to know he knows it’s a hit. I can hear it in his smug tone.
Aiden emits the whistling sound of his missile and arcs his hand up and over the board, mimicking its theoretical flight path. I scowl as I make a less-than-effusive bombing noise. “Direct hit,” I grouse.
Pumping his fist, Aiden exclaims, “Yes!”
“You must be psychic or something.”
“I just have good deductive reasoning,” he replies with a shrug and then glances at the clock. “For example, a nurse should be rolling in anytime now to hang a new bag.”
And as if Aiden knew she was standing right outside his hospital room door, said nurse walks in. A cheery, middle-aged woman with burgundy-tinted hair that she wears cut super short glances at the board, then to me, then to Aiden. “How bad are you kicking his butt today?”
“Bad,” Aiden says.
“I think he’s a cheater, Lori.” Yes, I know her name is Lori, just as I know she’s been a nurse for twenty-two years and she’s married with three adopted children.
Hang out in the children’s hospital enough, you get to know people, and Lori is one of the regular pediatric oncology nurses.
“Not my sweet Aiden,” she croons as she works to change out a bag of some IV medication. He’s on a lot of different ones.
Aiden has acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
More specifically, secondary refractory leukemia.
I’ve learned some stuff about this kid and his incredibly long journey battling this disease. Diagnosed at five, he underwent induction therapy for a month, which was a combination of chemotherapy drugs designed to kill as many of the leukemia cells as possible in the blood and bone marrow. After that he had consolidation therapy, which was higher doses of drugs over a few months designed to kill remaining cells that couldn’t be seen on tests. After that, over two years of maintenance chemotherapy to kill anything that survived the first two phases and to keep it from coming back.
By age eight, he was deemed cancer-free and living his best life.
At age eleven, it returned. I first met Aiden at the beginning of March when he entered the hospital for another round of chemotherapy to attempt to put him back in remission. Unfortunately, he didn’t respond to treatment the way he had before and it was determined his best chance was an allogeneic bone marrow transplant.
That was completed three weeks ago and I haven’t been able to see him until this week as he was at an increased risk of infection, thus his visitors were limited. Even today, I still have to wear a gown, gloves and mask to sit in the room with him and that’s because in addition to killing the cancer, the chemotherapy kills his red and white blood cells. He needs those—particularly the white—to fight infections. It makes his situation very precarious since he’s highly susceptible to many types of complications, which means he’s going to be in the hospital a while. This isn’t a treatment you can recover from at home.
Now it’s a waiting game to see if his bone marrow recovers, his blood cells reform and the leukemia has been eradicated.
“Your dad not here yet?” Lori asks Aiden.
I glance at my watch. Steven Hoffman is usually here during the days with his son and I’ve met him a few times. Nice guy who’s quite jovial, despite the sad nature of what his boy is going through. He’s always quick with jokes and never fails to make his son laugh.
Aiden glances at the clock and frowns. “I don’t know where he is. He’s usually here by now.”
“I don’t have any major plans today,” I say, studying my battleship grid for my next move. “I’ll hang until he gets here.”
I peek up at Aiden and see the relief on his face. He’s still mostly bald from the intensive round of chemo he got before the transplant but I notice a light coat of peach-like fuzz starting to come in. For some reason, that signifies hope to me even though I’m not sure it means much.
Aiden smiles gratefully. “Yeah? You can do that?”
“Sure,” I reply with a shrug as if it’s no big deal. I actually have a shit ton of stuff to do as we’re leaving tomorrow morning for an away game, but that’s not as important as this. “Are you allowed to leave your room?”
“He needs a gown and mask,” Lori says, her gaze cutting over to Aiden. “Want to walk or ride?”
“I think it’s a ride kind of day,” he says, indicating he’s tired and probably couldn’t walk far.
I wink at Aiden. “Let’s get you in the wheelchair and go pop wheelies down the hall when Lori’s got her back turned.”
The nurse shoots me a mock glare and I wink at Aiden, which causes him to snicker.
“Or… a leisurely roll down to the café for some ice cream,” I amend.
Lori smiles. “That’s more like it.”
“Come on, kid,” I say, scooting off the end of the bed where I was sitting. I move the rolling table that holds the game and push it into the corner. “Let’s go harass some people.”
Finished hooking up his new meds, Lori unplugs Aiden’s IV pole and I step out of his room to get a wheelchair. There’s a big storage closet down the hall that keeps a few extra ones as well as chairs for additional visitors.
By the time I get back to Aiden, Lori has him in a paper gown and mask with gloves, ready to go on an adventure.
“We’re twins,” I note as he settles slowly into the chair.
I try not to notice how much thinner he looks since before the transplant and the way he pants a little from the minimal effort. Lori attaches the infusion pump to a bracket and the bag to the small pole on the back of his wheelchair. I know from experience we have hours of battery life on this pump but I’m guessing Aiden won’t last but about thirty minutes. Good thing we need to eat ice cream fast.
“Where to?” I ask dramatically as I push him out of the room.
“Let’s go check out the pretty nurses in the first-floor café,” he says as we stroll down the hall.
Chuckling, I take a right turn at the next intersecting hall that will lead us to the patient elevators. “How about we go for an ice cream in the café?”
“And if there happen to be pretty nurses… bonus.” Aiden twists his neck to grin at me over his shoulder.
“You’re too young to be noticing that,” I chastise.
“You’re the one who checks them out, not me,” he replies with a smirk.
Shaking my head, I reach the elevator alcove and press the down button. “I know we’ve only known each other a few weeks, but are you always such a smart-ass?”
“Language, Mr. Rivers,” he chides, something I’ve said to him on occasion when he cusses. I’m not overly stern about it though because the kid has good reason.
The elevator dings and I take hold of the handles to push him in. The doors slide open and a woman is waiting to get off. I start to pull Aiden’s chair back a little to give her room but stop when he exclaims, “Lilly!”
I had only given her a passing glance but my eyes snap back to the woman I know to be his sister since he talks about her all the time. I’ve never met her since she works a lot.
Her light blue eyes—duplicates of Aiden’s—flick to me and then back to Aiden with a warm smile. “On an escape mission?”
“Going for ice cream,” I say, leaning forward and reaching my hand out to her. “I’m Boone Rivers and you should join us.”
“No thanks.” She accepts my hand for a quick shake, then waves us away. “I’ll just wait in your room.”
“Come on, Lilly,” Aiden says as the doors start to close on her. They bounce back open as she holds out an arm. “You deserve a break. Come have ice cream.”
Deserve a break?
That’s an interesting phrase and indicates she’s a woman who doesn’t slow down for much. She seems to be wearing a work uniform—jeans and tennis shoes, but her dark green T-shirt has a logo on the front that reads Moni’s Deli, Lilly printed on a plastic name tag. She’s also got on a matching green ball cap with the same logo and her long brown hair is in a ponytail threaded through the back.
“Yeah… come have ice cream,” I mimic Aiden’s request. “My treat.”
Lilly mulls it over for only a moment before she smiles, “Okay. Yeah… sure.”
She steps out of the elevator and holds the doors open. “You two head down. I’ll go get gowned up.”
I wheel Aiden in as Lilly walks back toward his room where a metal casing is attached to his door that holds gowns, masks and gloves. We’re silent as we ride down to the lobby level, although I have a dozen questions about his sister. I don’t ask them though, instead getting him settled at the table while I order three soft cones.
Lilly’s at the table by the time I return, sitting close to Aiden with her hand resting on his shoulder. Whatever he’s saying has her laughing and she seems a little more relaxed. I don’t know exactly how old she is but I’d guess early twenties although the expression in her eyes says she’s lived way more than that. I can tell just by observing the siblings for a few moments that they’re incredibly tight.
“Here you go,” I announce as I reach the table, doling out the soft-serve cones. “Hope chocolate is okay with everyone. It’s all they had.”
When I sit down, Lilly says, “Aiden told me you’ve been coming to visit him.” So she does know who I am. I didn’t make that clear when I introduced myself, but I figured she knew since she never questioned why a strange man was taking her brother for ice cream. “Do you do that a lot?”
I nod. “I try to get over here at least once or twice a week to visit the kids. Of course, this is the first time I’ve been able to see him since the transplant.”
“He brought Drake McGinn and Van Turner the week before the transplant,” Aiden says, smiling through a small mustache of chocolate ice cream, his mask pulled down temporarily so he can enjoy the treat.
“So I heard.” Lilly’s eyes crinkle in amusement as she takes a tiny taste of the swirl. Her mask hangs to the side from one ear and it looks cute in a goofy way. “Dad mentioned it.”
“Where is he, by the way?” Aiden asks before taking another long lick of his cone.
And there it is again… that pinched look of worry on Lilly’s face. It’s there only for a moment and Aiden didn’t see it as he was focused on his ice cream. Her expression smooths by the time his attention is back on her.
Her smile is wan though, and I can tell something is wrong. “He’s not feeling well today, so I thought I’d come and hang with you.”
“But who’s running the deli?” Aiden asks.
“Georgie’s there. He’s got it covered.”
Aiden snorts. “You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t catch the place on fire.”
Lilly laughs and rubs her brother’s fuzzy head. “You let me worry about the deli and Dad. You worry about getting stronger.”
It’s a charming byplay between these two. I don’t know much about Aiden’s family other than he has a father and sister. I assumed there’s no mom in the picture because he’s never mentioned one, but I don’t get deep into personal questions. I make my visits about what the kids want to do and talk about, so I let them lead the conversations. Aiden has been content to talk about hockey and play games when I visit.
My purpose here is to take their minds off their illness and to let them escape reality just a bit.
Lilly leans over and presses the back of her hand to Aiden’s cheek. He doesn’t pull away or flinch like I would imagine many eleven-year-olds would when shown physical affection or touch concern.
“You look flushed,” she observes.
“Just excited about the ice cream,” he says with a chocolaty grin.
“Feel good on your mouth?”
His eyes crinkle and he nods. “Really good.”
I frown and Lilly catches it. “The chemo causes painful mouth sores. They’re mostly healed though.”
“I couldn’t eat for almost two weeks,” Aiden says with another hearty lick of his ice cream. “I had to have TPN.”
I look to Lilly in question.
“It’s intravenous nutrition since it hurt too much to eat with the sores.”
Jesus. I had no clue, but apparently things were pretty shitty after the transplant.
“How’d you sleep last night?” Lilly asks her brother.
“Like a rock. I never even heard you leave.” Aiden frowns at her. “How late did you stay?”
Lilly shrugs. “Around two, I think.”
Two in the morning? I’m guessing she works full time at the deli and it appears maybe she stays with her brother a good chunk of the night.
I settle back and eat my ice cream, watching brother and sister talk. After her initial questions to see how he’s feeling, she doesn’t talk about his medical condition again. Instead, they talk about his morning when he visited with a new buddy he met down the hall who also has leukemia. It’s fascinating how this illness is just an ordinary part of his life now.
“Boone and I were playing Battleship this morning,” Aiden says.
“Did you kick his butt the way you kick mine?” She smirks.
“Worse,” Aiden gloats with a sly look my way. “You should play him… you’d have a chance to win.”
“Gee, thanks,” I say, holding my hand to my heart. “See if I buy you ice cream again.”
Aiden laughs and Lilly smiles, but the humor doesn’t quite reach her eyes. She checks her watch again and I wonder if she has to be somewhere or if I’m intruding on her time with her brother.
As soon as we finish our cones, I stand from the table and put my hand on Aiden’s shoulder. “I got to get going, buddy.”
Lilly stands too, holding her hand out for our wadded-up napkins. I hand mine over without a thought and she pulls Aiden’s from his hand as he asks, “Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Aiden,” Lilly exclaims, looking over her shoulder as she walks to a nearby garbage can. “I’m sure Boone has more important things to do.”
I ignore his sister. “Got an away game tomorrow. I’ll come see you possibly on Tuesday, but definitely by Wednesday. Miriam is probably getting discharged by the end of the week and I have something for her.”
Miriam is a four-year-old girl with brain cancer. She had what her parents say is a successful surgery and she’ll be continuing with chemotherapy and radiation after her release. At four, she’s not overly impressed with the fact that I’m a hockey player, but she did like the stuffed animal I gave her on my first visit. It’s probably her parents who appreciate my visits more than anything since they can take a break from worrying about her and have some adult conversation.
My eyes cut to Lilly and she doesn’t seem perturbed but she does worry at her bottom lip. I peg her as the type who doesn’t like relying on anyone but she’s also not going to stand in the way of Aiden having visitors if it makes him happy.
“I really like coming here,” I assure her.
Her smile is relieved and appears genuine. She nods as she takes hold of Aiden’s wheelchair and grudgingly admits, “He loves when you visit and talks about you all the time. I appreciate it so much.”
We head out of the café and I let them precede me through the door to the lobby. I’ll be turning left, out to the parking garage. They’ll be turning right toward the patient elevators.
I hold my fist out to Aiden for a bump but startle when I hear a man call out, “Lilly! Aiden!”
We all turn toward the lobby doors and I see Aiden’s dad standing there. He’s swaying, a dopey smile on his face. “My children,” he yells. “My babies.”
“Oh God,” Lilly moans, and I see her staring at her dad in horror for only a split second before she kicks into action. “Stay with Aiden,” she commands as she rushes across the lobby toward her father.
Several people gawk and the receptionist stands hesitantly from her desk, phone in her hand as if she’s going to call security. Lilly holds her hand out to the woman as she rushes by. “I’ve got this. I’ll get him to leave.”
I glance down at Aiden quietly sitting in his wheelchair. Wetness glistens in his eyes and I can tell he’s pained by this situation as his dad is obviously very drunk. I can also tell this isn’t a surprise to him, but it is to me as I’ve seen him around and he’s never been this way before.
Lilly takes her dad’s arm and talks in a low voice, trying to get him back out the door. He jerks away from her. “I’m not leaving,” he bellows. “My kid has cancer and by God, I’m going to spend time with him.”
“Dad,” I hear Lilly’s plaintive cry as she makes another grab at his arm.
I don’t know just how inebriated Steven Hoffman is but as he tries to wrench free of his daughter’s grasp, he inadvertently knocks her to the side and she stumbles.
“Help her,” Aiden says, and I bolt into action.
Dad’s arm hits me in the shoulder as he tries to pull free and I stumble sideways.
“I’m calling security,” the receptionist says.
“No,” I exclaim, shooting her a pleading look. I do not want Aiden to watch our dad be arrested. “I’ll get him out.”
“I’ve got this.” Boone Rivers brushes past me. “Steven… good to see you.”
Boone’s voice is pleasant, nonthreatening. He holds out his hand to my dad, who stares back at him through bleary eyes. He’s trashed and I’m not sure he knows the famous Pittsburgh Titans hockey player.
Then I see recognition dawn and a sloppy grin overtakes his face as he grabs Boone’s hand and pumps it. “How the hell are you, son? You here visiting my boy?”
My dad’s voice booms and I glance back at Aiden to see his head bowed so he doesn’t have to watch the spectacle.
“I am visiting Aiden,” Boone says, his tone reassuring and sympathetic. He puts a hand on my dad’s shoulder, not to strong-arm him, but he squeezes it as if he understands the gravity of Aiden’s disease and the weight it bears on all of us. “And right now, you’re a little too drunk to be here. You don’t want your son to see you like this, do you? He’s got enough on his plate to deal with so I’m asking you, don’t make this harder on him.”
Dad sways a little, looking thoroughly confused. He glances down the hall, squints at Aiden in his wheelchair and smiles again in a proud, goofy way. “That’s my boy there. So strong, isn’t he?”
“Very strong,” Boone agrees and then gently turns my dad toward the exit doors. “But you’re making this hard on him by showing up like this. Let’s get you home, sobered up and you can come back later.”
Miraculously, my dad lets Boone lead him out. I glance back at Aiden and hold a finger up to him that I need a minute. He nods and I rush out behind them.
Normally, when my dad gets this drunk, there’s no reasoning with him. He’s not a mean or abusive alcoholic, but he is illogical and it’s difficult to control him.
Boone continues to walk with my father, his arm now around his shoulders as Dad waxes poetic about Aiden. “He’ll beat this disease, mark my words. That boy is so strong. Just like his sister. I’ve got the two best kids in the world.”
“I can tell how proud you are,” Boone says softly as he traverses a short breezeway to the parking garage. I have no clue where Boone is taking him and I follow hesitantly.
“It’s so hard though,” my dad laments morosely. “I try my best. I really do.”
“Your best isn’t coming here to the hospital drunk though, is it?”
I’m surprised not only by Boone’s frank talk but by the fact he so effortlessly has my dad under control. Had it just been me dealing with him, security most likely would have had to get involved because I don’t have the patience for this. I get so angry when he’s like this and I’m so protective of Aiden.
My dad hangs his head low. “I know. I’m a terrible father. I can’t do anything right. I’m a complete embarrassment.”
He goes on and on as Boone continues up the garage’s first-level ramp before he stops at an iron-gray Porsche Cayenne. Boone squeezes my dad’s shoulder. “I’m going to take you home, okay?”
Looking uncertain, Dad finally nods at Boone in agreement and I just watch in stunned silence.
Boone unlocks the passenger door and holds it open. “In you go, Steven.”
My dad practically falls into the seat and has a hard time getting his legs in. He struggles with the seatbelt and Boone leans in to help him. My heart squeezes over his kindness.
Once he’s all buckled in, Boone closes the door gently. My dad immediately slumps against it, his eyes closing and head lolling as he passes out.
Boone turns to me and offers a tight smile as he pulls off his gloves and mask before easily ripping the paper gown off his body. He balls it all up tight and sticks it under his arm to hold before pulling his phone out of his pocket. “What’s your phone number?”
I’m so flummoxed, I rattle it off without thinking. Boone’s fingers move efficiently over the screen. “I’m sending you a text now so you have my number. Text me your address and I’ll get him home. I’ll call you after I get him settled in.”
“My phone is in my purse, which is on Aiden’s wheelchair,” I say, throwing my thumb over my shoulder toward the hospital.
Boone nods and flips to Google Maps. “What’s the address?” I tell him and he punches it in. He studies the map a moment before glancing up at me. “Go on in. Aiden will need you.”
“But… you can’t… I mean, this isn’t your problem. I should—”
“You need to go take care of your brother,” Boone says calmly, his hand cupping my elbow for a soft squeeze. “This isn’t my first rodeo with drunks so I’ll handle your dad, and you handle your brother.”
“I…” My words falter and I shake my head. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I like your brother a hell of a lot and because I used to have a dad just like this. I know what it’s like.”
“Oh.” I breathe out a pained sigh and blink to stop the tears. “But still—”
“Lilly,” Boone says, grabbing my attention. He squeezes my arm again. “Go to Aiden. I’ll call you as soon as I get your dad into your house.”
“Apartment,” I clarify in a whisper.
Boone smiles sympathetically at my discombobulation and turns me toward the hospital. “Go. Now.”
I start walking away from Boone… from my dad passed out in his car. I stop though, not seeming to understand what the hell is happening. I watch as Boone starts his Porsche and backs out of the space. Before he puts it in drive, he sees me standing there and points his finger and mouths “Go.”
I turn on my heel and run toward the hospital, eager to get back to Aiden and assure him everything’s okay.
Except nothing is okay about this.
Aiden is waiting for me where I left him, although a nurse is standing by his side. When she sees me, she gives me an understanding nod. Aiden must have told her what happened.
“Is Dad okay?” Aiden asks after the nurse walks away.
My hands shake as I grip the handles of his wheelchair and turn him toward the elevator. That ice cream curdles in my stomach. “Yeah. Boone’s going to take him home.”
“But what’s stopping Dad from coming right back here again?” Aiden asks.
I don’t know how to answer that. I’m not even sure how he got here in the first place. For all I know, he drove here drunk and his car is in the parking garage. I cringe thinking of the destruction he could have caused if he had driven intoxicated. Normally, he wouldn’t be so stupid and would take the bus, but he’s been spiraling the last few weeks while Aiden has struggled with recovering from the transplant. My father has never handled stress well and his comfort has always been at the bottom of a bottle.
We’re silent as we make our way back to Aiden’s room. I’ve spent so much time in the hospital with him over the years, I’m a pro at removing his infusion pump from the back of the wheelchair and reconnecting it to the bedside pole. I help Aiden remove the paper gown, mask and gloves so he can get into bed. I leave the wheelchair out in the hall, knowing someone will put it away.
Taking his hand, I squeeze. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just worried about Dad.”
“I know.” I have to stop myself from saying more. I want to say, I know, but Dad doesn’t deserve your worry. He shouldn’t even be putting this on your frail shoulders.
But I don’t because that’s akin to me telling Aiden to stop loving our father, and I can’t do that. Just like I can’t stop loving him. In fact, I love him even more because he’s weak and addicted and struggling. But I don’t want Aiden to have to carry this burden. I try to keep most of this away from him but today got out of hand.
I woke up this morning to find my father at our small kitchen table, passed out with an empty bottle of vodka before him. Dad normally spends part of the day at the hospital with Aiden while I manage the deli. I go visit after work and will stay as late as I can, often falling asleep in the chair beside Aiden’s bed and sliding quietly out in the wee hours.
This morning, Dad was in no condition to go anywhere. I barely got him out of his chair and then he stumbled down the short hall to his room where he flopped face forward onto the bed. He was mumbling about Aiden dying and I couldn’t bear to hear it, so I left him there to sleep it off.
I couldn’t leave Aiden alone. He’s been in the hospital for over five weeks so far and now we’re in a waiting game to see if the transplant will work. It’s important that one of us is there with him. I opened the deli, got things going and turned it over to Georgie who can be dependable on occasion. I don’t think he’ll burn the place down like Aiden predicted.
How was I to know my dad would not, in fact, pass out and sleep off his drunk but decide to go to the hospital? Once again, I cringe at just how disastrous all this could’ve been. He could’ve gotten into an accident, gotten arrested or made an even bigger scene than what he did. Thank God Boone was there. Disaster was averted thanks to him.
“He needs help,” Aiden says, drawing me out of my memories.
“I know,” I say with a sigh, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I’ll start searching some rehab places—”
“No, I mean Boone needs help,” Aiden interrupts.
I frown in confusion. “What?”
“He’s going to need help keeping Dad calm once they get home. He might be pliable now because he’s so trashed, but as he starts to sober up, he’ll try to come back here because he’ll feel so guilty. And you can’t expect Boone to babysit him.”
“Oh, shit,” I mutter, popping off the bed and looking for my purse. Aiden’s right and it’s sad that he knows so well how to anticipate our dad’s actions because we’ve lived through this all before. I bend over the bed and kiss his forehead through my paper mask. “I’ll go straighten everything out and come right back.”
“You don’t have to,” he says earnestly and I pull back to look him in the eye.
Such a mature, loving child stares back at me. My partner through thick and thin. I might take care of Aiden ninety percent of the time, but he has my back when needed.
“I’ll see you in a bit,” I repeat with a pointed look. “I’ll get Dad straightened out, check on Georgie, and then I’m coming back to kick your ass in Battleship. Want me to bring you anything?”
“Cheese popcorn,” he replies with a smile.
“Got it.” I bend over him once more to kiss his head. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
We’re fortunate that we only live about twenty minutes from the hospital. My commute from home to work is even quicker since our apartment sits above the deli. It’s a family business started by my parents and named Moni’s after my mother Monica. I was raised not only above the restaurant in our apartment but much of my life was spent downstairs hanging out at the lunch counter while my parents created thick sandwiches and laughed with their longtime customers. By the time I was ten, I was able to build the perfect Italian sub and could check out customers all by myself.
This was a good thing because when my mom passed away just two years later from an unknown heart defect, I was able to step in and help my dad keep the business running as well as look after Aiden, who was only two. It was just the three of us, reeling from loss, but we banded together and made it work.
Behind the deli is a back alley with three private parking spots. I pull into the one next to Boone’s Porsche, the relief sweeping through me to see my dad’s car there as well which means he didn’t drive to the hospital. I’m still not sure how I feel about letting a perfect stranger step into this mess to help us, but that ship has sailed.
I climb the steep flight of stairs to the landing outside the apartment door and step inside, setting my purse on the low half wall that blocks off the small dining area to the right. A long hall houses the three bedrooms straight ahead with the living room to the left and a kitchen just beyond the dining area.
I barely get a step forward before Boone exits my dad’s room, pulling the door shut behind him. He jolts slightly as he turns and sees me standing there.
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
“He’s sleeping and I expect he’ll be out awhile.”
I’m at a bit of a loss about what to say, but an apology seems in order. “I am so sorry you got sucked into this. I’m mortified—”
Boone holds up his hand as he walks my way. “Stop. You have nothing to apologize for. I truly didn’t mind helping.”
He halts a few feet from me, tucking his hands into his pockets.
“You said you’ve had experience with this before,” I prod.
A smile plays across his face—slightly bitter, a little sweet. “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s been sober for fifteen years now but I was a little younger than Aiden when it was going on, so I kind of know what he’s feeling. I’ve also watched my mom and older siblings have to handle my dad when he was drunk, so I know how to deal.”
I nod in understanding. “I’m sorry you had to go through that but it was fortuitous for us today.”
Boone chuckles. “I’m just glad I was there.”
“Me too. Um… can I offer you something to drink or anything?”
“I’m good, but thank you. I need to get going.”
“Of course.” I grab the doorknob and open the door, moving to the side. “Again, thank you so much.”
As Boone moves onto the landing, he asks, “What’s the deal with the deli downstairs? Do you work there?”
“Our family owns it. It’s named after my mom. She passed away almost ten years ago.”
Sympathy pools in Boone’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you. And I know I’m repeating myself but thank you again for your help with my dad. It was unbelievably kind.”
“It was nothing.” Boone waves and makes it halfway down the staircase before he turns to look back. “If you need anything, I hope you’ll call.”
My mouth drops open slightly. I don’t even know what that means. He’s a perfect stranger and I would never think to call on him for assistance. “That’s really nice, but—”
“You have my number,” Boone says, cutting in over me. “Use it. And maybe I’ll see you at the hospital sometime, okay?”
I wring my hands, thinking this might be one of the strangest days I’ve ever had. “Um… okay.”
“Okay,” he affirms with a smile, and for the first time, I let myself acknowledge how handsome he is. I take in his longish dark blond hair, his blue eyes that are about ten shades darker than mine but so expressive. His trim beard doesn’t hide his full lips or the bright smile he’s bestowed on me on more than one occasion. How had I not noticed that before? “It was nice meeting you, Lilly.”
“Same,” I manage to breathe out.
Not just handsome but a freaking famous professional hockey player.
Who just brought my drunk dad home.
I’m overwhelmed again by deep embarrassment and duck inside my apartment. My heart hammers as I lean against the door and try to figure out if my life can get any more complicated.
I’m restless as I pace around my downtown Pittsburgh condo. I’m all packed and ready for the early-morning flight to Detroit. It’s a there-and-back game and a win will clinch a first-place division spot for us. There’s one more home game and then the first round of the playoffs starts on Saturday.
I should spend the rest of the evening relaxing, which for me might include playing my guitar or drawing to let my mind decompress.
It needs to unwind because I can’t stop thinking about Aiden and Lilly. Or Steven, for that matter.
I have a connection now to all three of them.
Aiden’s a very sick little boy who needs all the love, support and friendship he can get and I’m grateful I’m able to spend time with him.
Steven is my father in many ways. The reasons for drinking may not be the same but they both hate themselves for their weakness. Like my dad, Steven isn’t in denial and that means there’s hope he can get sober.
And then there’s Lilly. She reminds me of my older siblings, Damien and Claire. They were there to protect and shield me from the nastiness of my father’s alcoholism. I saw plenty but I wonder how much I didn’t see because they were always whisking me away from it.
But Lilly is so much more to Aiden. She’s his primary caretaker as he navigates the treatment for his disease. This I learned from Steven when I got him home and it surprised me since I’ve only ever seen Steven at the hospital when I’ve visited. Granted, it’s only been a few times, but today’s the first time I’ve seen Lilly there.
When I got close to the address Lilly gave me, I was confused to find the deli and not an apartment. I had to shake Steven to rouse him enough to get him to tell me they live above the restaurant and direct me to park in the back.
I was able to get him out of the car and while he was quite wobbly, he was at least awake and chatty as I helped him up the stairs.
His words were slightly slurred but I understood him just fine. “I’m really sorry you had to do this, Boone. I’m so ashamed of myself.”
“Yeah, well… that’s definitely a legit emotion to have,” I replied as I put my arm around his waist to steady him up the staircase.
“My kids deserve better,” he bemoaned.
“Aiden needs a dad he can count on.”
“My poor Lilly.” Steven lurched to a stop halfway up and turned to me. “She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Works her ass off to keep the deli’s doors open, spends her evenings with Aiden and then has to deal with me. I’m sure she hates me.”
“She loves you,” I replied. Even though I didn’t know Lilly at all, I was certain of this because I saw how worried she was about him at the hospital. Yes, she was horrified and embarrassed, but more than anything, there was concern born of deep love in her eyes.
I urged Steven the rest of the way up. I barely took notice of the family’s small apartment as I helped him to his bedroom and eased him into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. He stared at me silently as I squatted to remove his shoes, his head hanging low. I then swung his legs onto the mattress and situated the pillow more comfortably behind his head. I’d watched my mom do this for my dad on more than one occasion.
I also watched my mom have the tough conversations with him, but they made more of an impact when he was sober. I didn’t know whether I’d ever see Steven again, so I took the opportunity.
Standing over his bed, I made sure his bloodshot eyes were focused on me. “You have to stop drinking and I’m more than glad to help you. Lilly and Aiden need your support and you can’t give it while you’re drunk. You’re putting too much strain on them.”
“I know,” he said morosely. “But I can’t. I’ve tried.”
It would be so easy to say, Try harder, but that’s not how alcoholism works. “You need professional help. I can get you into a rehab facility but at the very least, you need to find an AA meeting to go to. Preferably today when you sober up. I’ve got a friend who could find you a good sponsor.”
Steven nodded but I wasn’t sure if he was agreeing with what I was saying. I know I can’t make him do anything, just as I know it’s not my place to get involved, but I still extended the offer. I got Steven’s phone number with the promise to send him some resources and soon he was fast asleep.
I didn’t tell Lilly about my proposition to help mainly because I didn’t want to overwhelm her. She had that look about her that clearly said she couldn’t handle much more in the way of complications for the day and besides that, I could tell she was uncomfortable with me being involved.
Not that I gave her much choice. I saw Lilly needed help, so I stepped in and I have no regrets about that. She seemed tepid when I left her apartment earlier today though.
My phone rings and I walk into the kitchen to grab it from the counter. It’s the call I’d been waiting for. “Hello.”
“Hey… It’s Harlow.”
“Thanks for calling. I’ve got someone who needs help.”
Harlow Alston is the fiancée of my line mate, Stone Dumelin. She’s an attorney here in Pittsburgh but more important to my needs right now, she’s an alcoholic. She’s been sober for a handful of years, routinely attends AA and isn’t shy when talking about her past troubles. She’s always ready to help others and she was the one person I knew I needed to talk to when I left the Hoffmans’ apartment today. I’d shot Stone a text asking him to have her call me when she got a minute.
I tell her about Steven and how I came to meet him. I tell her about what happened today, including my suggestion of rehab or AA. Harlow listens quietly but I can hear her inhale when I say, “I’ve been through this before with my father.”
“I had no clue,” she says gently.
“He’s fifteen years sober.” There’s no mistaking the pride in my voice. “My dad went into a thirty-day rehab program but I’m not sure that’s feasible for Steven, especially with Aiden in the hospital. I’m not sure I understand what’s going on with him.”
“His son’s illness is a stressor,” she muses. “But depending on circumstances, time might be a precious commodity. There are good outpatient programs in the area but he might need a medical detox. I’ll put together a list along with a suggestion for a good inpatient facility, if that’s an option. And if you’ll tell me where he lives, I can find an AA meeting place and sponsor that are convenient for him.”
“That would be great. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re a good man, Boone.”
“Nah,” I drawl, blowing off the compliment. “Just trying to pay it forward.”
Harlow promises to text me the information as soon as she has it and when I hang up, I expect to feel good because I’d put into action something to help Steven. Yet I feel unsettled, as if I’ve got more work to do.
I think about calling Aiden to check on him but dismiss that. Deep at my core, it’s not what’s troubling me.
My gaze catches the time on the oven clock as I lean on the small island counter that separates the living room from the kitchen. Is it too late to call Lilly?
Should I even be calling her to check in?
Accepting that I’ve never been one to shy away from things I shouldn’t do, I flip through the contacts and dial her number. It rings four times and just as I think I’ll get her voicemail, she answers in a low whisper. “Hello?”
“It’s Boone. Is this a bad time?”
“No,” she says softly and I hear rustling. “I’m in Aiden’s room and he just fell asleep. Let me step out.” I wait a few seconds and then she says, “Okay… I can talk. What can I do for you?”
What can she do for me? A smile comes unbidden. “I wanted to see how things were with you, Aiden and your father.”
She lets out a fatigued sigh. “It’s fine. I ended up coming back to the hospital to hang out with Aiden all day. My dad called a few hours ago and he’s sober. Very apologetic but as I’m sure you know, since you’ve been through this, that’s par for the course.”
“Yeah. The regrets are always there but will they be enough for change?”
“I don’t know how much worse things need to get for him to decide to stop drinking.” Frustration and anger lace her voice, and she’s not wrong to feel that way.
“I talked to your dad for a few minutes today about getting help. He seemed receptive. What’s his history with alcohol?”
Lilly doesn’t respond right away and I think I’ve overstepped, but then she huffs out another sigh. “I remember him drinking some after my mom died but nothing that ever impeded his ability to take care of me and Aiden.”
“How old were you?” I move to my couch and settle into it, kicking my feet up on the coffee table.
“I was twelve and Aiden was two.” Her voice remains low but it’s above her original whisper. “We struggled for a while but Dad sort of threw himself into work. He and Mom ran the deli together so he was suddenly on his own, but I think it helped him not focus on the sadness. When Aiden got sick the first time, his drinking worsened. Still, he managed to get up in the morning to open the deli and I helped out after school for a few hours. When Aiden was in the hospital, I’d take the bus to stay the night with him.”
“Jesus… how old were you?”
“Fifteen when he was diagnosed. Eighteen when he became cancer-free.”
“Did your dad ever get sober?”
“After Aiden went into remission and things were looking brighter, he slowed way down. It was sort of back to the level he was at right after Mom died. A few drinks at night, but it was every night.”
“And it got worse when Aiden’s cancer returned?” I guess.
Her voice lowers an octave. “It’s not every night he binges but it is becoming more frequent.”
I rub my hand over the back of my neck as I consider the circumstances. “Look, Lilly… please tell me to back off if you want me to, but I’d like to help. I know we just met but I’ve got a serious soft spot for your brother and honestly, I’ve got one for you too because I’ve been through this.”
“It’s just a little weird to me that you want to help,” she admits with a nervous laugh.
It makes me smile. “Why?”
“Um… because you’re a famous hockey player who I’m sure has way more important things to do with his time.”
“I don’t think there’s anything more important than helping someone.” That’s the truth and it’s the way my parents raised me and my siblings. “My offer is sincere and I hope you take it.”
“I’m not good at asking for help. I’ve just been handling things on my own for so long that I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Well, I’m giving you permission to ask and I’m commanding you to not feel bad when help is given, okay?”
Another long moment of silence and I know she’s struggling. But then she whispers the one word I need: “Okay.”
“Okay, then,” I exclaim, relief that she’s on board. “I talked to a friend today—actually, she’s the fiancée of a teammate. She’s an alcoholic who’s been sober for a while. She’s going to check into some resources for your dad. I can either pass them directly on to your dad or give them to you to talk over with him.”
“What do you think is best?” she asks hesitantly.
“I think both. Let him hear it from both of us. But if he agrees to treatment, I’m more than happy to help with getting him where he needs to go. You’ve got enough on your plate with the deli and Aiden.”
“Get out of your head,” I order sternly. “Stop worrying about me helping out.”
Another small laugh—and it’s good to hear. “Okay, fine. I accept.”
“I’ve got an away game tomorrow in Detroit but will be back the following day. I plan on dropping by the hospital to see Aiden. Once I get information from Harlow, we can talk about the best way to present it to your dad.”
“Okay.” She pauses, takes in a breath and I can hear her let it out slowly. “I don’t even know how to thank you for this.”
“No thanks needed.”
“It will still be given in copious amounts,” she quips.
I can’t help but laugh. “Fair enough. And Lilly?”
“Go home and get some sleep. You put in more than enough hours for your family today.”
She hands my same words back. “Fair enough. Good night, Boone.”
“Good night, Lilly.”
After we hang up, I tap my phone on my thigh, leaning my head back to stare at my ceiling. This feels right… helping this family. I’d like the stress off Lilly’s shoulders, and I don’t want Aiden to have to worry about his father. I’d like to see Steven get healthy so he can support his two amazing children.
I’d really like to see Lilly smile. Her laugh was music to my ears. Tinkling and soft, it made me think of a spring breeze.
I snort to myself but with no embarrassment that I’m waxing poetic about Lilly. She’s a fascinating woman. Strong yet vulnerable. If I’m honest, she’s also really pretty. Those light blue eyes and full lips made me double-take. And she’s got curves for days.
Not that I’m looking to start anything with her. It’s just… she’s gorgeous, sweet and intriguing, and it won’t be a hardship getting better acquainted.