Chapter 1 - Seth
“I know it’s a lot to take in, Seth. You can contact me any time if you’ve got any questions.”
Numb, I swallowed hard and nodded. Then, realizing that Carol from Child Protective Services couldn’t see me, I found my voice. “Sure, of course I will. Thank you.”
“I’ll be in touch again so we can finalize everything.”
I almost nodded again. “Thank you. Talk soon.”
The line went dead.
It had been a Thursday just like any other.
Fixing cars, making plans for the weekend, chatting shit with Maddox.
Until the call that spun everything off its axis, turned the world upside down, and any other cliché you’d care to toss in for good measure.
My vision swam, legs trembling as I walked out of the office and back into the main part of the garage and over to the car I’d been working on. I grabbed the wrench to pick up where I’d left off, but it tumbled out of my grip clattering on the concrete floor with an almighty crash.
“Seth? You okay, buddy?” Maddox Riley called from the other side of the garage.
I tried to dislodge the huge lump in my throat, anything but okay. “Yeah, all good,” I managed.
“Shit, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost. You’ve gone really pale.”
Ha, she was haunting me already. I raked a hand through my hair. If I didn’t tell Maddox what was going on, he’d find out soon enough. I had to hope he was as flexible a landlord as he was a boss.
“You got a minute? There’s something you should know.”
He glanced up from the engine he’d been looking over. “Sure, gimme a sec.”
I headed towards the open door, inhaling a lungful of fresh air.
After a couple of minutes, Maddox joined me. “What’s up? Who was on the phone?”
“Child Protective Services needed to talk to me about Noah.”
Noah was my thirteen-year-old son: the result of an illicit relationship when I was sixteen with a cheerleader two years older than me.
“Is he okay?”
Slowly, I nodded.
He was fine.
He hadn’t been in the truck with his mother, her boyfriend, and her parents. He’d been hanging out with one of his buddies playing video games. For once, I thanked God for Noah’s Fortnite obsession.
“Then why did CPS need to talk to you?” Maddox rubbed at an oil mark on his wrist, eyes focused on trying to remove it.
“There was a car accident.” The lump grew even larger, making it increasingly difficult for me to get the words out. “Hannah, her mom and dad, her boyfriend—” My voice cracked. “Didn’t make it out. They’re gone.” Saying it out loud took some of the burden off of me, and I could at least share it with Maddox.
His eyes grew wide, staring silently at me.
Disbelief, confusion, anger, grief.
Without another word, he pushed me out of the way and pulled on the chains to shut the doors to the garage.
“We’re closing,” he stated. “I can’t let you go through this on your own.”
Once Maddox had made a few calls to let customers know about the unexpected early finish, we headed upstairs to the tiny apartment above the garage. After I’d come out of jail—a six-month stint for petty theft—Maddox had been my lifeline. He’d offered me a job through an offenders’ rehabilitation program, which had come with the apartment. Its one caveat was I could never be late for work.
Taking charge, Maddox got two bottles of beer out of the refrigerator, popped the caps, and handed one to me. We went over to the sofa and sat down at each end.
“Have you spoken to Noah?”
I shook my head, gulping down the beer. “Not yet.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
I chewed on my lips, fingernails scratching at the label on the beer bottle. “I’m his biological father and the only living relative he has. I have to step up. There isn’t anyone else.”
Screwing up my face, I recalled how the scandal of Hannah’s pregnancy broke in Cali Cross: her parents had whisked her away. She’d been eighteen, me sixteen. We’d kept our relationship from friends and family until it became obvious that she was expecting a child and we couldn’t hide it any longer. In the beginning, I’d kept in touch, seeing Noah on his birthday and various holidays. Then about three years ago, Hannah got a new boyfriend. They’d decided that he would be Noah’s official father figure, and I would effectively disappear. I had no say in the matter. I hadn’t handled the news well. I fell back in with an old crowd and got mixed up in petty crime and drugs—hence the jail time.
“How are you going to make that work? He’s there, you’re here. You can’t exactly be a long-distance dad.” Maddox frowned. “Will you move?”
“I have no fucking idea, Maddox. I’ve never been a real dad before. I never had the chance.” I buried my head in my hands, wishing it would all go away.
“You mentioned CPS? Surely they’ll help you?”
“I guess.” I let out a hard breath. It was all too much to take in. Sure, Hannah and I hadn’t exactly been close in the last few years, but she was still the mother of my child. “The woman there said she’d call me again to discuss next steps.”
“Whatever happens, I’ll be here for you.” For a second, Maddox’s eyes went misty, then he leaned over and slapped my upper arm. “It’s at times like this, you need your friends around.” He took a deep breath, then hesitated a moment before speaking. “It wasn’t that long ago I lost someone. One of my best friends. He died in an accident too. Wes had a flat tire on the way home, and he was hit by a car. The driver didn’t see him in the rain, and Wes died. They tried to save him, but he died.”
I had a vague recollection Maddox had mentioned Wes once before, when one of his friends came in to get her car fixed. I had no idea about the accident.
Maddox swigged his beer. He fixed me with a look, one that conveyed strength. I didn’t feel strong at all right now, only totally out of my depth.
“When we lost Wes, it was important to support those close to me. Scarlett really leaned on Lyla, Willa, Andre, and me. We got her through a lot, especially because she’d just found out she was pregnant.” He paused. “And I’m here for you. Whatever you need, you’ve got it.”
Having him share his own tragic experience was a definite source of comfort, and the words went some way to ease the crushing weight in my chest.
“Thanks, Maddox, I really appreciate that.” I paused. “If you’re sure having a teenager here wouldn’t be too much trouble?”
Despite the darkness of the situation, Maddox let out a deep chuckle. “A teenager, I can handle. Let’s just say helping Scarlett with her baby wasn’t exactly my forte.”
I forced a weak smile.
Being there for Noah was a huge responsibility, and I had to be there for him no matter what.
I was his only parent now.
Maddox stayed until early evening. We drank more beers, chatted about work, discussed what he should get his girlfriend Lyla for her birthday, anything but the elephant in the room. Until I’d had the chance to speak to CPS again, there wasn’t much else I could do.
Sitting alone in the dark in the early hours of the morning, I went into my bedroom and pulled out a small shoebox I’d stashed in the back of my wardrobe. There wasn’t much in it: a few photographs, a tiny pair of sneakers, and a baby-sized football jersey. Long forgotten memories of Noah and Hannah. As I sat there, thumbing through the pictures, an unwanted tear slid down my cheek. I swiped it away.
How the fuck was I going to handle this?
“Morning, Seth. We brought you breakfast.” Lyla Cash pushed ahead of Maddox and shoved a takeaway box from the local café at me. “He said you probably wouldn’t have eaten anything since lunchtime yesterday, and he doesn’t want you passing out on the job.” She tossed her long dark ponytail over her shoulder and fixed me with a smile. “How are you doing?” Her tone softened.
I’m pretty sure the dark circles around my eyes should have given away my current state. I’d barely slept, and when I had, visions of the car crash haunted me. Except this time, Noah was involved, and I couldn’t get to him in time to rescue him. I’d woken in a cold sweat, shaking and unable to get back to sleep.
Forcing a smile, I opened the box and stared at the eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns. My stomach rumbled in anticipation. “Hungry,” I said. “Thanks. You’re right, I didn’t feel much like eating last night.”
“You okay to be here today?” Maddox asked, brows knitted together.
I shrugged. “Not sure where else I should be. I’ll need to make some calls later, you know, to find out what happens next with Noah. Might not be able to do a full day.”
“Don’t worry about it. Take whatever time you need.”
“Let me know if I can do anything too, Seth.” Lyla gave me a sincere smile. “I’ve gotta go, otherwise I’ll be late for work. Principal Collins is a stickler for timekeeping.” She kissed Maddox, then exited the garage.
Taking the breakfast box into the office, I grabbed a fork from the sink. “Thanks for this, Maddox. You guys are great.”
Standing in the doorway, he shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said last night, we’re here for you.”
Having spent much of my life alone, even the prospect of having a tiny support network around me was comforting. I sure as hell needed it.
The morning dragged. I didn’t plan on speaking with CPS until this afternoon. After yesterday’s early finish, Maddox and I had some work to catch up on, and it was good to keep my mind distracted. Methodically, I worked as fast as I could, knowing that I’d be worse than useless after the call. Whatever we agreed would happen with Noah would change my life for good. When lunchtime rolled around, nerves got the better of me again, and I wasn’t able to eat. I paced around the garage until Maddox shooed me upstairs.
“You’re not doing me any favors here, so get out of the way. I’ll finish up Mrs. Wood’s car and get it back to her. When you’re done, see if you can sort out Rory Gibson’s truck. It’s a simple oil change, and the spark plugs need checking.”
I sighed. “Thanks, Maddox. I’m sure everything will be back to normal soon.”
Deep down, I knew nothing would ever be normal again, but I wasn’t about to admit that to Maddox.
My heart thudded in my chest so loudly, I was convinced the woman on the other end of the phone could hear it. Carol had talked me through the options, one of which included putting Noah into the care system long term. Even though I hadn’t had anything to do with him in such a long time, that wasn’t even on the table. We went around in circles, until there was only one possible solution.
“Noah will need some stability in his life now. Are you sure you can be there for him?”
I bit my tongue. If she asked me one more time whether I was prepared to be around for my son as I’d been the non-custodial parent, I was going to reach down the phone and punch her. However, that wouldn’t exactly demonstrate my suitability as the stable father figure he needed.
“Of course. I’ve got a job, a place to live, friends.” Okay, so perhaps that last statement was stretching the truth a little, but Maddox had said he’d be there for me. “Your records should be able to tell you I’m not a deadbeat dad.”
I could hear a shuffling of paperwork from her end. “Yes, I have evidence that says you have been involved.”
She went on to tell me more about the logistics of how it would work, and I reassured her I wasn’t going to change my mind. Even if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have let him go into the system. I scrabbled around for a piece of paper and a pen, writing notes of what I needed to do and who I needed to contact. The tasks on the list were foreign and overwhelming. Something I guessed I’d have to get used to.
When we finished the call, I couldn’t quite comprehend what we’d agreed, even though I knew it was absolutely the right thing for my son.
I sat on the sofa, turning my cell over and over in my hands. The call I’d been putting off couldn’t wait any longer. Carol said now was the time to make contact again.
Taking a deep breath, I dialed. The call rang and rang before going to voicemail. I almost hung up straight away. Leaving a message for my son wasn’t the best way to establish contact, especially not in these circumstances. But if he hadn’t recognized the number, then he wouldn’t know it was me. Who answers numbers they don’t know anyway?
“Noah, it’s Seth,” I began. “Dad. How are you doing? It’s been a while.” I paused, words escaping me. “I, um, wanted to talk to you about what happens next, talk you through the plan, you know, now your mom’s not around.” The end of the sentence stuck in my throat, my voice cracking. “So, call me back when you get this. I’ll see you soon.”
I ended the call, blood rushing through my veins.
Noah was coming to Cali Cross.