I stare at the drain in my kitchen sink as it drips, drips, drips. The sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the house hits the off beat. Drip, tick, drip, tock, drip, tick, drip, tock.
That’s all I can hear.
I know there’s murmuring going on around me. I know people are moving around my home, talking in quiet voices. I know my father is somewhere nearby taking care of my son and my mother is probably sitting on my back patio trying to hide the fact that she’s been drinking since before is considered appropriate.
But even though I can logically accept that my house is filled with a low hum of noise, the only thing I can hear is the steady rhythm of the dripping sink and the ticking clock. The consistency of it is almost hypnotic, and I try to keep my mind focused on just these two steady noises as I remain hunched over, my hands desperately clasping the shabby countertop as if I’ll collapse if I let go.
To be honest, I just might.
My head rises slowly and I allow myself the briefest moment to stare out the window into the back yard. But I instantly regret it when my eyes catch on the tire swing I just strapped onto the old southern magnolia tree last week.
That tree is the reason I bought this house, the scent of the citrusy flowers a reminder of the hometown we left behind to move here to Sandalwood. Magnolias were Melody’s favorite flower, and I thought…
Well, I don’t know what I thought. But the fact that we lowered her into the ground today definitely wasn’t something I could have predicted.
Now, seeing that tree in the back standing so sure and proud, so tall and grand when everything around me feels like it is falling to pieces…it makes me wish I had a chainsaw to chop it down. Maybe that would ease some of this pain that feels like it compounds with every breath I take.
Taking my eyes off the tree in the yard and no longer focusing on the sound of the drip or the clock allows the background hum to begin creeping in, like someone is slowly turning up the volume on life, and I start to notice the swirl of movement around me.
When I turn my back to the sink and the window, nearly every eye in sight glances my way, facial expressions pinch in concern, conversations cut off abruptly and continue again in hushed tones.
It makes me want to crawl into the hole where we buried Melody, waste away next to her cold body, hidden from the curious eyes and uncomfortable stares. If things were even slightly different, that’s exactly what I’d do. I’d rest next to her and simply…stop existing, if it weren’t for…
My eyes drop down to the tiny guy who barely comes up to my knee, my true reason for existing.
I blink a few times, the zombie mindset I’ve allowed myself to slip into beginning to fade, my senses sharpening and my awareness returning.
Crouching down in front of my three-year-old, I give him a soft smile. Teddy doesn’t fully understand what’s been going on for the past few days. I’ve tried explaining to him that his mom has gone away, but it’s his first experience with death and he keeps asking when she’ll be back, as if she’s just gone out to the store or to work. When I try to explain to him that she won’t be coming back, he just tilts his head, giving me a look I don’t fully understand.
There haven’t been any tears on his end, thankfully, though I’m sure at some point they will come. He doesn’t seem to have any questions about it now, which makes this whole situation feel just slightly easier to manage.
Glancing at my watch, I see that it’s definitely time to get him settled for a nap.
“Yeah, bud. I’m tired, too. Why don’t we go upstairs and take a nap together?”
His tired eyes brighten just slightly, and he reaches out and wraps his arms around my shoulders.
I get it. I wish I could be carried right now, too.
Just as he settles in on my hip, his head resting on my chest and his muscles relaxing in my arms, I feel a hand clamp down on my shoulder.
When I turn, I realize the person who has pressed his palm against me is someone I don’t know, so I take a step back, trying to shrug off his grasp without being rude.
“Hey there, Colt,” he says, his words coming out with a small slur, the scent of the whiskey we have available for guests hitting me solidly in the face.
I don’t think I know who this guy is, but hell, after the craziness of this week, anything is possible.
“I’m sorry, can I help you?” I ask, scanning his face, trying to sort through any memory I might have of him in my life or Melody’s.
“We haven’t met.” He sticks his hand out. “Sean Winston. I worked with Melody at the hospital.”
I reach my hand out to shake his, giving it a firm pump.
The name sounds slightly familiar, but not enough for me to recall any memory that would explain why. I don’t think Melody worked with him, but all the people at the hospital in Sandalwood still feel new since we’ve only been here for a little over a year, so it’s possible.
The guy looks like a fucking mess, though, like he’s been hitting the whiskey hard. The fact he’s so blitzed worries me, but I don’t have the heart to shame anyone for drinking too much. It is a wake after all, and plenty of people don’t handle death well.
Hell, I’m barely hanging on.
Sean takes my handshake as permission to keep talking, and his words continue to fall from his mouth with that drunken lilt that makes it sound like he’s reminiscing.
“She was a great girl, Melody. One of those people you just can’t help but want to know.”
I feel my chest get tight at the truth in his words.
Melody and I were married for six years, dated for two before that. We met through mutual friends at an oyster roast, and I was just…well, I guess the right word is smitten. She was beautiful and smart and driven. A doctor. And she had the most stunning eyes. I always felt like Melody’s eyes were her superpower, the way she could get away with just about anything.
I nod, agreeing with Sean.
This conversation feels similar to the ones I’ve had with Melody’s various friends and coworkers over the years. She had that special kind of vibrant energy that made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. It was intoxicating, and one of the reasons I fell in love with her.
I shift Teddy in my arms, sticking my hand out again to say goodbye, then Sean speaks again.
“I know she didn’t want to hurt you, man,” he tells me, his large hand slapping against my shoulder again.
The minute the words are out of his mouth, it feels like an arctic blast has doused my body, turning every cell to ice and causing my body to lock up from knees to neck.
My eyes widen and I stare at him almost blankly, willing him to shut up. A little voice inside me knows what he’s about to say, and I don’t want to hear it.
“She wanted to love you. Really.” He shakes his head, tears forming in his eyes. “But you can’t control who you love.”
The room expands and contracts as his words swirl in my head. I clutch Teddy tightly to my chest and lean back against the counter behind me for balance.
“It wasn’t just about the sex, you know? Even though that was so fucking hot. We really were in love, and…shit, she never wanted to hurt you.”
The bottom of my stomach drops out and I spin around, heaving violently into the sink while using what feels like all of my energy to hold Teddy away from it.
After the third heave, I hear my father’s voice and Teddy is plucked from my arms. A strong hand pats me on the back then rubs gently up and down.
This hand I know. I know it like my own.
My father might be a proud old git who irritates the hell out of me on most days, but his gentle caress has helped me through many difficult times in life, and it isn’t surprising to me that he’s managed to come to my side again.
I cough a few times and clear my throat, my hands clutching the edge of the sink like it’s some kind of lifeline.
The first time I heard something like this, I was almost inconsolable. But today, well…it feels like I should have known all along. Like it’s my own fault for allowing myself to be put in this position again.
I bring my hands forward and turn on the tap, scooping up some cool water and sipping from my palms, rinsing out the foul taste.
Surprisingly, Sean is still standing to my left, holding his drink and looking like he hasn’t just completely destroyed my life.
“If you ever speak to me again, I won’t be responsible for what happens,” I tell him, keeping my voice low so as not to cause a scene.
I wish my words held more confidence, more vitriol, more…something to communicate that he better or else. But instead, I just sound sad. Resigned. Completely checked out.
I turn to look at my father.
“I don’t want to deal with this anymore. It’s been three hours. I want everyone to leave.”
He gives me a nod, switching Teddy from one arm to the other. My little guy squirms to get down, and dad acquiesces, letting Teddy wander off into the crowd of people.
It might be rude, sending everyone packing when they just want a chance to grieve and mourn the lost life of someone they love. But I’m suddenly at the end of my rope.
“Your mother won’t be happy that we’re shoving everyone out so quickly. It’s not the way it’s done.”
I shake my head, the violent trembling under my skin continuing to grow with each passing moment that I have to stand here and pretend I’m keeping it together when it feels like I’m falling apart inside.
“I don’t care what mom thinks,” I tell him, jaw tight, teeth clenched. “Handle it.”
Spinning on my heel, I stride away from him and through the house, out to the garage. I never speak to my father like that, but the last thing I need from anyone right now is a reminder of how I need to be on good behavior.
I just lost my wife.
And found out that she betrayed me, again.
I think a bit of anger is more than understandable.
The garage is mostly empty, the cool space filled with one tall rack of plastic tubs filled with holiday decorations and old mementos from childhood and winter clothes we don’t need because we don’t live in seasonal weather anymore.
And Melody’s car.
God, she loved driving around in this thing. Loved leaving the top down and cruising in the Southern California climate. It wasn’t a practical vehicle to get when we moved here, but she made the argument that I was the one with the family car, so why shouldn’t she have one built for fun?
That was the only thing she ever really cared about—having a good time.
The reality of Sean’s revelation turns my memories sour, robbing me of the ability to grieve a loving wife and instead saddling me with rage over her repeated betrayal.
At that thought, I pick up the baseball bat leaning up against the wall. The weight of it feels good in my hands, a reminder of the times when I was younger and had an exciting future in front of me.
I look from the bat, the symbol of my good times, to the car, the symbol of Melody’s, and something inside me snaps, the anger coursing through me overtaking my ability to think rationally. Before I know it, I’ve lifted the bat over my head and swung down as hard as I can into her windshield.
Over and over again I connect wood to glass. Then I move on, slamming it into the headlights and the grill, bashing it against the hood and knocking off the sideview mirrors. I circle the car and try to shatter as much of it into pieces as I can, only finally coming to a stop when I feel like the car is an adequate reflection of how I feel inside.
Shattered. Broken. Beyond repair.
Exhausted, my chest heaving, I crouch down, resting my head on the butt of the bat’s handle.
I don’t turn to look at my father, because I don’t want to see the look of disappointment on his face, even though I can surely hear it in his voice.
This is not what Palmers do. This is not how they raised me to handle my emotions, particularly my anger.
“I’m done,” I tell him, standing and walking through the broken glass, dropping the bat back into the corner where it was before.
When I step back into the house, I don’t allow myself to look at all the people who are still here, the people who have now seen—or heard, rather—my moment of weakness.
“Why don’t you take Teddy up to your room,” my father says. “Try to get some sleep.”
I wince at the thought of getting into the bed I shared with Melody, knowing what I now do.
My dad must see it on my face. “Or maybe the guest room would be a better place? Just somewhere quiet and comfortable.”
I give my dad an appreciative nod and take Teddy from where he’s falling asleep in my father’s arms, then walk purposefully through the house to the stairs. I don’t make eye contact with anyone, not wanting to hear any more stories about how amazing Melody was.
I know who Melody was.
She was the woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. Things were far from perfect, but when they were good? It almost made up for the rest.
I thought us moving to Sandalwood together would help us restore our relationship after what happened in Charleston. But moving from South Carolina to California only seems to have put a bandage over a dirty wound, making me believe things had changed when it was clearly an infected mess beneath the surface.
“It’s time for a nap, buddy. Wanna sleep in the big boy bed with daddy?”
Teddy looks up at me with a sleepy smile and tired eyes and nods his head as I set him down on the bed in the guest room, tugging off first his glasses and shoes then slipping my shoes off as well.
We both crawl under the comforter, and Teddy lets out a playful little giggle that temporarily warms the brittle chips of ice my heart has turned into. Together, we snuggle in and then lift the blanket up and over our heads, completely engulfing us in the warmth and safety of hiding away from the world.
“I love you, Teddy.”
I lean forward and kiss him on the forehead.
“Love you, daddy,” he whispers, his eyes already drooping with the telltale sign of sleep that is trying to drag him under.
When he scoots closer and snuggles his tiny body into my side, clutching my shirt, I take a deep breath in then let it out. But instead of falling into some restless kind of slumber that I desperately need, I play Sean’s words over again in my mind. Allowing the truth of what he told me to really sink in.
Melody had an affair, I tell myself, swallowing thickly. Again.
And then I begin mentally reviewing the past year of our lives here in Sandalwood, trying to figure out how my perception of us could have been so wrong.
How the hell could I have thought we were making things better when it seems like things hadn’t really changed at all?
When I wake, I have a blissful moment where I forget.
I forget Melody is gone.
Forget about Sean pulling the rug out from under my life.
And for that brief ten seconds, as my mind claws its way out from the depth of sleep, all is right in the world.
In that version of life, the one where Melody is still alive, I’m not married to a woman who betrayed me again.
Instead, I’m married to a woman who put in long hours with a marriage therapist and agreed to pick up our lives and move across the country to start fresh.
I’m married to a woman who works tirelessly as an oncologist to give cancer patients the best chance at a long life, not someone who probably lied to me about her shifts so she could sneak into on-call rooms and fuck a guy she works with.
I’m married to a woman who told me just last week how much happier she is here in California, how thankful she is for our new life, not someone who was hinting that she prefers this affair to the last one.
But then my mind does make its way out from the depths, and I can’t help when my body instinctively curls into a ball.
I stay in bed for a few moments longer, the dim light on the walls telling me it’s early evening. I probably slept for a few hours, but Teddy isn’t in bed with me any longer, so I can only assume my dad or mom came up here at some point and plucked him away to try to give me a longer nap than would be possible next to a three-year-old.
Part of me wants to just stay right here and allow my fatigue to pull me back to sleep, into a dreamland where I can be free from what is really happening.
But ultimately I know I have a son I need to care for, so I drag my tired and achy body out of the bed, stretching my back briefly before opening the door and padding softly down the hallway and stairs, where I can hear Teddy’s giggles and my parents in quiet conversation.
“I think it could be really good for him. For both of them.”
I pause at the threshold to the kitchen, my still sleepy mind taking only a second to register the familiar voice.
August Haines, my closest friend from college and the only real friend I have here in Sandalwood. He’s been a saint the past few days, and I honestly don’t know where I’d be without him.
He was the one to let me know the hospital in Santa Barbara was searching for a new department head in oncology, and when Melody was offered the job, she said it would be so great for me to have a friend close by as most of her time for the first few months would be monopolized by her new job.
Little did I know what she really meant was Wouldn’t it be great if you had a friend to hang out with while I searched for a new guy to fuck behind your back?
I grit my teeth, clench my fists, and try to take long breaths instead of doing what I’d like to do, which is punch a wall.
“He’d never agree to it,” my mother says, and while I can’t see her face from where I’m standing, I can picture exactly what it looks like when she lets out a resigned sigh. “But I think you’re right. It would make the transition to being a single parent a lot easier.”
“Isn’t it too fast to look at something like that?” my dad chimes in. “Melody’s only been gone for five days. To pawn Teddy off on someone else seems a bit much to me.”
“It’s not pawning, Rog,” my mother replies, the sound of exasperation threading though her voice. “Colton needs to be thinking about the future. If he does nothing but spend time with Teddy, he won’t have time to figure out what steps are next. God knows I’ve never been a fan of him choosing to be a stay-at-home father…”
My dad snorts at the understatement of the century.
“…but if anything, he does know raising a child is a lot of work. Colton will understand that Teddy is going to continue needing stimulation and attention once he goes back to work.”
My body bristles, but I wait, trying to figure out what exactly they’re talking about.
“I know someone who could be a good fit,” August pipes in. “The family she used to nanny for has nothing but amazing things to say about her.”
I scoff, apparently a bit too loudly because the conversation happening in the kitchen stops, the air growing heavy with tension as I round the corner.
My face must show exactly what I think of the idea, because all of them look slightly embarrassed to be caught talking about me behind my back.
“I couldn’t care less what exceptional things someone has to say about anybody,” I tell them, my tone as gruff and irritable as the unfamiliar stubble growing on my face. “I will not be hiring a nanny for Teddy.”
It’s the only thing I say before I walk past them to the cabinets, throw the doors open to search for a clean cup, and fill it from the tap. My parents and August watch me silently as I down a full glass then fill it again.
I drop a kiss to Teddy’s head where he sits in his chair snacking—blissfully ignorant—on Cheerios, then I storm into the living room, dropping with a huff into my lounger, a big blue thing I’ve had since college.
Melody always hated it, said it didn’t go with the design of the house and stood out like an eyesore. But for whatever reason, I kept it instead of letting her get her way.
Now I can’t imagine anything more perfect than enjoying it every night for the rest of my life.
I watch in silence as August leans into my mom, whispering something into her ear. She picks Teddy up from his chair and takes him out to the back yard with my dad trailing behind. Then August tugs two beers from the fridge and pops the top off both before crossing into the living room and plopping down on the couch opposite where I’m sitting. When he reaches out and hands me a bottle, I take it, clink it against his, and promptly down the entire thing in one go.
“You know, I realize being a parent is a thing you can only truly understand if you’ve experienced it,” my friend starts, before pausing to take a swig from his own beer. “And I’m sure there’s a part of you that wants to tell me to fuck off because I don’t understand what you’re going through. That’s fair.”
I watch silently as he scratches the back of his neck, wanting to tell him he’s exactly right but choosing to keep the acid on my tongue to myself until he’s at least gotten a chance to speak.
“But what I do know is that your life is about to change…no, has changed significantly, in the course of a single day. And the number one thing I can do as your friend is try to help you prepare for how that change is going to have a ripple effect on the rest of your life.”
August takes another swig from his beer—this one a little longer—before setting his half-empty bottle on a coaster on the coffee table.
“You’re gonna need to get a job, right?”
I know his question isn’t laced with anything, but it pisses me off all the same.
“Of course I’m going to get a fucking job,” I spit back at him.
August’s hands rise in a placating gesture.
The man knows the score. He knows Mel and I decided together that she would keep working and I’d be the stay-at-home parent because she was much more committed to medicine than I was to my job at the time. I might have enjoyed teaching, but staying home with my son sounded like an incredible opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.
So I quit my job as a history professor and Melody doubled down, taking on more work and seeking additional opportunities for research, publication, specialty work, etc.
Unfortunately, South Carolina isn’t really a state filled with gender-bending couples, and I received more than my fair share of stupid comments. Things like whether my wife wears the pants and how it feels to be Little Miss Stuck at Home with the Baby. Thankfully, I have some pretty thick skin, but even the thickest leather can get worn down over time.
So when August makes a comment about me needing to get a job, it feels like a paper cut on a rug burn.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s been a few years since you were eligible to teach. You’re gonna need to get your credentialing sorted in a new state, put together your resume, apply for jobs, hopefully get one, and then Teddy will need to be taken care of while you work.”
He’s not telling me anything I don’t already know, but the sense of overwhelm I feel at hearing him list it all out like that has the anger under my skin bubbling again.
“A nanny can take care of Ted and give you the time you need to make sure—”
“I’m not using a fucking nanny,” I growl, my anger boiling over.
I want to chuck my empty beer bottle across the room and watch it shatter against the wall, the pieces falling to the ground in a broken, irreconcilable mess.
Oh how quickly I can see that what I thought I built up with stone I actually built with sand. Sand that has washed away to reveal just how unsteady and broken our foundation was.
What was I thinking, picking up our life and moving? As if simply walking away from our problems could solve them.
“How about this?”
The sound of my dad’s voice draws my head up, and I find him leaning back on the kitchen island, watching me with the same kind of care and attention he has always given to me during rough times.
“Why don’t we give you a few weeks and see how things go? Get some quality time with Teddy. Move through some of the stages of grief.”
I almost want to laugh at that. My father might be caring, but he also lives by deadlines and the idea that men don’t need to take too much time to mourn. Grief should be processed quickly and efficiently.
But I let it pass without comment because…he means well.
“Your mother and I will be heading back to Charleston on Sunday, and then you can take some time, just you and Ted, to grieve and adjust. We’ll plan to be back out here in a month or two, and we can talk about it then.”
I grit my teeth but bite my tongue.
“Okay. We can talk about it when you come back to town,” I say, knowing full well I have no intention of doing so.
But he doesn’t need to know that now. He can find out later when he comes back and I’ve sorted everything already and have no need for a fucking nanny.
My nose crinkles just thinking the word.
Colton and Emily’s story is a single-dad / nanny romance that you’re going to LOVE! Make sure you click below to pre-order your copy today 🙂