TUFFER'S CHRISTMAS WISH - PART TWO
Tuffer’s heart beat so fast, he thought he was having a heart attack. “Him?”
“Yep. He wanted to see you. I said ‘okay.’ You don’t have to go out there, if you don’t want to. That was the deal I made with him.”
“You’ve kept in touch all these years?”
She shook her head. “With that rat? Nope. But I figured you had some questions needed answers. He was easy enough to find. He’s coaching at a high school in Lincoln.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Dunno. Can’t imagine what lie he came up with for his wife.”
“He was married when I got pregnant. Hey, I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth.”
“That’s why he didn’t come forward?”
Shayna nodded. “And wanted me to get rid of you. Figured Lurlene wouldn’t understand how you got here. He was probably right. Expensive, public divorce. Last thing he wanted. And he sure as hell didn’t want to marry me.”
“You didn’t do it,” he muttered, more to himself than her.
“Get rid of you? Hell, no! You’re my kid. I took the money from him and skipped out. Went home to my folks.”
Tuffer barely heard her. This part of the story he already knew. His head wanted to run outside, but his feet seemed glued to the floor.
“Don’t be afraid, Tuffer. He can’t hurt you now. You’re a grown man.”
“Why did he want to see me?”
She shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him. I hope you’re not mad.”
“Thank you. For bringing him here.” Tuffer leaned over to kiss her cheek then pushed out of the booth and headed for the door.
The man shifted his weight as Tuffer approached. What do you say to a guy you’ve never met who’s supposed to be your father? The stranger extended his hand.
Looking at his face was like looking in the mirror for Tuffer. The shape of the jaw, the length of the nose, and those hazel eyes. The man’s hair was darker—“dirty blond,” they called it, dusted with a little gray. But he was about Tuffer’s height, maybe an inch shorter.
“Hey, Tuffer. I’m Rusty Fowler. Your dad.”
The footballer accepted the shake. The silence grew awkward.
“Nice to meet you. Finally,” Tuff spat out, to fill the heavy air.
“I know, it’s about time.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” the linebacker said, narrowing his eyes at the older man.
Rusty raised his palm. “Look. Before you deck me, let me explain.”
Tuffer rested back on his heels for a moment.
“Can we take a walk? Do you have time?”
“I can give you an hour.”
“That’s all I need.”
The men headed for the snowy woods behind the diner. Someone had tamped down a path of hard snow that crunched under their feet.
“It was you! I wondered where I’d seen you before. You’re the guy. The stalker. Who showed up at the games in college. Aren’t you?”
“I didn’t make them all. Just a few. Mostly away games near Nebraska. It was hard to sneak away.”
“Lying to your wife?”
“You know I’m married?” Rusty’s face reddened.
“Shayna told me.”
“Shayna? That’s what you call her?”
“I have a mom and dad. Bev and Ralph Demson.”
“Oh, yeah. She told me about that.”
“You’ve been in touch with her this whole time?”
“No, no. Only in the last month or so. She looked me up. We’ve met a couple of times.”
“Then, how did you know about me?”
“I was a pro too. I’ve kept up with college football. Hell, when a player who looked just like me was breaking records as a defenseman, well, you’d have to be pretty stupid not to know you were my kid.”
“I’m not your kid. Let’s get that straight. Ralph Demson is my father. You’re a complete stranger.”
The man’s brow wrinkled. “True, true. I’m sorry.”
The wind picked up. Tuffer popped up the collar of his coat. Jamming his hands in his pockets kept his fingers warm. Anger burst forth inside him, warming his chest.
He faced Rusty. “Why did you do it? Why did you leave Shayna? Let her fend for herself? Why didn’t you help her? Or me? You must have been making a bundle. Shayna’s been scraping by for years. Do you know what she’s had to do to get along? Didn’t you feel anything for her…or me?”
“Sure I did. But I was in a tough position. Being married. And I know Lurlene would never have liked the idea of me having a bastard son, or Shayna, or any of it.”
“Messy, expensive divorce?” Tuffer raised his voice.
Rusty blushed. “I’m ashamed to admit it. Yes.”
Tuffer pushed ahead, ducking under some branches, shoving others away.
“Wait! Wait. Please, let me explain.”
“There’s nothing to say. You deserted us. Abandoned us. Then forced my mother, Shayna, to abandon me and live like a whore.”
“I was wrong. I was selfish. I admit it. I had no idea what I was giving up.”
“Now, you’d like to have a son who plays pro ball for the Kings?”
Anger rose, heating Tuff’s neck all the way to his ears. “Honestly, I could kill you right here with my bare hands.”
The older man stepped back, and fear flashed in his eyes for a moment.
“You truly are a piece of shit. What makes you think I want anything to do with you?”
“I guess you don’t.”
“Got that right.” Tuffer turned around, heading back to the parking lot. “If that’s what you came all this way for, you’ve wasted your time.”
“Son, please. We have so much in common—”
“Don’t call me that.”
“We do. We look alike. Pro ball. I can help you. Please, let me.”
“And what will you tell your wife? Who will I be? A cousin? A nephew?” Tuffer spat on the ground at Rusty’s feet. “Go fuck yourself.”
“I’ll tell her the truth. She’ll never leave me now.”
“I don’t need your help. I have a great father. He threw a ball with me when I was a kid, taught me to ride a bike, went to bat for me with school. He helped me pick colleges and drove me around the country to interviews. He didn’t have much, but found a way to send me to football camp every summer. He made a ton of sacrifices for me. He gave me a life.”
“But he can’t help you anymore. I can. I have contacts.”
“I don’t give a shit about your contacts. I don’t need your help. I’m doing just fine on my own. And my dad…well, you don’t get it. He’s there for me, sick or well, rich or poor. He’s my father.”
Rusty thrust a business card in Tuffer’s palm. “Here. In case you change your mind.”
“I won’t. You can’t make up for everything. You wanted to have me aborted. You paid Shayna to do it.”
“I know,” Rusty said, hanging his head, avoiding Tuffer’s glare. “I’m ashamed. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was stupid. Scared. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m done here.” Tuffer increased his pace, unlocked his car, and jumped in. He checked his watch. Lexie Sebastian, his coach’s daughter, was expecting him to join them for an early Christmas Eve supper. He put his head down on the steering wheel and closed his eyes.
A tap on his window startled him. Rusty was standing outside.
Tuffer opened it. “What the hell do you want?”
“Can we shake?” The older man offered his hand.
“Closure?” As Tuffer was about to press the button to close the window again, his biological father put his fingers over the glass. “Wait. One more thing.”
The defenseman expelled a breath. “Go ahead.”
“I got mine.”
“Lurlene and I had a son, but he was stillborn. She couldn’t have more children after that.”
“Karma,” Tuffer said.
“I always wondered if my wife would have welcomed you, then.”
“You would have taken me away from the Demsons?”
“You were my biological child. I had rights.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know where you were. Shayna changed her name, disappeared.”
“Maybe she knew you’d try to pull a stunt like that.”
“It was my right.”
“You gave up any rights when you walked away.”
“Have you been happy?”
“That’s all that counts, then.”
“Please, don’t come back. I have a good life. I don’t need you to mess it up.”
“Mind if I come to a game or two?” Rusty asked.
“I can’t stop you. Just don’t bother me, or my dad.”
Rusty nodded, but there was pain on his face.
Tuffer rolled up the window. Emotion choked him. He drove up the mountain and sat in his car, thinking. He closed his eyes and dozed.
To be continued tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 24....
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