After thinking about it, Ben decided to take Leroy up on his offer of a job. He was glad he had. It was providing a much needed creative outlet for him. It also kept his mind occupied with something other than how much he missed Grace, although that was getting easier everyday. And on top of that, it was providing an extra income so he would be able to buy his own home sooner.
His mom happily kept Cole so it made it easy. Ben would drop him off each morning and sometimes stay for dinner when he picked him up in the evening.
Leroy assigned him the job of working on the park and community center. They wanted a family friendly area with a clubhouse for parties, a pool, play areas for the kids as well as activities for the parents and teens.
There was a lot to think about in the design. Ben started spending free time at home working on plans and redoing them. That’s when the unforgivable happened. He almost missed about a drop. The time got away from him and he was 10 minutes late.
He grabbed his bag, picked up Cole and ran out of the house.
When he arrived at the designated place, the new thugs were thankfully still there. Ben sighed with relief.
He walked up and they had a dog with them today. Maybe they wouldn’t notice he was a few minutes late. Cole immediately wiggled out of Ben’s arms to see the dog.
Blondie distracted Cole with the dog. Ben started to tell Cole to be careful when the lead thug walked up behind Ben and stuck the tip of a knife in his back. “We are gonna take a walk Benny. Don’t worry about the kid. He’s fine, but not so much if you resist. Now move – to the restrooms. Now,” he said, punctuating his words with more pressure from the knife in his back.
Ben threw up his hands. “Okay, please, don’t hurt him,” begged Ben as his mind was racing as fast as his heart trying to figure out how to get away and get to Cole.
As soon as they got inside, he punched Ben in the ribs, knocking his feet out from under him and the air out of lungs. “That’s a warning. Don’t make us wait again or you won’t get off so easy.”
While Ben was on the ground, he took advantage and kicked him. “Now get the hell out of here and go get your brat.” He turned and calmly walked away like he just came in to take a piss.
Ben got up as fast as he could, struggling to breathe. He ran out to find his son, his heart still pounding in his chest. All he could think about was getting to Cole.
He almost cried with relief when he saw him right there as soon as he walked outside, happily playing in the ball pit – all alone. Ben bent to pick him up and grimaced at the pain in his rib. He hugged him tightly anyway. “You okay Buddy?” he asked as he looked around for the two dealers. He didn’t see them anywhere. They had disappeared into thin air, dog and all.
“Daddy! Want doggie!” squealed Cole.
“Not today. Let’s go home.”
Cole started to cry. “Doggie!”
“How about ice cream?” The fine art of negotiation with an almost two-year old. Ben didn’t really want to go home yet anyway. He needed to calm down and think.
Cole’s cries turned to squeals of delight, the dog long forgotten. “Ice cweam!”
Sitting at the ice cream parlor, Ben thought over his options. He couldn’t go to the cops. This wasn’t just a local street gang. They had a long reach. Cole wouldn’t be safe. The only reason he got into trouble was because he was late, same as before, when he completely missed the drop when Cole was only 5 months old. That had been the only other hiccup, and it was all because he wasn’t on time.
He was late because he was so distracted by his real job. He didn’t mind the work, and in fact, enjoyed it – a lot. But he didn’t enjoy being threatened by the dealers.
“Cole,” he said, addressing the little boy happily shoving ice cream in his mouth, “I have a plan. I am going to ask Papa Leroy if he will let me hire some help. That way I won’t have to work weekends and evenings at home. That will give me more time with you buddy!”
“Papa, Gigi!” squealed Cole.
Ben let out a laugh, feeling better now. “Yep, Papa,” he said to Cole. Hopefully Leroy would allow it and then they could get the final plans drawn up. Regardless, he knew he would never, ever be late again. He couldn’t be.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Leroy walked in the next morning as Ben was making the morning coffee. “Hi Leroy. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Sure. So what’s up?” asked Leroy as they sat down with their coffee.
“I know it’s getting close to crunch time.”
“Yes. We are behind. We have both been putting in a lot of overtime to get this done.”
“Well, do you think we could maybe hire another designer that can help me finalize the plans?”
“You sure you want input from someone else? This is your design?”
“I have the basics. I just need another sets of eyes, especially for the grounds.”
“Okay. I actually have somebody in mind. I’ll call them. You can interview them as soon as they can make it in. It will be your decision since you will be working closely with them.”
Even though he and Leroy had been getting along really well, Ben was still shocked that he respected his judgement enough to readily hire someone and allow him to make the decision. There was no animosity towards him at all. They had even shared a beer after work a few times.
“Thanks man. And Leroy, it means a lot. Not just this, but everything you and mom have done for me. It’s helped me and Cole more than you will ever know. I can never repay you.”
Leroy smiled then put his hand out as if to shake Ben’s hand. When Ben reached for him he pulled Ben into a hug. ” Why don’t you come in my office,” said Leroy, “It’s my turn. I want to talk to you about something.”
They sat down on the couch in Leroy’s office. “Ben, I know you have had a really hard time with everything – for a long time. And I’m not only talking about Grace – although I can’t fathom how hard that must be. I’m talking about your family and how confusing things were for you growing up, feeling like you didn’t have a place.”
Ben looked away. He was just thinking Leroy was on his side and now he was going to get a lecture.
Leroy continued anyway. “Your Mom was hurting. Reese was too busy for you. Then me, your Uncle Reid, Hailey and Dakota, we all took your mother’s attention away from you when you needed it most. Your mother always loved you Ben. Please give her the benefit of the doubt. Talk to her sometime. Just the two of you. Let her tell you her story. It won’t change the past, but maybe you two can find healing through it. It won’t hurt.”
Ben was shocked at Leroy’s insight into how alone he felt, even surrounded by family. Grace had helped him move beyond feeling incapable of being loved. He missed her terribly, but he was living for Cole now. He never knew he could love a child so much. When those thugs lured him away, he would have done anything to protect him.
He thought about his mother, alone with three children, his sister younger than Cole, when she took them and ran from his father. He barely managed caring for one child alone, even with his family helping him. It suddenly hit him how difficult it must have been for his mother with no support system. She had tried her best. Things started clicking into place like pieces of a puzzle. He put his head down as tears burned his eyes, trying to escape.
“Hey man,” said Leroy clapping him on the shoulder, “I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”
Ben took a deep breath, swallowing back his tears and sat up. “It’s okay. You’re right about how hard things were. I guess it is time for Mom and I to talk. But, Leroy, how did you know? I felt invisible. You had Hailey, Dakota – and Mom.”
Leroy thought for a minute. “Maybe I will share my story over a beer sometime. For now, we need to get to work. I have some calls to make. You need an assistant.”
Ben never knew Leroy had a story. He thought about his own situation. It seems he also had a story, one of loneliness, love and death. Cole will too, growing up motherless. Grace and Lillie May had a story. Evidently, everyone had a story, he realized. Your own story shaped your life and it was how you dealt with your story that determined your future state. Suddenly, he wanted to know his mother’s story and Leroy’s story too. Maybe, even his father’s. Maybe.