Neither had shyness. But then again, he had never set his mind to courting a pregnant girl nine years his junior. From the moment his world had been knocked sideways on his hometown sidewalk between the donut shop and Ben Franklin, Mick seemed to be plagued by both in equally disturbing measure.
Girls had never before posed a problem for him, really. He was tallish, reasonably good looking despite some heavy acne scarring that lent his face an appearance well beyond his 28 years. Mick had played football in school. He had been on the golf team. He carried himself with the easy grace of a former athlete, even with the few extra pounds granted him by age. Mick was solid-looking, and girls tended to gravitate his way on that account alone, even if they never stuck around long. What he lacked in relationship longevity he made up for with volume.
The fact that he had dropped out of college after his first year, bored by the steady monotony of classes and exams, certainly had not hurt his chances with the fairer sex. Mick had drifted between jobs, working in a warehouse in Salina for a while, selling cars, selling furniture, later learning to finish concrete and lay bricks until the boredom and restlessness took over yet again.
As solid as he appeared to be, Mick was pragmatic enough to know he was anything but. He was not a loser per se… he just bored easily. Of work, of girls, of life in general.
When he blew back into Amos in July of 1984, ostensibly to attend his tenth high school reunion, Mick had come with a truck full of his worldly belongings with all intention to set up camp in his parents’ basement apartment and to turn his hand at whatever would pay the bills. He toyed with the idea of returning to college, but the thought held little lustre.
And then Kayla breezed past him one day, his best friend’s baby sister and a child he had known forever, pregnant out to there in her pretty blue sundress. Had she seen him? He thought she had, but she glided past him as if he were a stranger and his heart broke a little on account of it.
He felt nine kinds of a pervert all of a sudden, warty, huge, and ungainly in his own skin. His mouth went unaccountably dry.
Sure, Mick knew the particulars of her present state. Everyone in Amos knew. Kayla, the pregnant virgin. How does that happen, anyway? Everyone talked to everyone about it but her, and just like that, Mick hated every loose tongue in town, from the farmers gathering for early morning coffee at the donut shop to the biddies gadding about in the Nail Room and the Y and out at WalMart. He hated the kids she went to school with and the small-minded talkers who held in their vile little mouths the tool with which to assassinate character without batting an eyelash.
More than anyone, he hated the trigger-happy little creep who had got her knocked up and bailed like the coward he was. Oh, yeah. Mick hated the evil tongues of Amos.
Perversely, his own tongue was glued to the bottom of his mouth at the sight of her, crippled by a shocking wave of bashfulness. Mick leaned against the hood of his truck, thoroughly at a loss.
But when Kayla reached for the door of the Ben Franklin, Mick found his opening. He crossed the space between them in three long strides and all but wrenched the glass door off its hinges, his awkward chivalry earning him a quick flash of hazel eyes before her lashes lowered over a hidden smile. Already flushed from the heat of the day, Kayla blushed violently behind a mask of large, brown freckles.
“Oh, hey Mick,” she said shyly, stepping into the relative cool of the department store.
“Hey, squirt,” he replied with a wide smile, following her inside just in time for the door to land smartly against his backside. Mick laughed at the door and made a quick assay of its broken hydraulic hinge. “Wow,” he said, cringing at his own inane attempts at charm. “You look…”
Kayla’s smile froze for the barest moment before widening. “Pregnant?” she offered, helpfully.
He felt the heat rushing up from his collar. Beautiful, he wanted to say. Gorgeous – I can’t take my eyes off of you… But even he knew that sounded kind of creepy. Maybe he needed to dial it down a notch. Or twenty. “Great,” he offered instead. “You look… really great.”
She shrugged off the compliment and made her way to the back of the store. “I’m just here for some more yarn,” she said, and Mick followed her to the haberdashery aisle. “It’s going to be a girl and I… I’m making a blanket for her.”
He thought his heart was going to stop when she dropped down on one knee without so much as a hesitation and started rifling through the skeins of soft, pink yarn nearest the floor. Her hands shook as she rotated them each in turn to identify their dye lots.
“What are you doing?” he gasped. “Are you crazy?” Mick reached down and gripped her elbow, hauling her gently back to her feet and standing her aside. “Let me do that,” he said, dropping down and promptly gathering each and every ball of yarn into his arms. He stood and dumped the entire load onto the cutting table just opposite. “What are they thinking, anyway?” he muttered, “Putting baby yarn down by the floor? That’s just plain stupid.” He set about arranging the yarn into tidy rows for her perusal. “Now. What number were you looking for…?”
He turned to find Kayla standing with her back pressed against the wall of yarn bins, her brown freckles standing out in sharp relief against a chalk white face. Her eyes were closed and she held the back of her hand hard against her mouth.
Her lids slitted open and she looked at him from behind glassy eyes.
“Kayla, honey? You ok?”
She was not.
A short ambulance ride later and the diagnosis of preeclampsia meant bed rest and close monitoring until the baby arrived. Mick visited her in the hospital and brought flowers, but Kayla was remote at best. Her parents, while grateful for Mick’s help in getting their daughter to the hospital, saw straight through him and wasted no time in erecting an invisible parameter around Kayla, walls from behind which he could only view her from a safe distance. Kayla’s bed rest would be, with the exception of her father and brother, a strictly male-free zone.
Mick understood completely. She was a kid, really. A kid who had been hurt badly and who was ill, and who was about to bring another kid into this crazy, hurtful world. Their need to protect her was as normal and natural as breathing, and the timing of his terrifyingly immediate crush on her could not possibly have been worse.
Oh, he understood. If he had been Kayla’s father, he was pretty sure he would have drawn a bead squarely on any man coming within a hundred feet of his daughter. It was the least a man would do to protect the women in his life. And if Kayla’s dad had any idea of what thoughts were running through Mick’s mind with regards to his daughter, Mick knew he was a dead man.
And so he waited.
Returning to his basement apartment that day, Mick took a good, long look around. He saw a couple trash bags filled with clothes, three boxes of dishes and kitchenware, a dartboard and some free weights. He had his guitar, a stereo and a box of vinyls, a handful of books, a shaving kit, a toothbrush and a nearly empty bottle of cologne. The furniture, the curtains, the carpet all belonged to his parents.
Mick had once prided himself on “travelling light,” as he called it.
Now, in the cold light at the end of a pretty traumatic day, Mick realized that “travelling light” was merely a euphemism for being a bum. A loser. A waster. What kind of woman would want this? He asked himself. What kind of father would allow her to want this for herself? And who keeps their clothes in trash bags, for heaven’s sake?
He thought of Kayla in her pretty dress and flip flops, young, vulnerable, in need of protection from… people like him. Could he picture her here? Mick covered his eyes with his hand and sank back into his mother’s fold-out sofa and knew with absolute certainty that it would never happen. He would never even try to make that happen.
And so he waited. And he waited. And he underwent police training and got a job with the local department. The pay wasn’t great, but local police work was not generally fraught with danger. He had to break up the occasional kegger attended by underage kids, and he manned the local speed traps with regularity. In his first few years on the force, Mick’s most exciting moment had been when Norman Weisenheimer drove his Cadillac into an oak tree up at the elementary school. It wasn’t exactly the thin blue line, but it was work he enjoyed.
One perk of small town police work was the inordinate amount of time he was afforded to spend watching people. He watched Kayla walk to and from work most days. She got a job as a bank teller, and she worked part-time three days a week. Her little girl was the very image of her. She was called Penny, a chubby, dark haired three-year-old with a sprinkling of cocoa brown freckles across the bridge of her nose. Mick watched her play with her grandma in the park as he took a long, slow cruise through the area. No town can be too safe, he reasoned. Parks were high crime areas.
He bought a three-bed ranch on Oak Street and installed a tire swing from the cottonwood out back. Just in case…
On a Wednesday afternoon, like so many Wednesdays before, Mick pulled the cruiser into his driveway and killed the engine. It was his lunch hour, and rather than fatten himself up at the Cafe like the other two cops in town, Mick had always made it his policy to drop back home for a sandwich and a half hour run on the treadmill. He got out of the car and glanced across the street to find Kayla hefting a large box up the steps of a little white two-bed rental.
The shyness struck again, as it always did with her around. In the four years he had been back home, their exchanges had been largely reduced to small talk across the bank counter when he came to make a deposit. It would have been surprising for their paths to cross that infrequently but for the fact she had still been living behind the invisible fortress of her parents’ protection. Well, that and the fact that he had patently avoided any unnecessary contact with her. In Mick’s mind, he was still the loser living out of trash bags in his mom’s basement, the creep mooning over a girl way too young for the likes of him.
Yet, Kayla saw something else altogether. Holding open the screen door with her foot, she looked over her shoulder at the tall, solid officer walking steadily in her direction, the sweet, shy man she had adored forever, and she broke into a wide grin. “Oh, hey, Mick,” she breathed, her eyes taking an open measure of him as her color rose. She liked what she saw. She liked it very much, indeed.
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