“I can’t do it.”
His voice didn’t sound like his own. But then this life wasn’t his. It was someone else’s. This happened to other people. It was the kind of earthshattering news he’d had the misfortune of delivering to others. He wasn’t supposed to be on this end of things. It was a selfish thought, but right now he just didn’t give a shit. In fact, if it were up to him, he’d disappear for God knew how long, but he couldn’t, because as bad as it was right now, it was about to get so much worse.
Tony sat in his car, in the same spot he had for the last two hours. His vision was blurry, his eyes burned, and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He was a fucking mess. Broken. For the last two days he’d gone through a host of emotions. His initial reaction being anger. He’d been so goddamned pissed off at John for leaving him. Every swear word he’d ever known had crossed his lips, directed at his best friend. Tony was angry at Gina too. Angry she’d left her little boy behind. She’d been his best friend. But John had been his life. Tony let out a harsh laugh. God, he was so fucking pathetic. He’d let that part of him—along with John—go a long time ago.
The moment John met Gina, Tony knew that was it, and he was happy for John, truly was. Having John and Gina in his life was a blessing, one he never took for granted. The three of them had become a family. Tony had never, ever resented Gina. There was no one more perfect for John. When Dex came along, Tony couldn’t have been happier for them. Fatherhood suited John.
Fresh tears filled Tony’s eyes and he slammed his hands on the steering wheel.
“You son of a bitch! How could you do this to me? To your son?” He let his head fall against the steering wheel and cried for what seemed like the hundredth time since he’d identified the bodies. He’d refused to believe it at first. Convinced himself it couldn’t be them. When the police had shown up that night, Tony believed they’d made a mistake. Regardless, he called his sister to come take care of Dex while he got to the bottom of whatever the hell was going on. He’d never get the image out of his head. John on that slab of steel with a blanket over him, a bullet hole in his chest, right through his heart.
Breathe. Come on, damn it.
A tap on his window scared the hell out of him, and without thinking, he swiped his gun from his holster and aimed at the window. His sister jumped, and threw her hands up, fear in her big brown eyes. Cursing under his breath, he returned the gun to his holster, then wiped at his eyes. He opened the car door, stepped outside, and closed it.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a sniff, trying his hardest not to fall apart again. “Thank you, for uh,” he cleared his throat, “watching him.”
His sister nodded, and he had to look away so he wouldn’t see the pain in her eyes.
“I can’t do this, Danelle.” His bottom lip trembled, and blinked back more tears. “I can’t go in there, and—” He shook his head. “I’m not strong enough.”
“You gotta be, honey. That little boy needs you.” She put her hand to his cheek, and he closed his eyes.
“He needs his father,” Tony replied through his teeth, his hands balled into fists at his sides.
“Anthony, you’re that boy’s daddy now.”
Tony shook his head. “No. I’m not. John’s—”
Tony flinched. He wanted to yell at her for saying that, but she was right. No matter how much he wished it wasn’t true, John was gone. Dex needed him. A tear rolled down his cheek, and he choked on his words.
“He’s just a little boy. How—Oh God.” He covered his face with his hand, his whole body shaking. Criminals he could face. Lethal Therians. Whatever the streets threw at him, he could face. But tell a five-year-old the parents who loved him more than air itself were gone? How could anyone ask that of him?
Danelle wrapped him up in her arms, and he held on tight, grateful he wasn’t alone. She murmured words of comfort, and he lost track of how long he’d held on. He couldn’t put it off anymore. Dex was inside with his neighbor's daughter. It was time.
Thinking of Dex, of how small and vulnerable he was, of how hurt and confused he would be, how much he would need Tony was what kept him on his feet. He took a deep steady breath, wiped his eyes, and reached deep down for strength he feared he might not have. Even if he didn’t, he better damn well find it.
Tony walked into his house, and headed upstairs for the spare bedroom where he knew he’d find Dex. From the landing he could hear Dex’s giggles and childish shrieks as he played. Tony stopped in the doorway, and it took everything he had not to turn around and run. Teresa was tickling Dex, and he squirmed on the floor, hugging his Braveheart Lion to his little chest as he laughed. Tony closed his eyes for a moment, praying for strength.
Dex spotted him, and let out a squeal of delight. “Uncle Tony!” He scrambled to his feet, and Tony walked into the room, nodding at Teresa his thanks before she left the room, closing the door gently behind her. Tony sat down on the carpet, his back to the bed as Dex threw himself into Tony’s outstretched arms. He hugged Dex tight, willing himself not to lose it now. Not when Dex needed him most. Dex pulled back, his little face falling as he pet Tony’s head.
“Why are you crying?”
Always such a sharp little guy. Tony gave a sniff, and let out a shaky breath. “I’m crying,” he said, his voice shaky, “because something happened, and I wish it hadn’t, but there’s nothing I can do to change that. I want you to know that I love you, and I will always love you.”
Dex nodded. “What happened?”
Jesus. “Dex, you know how me and your daddy help people?”
Another nod. Dex’s gaze was fixed on him. Tony tried not to think about how those big blue eyes would never look at the world the same way again.
“And you know how he told you about the people we tried to help but couldn’t?”
“Daddy says sometimes bad things happen to good people.”
“That’s right. It’s not fair, and it hurts, and we wish so very much it wasn’t like that, but we do our best to help the people who loved them. The ones who’ll miss them the most.” Tony braced himself. “Dex, something bad happened at the movies. Your mommy and daddy were hurt very bad. They….”
Dex’s eyes went wide, and he stilled.
“They’re not coming back, baby. It’s just me and you now. I’m sorry.”
Dex shook his head vigorously. “That’s not true.”
“I wish it wasn’t.” Tony couldn’t keep the tears back any longer. He tried so damn hard, but he couldn’t. Not when he could see Dex’s little heart shatter.
Dex’s face crumbled, tears filled his eyes, and his face went red as he let out a high-pitched shriek. “No!”
“Dex,” Tony said gently, trying to bring him close. Apparently there were still remains of a heart left to break, because it happened all over again as Dex screamed “No” repeatedly. When Tony tried to reach for him, Dex hit him with his stuffed toy.
“You’re lying! I want my mommy!” Dex screamed, his voice getting hoarse as he continued to scream through his tears. He didn’t want to be touched, and Tony didn’t try to force him. When screaming for his mother didn’t conjure her up, Dex turned to Tony. “Fix it!”
“I wish I could,” Tony said, clawing to keep hold of the lone thread holding him from tumbling into the abyss.
Dex dropped to his knees in front of Tony, and he held Braveheart out to him as he gasped and gulped for air through his sobs.
“You can… have Braveheart. Please. Fix it. Tony… please.”
“Baby, I wish I could. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He’d never felt more like a failure in his life, and it was illogical, but the fact that Dex believed he could bring his parents back all but undid him. Dex’s eyes clouded over, anger filling the big pools of blue, and it scared Tony. Something inside him snapped, and Tony sat up. He took hold of Dex and pulled him into his embrace. Dex struggled at first, but Tony held him.
“I love you, and I promise whatever you need, I will be here. I know it hurts so very bad. I know you’re scared, and angry, but you’re not alone. I’m here, and we’re going to get through this together. Me, and you.”
Dex threw his arms around Tony, squeezing as he sobbed into Tony’s neck. “Don’t… go… away.”
“I swear I’ll do everything in my power to always be with you.” As he made his promise to Dex, he made a promise to Gina and John. He’d raise Dex as his own, love him as he deserved to be love, and help guide him, help him grow up to be the kind of man his parents would be proud of.
Dex trembled in his arms, and Tony grabbed the blanket from the bed. He wrapped the blanket around them as best he could with one hand then lay on his side and curled himself around Dex.
“We’ll be okay, baby. I won’t let anything happen to you,” he promised. Dex was asleep in his arms, and Tony started to fade. He swore to himself that no matter what happened, he would give this little boy the life he deserved, full of love and happiness. If anyone tried to hurt Dex, they’d deal with him. Tony kissed the top of Dex’s head, and thought of John. His best friend had entrusted him with the most precious gift he’d been blessed with. Tony would never forget that.
The road ahead was terrifying, filled with all kinds of obstacles he’d never faced before. Parenthood was something he hadn’t given much thought to, and now here he was, father to a grieving little boy. Tony would show Dex how to survive in a world that took his mommy and daddy away. The world was trying to tear itself apart with hate, prejudice, and violence. It was up to Tony to give Dex hope. To help him heal, and prove to him that the love he has inside him will help change the world. John was a beacon of light in the darkness, his optimism, courage, and sense of justice unrivaled by anyone Tony ever met. Dex had the same light inside of him. Tony would do everything in his power to make sure that light was never extinguished.
“I won’t let you down,” he murmured. I’ll be strong for the both of us. “I promise.”
Copyright © 2016 Charlie Cochet. THIRDS published by Dreamspinner Press.