Read The Science of Second Chances Online

Authors: Nicky Penttila

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Short Stories, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Single Authors

The Science of Second Chances (6 page)

BOOK: The Science of Second Chances
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This was how it had been meant to be.

He allowed himself a full thirty seconds of happiness before duty intruded. Groaning, he rolled away from her, up and into the dry chill of the hotel room air. She stirred at his movement, and her hand gripped the seam between his hip and his thigh. He covered it with his own. She was so warm.


Something’s up.” He lifted her hand and turned it, placing a kiss on the soft of her palm. She sighed, and then moved to wrap her whole body around his hips.
This is real
. He still couldn’t believe it.

The phone buzzed again.
He punched up the app, but the phone didn’t recognize the number. “Doubletree 616, say hello to Chrystal and Peaches.” Matt frowned. Wasn’t that one of their rooms? He reached for his jeans. Something didn’t feel right. Suddenly, it came to him: Chip was in 614. Hadn’t he and the boys done something to Matt’s phone at supper?

“Shit!” He lurched
to his feet, pulling his jeans up so hard he pinched his balls for a sec.

Sam rolled up to a seat. “What is it?”

“I have to turn the light on. Chip’s pulling some scam. He texted someone, ordered something.”

“Pizza, probably, right?” But she seemed to catch his panic, and pulled her panties on.
“What can I do?”

“Get dressed. No, stay in bed. No, I don’t the fuck know.” He scrubbed his face, scrambling for some explanation, some way the text could be an innocent mistake. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”

As soon as he said it, he knew it was the absolute wrong thing to say. Her mouth set straight, and she stood. Her breasts hadn’t fallen like Cecilia’s had.

“I’ll just go and pee then. And then leave.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Stepping into his shoes, he almost missed the look she shot him. Hurt, anger, pride, defiance. Was she going to leave and never come back?

Would serve me right
.

 

****

 

Even as Matt let the door to the hall slam, Samantha shut herself into the bathroom. No need to turn on the light; these hotel nightlights were bright as neon. She spent a half a minute puzzling out how the shower fixtures worked and then doused herself in the hottest water she could stand.

In the blink of her half-awake eye, he’d gone from endorphin-doped lover to god of angry red thunder, eyes blinking daggers at her.

Sam wrapped the giant fleecy towel around her, as much for protection as warmth. She’d brought her bra and panties in with her, but her dress still hung in the closet. She eyed the plush bathrobe that hung on the door, but really she should just get dressed and leave. Sneak out, like what we were doing was wrong.
It wasn’t wrong
.

I
t was. You could never go back.

She got dressed as much as she could in the steamed-up room, thankful the fan was broken. Who wanted to see what disappointment and shame looked like at four in the morning?
Stepping into the quiet cool of the main room, she wrapped her dress back on and sought out her shoes. She was seated on the bed tying the straps when the lock clicked and the door burst open.

Chip was the first one in, splotchy-
faced and waving. He stopped, slack-jawed, when he saw her.

Matt took him by the elbow and pulled him past her. He pushed the boy toward the second bed, still made up. “Leave her out of it. Sit.”

Chip bounced to a seat, seething sullenness.

“Now, the truth. And only.”

“I told you the truth. We texted, yeah, and the ladies—”

“The prostitutes.”

“They, they said they’d come, yeah.”

“And you told me this, when?”

Chip huffed and rolled his eyes. He crossed his arms, but his fingers fluttered, picking at invisible lint up and down the sleeves.

Matt huffed in return, crossing his
own arms and leaning against the wood of the media center. “So you made the call, but I know you weren’t in the room with the … ladies.”

“Nobody was. They never made it out of the hall. Dad to the rescue.” The boy’s tone was bitter, but
even Sam could see there was more misery than anger in his face. “What was I supposed to do, tell you?”

Matt
closed his eyes, and then slowly opened them. “Being an adult means choosing the right path. Keeping secrets hurts everyone in the long run.”

“Seems to me adults keep plenty of secrets.” Chip met his father’s gaze. “Seems to me I’m a walking secret.” The boy flung his arms wide, hands fisted. The motion lifted him off the bed and up to his feet.

Matt flinched but held his ground. Sam frowned. That bruise she’d seen, on his cheek.
What if this wasn’t the first time?

The thought brought the blood rushing past her ears. She stood and reached for Matt’s cheek. “
Does he hit you?”

Matt grabbed her hand before it reached his face, but his
angry gaze followed the boy.

“Like father, like son,” she heard Chip say
as he moved toward the window. “That’s the way you think. Text some chick and have her come over.”

“Enough,” Matt said, still holding her hand. “Apologize to the lady.”

Chip didn’t turn around. “Apologize yourself.”

Sam let the “some chick” pass, though she knew that one would
come back to torment her later. “Matt, I mean it. If he’s abusing you, you have to tell someone.”

“What?” His attention snapped to her, his gaze so hard she felt she’d been slapped.

“Boys shouldn’t hit their fathers.” Her voice pleaded her case.

“You don’t know anything about boys.”

He couldn’t mean it. “Listen to yourself. Making excuses for him?” She lifted their twined hands, reaching for his bruise, to remind him.

He thrust his hand down, pushing hers, pushing her. “It’s not my fault you never had kids.”

She blinked at the pain his words had dredged up, but the anger was close behind. “It’s not my fault you’re fighting with your kid. Don’t yell at me for caring.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“I do know one thing. I know when to leave.” She stepped away from the bed, away from him. She grabbed her bag from the floor and reached for the door handle. Already her vision was wavering.
Not now. Wait till you get outside
.

“Sam!” Matt’s voice creaked, as if under an extra atmosphere of pressure. She knew she shouldn’t, but Sam turned around. Matt had taken a step toward her, but it was his son who drew her in. Tears
streaked his cheeks.

It’s all too much
. She felt the waterworks rimming her own eyes. Pushing herself through the doorway, she shut the door on them.

 

****

 

In the bedroom, Matt brushed his hair straight with his fingers and started to pace. Demanding an apology from a glowering kid with a gaping wound in his soul was a rookie parenting mistake. He slapped himself silly mentally for that, but soon enough went back to punching himself over the smoking crater he’d made of this trip.

Some great chance to bond with his kid, smarting over last year’s divorce, by making a pass at an old flame.
Show the kid how little he really means, why don’t you, brilliant boy?

No, Chip would have done some
bone-headed teenager prank with or without Sam, Matt’s snot-assed brain talked back. He shook his head. Maybe he should go back to that divorce shrink. There were way too many conversations going on in his head for one man.

Pivoting, he stopped short. Chip had belly-flopped onto the bed. Matt resumed his pacing.
“What are we going to do?”

The boy’s
shrug was the one patented to make Matt scream in frustration. He bit the inside of his cheek instead, and tried another tack. He sat on the bed next to his boy, pushing his legs, forcing the closeness. Chip craved touch, like his dad.

It didn’t take more than five seconds before the
boy rolled up to a seat. His shoulders dropped their hunch, and his arms swung slowly wide. “Sorry, Dad. They’re my friends.”

Matt spun that out in his mind. “
They’re more important to you than I am?”


You don’t need me. Mom sure doesn’t.”

Matt could see the path now. He felt his own shoulders relax. “You are the most important person in the world to me. Do you hear?” He took one of Chip’s basketball-long hands in his. How had he grown so much?

“Dads aren’t supposed to talk that way.”

“Fuck it.
” Chip’s lips wobbled, almost a smile. Matt held his breath and wrapped his arm around Chip’s shoulders.
Could it be this easy?

“But what about
your
friend?”

Samantha
. He’d watched her hand grip the handle, her back pass through the doorway, the door swing back with a click. His gut twisted.
What words could ever make this right?

“This always happens to us. We’re snake-bit.” It was her fault. How dare she accuse his child?
Women always wanted everything to be about them.

No, that wasn’t fair.
It obviously wasn’t true in Sam’s case. Argument Number One: Chip himself. She’d already given up a marriage – the life she’d planned – for this kid. She should’ve gotten a pass, just for one night, at least, but his little bundle of joy could not be ignored.

He’d
screwed it up with Samantha, again.
What was it about her?
She crawled into his skin, almost before he knew it. Too damn close. She made his blood sing, and it scared the shit out of him. He wasn’t meant for heaven, heaven itself knew that. It was better this way.

No it wasn’t.

Sam would harden a shell around her heart, like she had before. He knew her. She didn’t take things easy. He’d asked her to trust him, and she had. All the way.

“I’m sorry,
Dad. I fucked up.”

Matt s
taring at the door, at the spot on the doorjamb where her head had passed out of his sight. “You’re not alone.”
Letting the good ones get away, over and over
. They blew out a long exhale in tandem, and then chuckled at the synchrony.

“I know where she lives.”

Matt turned to look at his boy. “What?”

Chip shrugged, carefully, so as not to dislodge Matt’s arm. “You know, in case you want to apologize in person. Girls like the face-to-face thing.”

 

****

 

By some miracle, Sam managed
to keep the tears mostly at bay until she was safely in the back of a dark taxi.
What have I done
?

Had she really been blaming Matt all these years for her own lack of a family? It wasn’t his fault, as he’d so ungraciously but accurately put it.

The taxi sped down quiet streets, none of the gridlock of normal times. Federal buildings shone under safety lights, but most of the rest of the buildings were misted in dark. All those brownstones, each a family.
A family I could have had, if I’d let myself
.

She’d had a family – her parents – and look what she’d done with that. Tossed them aside
, the way she felt she’d been tossed aside. But they never stopped loving her.

And I never stopped loving Matt.

But her parents had learned to work around their hurt.
Not me
. Sam had built a successful life, and a great career, but never once allowed herself to feel she was a complete success. At last, she could see her thinking for the lie it was: by denying herself a family, she wasn’t punishing Matt, or Cecilia, or her parents, or Littletown.

I
can only hurt myself
.

And here Matt was, offering friendship. He hadn’t come to seduce her
– he had his kid with him, for heaven’s sake. She was the one who pushed for more, too much, too fast. Why? To wash him out of her hair? To finish up some old business.

But that wasn’t what it felt like
.

The taxi pulled to the curb outside her condo, and
the driver waited until she’d unlocked her door. The first light streaks of sun reached across a clear sky. Perfect weather for a mental-health day. She’d wear her new sundress, and take in one of the new art installations. The school kids avoided those.

And maybe, in a month or so, she’d call that
painter friend.
Tell him I’m on the market, for real
.

As soon as she could fake it a little bit better.

 

****

 

Matt rang
her doorbell at eight, clean, pressed, and just a little terrified. Samantha appeared, tired and wary, and Matt had to gulp down his gasp. She used to be a good Presbyterian girl, never even showing her shoulders unless they were at the pool. This dress was, what? A halter top with a skirt. If she stretched, she might show her midriff to the world. He felt the gut-burn of possessiveness.

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