They bought the bike for his fifth birthday and Dean spent about an hour in the apartment complex’s laundry room on the bottom floor assembling it the night before. It’s all Ben could talk about at dinner, how much he wanted a bike, how he couldn’t waiting to go riding with Tommy from 3B.
“We’ll see, tiger,” Lisa said, ruffling his hair and clearing the table.
There’s a little party, at the picnic area out in the center of the apartment complex. It’s Dean and Lisa, and Tommy and his family. A cake from Walmart with racecars and his name written out in blue icing. Ben and Tommy play in the dirt with Ben’s new army men and matchbox cars when Dean comes around the corner with the bike.
“Here you go, buddy,” he said, ringing the bell on the handle. Ben’s face lights up like fireworks as he runs over to hop on. He says thank you and I love you over and over again. He rides it until the sun set and Lisa and Tommy’s mom clean up the picnic table, and Dean has to rope in Ben.
“This is the best birthday ever,” Ben says as they walk back home.
“Yes! But tomorrow, I need you to take off the wheels.”
Dean laughs. “Need those for the thing to run dude.”
“No. The training wheels.”
“Dad.” Ben stops and looks Dean dead in the eye, serious. “Sally is gonna be home from vacation tomorrow. She can’t see me riding this epic bike on training wheels.”
Dean gets a good hard laugh and keeps walking. “Sure thing. First thing in the morning, because remember—”
Ben sighs. “I know. You have to get back to work.”
“That’s right. But I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“I miss you.”
Breaks his heart, honest to God, but Dean’s gotta meet back up with John in Mississippi. People crawling up outta the ground, a year after their death. Dad can’t handle it on his own.
Dean stops, kneels in front of his boy. “I know. I miss you too. But I got a job to do.”
Ben nods dutifully. “Helping people.”
Lisa gets Ben to sleep fast and early. He’s still so excited, with his cars, his bike. Crashing from the cake and the one can of soda Dean let him have. While Lisa dries the dishes, Dean checks under the sink for a wrench. “What’s going on?”
“He wants me to take off the training wheels.”
“Wants to impress Sally down the block.” He finds the wrench.
“Ooh…” She dries her hands. “Just like Daddy huh?”
Dean shrugs and smirks, gives her a kiss before getting to work on the bike again.
“Alright, Ben, you can do this.” Dean holds onto the seat of the bike. Ben grips knuckle-white to his handle. The helmet sits lopsided on his little head.
But he’s crashed twice. He’s been patched up by Lisa with gauze and given knee pads.
“Ben, maybe in a few months—” Lisa tries. She paces on the sidewalk, chewing on her thumbnail.
“No, Mommy!” He panics. “No, I can do it. Sally’s gotta see.”
They try again. Dean walks behind him as he peddles and then picks up speed. “Okay,” Ben says. “Let go.”
His stomach sours. Killed him watching Ben crash and burn, the blood on his knees, the gravel stuck in his skin. Maybe he’s not ready, needs a few more lessons. Dean’ll call Dad, tell him something came up. Needs a few more days. “You sure?” Dean asks, starting to speed walk.
“Daddy. Let go.”
Dean releases the seat and Ben goes flying down the street, ringing the bell and screaming with joy. He makes it to the end, and breaks. He throws his arms in the air and cheers. “This is AWESOME!”
Lisa stands behind Dean, wrapping her arms around his waist, rests her chin on his shoulder, kisses his neck. “He loves it.”
“When will you be back?”
Her voice drops and she holds her breath. He shrugs. “Won’t be gone too long. Be back to send him off to school.”
Another kiss on the neck and she squeezes his waist. Ben turns the bike around and heads back in their direction, bell ringing and laughing.