It was freezing inside the court room. The bench was hard and uncomfortable, and he couldn’t stop fidgeting. He sat close to his mother, her lawyer was on her other side. In all honesty, he couldn’t remember much of what was being said at the time because he spent the entire time trying to catch a glimpse of his father.
Did he really not want him? Was he going to leave forever this time? Maybe if he’d only look at him, his father would change his mind.
But there was never a look. Never a glance in his direction. It was almost like he was already gone.
He vaguely remembers hearing the words custody and divorce and parental rights, but he was only six years old so he didn’t really understand what it all meant.
The judge banged her gavel and he watched as his father walked out of the room without even glancing at him. The doors swung closed, but only after Jeff took off after him. He remembers his mother calling out his name, but he was already through the doors before she could catch up to him.
He ran down the hallway to the window leading to the parking lot. He watched as his father climbed in his car and drove away. Jeff couldn’t bring himself to leave his current position, so kept standing there, even as his father’s lawyer exited the building. He walked so easily, like he had not a care in the world. Like he hadn’t just helped William Winger disappear from his son’s life.
It had been only a month since Jeff became a lawyer again. He had found a small firm that had been looking for people to help grow the company. Jeff had finally been ready to give it another go, so he turned in his office keys to the Dean and taught his final class earlier that spring. And now, only a month in to his new job, he was taking on cases like nobody’s business.
He loved it.
And Annie was proud of him too. She was his guiding light in all of this and he thanked his lucky stars every day that the love of his life, his best friend, was on this journey with him. He didn’t think he’d be able to do this without her. Oh yeah, did he mention that she was also his wife?
He was a lucky bastard.
Normally when he returned from work, he was in a good mood, like he was on top of the world. Like he was a hotshot lawyer and his wife was the most respected CBI agent in Colorado (she was). But as he walked down the hallway towards his and Annie’s apartment on that particular day, he felt an undeniable mixture of guilt and nervousness. He was unable to shake it all day. Since his court case earlier that morning.
Eventually when he made his way into the apartment, Annie was already home from work, cooking dinner in the kitchen. She greeted him with a smile and a kiss, asking him about his day.
He sighed heavily and sat on a stool, not bothering to take off his suit jacket. “Alright I guess. I had that court appearance today.”
She looked at him brightly, waiting for him to expand. “How’d it go?” She turned back to the stove to stir whatever was simmering in the pan.
“It was fine.” He began inspecting his watch, deciding it might be easier to explain while he wasn’t looking at her. “Um. It was a divorce case. Pretty nasty. There was a kid involved and everything.”
Annie looked at him, concerned. Catching on to the fact he was avoiding her eyes. “Oh yeah? I’m sure it went smoothly though, right?”
He swallowed. “Yeah, it did. It’s just…” He finally looked at her, she was facing him across the countertop and she was taking in every word. “I was representing the husband in the case, and he…” Jeff sighed, closing his eyes. “He left them. He left his wife and kid. He got up one morning and decided he didn’t want to be a father anymore and left.”
He and Annie had been together for a while now, and she’d learned a lot about Jeff’s childhood a great deal. It had always been a sore subject, but more than that, it shut him down faster than anything else. She treaded the topic carefully whenever it came up, but it was obviously on his mind today. She reached over to place her hand on top of his, urging him to continue while she provided comfort.
“I didn’t choose to represent him, Michael gave me the case.” His eyes opened, and they searched Annie’s in front of him. He wanted to find something in them, something that told him he didn’t do a bad thing by representing the jerk. She nodded, waiting. “I mean, everything was settled, and the wife gets the house and the kid, and he gets the car and the summer home, and still has to pay child support. You know, it didn’t bother me until I watched him leave. He did it so easily. He just walked out of two people’s lives like it was nothing.”
Annie looked at him, squeezing his hand. “You know that isn’t your fault, right? You were only doing your job. You didn’t make him leave.”
You didn’t make him leave.
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” He didn’t know what made him say it, but in that moment it was obvious to both Jeff and Annie that he wasn’t thinking about the case.
Annie came around to where he was sitting and wrapped her arms around him. He easily accepted, pulling her closer so he could press his face in the crook of her neck. “It’s not your fault this time, and it wasn’t your fault last time either,” she whispered.
“I know. But it still feels shitty.”
They held each other for a while longer.
When Jeff was in high school, he wasn’t popular. He wasn’t a nerd, he wasn’t a jock. He was just sort of…Jeff. One might describe him as a loner, but he still had a few friends he played video games with on weekends.
He did have one friend, Jenny, who was also his neighbor. He wouldn’t call her a best friend or anything, but he enjoyed talking to her and they had a few classes together. Jenny herself was a bit of a loner, but she was also insanely smart and shy. Unfortunately that type of behavior put a target on her back for the shitty, adolescent teens they went to school with. There were multiple occasions when Jeff stood up for her and told the jerks to back off. They usually did because Jeff had always been a handsome and tall guy, and he had that mysterious aura around him which intimidated most people.
Jenny was a good person and he never thought she deserved to be treated so poorly. He would never mention what he did for her though, but she always knew. Instead, their conversations remained about random things and interests. He treated her like a person. They did most of their talking on their way home from school, they didn’t live too far so they usually walked together.
One day though, they were walking home and they both knew something was up. As a single, working mother, Jeff’s mom was rarely home before five, and he became a latch key kid at an early age. So when Jeff strolled up to his house and saw an old Mustang sitting in the drive way, he was taken aback. And when he saw the man sitting on the front steps of his home, his stomach dropped.
Jenny noticed too, and then looked at Jeff. He was frozen.
“Um.” He swallowed. “My dad.”
She knew all about William Winger. She lived across the street from Jeff her whole life. She heard and saw everything.
“Why do you think he’s here?”
“I have no fucking clue.” He suddenly felt angry. Not at Jenny. But at the man who left him all those years ago.
“Come on, why don’t you come over my house? You can hang out here until he leaves. Or until your mom gets home.” She gently tugged his sleeve.
He shrugged her off and shook his head. “No. I haven’t seen him in ten years. I’m going over there. It’s my fucking house.” He began to walk towards his father.
“Wait!” Jenny called from her spot on the sidewalk. He turned to look at her. “Are you sure you’re gonna be okay?”
Her concern settled him, and some of the anger left his body. At least someone was looking out for him. He sent her a small, gentle smile. “I’ll be fine. I, uh. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She watched him walk away and then hesitantly walked up the path to her house.
Jeff wasn’t scared. He was angry and confused and hurt. And he took all that with him as he charged to meet his father who was sitting on the front steps of the house. Waiting. He stopped when he was five feet away.
“What are you doing here?” He did everything he could not to scream at the guy.
“Jeffrey. Good to see you, son.” William said it like he saw him every fucking day. Like he hadn’t disappeared on his family for ten fucking years. Jeff clenched his fists. “That a girl you were talking to?”
“What the hell are you doing here?” He asked again, louder.
“You’re taller. What are you, fourteen?
William laughed. “No shit? Damn. Time flies and all that—”
“What. Are. You. Doing. Here?”
William looked at up at him and slowly stood. “You’re an angry kid, aren’t ya?” When he finally got to his feet, he stood a few inches taller than Jeff.
“You wouldn’t know,” Jeff glared up at him.
He realized he wasn’t getting a real answer out of the guy. He decided he wasn’t going to hold back. “So what, wrong turn on your way to the liquor store? Run out of women to cheat on? Forget how to throw a punch so you came here to practice on me like old times?”
William squinted down at Jeff and stepped an inch closer. Choosing to ignore the comments, he bitterly said, “She changed the locks. I can’t get in the house.”
“What makes you think you’re getting inside?”
“I’m here for my stuff. Why don’t you open the door and let me get it?”
“What stuff? You don’t have anything in there. It’s not your house anymore.”
“Listen, kid.” He stepped even more into Jeff’s space. “You better watch your tone. Open that fucking door so I can get my things and leave.”
“I’m not asking again.”
“I guess we’ll be standing here for a while then.”
It was the next moment that William grabbed a fistful of Jeff’s shirt and shoved him towards the door. He breathed in sharply and stumbled against the stairs, catching himself. He rubbed his chest where his father had pulled at him.
He could have done two things. He could’ve backed down, let him inside, and waited for him to leave his life for the second (and hopefully last) time, and then get on with his life like it never happened. Or he could have stood back up, fight the guy and protect his mom from having to deal with William Winger once again in her life.
He chose to fight.
Jeff got back up and turned towards his father. “Don’t fucking touch me.” He didn’t swing at the guy, but he stood his ground and in his space.
William just laughed at him. “You really think you’re gonna stop me?” He stalked towards Jeff until he bumped his chest. He kept walking, forcing Jeff to walk backwards up the stairs until he backed into the door.
“You don’t get to go inside.” Jeff did everything he could to not cry. “You left!”
“Open the door,” William forcefully shoved at his shoulder.
“YOU LEFT!” Jeff pushed at his father with everything he had. Jeff was big enough to cause William to stumble backwards. Angry, William grabbed Jeff and threw him into the door. “YOU FUCKING LEFT!” Jeff cried, as he slammed into the hard wood.
He went to push him again, but William caught his arms and shoved him off to the side. “I don’t have fucking time for this,” he spat out.
Jeff was on the ground at this point, and he watched in horror as William picked up a rock, expecting his father to throw it at him. He flinched in anticipation as his father prepared to throw, but instead William chucked it at the window along the doorframe. The glass shattered, and he reached inside, unlocked the door and disappeared into the house. Tears were streaming down Jeff’s face, but he ran inside after his father.
William went straight to the hall closet, pulling down a box. It was filled with cash. Next, he went to the kitchen and took all of the booze he could find. Jeff watched, clenching his fists.
“The hell are you looking at?”
“Why are you doing this?!”
As if it was nothing, William simply said, “I’ve always known your mother stashed money up there. Came to get what was mine.” He opened the bottle of whiskey now in his possession. “Your mother won’t be needing this,” he said and took a swig.
“So you’re broke. You have nothing and you came crawling back here looking for scraps.”
“I don’t want anything from you,” he laughed bitterly. “I came here for what’s mine. You always get what’s yours, Jeff.” He pointed the bottle at him, “Remember that.”
“Don’t try to teach me anything. You’re just a coward. You’re not a father. Or a husband. You’re a coward and you deserve to be alone.”
“You ever hear the phrase ‘Like father, like son?’”
“Get the hell out of here. You have your things, just go!”
William laughed at him again. “Oh, I’m going.” He walked passed Jeff towards the door. He glanced at the broken glass. “You might wanna clean this up,” he said as it crunched beneath his feet.
“Fuck you!” He ran to the door after his father was out of sight. “Don’t ever come back!” He yelled out the door.
“Trust me, I won’t,” William yelled as he got back in his mustang.
As he drove away, Jeff slammed the door and sunk to the floor. Now that he was alone, he broke down and sobbed. He let out everything he’d been holding. Surrounded by shattered glass, he let the tears fall and his haggard, sharp breaths broke the silence. He cried into his shirt and felt the warm tears seep into the fabric. He cried until he could taste salt in his mouth. He reached back to touch his shoulder, where it slammed hard into the door. It was tender to the touch, a bruise already beginning to form.
He heard a soft knock on the other side of the front door and panicked, momentarily afraid it might be William back for round two. He took a deep breath, wiped his face, and attempted to get himself together. When he opened the door, he saw that it was Jenny standing there, hugging herself. She glanced away from the broken window to look at him. She took in his red and puffy eyes and saw the tear stains on his shirt.
“Jeff,” she whispered. She reached for him but he flinched away, feeling panicked at the thought of somebody touching him. He couldn’t speak because he wasn’t sure what would come out, so he just stared at the scuffed chuck-taylors on his feet. She seemed to understand, not wanting to upset him any more than he already was. So instead of talking, instead of touching him, she walked inside and found a broom in the hall closet and began to clean up the glass.
He wiped at his face again, sniffling as he watched her. When he was calmer, he went to retrieve the waste basket from the kitchen. Jenny scooped up the glass with the broom and a dust pan and poured it into the basket.
“Thanks,” Jeff said, his voice thick with emotion.
She smiled at him before looking at the gaping window. “Do you have any duct tape? We could probably patch this up until it gets fixed.”
He swallowed and nodded, escaping to the kitchen to retrieve the roll of tape. Later, when they were finished, they stood there looking at their work. Jeff finally worked up the courage to speak, unsure of what to say during the process. He was scared, afraid that he would reveal too much. Or maybe, afraid that he wanted to reveal everything. He settled on just saying thank you. “Jenny, you didn’t have to do all this,” his voice was gruff, still recovering from the crying.
She smiled gently, shrugging. “You’re always looking out for me. You deserve the same.”
“Well, thank you.” He scratched the back of his head, trying to hide the ache he felt in his shoulder whenever he moved his arm.
She nodded, watching him. “I can stay…until your mom gets home.”
“Um, no. It’s okay, she’ll be back soon.”
“Okay. If you need anything…”
Jeff let out a quiet laugh. “Yeah, thanks.”
Once he was alone, all he could do was wait. Once his mother came home, he would have to tell her everything. And it would break her heart. He sat in his room, on the middle of his bed replaying every damn moment. The tears didn’t come back. Not just yet.
It was a little while later when he heard the keys unlocking the door. He waited.
“Jeffrey! What on earth happened to the window?”
He held it together, he had to hold it together for his mom. But as he walked out of the bedroom and she came into view, when he saw her looking at the window in bewilderment, he lost all control. He breathed in sharply and let out sob.
“Jeffrey…” Doreen took in the sight of her son.
He quickly went to her and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her with everything he had. His tall frame clung to his mother, wanting nothing more than to feel safe with her. He cried silently into her shoulder, the fabric of her coat clenched tightly in his fists. He shook with silent sobs and she rubbed his back to calm him down, but it only made him cry harder.
“Jeffrey, honey! It’s okay, everything is okay. Breathe, sweetie.”
“He came back,” he managed to get out between sobs.
“Who came back?”
“Dad,” he cried. “He came back…” his voice was lost to his tears and Doreen hugged him fiercely.
“Jeffrey…” She whispered into his shoulder. “I’m here. I’m right here.”
Eventually he calmed down and began to breathe evenly and she sat him down and he told her everything. The yelling, the fighting, the money and booze. He showed her his shoulder and she cried, but he comforted her. They comforted each other like they had since the beginning. He knew she felt guilty for everything, but he’d do it all again if it meant his mom was safe.
That night, they stayed close. Jeff fell asleep on the couch, with his head in his mother’s lap while she stroked his hair.
One thing that may surprise people about Jeff Winger is that he doesn’t mind grocery shopping. It was never something he used to enjoy. He always made his trips as quick as possible, wanting nothing more than to get home away from the world. But ever since he and Annie became Jeff and Annie, shopping with her became one of his favorite things. Sure, she liked to peruse the aisles at a leisurely pace and inspect every item to make sure it was the best of the bunch. But Jeff actually found it rather cute, and he liked the fact they could do these normal, mundane activities together. Attending Greendale was never normal, so now he appreciated every moment he could.
“We still need eggs, yogurt, olive oil, cheese…Oh and we need to make sure it’s vegan cheese because Britta’s coming for dinner on Friday and I’m making lasagna.”
Jeff sighed good-naturedly, pushing the cart down the aisle as Annie clung to him by their linked arms. “You know, sometimes I think she claims to be vegan because she knows it costs us an extra twenty bucks every time we go the grocery store.”
She swatted his arm but still smiled. “Sure, Jeff. Britta’s spent 39 years of her life being vegan just to spite you and your wallet.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” he grinned down at her.
She playfully squinted at him when their banter was interrupted by a woman’s voice.
“Jeff? Jeff Winger?”
They turned to look in front of them, where a woman with curly auburn hair stood holding a basket of groceries. She was definitely older than Annie, around Jeff’s age. She wore a plum turtleneck sweater and dark jeans. She shifted awkwardly as she waited for some reaction, but it wasn’t long before Jeff began to piece this woman together.
“Jenny! Um, wow…” He moved to give her a friendly hug, to Annie’s surprise. The woman accepted the hug and pulled away smiling. “What’s it been… twenty-six years?”
“Just about,” she nodded. She then looked at Annie and gave her a friendly smile. “Hi there.”
Jeff realized he failed to introduce the two, so he pulled Annie into his side. “Jenny, this is my wife, Annie.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” she shook Annie’s hand.
“Likewise,” Annie smiled and lifted her eyebrows curiously.
“Um, Jenny and I grew up together. She was my neighbor.” Jeff filled in the missing blanks for her.
“Oh, wow! Small world.”
“I go by Jen now. Or Jennifer.”
Jeff shifted a little awkwardly, “Oh, sorry.”
“No worries. It’s been so long.”
“It has. So what do you do now?”
“I’m actually a social worker. My wife and I run a private practice.”
“Damn, that’s impressive. I didn’t know you stayed in town.”
“Well, I went away for school but decided to come back. I wanted to be closer to my family.”
He smiled tightly. “Makes sense.”
“What about you? What are you doing these days? Besides being married, of course. Wow.” She smiled again at Annie, almost disbelievingly.
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Really? That’s great! It’s good to hear you stuck with it.”
Jeff let out a stifled laugh and stole a glance at Annie, clearly not wanting to get into the long, strange, crazy path that got him to his current career. “Yeah…Yeah.” Wanting to change the subject, he placed both hands on Annie’s shoulders. “Annie here is a specialist at the CBI.”
Annie swatted the air, clearly not wanting the attention.
An awkward silence fell over the three of them, but not because no one wanted to be there. There just seemed like there wasn’t much else to say. And Jeff was glad, not because he disliked the woman, but because he hadn’t seen her in so long. Since before he left home. It was all a little overwhelming.
“Well, I’ll let you two finish shopping. I’ve got to get home and get started on dinner.”
“Um, yeah.” Jeff stepped forward though, and went in for another hug. “It was great to see you.”
Jenny, or Jen rather, accepted and gave him a pat on the back. “Same here. I’m really glad I ran into you.” When she pulled out of the hug, she looked at both of them. “Maybe we can have dinner some time? I’d love to catch up some more. You were always such a good friend, Jeff.”
He couldn’t hide the blush that colored his cheeks as he smiled at the floor.
“Dinner would be great,” Annie said for him.
“Wonderful. Um…” She reached in her bag for a business card. “Here’s my info. Give me a call.” Annie accepted it while Jeff made his way back to the grocery cart.
“It was nice to meet you, Jen.” Annie smiled, linking her arm with Jeff’s again.
“Likewise. Have a good evening.”
As she walked away, Jeff finally spoke again. “Thank you,” he said to her, giving her a meaningful smile. At least, Jeff hoped it was meaningful. To anyone else it may not have been anything other than a friendly glance, but he hoped she knew what he was thanking her for. He didn’t think he ever really said it.
Once she was out of view, they began walking again. Annie gazed up at him, “She was nice.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “She’s always been nice. She was a good friend to me too.”
Annie tilted her head curiously and watched him, but he didn’t seem like he wanted to expand any further, so she kept silent. Once they made it to the refrigerated cheese section, she spoke again. Once again swatting Jeff when he made another quip about Britta and her vegan cheese.
It wasn’t until much later when they finished cooking their own dinner that Jeff opened up to her. And he revealed to her that Jenny was his only friend who knew about his father. And that once upon a time she helped him after a particularly awful encounter with William. One that he never told Annie or the group about.
He went into detail of the event, as he leaned against the counter, arms crossed. When he finished, Annie’s eyes shimmered and she enveloped him into a warm and crushing embrace.
Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night. He never had any trouble falling asleep. He was out as soon as his head hit the pillow most nights because he wanted nothing more than sleep away his shitty days. They weren’t all bad, but since his father made the surprise visit home, he was constantly on edge and angry. He distracted himself throughout the day but it was at night when he would wake up in a panic reliving that afternoon. Or dreaming of different, scarier scenarios that trapped him in a constant state of anxiety.
His mother eventually caught on, because she kept a close eye on him since the evening she came home to broken glass and a damaged son. She let him stay home from school for the whole rest of the week, she even took some time out of work to keep an eye on him. He didn’t even complain because he was comforted by her presence, and he knew they were both safe. When he eventually went back to school, things between him and Jenny felt normal and he was grateful for that. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to articulate how much he appreciated what she did for him. Even if it was just cleaning up broken glass from a window.
But it was at night when Doreen would hear him, gasping awake while she was only just down the hall trying to sleep herself. Or sometimes when he completely gave up on sleep, he would walk into the living room and she would still be up late doing a crossword and watching TV. He never told her what was going on, or the dreams he was having. She just knew. She was his mother after all.
He liked the fact that she never spoke about it, not directly anyway. But after about a month, she surprised him after they finished dinner one Wednesday night.
“Jeffrey,” Doreen began. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I think it might be a good idea for you to start seeing a therapist.”
“What?” He asked, setting down his glass of water, flabbergasted.
“Now listen to me,” she said. “I’m your mother. I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately and I—”
“Mom…” he groaned.
“Listen to me,” she said over him. “I know you haven’t been sleeping. I hear you at night, waking up in a panic…”
“I don’t…I’m…I’m fine. Sometimes I just…”
“…and then you get up and watch TV or you go exercise at all hours of the night. It’s not healthy, Jeffrey.”
He couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes, so he just stared at his half-eaten plate of food. He knew she was right. But he didn’t want to talk to anyone about his damn problems. He couldn’t even talk to his own mother, a complete stranger would be no different.
He felt his eyes getting hot.
“Look at me.”
When he did, she looked at him with such tenderness that only a mother could give, and she reached for his hand. He didn’t flinch away.
“There is nothing wrong with you, alright? I just worry about you. I don’t want you carrying this with you for the rest of your life. You’re so young and you don’t deserve to be feeling this way. I really think talking to someone will help you.”
He closed his eyes at that last part. “I don’t want help,” he whispered.
“Will you just try it? For me?”
When he opened his eyes, she had that look on her face and he knew she wasn’t going to let it go. She was the most adamant woman he’d ever known, and he knew she would make him go whether he liked it or not. She just wanted it to seem like he had a choice in the matter. He swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded.
She let out a sigh of relief and smiled wearily at him. “I promise if you don’t like it, you don’t ever have to go back, okay? Or we can find someone else.”
He nodded and was grateful for the fact that his mother was at least willing to compromise to some extent.
Her smile grew wider and she squeezed his hand. “I’ll call Dr. Sorvillo in the morning and see who she recommends.”
He eventually untangled their hands so he could begin to clear the table. When he was at the sink, his mother came next to him and gathered him in her arms.
“Oh, honey. I love you.” She pressed a kiss to his temple.
A few weeks later, Jeff found himself leaving his therapist’s office with a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. He dreaded every day leading up to those first few appointments, and it was unsurprising that it took a good while for him to open up to the woman sitting across from him each week. But when he eventually did, he had to admit that it felt good getting some of the baggage off his chest.
He saw his face. He felt himself slam into the door. He was on the ground. The rock, it was hurling towards him. He braced himself.
He startled awake, but it didn’t end. He couldn’t breathe. He felt himself shaking. His eyes were glued shut and he fisted the bedsheets beneath him. But he wasn’t breathing. His heart was beating fast, but his lungs ached.
“Jeff?” He felt Annie shift at his side, gently squeezing him. “Jeff, baby, breathe.” Her voice was worried, and she climbed into a seated position.
Her voice centered him, and he was able to inhale a breath just as his eyes opened. He heaved a few more breaths before he attempted to move. Annie was sitting up, stroking his chest and his hair.
“You’re okay,” she whispered. “You’re okay.”
He let out a trembling breath before he gulped, closing his eyes again. He payed attention to the feel of Annie’s hands as his breathing steadied. His left hand found the one on his chest and he squeezed it, nodding.
He peeled his eyes open and looked up at her. Her eyes were wide and sparkling and she smiled wearily at him. “Hi.”
He felt the lump in his throat, and it was tight and painful. He slowly pulled himself into a sitting position against the headboard. He squeezed his eyes tight once more but it wasn’t enough to stop a tear from rolling down his face. Annie rubbed his back. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“No, no. It’s okay,” she whispered. “Tell me what happened.”
“Um, I had a dream. About him.”
“Oh, Jeff.” She pulled him into her arms. He relaxed into her and let her hold him. “He’s not here, he’s not gonna touch you.”
“I know,” he mumbled into her shoulder, sniffing back more tears.
He let her hold him for a while, he let her stroke her fingers through his hair until the pounding in his chest ebbed to a dull patter. Something that most people didn’t know about Jeff was that he rarely liked to be touched unless it was invited (something that came about when he was around six years old). His mom was the only one he allowed, she was his mother after all. But after that, it had to be a significant person (or people, the study group were indeed exceptions to this rule). And Annie, he never had to think twice. Her sweet scent, always warm to the touch, settled him in a way he could never explain.
Partly because he was embarrassed and partly because he still felt the adrenaline pumping through his veins, he realized he wouldn’t be getting back to sleep. He pulled away from her, barely meeting her eyes. “I think I’m gonna go for a run.”
Annie looked at him, worried. “It’s four in the morning.”
“I know, I just…It’ll help.”
“Please, Annie,” he said desperately.
“Okay,” she conceded to his plea and she watched him go to his dresser where he changed from his sweatpants into a pair of running shorts and pulled on a sweatshirt. “Be careful,” she called after him as he walked out of the bedroom and towards the door.
Later, when he returned, the sun was just coming up and he stumbled into their apartment to find Annie curled on the couch with a throw blanket over her lap. He sighed at the sight of her, where she was clearly waiting for him. He felt guilty leaving her after his episode. He knew she was concerned, but he just had to run off the extra energy and clear his mind.
He woke her as he sat next to her on the couch, gently pulling her into his side. He held her without saying anything. They were quiet for a while, until Annie broke the silence.
“You don’t have to deal with this alone. You don’t have to run from me,” she said as her head rest against his chest.
“I know,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t running from you, or him, I just. I didn’t like what I was feeling and I thought it would help.”
“Have you been taking your anxiety medication?”
“No. Not for a while.” It was true, he hadn’t taken it in about six months. He’d been in a better place lately and his therapist had suggested that he decrease his dosage. She sat up to look at him and he just knew he looked as vulnerable as ever.
She began to rub his chest. “Have you thought about maybe taking it again?”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I haven’t needed it for a while and you know that.”
“I know, I know,” she reassured gently. “You haven’t. But…since the court case…since running into Jen…you’ve been on edge lately.” She looked at him and he avoided her eyes. “It’s not a bad thing if you need to start taking them again. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I hate that he’s doing this to me again.”
She caressed his cheek and gently forced him to look at her. She whispered, “Call your therapist. Make an appointment. And see what she says.” When he nodded, she gave him a small smile and moved in to kiss his cheek. “I love you.”
He swallowed thickly. “I love you too.”
He graduated high school. It was about goddamn time. He didn’t think he could take one more day at that place. He was just so sick of the people, his classmates, his teachers. Everyone was so fake. They all played pretend, acting like their lives were figured out, like they actually liked spending time with one another. Jeff could see through it all, and he was looking forward to never seeing any of those people ever again.
Except for Jenny, of course.
“So what do you think you wanna do once you’re out of here?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always kind of wanted to be a lawyer.”
They were sitting on the front steps of Jenny’s house. There was a graduation party going on inside, for both Jenny and Jeff. It was nice of Mrs. Miller to include him in the celebration because she knew Jeff’s mom had been working overtime lately and hadn’t had much time to throw something together. Especially because her working overtime was to help Jeff attend a college of some sort.
“A lawyer? That’s awesome, Jeff. I had no idea.”
“I guess. I haven’t really mentioned it to anyone before.” It was true, he hadn’t, but it was always in the back of his mind. He just pretended like he hadn’t thought about his future whenever anyone asked. It was none of their business, but truthfully, he always feared that they might ask him why. Because I don’t have to care.
“You should do it,” Jenny smiled.
“Maybe.” He scratched the back of his head, uncomfortable about how much he was revealing. “Um, what about you? What do you want to do?”
“I want to help people. I don’t know how yet, but that’s my end goal.”
Jeff looked over at her and smiled. He knew she would be good at that. “It’s going to be weird when you leave for college. You’ve always just…been here.”
She laughed and bumped his shoulder. “Yeah. But I’ll come visit. Maybe it’s a good thing you’re staying local. I know your mom would miss you.”
He felt a wave of guilt wash over him. “Sometimes I think she’d be better off without me here,” he admitted while tracing the cracks in the concrete beneath him.
“Why would you say that?” Jenny asked, taken aback.
“I just think her life would be easier if she didn’t have to deal with all my crap.” He laughed almost sadly. “At this point, I think it’s all a big sham. Marriage, having kids. It doesn’t lead to fulfillment. It just causes more stress than anything else.”
“I think that’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said, Jeff Winger.”
He laughed and nudged her. “Sorry. Past experiences have led me to that conclusion.”
“I think you’ll find someone who will change your mind.” She placed her head on his shoulder and they watched as the sun slowly dipped behind the trees.
“Hey, beautiful,” Jeff said as he climbed into bed where Annie was resting. He kissed her cheek and then scooted down to press a kiss to her abdomen. “Hi, baby.”
Annie giggled and ran her fingers through his hair. He knew she loved it when he talked to their child, especially because he didn’t care how silly he looked talking to her growing belly. At three and a half months pregnant, she was finally beginning to show, and he loved it. He wanted the world to know he and Annie were having a baby. A baby who no doubt would be the cutest and smartest little human to ever grace the planet. Jeff marveled in the moments like this, where they could just lay together and be grateful for all they had.
“How was your appointment?” Annie watched as he adjusted and made himself comfortable at her side, allowing him to wrap his arm around her shoulders.
“It was good,” he looked down at her and he hoped she believed him. Ever since the nightmare and his reluctance to continue taking anti-anxiety meds, Annie had been worried. He’d experienced similar panic attacks in the past, but they had never been so intense. They’d never been about his childhood. But since then, he’d talked it through with his therapist and it had been helping.
“Yes,” he stressed, nudging his nose against her cheek. She broke into a smile and waited for him to continue. “You were right though. The court case jumpstarted something in me. And then running into Jenny reminded me of some things I’ve clearly been repressing.” He sighed, “And you know. The baby.”
“The baby too?” She looked at him, concerned.
“Yes, but not because I don’t want this. You know how much I want this,” he ran his hand over her bump. “I just want the little guy, or girl, to have the best childhood they can have. And God knows I didn’t so…I’ve just been…worried.”
Annie’s hand found his on her belly and she squeezed. “You are going to be the best father. You are nothing like him.”
He nodded, looking at their entwined hands. “I know. It’s just hard not to think about sometimes.” Annie nodded, watching him. “She recommended that I still take the meds, a decreased dosage, of course. But it will help settle everything I’ve been feeling lately, and hopefully stop the dreams.”
“I think that’s a good idea too.”
He nodded and looked at her with a crooked smile, “I want to enjoy this pregnancy.”
She squinted at him smiling, “Easy for you to say, mister.” He laughed when she nudged him, but she quickly turned so she could rest her head on his chest. “I want you to enjoy it too. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”
Those words sent warmth all throughout this chest and he held her closer, leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead. “Same here,” he murmured.
And it was true. He had never felt so fulfilled in his life. He had a job he loved, a baby on the way, friends who were his family, and a mother who he would do anything for. And most of all, he had a wife who loved him despite all the parts of him that were damaged by a man who was never supposed to be a father.
That was the strength that kept him going. Jeff’s past, though impactful on the man he’d become, did not define his life. Some parts of him may have been cracked, but he realized now that there were always people in his life who helped mend those parts. Jenny, his mother, the study group, Annie…And soon, their child.
Jeff Winger was not a broken man, and there was not a person on this earth who could convince him otherwise.