It was going in. Nicky couldn’t watch. He gripped Renee’s hand tightly and snuggled into her side. The curve of the ball was high, well over Andrew’s head. And in sudden death overtime, that would mean they were out of the championships. But once again, in the nick of time, Andrew’s racquet was there. And this time, he didn’t just pass it to one of his teammates or bat it away. He caught it smoothly and flung it as hard as he could toward the opposing goal. There was a hushed silence that fell over the crowd as the other team’s goal lit up red and the buzzer sounded.
Nicky, Renee, and the rest of the crowd were on their feet, cheering loudly. He had never seen anything like it. He practically tripped down the stairs in his haste to get to the glass. He banged on it, shouting Andrew’s name. Andrew rolled his eyes of course, but Nicky could spot a pleased little grin on his face. Renee joined Nicky at the glass, grinning widely.
It felt like forever but soon the handshake line was ended, the team had a quick meeting and a shower in the locker room, and Nicky and Renee were meeting their boys at the door to the court.
“Oh my god, Dad, you’re so embarrassing,” Andrew said as Nicky pulled both of them into a tight hug. Aaron was happy to be hugged but Andrew was already pulling away and stepping into Renee’s arms.
“That goal was amazing, kiddo,” Nicky half yelled. “Oh man, you could probably get a scholarship anywhere. I’m so proud of you.”
“What am I, chopped liver?” Aaron grumbled, finally pulling away from the hug.
“You were amazing too, of course,” Nicky said. “I’m so proud of both of you and we’re going out for pizza.”
“And ice cream?” Andrew asked.
“Obviously,” Renee said.
“We should get going. We’re parked kinda far away and I don’t want to get caught in traffic,” Nicky said, ruffling Aaron’s hair.
The walk was dark. The city could really use a few more streetlights, especially along residential streets.
“Stop, do you hear that?” Andrew asked, grabbing Nicky’s wrist.
“Hear what?” Nicky asked. He was cut off by a small rustle in a bush on someone’s front lawn. And then Andrew was off and running. He dove behind the bush. An unfamiliar voice cried out in surprise. Nicky fumbled his brand new flip phone to bring up the flashlight and ran after Andrew to see a boy flat on his back on the ground with Andrew perched on his chest.
“Why are you following us?” Andrew asked.
“I’m not,” the boy wheezed.
“You usually take the bushes home?” Andrew punctuated his question with a sharp poke to the chest.
“Andrew, get off him,” Nicky scolded. He pulled Andrew up before putting his hand out to help the boy up too.
The boy flinched and scrambled backward into the bush. “I should go,” he said.
“It’s okay, kid, I don’t bite,” Nicky said, backing away and hunching his shoulders to appear shorter. It didn’t help. The boy was off and running into the darkness without another word.
Nicky supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, what with Andrew’s propensity to pick up strays, but a week later, Andrew brought the boy home from school.
“This is Neil,” Andrew said. “He’s staying for dinner.”
Nicky opened his mouth to ask questions but the two of them were already disappearing into the living room. Nicky sighed and grabbed another portion of spaghetti noodles from the box in the pantry.
It was completely silent in the living room but for the yowling of their newest acquisition, a pure black cat named Princess Fuzzface. When Nicky stuck his head in the room, Andrew was curled up in the corner of the couch while Neil sat on the floor teasing Princess with one of her favourite toys. Neil’s shoulders hunched and he dropped the toy when he noticed Nicky looking.
Nicky went back to the kitchen, but not before he heard Andrew saying, “nah, my dad’s cool.” Nicky grinned.
When Nicky yelled out that supper was ready, Aaron thundered down the stairs and threw himself into his chair. “Finally,” he said. “I’m starving.
Andrew followed him into the kitchen at a slower pace. Neil peeked around the door behind him. Nicky ignored him and kept to his task of getting dinner from the stove to the table. He didn’t even look at him, the same way he would treat one of Andrew’s stray cats.
“Mom working late tonight?” Andrew asked.
“Yeah,” Nicky replied. “She got called in for a shift at the last minute. I think Daisy is out sick.”
The table lapsed into silence and Nicky took a chance. “So Neil, what do your parents do?”
Neil’s shoulders shot up and he slid down, half disappearing under the table.
“Consulting, right Neil?” Andrew said. “They travel a lot.”
Neil nodded and shoved a huge forkful of spaghetti into his mouth. Nicky took the hint and kept up a light chatter through the rest of the meal, not directing any of it at Neil.
After dinner, Andrew showed Neil his room before coming back down and hovering at the kitchen door.
“Are you going to stand there or are you going to help me with the dishes?” Nicky asked.
Andrew came in and picked up a dish towel and started wiping plates. Nicky waited patiently for him to ask whatever it was that was on his mind.
“Can Neil stay the night?” he finally asked.
“It’s a school night,” Nicky reminded him.
“I know,” Andrew said. “But I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
Nicky sighed. “His parents?”
“Something like that,” Andrew said.
“It's important?" Nicky asked.
For an instant, Nicky wondered if perhaps this kid wasn't just a friend, if maybe Andrew was interested in him but he mentally gave his head a shake. He was probably just projecting his own loneliness onto Andrew and reading too much into it. He made a mental note to get Renee to call one of her contacts and find out who this kid was, but for now he nodded and gave in.
Andrew smiled one of his rare smiles and turned and grabbed a carton of ice cream from the freezer.
“Hey, no ice cream,” Nicky called after him but he was already halfway up the stairs and he decided not to pick this battle.
He wiped the kitchen down and turned off the light, planning to have a quiet evening in front of the TV. He twisted the ring on his finger. He didn't have to look to remember the inscription. Five more years and he could go back to Germany. Five more years and Erik would remember sending him away.
A knock sounded at the door and Nicky moved to answer it, wondering if perhaps it was Neil’s parents looking for their son. He opened the door and gaped as if he had seen a ghost. “Erik?”