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Salvation Between Bookends

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“Erin, why is there a flyer for kiddie self-defense classes in Beth's backpack?” Jake asked as he followed Beth in from the car. He'd done his sister a favor and picked his niece up from school since it was right down the block from the library he worked in.

“Because a bunch of her friends are taking it, and she wants to join,” Erin said, running her fingers through her short blonde hair. Jake could hear the implied sigh because she knew what was coming next, and Jake didn't disappoint her.

“But, I could totally teach her self-defense. I guarantee it would be way better than anything this hack has to say,” he informed her, waving the flyer around dramatically.

“Jake, it's not about self-defense. She just wants to hang out with her friends and fit in because everyone is doing it. Not to mention, I hear the instructor is really cute, so all the bored moms probably signed their girls up to be able to ogle him,” Erin told him in her most reasonable voice as she typed away at her laptop. “I wish I had time to do some ogling,” she said wistfully.

“He? What kind of sicko runs a class for little girls. I ought to start a rival class just for the protection of our young women,” Jensen protested.

“Jake you work two jobs as it is. When are you going to have time to chase 7-10 year olds around? Not to mention, moms and dads are welcome and encouraged to stay during his classes. Please don't make this a thing, Jake. Beth is allowed to do things for fun without any intellectual benefit, okay?” Erin asked, giving him the full power of her piercing green eyes.

“What's this guy's name? I'll make sure he checks out...”

“No, you won't. I forbid it. You harassed her piano teacher until the poor old woman refused to come to that house anymore. You ran a CIA level background check on her second grade teacher and threatened to inform the IRS about his misfiled taxes when he gave Beth a B on a science project. I love you, Jake, but you are insane when it comes to her, and it's not okay. So, let her take her damn self-defense class, and if you fuck with this guy, I will castrate you myself,” Erin threatened, closing her laptop and staring him down. Erin was a force to be reckoned with, and Jensen had learned that from a young age. Her soft features and glossy blond hair were a cunning disguise for the shark underneath.

Jake narrowed his eyes, but sighed. “Fine, but can I—”

“Absolutely not.”

---

Jake stepped out of the car, glaring up at the sign for the self-defense school. The Losers Self-Defense Academy looked innocuous situated between a deli and an ice cream shop at the strip mall. Jake didn't trust it.

Jake had taught himself multiple types of self-defense growing up because he'd been a target of bullies. Two years in the military had added to that knowledge. Just because Jake worked at the local library during the day and consulted for a security firm in the evenings didn't mean he'd lost it. He could easily show Beth and her friends what they needed to know.

Sure, Beth loved the class and wouldn't shut up about how awesome “Cougar” was. Cougar! Who went by the name Cougar if they weren't a pretentious douche? Jensen was going to take him down a notch. Erin would be furious, but he had a niece to protect. Not to mention, Erin had had her share of mama grizzly moments when Jake was younger, and she was looking out for him.

He pushed into the studio, stepping right into the waiting area where nearly a dozen women were sitting in full hair and makeup. It was eleven on a Saturday morning. Jake frowned when they all glanced in his direction before going right back to watching the lesson over the small median.

Jake followed their line of sight to the class going on. His eyes immediately trained on his niece who was smiling brightly at the front of the room, standing next to a man probably a few years older than Jake.

So, this was the revered Cougar. Definitely a douche. The man was wearing a cowboy hat and jeans while he taught self-defense. Who did athletics in ripped jeans and a Che Guevara t-shirt? Jake suddenly knew the guy's plan. He was after the mothers. He looked like something out of a romance novel with his tanned skin and his long hair and that goatee that brought to mind all sorts of dirty things. Jake told his mind to shut up. He certainly wasn't going to fall for this act. He wouldn't be blinded by the mysterious and sexy Latino vibe the man had going. Absolutely not. Jake was above that.

Then the man showed off by demonstrating a maneuver that sent him into a back handspring then a tuck and roll which had all of the mothers' mouths watering as his shirt crept up a little. Jake was not above it. He was so not above it. He was drooling with the others which only made him more determined to take “Cougar” down a peg...or seven.

Jake almost dove over the median between studio and waiting area when Cougar approached Beth to show her how to do a much more watered down version of what he'd just performed. It was just the tuck and roll portion, but Jake didn't trust him.

Beth seemed completely at ease though as Mr. Long-hair-and-radiant-tan placed his hand at the small of her back.

“He never uses Lizzy to demonstrate,” one of the mothers complained.

“He never uses Anna either, Pam. I've been waiting six weeks to be able to tell him how much Anna loves when he uses her in the demonstration, but he never does,” another mom complained.

Jake wished he wouldn't use Beth. Hell, he was about to march right up and tell him how...oh, she did that really well.

“Yeah, Beth, you show 'em how it's done! That's my niece,” he said loudly when she completed the roll.

Everyone turned to look at Jake, including his niece and the instructor. All of the mothers were glaring at him with varying degrees of disgust on their faces, and the kids didn't seem much more impressed by his outburst. Beth was smiling at him like she always did, and Cougar was looking at him with an unreadable expression, but Jake just assumed that he was annoyed with Jake for interrupting since that seemed to be most people's default when it came to him. Well, screw him. Jake would be proud of his niece if he wanted to.

Beth waved at him happily before Cougar gently brought her back to focus. She performed the roll again before going back with the group, so everyone could try it on the mats. Cougar walked around to each girl, showing her the proper way to tuck so as not to hurt her neck. Jake admitted he was very thorough, but Jake still didn't think he was anything more than an opportunist.

The mothers ignored Jensen while they watched the end of the session. After everyone had gotten the roll down, they went through all of the maneuvers that they'd learned that day. Then at the very end, they took turns trying their new moves out on Cougar. Girls punched at him, and he deflected, giving gentle pointers on proper technique. Others tried to launch themselves at him, and he'd catch them easily before placing them down on the mat. Beth was last, and she stepped up to him slowly.

“Go for the knees,” Jake called to her, and Cougar's eyes were on him again. Jake smirked when Beth immediately followed his advice while Cougar was distracted and kicked Cougar in the back of the knees as he'd taught them for take downs. Cougar's knees buckled forward immediately, and Beth jumped at him to put him in a headlock like she often did with Jake. “There it is. That's my girl!” Jake called.

He was getting glared at by the mothers again, but Beth looked so proud of herself as she accidentally knocked Cougar's hat off. Cougar wrapped his arms around her waist, and Jake expected him to shove her off, but Cougar just lifted her into his arms as he slowly rose to his feet. He tapped out on her elbow when he was standing with her resting on his hip. It was actually impressive because Beth was no small ten year old, but she also didn't seem to mind at all that she was being held.

“Beth just taught us a very good lesson,” he said in a very soft tone. Jake could just pick it up over the tittering of the other girls. It had an accent to it, so Jake guessed that Cougar was actually Spanish speaking, and the look wasn't just for the ladies. “Distraction is your friend. You must keep your focus even if your opponent is distracted. This can give you an advantage over someone much larger than you as you just saw,” he explained before putting Beth down and congratulating her on a job well done. Then he praised everyone for a good lesson, and dismissed them.

The girls ran to their mothers laughing and talking loudly while their mothers very carefully fought their way toward Cougar who was taking a drink of water. He ran a hand through his now messy hair as he was bombarded by concerned parents.

“Are you okay, Mr. Alvarez?”

“She didn't hit you too hard did she?”

“It's just so rude that some people can't watch something without having to disrupt it for everyone else. You could have been injured,” another mother said.

Jake just stood their watching them fawn over Cougar while their children now waited for them.

“Hey, Uncle Jake. We going to the library?” she asked, knowing he worked till five on Saturdays.

“Yeah munchkin. Hope you don't mind,” he told her, ruffling her hair and messing up her neat pigtails.

Uncle Jake,” she whined, pulling away and trying to fix her hair. Jake chuckled and knelt to help her.

“You look pretty whether your hair is perfect or not, sweetpea,” he said as he combed it down with his fingers.

“You're just saying that because you have to,” Beth told him, pouting.

“But he is correct,” came that same soft, accented voice of the instructor.

Beth and Jake looked up to see Cougar standing in front of them, the group of mothers gathering their own children behind him. Beth beamed up at him, looking as happy as she did when Jake told her they were getting ice cream for breakfast. Jake wasn't jealous at all. Not. One. Bit.

“Uncle Jake, this is Mr. Cougar. He's awesome,” Beth told him before turning back to Cougar. “Mr. Cougar, this is my uncle I told you about. He's really cool, and he's the one that taught me how to kick boys between the legs,” she said proudly. Jake cringed. Erin had kicked him in the nuts after she'd gotten a call from Beth's school about an incident involving Beth and a boy who wouldn't stop crying. Jake firmly believed it was justified since the boy had pulled her pigtails. The school didn't agree, nor had her second grade teacher, but Jake had handled that.

“Nice to meet you. Beth loves to talk about you,” Cougar said, holding his hand out for Jake to shake. Jake frowned.

“Don't think I'm not on to you, Cougar, if that's even your real name. This is a great scam you've got going, but you can't fool me,” Jake said as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Come on, Beth. If we go now, we can grab milkshakes on the way to the library,” Jake told his niece, trying to pull her away from Cougar.

Cougar frowned at them as Jake dragged Beth out of the studio. He didn't try to say anything else, and Jake was glad of that. He didn't really want to make a huge scene.

“That was mean, Uncle Jake,” Beth told him. She refused the milkshake he bought her, she didn't talk to him the entire way to the library, and once they got there she disappeared into the stacks.

---

“She's mad at you,” Erin said, arms crossed over her chest as Jake stood at the door.

“Why's she mad at me?”

“You embarrassed her in front of all of her friends. You were mean to her teacher, who she's been waiting weeks to introduce you to. You messed up the french braided pigtails we spent over an hour trying to get perfect, so she would look cute for class. Should I keep going?” Erin said, still blocking the doorway. She used to do the same thing in front of her bedroom when Jake had been an ass but still wanted to play with her.

“Okay, I was a dick, but I don't like the guy...”

“You don't know the guy. You showed up for the last ten minutes of one class, didn't say a thing to him other than that you were 'on to him,' and you're going to judge him?” she said, making perfect use of finger quotes to add emphasis to Jake's poor behavior.

“He's just doing it to get the chicks.”

“They are little girls, Jake!”

“Not them, their mothers!”

Jake,” she said shaking her head. “I pick her up all the time, and every day one of the single moms proposition him, but he's never so much as flirted back. Yeah, he's great on the eyes, but he's not in it for the chicks. He definitely doesn't need to run a class for kids just to get laid.”

“Well, let's just agree to disagree, Erin,” Jake said, trying to get around her.

“No, Jake. Beth really enjoys this class. She doesn't stop talking about it all week. You aren't going to ruin this for her with your crazy ideas. She was really upset that you don't like Cougar. She couldn't understand it. She adores you, Jake, and you're confusing her because she's too young to understand that people you love don't necessarily have to love each other,” Erin said seriously.

“So, what do you expect me to do?”

“Pick her up from class and apologize to Cougar...”

“Absolutely not!”

“You're not welcome here till you make nice, Jake. You're my brother, and I love you, but sometimes your a Grade A asshole, and I'm not fuckin' around where Beth's concerned.”

Jake paused and looked at his sister for a moment. She was serious. She wasn't going to let him inside until he made things right. He frowned. He felt like he was Beth's age all over again. Jake sighed and nodded. “When's her class over today?” he asked quietly.

“Seven o'clock. Don't fuck this up, Jake. I've had enough of the waterworks this week,” Erin said before stepping back and slamming the door in his face.

Jake just stood there blinking at the wreath hanging an inch in front of his nose. This wasn't good. He'd never been good at apologies, which was part of the reason he'd gotten in trouble so much as a kid. Beth was important though, so he took his keys out of his pocket and headed for the self-defense school.

Jake pulled into the parking lot at 6:27pm. That gave him a half an hour to think of a painless way to say sorry. Jake sat in the car for all of five minutes, thinking up elaborate ways to get Cougar to apologize instead of him, but after that he couldn't just sit there anymore, and he went and grabbed some ice cream before going inside and taking a seat with the other parents. There were fewer onlookers today, but Jake supposed that was because class was basically in the middle of dinner time.

Jake grabbed an empty seat and watched as the girls learned how to block and dodge attacks, heavy stuff for 7-10 year olds, but they all looked excited. Cougar was at the front of the class again with Beth, having her throw punch after punch and blocking each one. Beth had a look of determination on her cherubic face that rivaled Jake's when he started writing code.

Cougar demonstrated a pivot maneuver, and Jake groaned. He would've showed them a dozen different ways to dodge better than that. He held his tongue though because he was there to apologize, so Erin would let him in the house again and cook for him. Also, he still had half a cup of ice cream with sprinkles, and he couldn't waste that.

When he was finishing up the last bite of ice cream, Cougar demonstrated another maneuver that Jake just couldn't keep quiet about. “Are you kidding me? How is that supposed to help you ward off an attack? Sure, maybe if your arthritic, ninety year old neighbor gets turned into a zombie and comes at you, that might work, but really that's an awful defense,” Jake called out, and once again all eyes were on him.

Jake caught Beth out of the corner of his eye looking on in horror as he stood up with an ice cream stain on the front of his orange argyle sweater. Cougar was standing in the middle of the children watching him with his ever guarded expression.

“In my experience, it is important to learn the basics, no matter how impractical in real situations, before learning anything too complicated,” Cougar replied to him, even though he could have ignored his interruption.

Jake knew he should bite his tongue, but it was moving before he gave it permission. “And what experience is that? I bet I could take you down without any trouble,” Jake said, internally cringing at how much of an ass it made him sound like. He hated guys who picked fights just because they had a massive ego. Still, his tongue was not cooperating.

“You are more than welcome to try,” Cougar said quietly.

Cougar didn't sound fazed at all by Jake's challenge. He didn't even look bothered by Jake disrupting class again. Jake just stood there for a moment, staring at him.

A man larger than Jake came out of the office in the back of the room. “Cougar, this guy giving you trouble?” he asked, sounding ready for a fight. The guy looked tough as nails even though he was wearing a rumpled old suit that looked like it had seen much better days.

Cougar didn't say anything. He just shook his head dismissively like Jake wasn't even a concern. That made Jake's blood boil.

“You're on!” Jake found himself saying, knowing that if he backed down now his pride was on the line. He'd look like a complete idiot if he backed down from this challenge. Jake wasn't one to buy into the whole macho attitude and needing to defend his manhood, but he'd definitely worked himself into a corner here. It was a lose/lose. There was no polite way to apologize now, so he was just going way off in the other direction.

“This is a bad idea,” the man said, but Cougar didn't pay attention to him.

The other man frowned even as Cougar waved Jake into the class as he ushered the girls along the back wall. “Mr. Jensen is kind enough to help me with a demonstration,” Cougar told them. “Watch carefully,” he said before turning back to Jake. Jake pulled his sweater over his head to reveal a bright orange t-shirt with two women kissing on it. He cringed, this wasn't helping his case.

Cougar raised an eyebrow at the shirt, but he didn't say anything as he stood on the mat in his torn jeans and t-shirt. He was barefoot, but he still wore the cowboy hat. Jake couldn't wait to knock it off his smug head.

Jake joined him on the mat, still wearing his sneakers as he bent his knees slightly and raised his arms. Cougar just stood loosely. The man at the back rolled his eyes then turned and walked back into his office.

“Shout if I need to call an ambulance,” the guy muttered as he went.

“Maybe you should've listened to your friend,” Jake said as they stood facing each other.

Cougar snorted. “He was not worried for me,” he said, waving for Jake to attack him.

Jake gritted his teeth and attacked. He feinted right and went for a kick to Cougar's left, but Cougar rolled back out of the way. He popped up a few feet back, then waved Jake forward again. Jake lunged, going for speed and strength, but Cougar danced out of his attacks. Jake was actually very good at hand-to-hand combat. He was top of his class in Basic for it, and he'd won enough fights to know he could handle himself. However, Cougar was lightning fast, and not letting Jake anywhere near him.

Jake attacked several more times, and Cougar dodged using a different maneuver each time, most of them perfect examples of what he'd taught his class. “Stop running away and fight,” Jake told him, catching his breath as he stood facing Cougar once again. Cougar didn't rise to the invitation. He dodged Jake three more times. Jake could now appreciate how guys felt when they'd try to fight him in the past because Cougar was using some of Jake's best avoidance techniques.

Jake frowned as he attacked again. This time, Cougar blocked his punch, pushing his arm upward, and delivering the lightest of taps to Jake's ribs to let him know it could have been much worse. They stepped back, and Jake frowned at how Cougar didn't so much as smirk. He looked completely calm even though after five minutes of attacks by Jake, Cougar got the first hit.

Cougar waved him to attack again, and Jake went for it. This time Cougar fought back. His moves were so quick that Jake found himself back pedaling to keep up his blocks. Slowly, Jake got used to Cougar's rhythm and was able to trade attacks with him. Cougar actually smiled as Jake came back into it.

Jake could hear their audience start to cheer Cougar on. Not even Beth's sweet voice could be heard calling for Jake. Still Jake continued to attack Cougar with as much ferocity as he could manage without splitting his own jeans. Cougar didn't seem to be tiring at all even though Jake felt like he might just keel over. Years of working in the library instead of doing PT regularly had clearly made him a little soft.

Jake made a misstep. He tried to feint, but his sneaker slipped on the smooth mat, and he lost all balance. He felt his ankle twist painfully, and his leg buckled. Cougar was there though, and instead of Jake falling on his ass like the fool he was, Cougar held him and rolled with him until he had Jake gently pinned to the mat.

Jake just blinked up at Cougar who was still wearing the damn hat. He could hear everyone cheering for Cougar, and that just made it more embarrassing, but he really couldn't blame anyone but himself. Jake glanced over at Beth, and she looked like she was on the brink of tears. Jake hit his head down against the mat again. Jake was good at brushing his own stupidity off with a smile, but that wasn't going to work here. He'd disappointed Beth, and he hated doing that.

“Are you okay?” Cougar asked, still grasping his shoulder and side. His touch was so gentle Jake hadn't even registered it until Cougar spoke.

“I'm fine. I'm...I'm just gonna go,” he said, wishing the world would swallow him up because he'd really done it this time. Erin was never going to let him into her house again, and Beth wasn't going to speak to him ever again, and he only had himself to blame.

Jake rolled away from Cougar and pushed himself up onto his good leg, pushing away Cougar's hands when he tried to help. Jake tried to hide the limp as he walked out of the class and through the waiting area with everyone's eyes on him, but it hurt a lot more than he expected, and he knew it showed.

Jake felt like he was a kid, limping home after he got beat up yet again, knowing his dad was going to tell him what a wimp he was when he saw him. Jake sat in his car, half expecting Beth to get a ride home with someone else.

By the time everyone was leaving, ten minutes later, Jake's ankle was throbbing, and he was gripping the steering wheel white knuckled. Beth didn't come out with everyone else. Instead, Cougar walked her to the door, holding her in his arms and talking to her very solemnly. He didn't carry her to the car, thankfully, but he spoke to her for nearly a minute before putting her down and watching her till she got to Jake's car safely.

Beth got into the backseat, but she didn't say anything to Jake. Jake just sighed and drove her home. He didn't even get out of the car when he pulled into the driveway. He just sadly waved to Beth as she sniffled and scurried into the house.

Jake barely made it up the stairs into his apartment over the coffee shop in town. It was a beautiful place he'd been renting from Sam, the owner of the shop, since he moved out of Erin's. It was large and open, and he even had a spare room for Beth when she visited...if she ever visited again.

His ankle was swollen to twice it's normal size, and it didn't feel so great either when Jake tried to ease his shoe off. Jake iced it on and off for hours as he hopped around his kitchen, heating up some Chef Boyardee. He sat in the dark eating his sub par pasta with his leg elevated. He felt like a complete ass, and he knew it was only going to be worse when the swelling didn't go down, and he'd have to call Erin to bring him to the doctor.

It was no one's fault but his own. Cougar had barely touched him. He'd patted him on the sides and ribs a few times or tapped him in the shoulder, but he'd pulled every punch. Jake was just a clumsy ass who didn't take his shoes off like a complete idiot.

Jake nodded off on the sofa, and only woke because his phone started ringing loudly beside him. He cringed because it was Erin's ringtone.

“I know. I fucked up. Can I just have tonight to wallow before you tear me a new one?” Jake said instead of a greeting.

“Jesus Jake, are you okay? Carlos called and said you could barely walk when you left. Why didn't you come inside? I would've taken you to the hospital,” Erin said, sounding anxious.

“You said I wasn't welcome until I apologized. Who's Carlos?”

“Jake, you could have gotten yourself really hurt. You're lucky he didn't fuck you up!”

“Nope, did that all on my own,” Jake told her miserably.

“Jakey, are you alright?”

“Egos a bit bruised, and my ankle might be broken, but I'll be fine,” Jake said, trying to adjust his position on the couch and gritting his teeth as he jostled his ankle.

“Christ, I'm coming over. Just stay put, and keep ice on it,” she said before hanging up on him. Jake sighed and let his head flop against the back of the sofa.

Erin arrived about ten minutes later, and she let herself in with the key he'd given her for emergencies.

“Where's the munchkin?” Jake asked, staring up at the ceiling.

“Ruth from next door is watching her. Your ankle looks awful,” she said, kneeling in front of him. It was discolored from all of the bruising, and the swelling still hadn't gone down.

“Doesn't feel great either, go figure.”

“Don't give me lip, Jake. I trying really hard not to be pissed off at you right now because I know under all of that stupidity you showed today that your heart's in the right place, but you are making it really hard right now,” she told him as she carefully lifted his leg so she could rest it over her lap.

“Way to make me not sound like a burden.”

“You aren't a burden, Jake. You just act before you use that massive brain of yours sometimes. Now let me splint this, so we can go to Urgent Care,” she said, gently bandaging the ankle, so he couldn't move it, not that he wanted to.

“Sorry I'm a fuck up, Erin,” Jake said, leaning to the side, so he could rest his head on her shoulder. She turned her head just enough to kiss his blond spikes.

“You're not a fuck up. You're just really passionate, and sometimes it gets you into trouble. Beth will forgive you. She thinks the world of you,” she assured him.

“Everyone in town's gonna know what an ass I was.”

“And by next week, someone else will be getting divorced or cheated on, and everyone will forget you got your ass kicked by Carlos.”

“Why do you keep calling him Carlos? And wait, why did he call you? Is he after you? Is that why you defended him and Beth—”

“You're doing it again!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

“I call him Carlos because that's his name, Jake. Cougar is a nickname he got in the military, I think. And he called because he was worried about both you and Beth, and you forgot your ugly sweater at the studio,” she explained, tying off the bandage and lowering his leg to the floor.

“My sweater isn't ugly. It's argyle, and it matches my socks,” Jake informed her primly.

“Okay, let's just get you to a doctor. Maybe they have something for your head too.”

“I resent that implication.”

“I resent spending my night off at the doctor with you, so we're even.”

Jake grumbled, but he let her help him down to her car.

---

Jake had a boot and crutches. His shame was visible for all to see as he hobbled up to work the following morning. His ankle wasn't broken, but it was sprained, grade 2. In other words, Jake would be on crutches for at least a week until he could put weight on it again. The doctor said he needed to stay off it and elevate it, but Jake didn't have time for that. He also said he needed therapy, which Jake insisted he could do himself.

Jake wanted to be able to say that he'd learned his lesson, but he knew himself better than that. Erin knew him better than that too, because she gave him a lecture this morning before she drove him to work. Beth still wasn't speaking to him.

Jake made it through half of work before his ankle ached so much, he needed to take the prescriptions they'd given him. So, he called Erin and asked her to pick him up, so he wouldn't get embarrassingly loopy in front of his coworkers and patrons. Erin gave in more easily than expected and brought him home and put him to bed before giving him the painkillers.

Jake missed two more half shifts that week when the ankle pain was too much from being on his feet too long. His boss was very understanding, but she was also seventy years old and the sweetest woman in the world. She even had the grace not to mention that she'd heard the gossip about how he got the injury. Jake was grateful for the women in his life, even if they could be overbearing at times.

---

“Uncle Jake?” Beth's timid voice asked through the phone. Jake hadn't spoken to her in a week, and it felt like a lifetime.

“Hey sweetpea, it's great to hear from you,” he told her, trying not to get too excited. She could just be calling to tell him that she hated him.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, I'm okay. Nothing serious, I promise,” he said.

“Mr. Cougar asked how you were today, and I told him I didn't know because I wasn't talking to you, and he told me I shouldn't be mad at you because you were just looking out for me because you love me. He said he didn't want me upset with you because of him, and that I should call you and ask how you were because you are probably sad that I'm mad at you. Are you sad, Uncle Jake?” She said it all in one breath, the way only children could, and Jake. He definitely possessed that skill as well.

“I'm a little bummed that you're mad at me, but I get it. I screwed up,” Jake said, biting his lip as he waited for her to speak again.

“I'm sorry I made you sad. We're having a thing at class on Saturday, and Mr. Cougar said I should invite you, so you could see what I've been learning,” she said.

“Oh, I don't know if that's a good idea,” Jake replied, cringing at the thought of ever seeing Cougar again after the ass he made of himself.

“Uncle Jake?”

“Yeah, munchkin?”

“I really like Mr. Cougar. He's nice, and he's a really good teacher. I wish you didn't hate him.”

“I don't hate him, Beth. I'm just not great with new people sometimes,” he told her, feeling thoroughly ashamed of his own behavior.

“But he's not new now, so maybe you can be friends.”

“I don't think that's going to happen, Beth. I'm sorry.” Jake hated disappointing her, but he just couldn't see him and Cougar ever getting along.

“Okay. Mommy wants to talk to you. Love you,” she said before handing over the phone before he could return the endearment. Jake felt robbed for not being able to tell her how much he loved her.

“Come on Saturday. I don't care how embarrassing it is. I'll be there. She needs to see you trying. She'll get over it. Just be patient,” Erin said before hanging up on him. Jake rolled onto his side and let himself mope until he had to get to work on his computer.