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The Final Goodbye

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Charlie Thomas didn’t want to be here.

He didn’t want to be in California, didn’t want to be standing on a veranda on the side of a hill in Sausalito, didn’t want to be at the wedding rehearsal for his father’s third (or maybe it was fourth?) marriage.

He was missing the last week of summer. On Monday, he’d be starting school again, as a senior in high school. It was hard for him to believe, but it truly had been seven years since he’d last laid eyes on Patrick Thomas, the man he’d once lovingly called Dad.

No more.

He didn’t want to be here.

But he was here, and it had taken him a long time to figure out why. He’d come to California because Sam and Kristy had pleaded with him to go; somehow, instinctively, they all knew they’d cope better with the weirdness of suddenly being thrust into Patrick’s life again if they stuck together. Seeing Patrick again was just as difficult as he’d anticipated it would be; just the sight of him made Charlie sick to his stomach, a sudden, nasty reminder of the horror and fear and uncertainty that had taken over his life once he’d realized that Patrick had abandoned them. Patrick’s breezy attitude made it even worse – he acted as if he’d hadn’t missed a beat in the last seven years, as if he’d always been an integral part of his kids’ lives, a caring and sympathetic and interested father. He’d dared bring up memories of their times together when he was a child, reminiscing as if those recollections actually meant something to him.

What gave him that right? Patrick had been an irresponsible deadbeat of a father. As far as Charlie was concerned, he’d lost his rights to any of their shared memories the moment he walked out the door without even saying good-bye.

And yet, here he was.

After their horrible fight, after Patrick had stormed out and gone to the rehearsal dinner by himself, he and Sam and Kristy had talked about it, all of it – how they’d all blamed themselves for their father’s abandonment; how much it had hurt them, and in so many different ways. They talked about lowering their expectations of Patrick: as a father, as a man, as a human being. They’d agreed to stand by him, for Zoey’s sake if nothing else.

After all, they were the only members of Patrick’s family who’d even been invited to the wedding.

Charlie had come to a realization during that heart-to-heart with his siblings. As angry as he was, and as angry as he’d always be about Patrick’s disappearance from their family, he didn’t actually hate the man.

So, he decided to call a truce.

He spotted an opportunity to approach Patrick when the ceremony rehearsal momentarily broke up, the officiant and Zoey huddling together to discuss logistics. Patrick had wandered over to the far side of the altar, near the railing at the edge of the veranda. He was staring out over the water, crystal blue waves mixed with hues of orange and yellow and pink as the sun slowly sank over the horizon.

Charlie hesitated but for a moment, taking a deep, calming breath, and then approached him, his stride smooth and steady.

Patrick turned, as if he’d sensed his son’s nearness. The look on his face brought Charlie up short; his expression was laced with wistfulness and a hint of regret.

“Thanks for coming,” Patrick said after a moment, tucking his hands into his pockets.

“I don’t hate you,” Charlie burst out, before snapping his jaw shut. He saw the surprise and confusion pass fleetingly over Patrick’s features, and for a moment he felt incredibly sad, mourning the loss of the easy camaraderie they’d had when he was a kid, when Patrick was still simply “Daddy,” when they’d get up every morning to play catch, rain or shine. They’d been so close…

Patrick chuckled, though his tone was strained. “Good to know,” he replied softly. He rocked back on his heels. “Will you reconsider being my best man?”

Charlie slowly shook his head. “No,” he informed him quietly. “But I will come to the wedding tomorrow.”

Patrick shrugged, fisting his hands in his pockets. “I suppose I can’t ask any more of you,” he sighed, nevertheless sounding monumentally disappointed.

He paused, lifting his gaze until he met his son’s eyes directly. “I really am glad you decided to come, Charlie, because it gives me the chance to apologize.” He withdrew his hands from his pockets but hesitated, as if he wanted to reach out but just couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Leaving you was the hardest thing I ever did.”

Charlie didn’t believe him for a second, but he swallowed his bitter retort (“then why did you?”) because he could see how much Patrick needed to tell him that. Even if it sounded like he was trying to convince himself of it more than his son.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick reiterated, for once losing his trademark slick charm, sounding genuinely regretful.

Charlie’s gaze was steady on Patrick, who seemed to wilt under his son’s scrutiny. “I’m sorry, too,” he murmured, “but I guess in a way, I’m also grateful.”

“Oh?” Patrick mused.

It was Charlie’s turn to shrug. “I wouldn’t be who I am today if things had turned out differently.”

Patrick’s mouth quirked into a half smile. “So you’ve learned something from your old man after all, eh?” he quipped, that easy, smooth charisma surfacing once more.

“Yeah, I did,” Charlie admitted. “I had the chance to learn from your mistakes, Patrick.”

His father winced at the cold, indifferent use of his given name, but had the good grace not to protest.

“I hope you’ve learned something, too,” Charlie continued after a moment. “I hope you’re a better father to your future kids than you ever were to us.”

Patrick exhaled sharply, incredulously, shaking his head as Charlie’s comments sank in. “And you’re sure you don’t hate me?” he asked sardonically.

“I’m sure,” Charlie confirmed, feeling a lump rise up in the back of his throat. It had been hard admitting it to himself, much less to Sam and Kristy or even to Patrick himself. The anger was still there, but the bitterness was gone. “Like it or not, your leaving helped shape me into who I am today. I like who I am now. Maybe you don’t, but I do.”

Patrick’s expression softened, as if a mask of sadness was falling into place. “I’ll always love you, son,” he murmured, his eyes growing wide and filmy with tears. “No matter what.”

I wish I could believe you, Charlie thought. His chest ached hollowly as he gazed at his father, feeling nothing but sadness and loss. The man standing before him was unreliable, irresponsible, and immature, but he ached with sorrow all the same – for what they once had, as father and son; for what they’d never have, as adults.

Patrick’s gaze shifted to a point beyond Charlie’s shoulder. “It looks like they’re ready to start again,” he said, sliding his eyes back to his son’s face.

Charlie glanced back. “Looks like,” he echoed, turning to face Patrick one last time. He offered his hand. “Good luck.”

Patrick hesitated, but ultimately clasped Charlie’s hand, his grip firm and sure. “Thanks.”

Charlie nodded solemnly, turning his back on his father one last time.

He might not have wanted to be there, but at least he’d finally made his peace.