Martin lowered his window in the car loop line outside Parkview Middle School and flicked his cigarette to the curb as the final bell rang. He had plans for the future and every intention of achieving his goals in light of a few unexpected setbacks along the way. He liked the boys’ school, although he preferred them to have a private education—an issue he would broach with Melissa before the next school year. He wanted the best for his boys, which meant injecting himself in their lives as a positive role model. He was, after all, their flesh and blood. His boys needed a real man in their lives, someone with the means to provide for them and their mother.
He got out of his BMW and looked back at the school to see Jonathan and Adam emerge from a crowd of students making their way toward the parking lot. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly to draw the boys’ attention.
* * *
“Where’s mom?” Jonathan asked when he and Adam approached their dad.
“Does she know you’re here?” asked Adam.
Martin opened the trunk with his key fob. “She sent me to pick you up. Drop your bags. We gotta go.”
The boys put their bags in the trunk and settled in the back seat.
“We should send her a text,” said Adam when his dad got behind the wheel.
“And spoil the surprise?”
“What surprise?” asked Jonathan. He stretched his shoulder belt across his chest and buckled the latch.
Martin cut the wheel and pulled out of the car loop line. He accelerated briskly across the school property and merged with traffic heading east outside the city. “You guys will like it. Your mom will too.”
“Mom doesn’t like surprises,” said Jonathan.
“She’ll like this one.”
Jonathan looked at his dad. “Why does Mom hate you?”
“Your mom doesn’t hate me. She’s just confused. Women get that way sometimes.”
“All women?” asked Adam.
“Are you going to live with us again?”
Martin glanced at Adam in the rear view mirror. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You were gone a long time.”
“I didn’t mean to. My work sort of got in the way.”
“Mom told us another woman got in the way,” said Jonathan.
“Your mom and I don’t always agree on everything, but we both want what’s best for you and your brother.”
“Mom says you’re moving back to California,” said Adam.
“I’m not moving back to California.”
“Where is this surprise?” asked Jonathan.
“Give us a hint.”
“It’s bigger than you expect.”
“Is it money?”
“Is it a new Bentley?”
“Is it a new house?”
Martin continued out of town toward more rural countryside. He cracked his window and lit a cigarette. “If I told you what it was, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
“Were you here for the flood?”
“I was in California. But I heard about it. I’m really sorry it happened.”
“Tomás died in the storm,” Adam muttered somberly.
“Mr. Presley rescued Jonathan.”
“Your mom told me.”
“I wish someone had rescued Tomás.”
Martin took a long drag on his cigarette and drove faster when the traffic thinned out. “Tomás was a good chauffeur. I feel bad about what happened.”
Adam grabbed the headrest in front of him and leaned forward. “Why didn’t you come to his funeral?”
“I was in California.”
“Why did you move there in the first place?”
Martin blew smoke at the open window and pondered Adam’s question. “Maybe we can get out the bats and balls this summer.”
“We don’t play baseball anymore,” Jonathan replied before his brother could answer.
“We outgrew it.”
“You never outgrowbaseball.”
“Mom takes us to the country club. They have a nice pool there.”
Martin slowed off the highway and hung a left at a four-way stop. He drove until he reached a gravel driveway and followed the entrance to an old farm house situated on several acres of open land surrounded by triple-rail fence.
“Where are we?” asked Adam.
“Is this our surprise?” the boys asked together.
“You’ll see.” Martin parked the BMW outside the farm house with faded shutters and a wraparound porch with a self-supporting hammock and a roof with missing shingles. He got out with the boys and approached the property when the screen door opened to a bearded man in overalls and rubber boots.
“You’re right on time,” the man announced.
“Mr. Cooper,” said Martin, shaking hands with the property owner. “Good to see you again.”
“You brought the whole crew this time.”
Martin gestured toward his boys. “These are my sons, Jonathan and Adam.”
Mr. Cooper shook hands with the boys. “Jim Cooper. Nice to meet you both.” He redirected his attention to Martin. “Do they know?”
“You wanna take them out or should I?”
“She’s your animal.”
Martin followed Mr. Cooper around the back of the house with Jonathan and Adam trailing behind. “I appreciate your time.”
“I appreciate your offer. I served the Army for twenty-seven years. Now I serve this farm. My nephew helps out from time to time. Don’t get many folks out here anymore, beyond neighbors and family.”
Martin stopped at the fence line and pointed toward the center of the grassy flatland near a pond, where a black Tennessee mare pawed at the dirt and faced the group. He noticed his sons’ expressions change from bored to bewildered to elated. “Does she look familiar?”
“Sabrina?” asked Jonathan.
“Call her name, son. She’s waiting for you.”
Jonathan looked at Adam in disbelief. “I thought Mom sold her?”
“She did,” said Martin. “I bought her back.”
“Can we keep her this time?” Jonathan asked on the verge of tears while his brother waved his arm to draw the horse’s attention.
“She’s your horse. She belongs with you.”
“I thought you bought us a pig or something!” Adam exclaimed. “This is awesome!”
“You deserve to have her,” Martin told his youngest son. Then he looked back at Mr. Cooper. “I hate to ask, but could I borrow your trailer?”
Mr. Cooper pointed to the Chevy Silverado out front. “Leave your car and take my truck. I’m already hitched.”
Martin towed the horse trailer through the open gate at the entrance to Melissa’s estate. “I’ll need you to help me unload her,” he told Jonathan and Adam in the Silverado’s crew cab.
“No problem,” said Jonathan from behind the driver’s seat, engaged in a text message dialogue with Abby.
“Me too,” Adam chimed in, peering over the front headrest to see his mom outside the house. “What about your car?”
“I’ll get it when I take the truck back.”
Adam shifted in his seat to view the horse trailer in tow. “I thought we’d never see her again.”
Martin glanced up at the rear view mirror. “She’s a beautiful animal. You do right by her, and she’ll do right by you.”
“Mom’s going to be surprised!” said Adam.
Martin slowed when Melissa stormed toward the truck. He waved his hand from the top of the steering wheel and braced for the verbal assault.
* * *
“What the hell is going on?” Melissa fumed the instant Martin stepped out. “Where the hell have you been? I called the boys. I called your cell. No one answered. Not even a text message.”
“When I got to their school, the principal told me you picked up the boys. I never authorized you to take them. I was worried something happened.”
“Don’t blame the boys.”
“I’m blaming you! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours!”
“We were busy.”
“I called the police. Twice.”
“We brought Sabrina home!” Adam interrupted.
Melissa charged toward the back of the trailer. “I can’t believe you did this,” she said to Martin who followed close behind.
“Sabrina belongs to the boys.”
Melissa made a sweeping arm gesture to emphasize her point. “You had no right.”
“I thought you’d be happy. The boys need a win. They’ve been through a lot lately.”
“Are you delusional? You have no idea what our boys have been through. The fact that you kidnapped them to buy a horse I sold to someone else only makes things worse.”
Martin ran his hand through his hair. “I didn’t kidnap them. They’re my sons too. This horse belongs to them.”
“You should have consulted me first.”
“Not my style.”
“You mean, not your problem. Who’s going to take care of this animal when I go on tour? I can’t afford to board a horse. Why do you think I sold her in the first place?”
“We’ll work something out.”
Melissa stomped away from the trailer out of earshot from her boys and waited for Martin to catch up. “There is nothing to work out. We’re not keeping this horse.”
Martin lit a cigarette and blew smoke through his nose. “Relax. The boys can muck a stall as well as anyone.”
“The boys are going on tour with me.”
Martin drew a long breath through the filtered Kool and grimaced. “We never talked about this.”
“There is no we. This whole thing, this, mess you keep stirring up. This damn horse. This was never a mutual decision. This is you doing something foolish because it makes you feel good.”
Martin flicked ash at the ground while his boys interacted with Sabrina in the trailer. “You and the boys have lost so much.”
“The boys have everything they need.”
“I just want to help.”
“We don’t need your help, and we don’t need your charity.”
“The boys deserve more.”
“The boys deserve better. I know what you’re trying to do. I think it’s pathetic.”
“Don’t call me that. I hate it when you call me that.”
Martin blew smoke as the boys approached. “What do you want me to do?”
“Take her back.”
“She’s not a puppy I picked up from the pound. I can’t just turn around and take her back.”
“Sure you can.”
“I made a deal.”
“Not my problem.”
“We can’t take her back!” Jonathan exclaimed.
“We have to keep her!” said Adam. “She belongs to us!”
“Your dad made a mistake.”
“Please!” both boys exclaimed. “We’ll take good care of her.”
Melissa pointed toward the house. “Go inside.”
“Sabrina wants to live here.”
“Sabrina already has a new home. Your dad’s going to return her there.”
“Dad?” Jonathan pleaded.
Martin looked away. “I’m sorry.”
“Get inside,” Melissa ordered.
“This isn’t fair,” said Jonathan.
Melissa held her ground and kept her anger in check. “We’re not keeping the horse.”
Jonathan stomped toward the house. “I hate you!”
“Same here!” said Adam, who followed his brother in disgust.
Martin dropped his cigarette butt and crushed it under his shoe. “Not too late to change your mind,” he told Melissa.
“What you did was wrong.”
Melissa pointed to the truck. “Get out of here. You’ve done enough damage already.”
Martin climbed inside the cab and gave Melissa a token wave. Then he mumbled to himself, “Checkmate.”