“Are you sure about this?”
Danny stood shoulder to shoulder with his son, following his gaze. They stayed still for a long moment, staring at the dark, mangled mess, then Zack let out a small breath.
“Don’t need it anymore.” His eyes drifted sideways, away from the blacks and greys. “Are you sure about this?”
Smiling wide, Danny pat him on the back. “Of course. You can just paint her again. Somewhere other than the side of a building.”
Zack huffed his light laugh and the corner of his mouth crept upward. Rarely did Danny get more than that, but it happened often enough now to calm any lingering worries. After a quick nudge, getting a confirming nod in return, he waved the painters over. The two stepped to the edge of the sidewalk, watching as ladders were positioned and buckets of paint hung, then large rollers dipped and moved to the brick. The mural had taken over four months to create and in only minutes, large bands of white covered it.
Danny was sure Zack would be more upset – he couldn’t imagine the amount of emotion that had gone into this – but the kid only stood, arms crossed, looking at the wall in satisfaction. He thought he may have also seen some relief, the last of that old life disappearing before him.
Well, not the last. But they would take care of that later.
There was the patter of footsteps behind them, then a tiny hand tugging at Zack’s jeans.
“Unca Zack,” said a small voice, and they looked down to see a dark-haired toddler staring up with wide, green eyes. “Bunny.”
Zack groaned under his breath and Danny chuckled. “Language...” he warned.
“Why’s she here?” Zack asked, not expecting an answer, then he crouched, removing the hand. “Naomi, it’s Zack. Not uncle. Just Zack. I’m only nineteen.”
“And she’s only two. That’s old to her, old man.”
“Very funny,” Zack grumbled, flashing a frown, then returning his attention to the girl. “Where’s your dad?”
There was a chuckle from around the corner, then a familiar, idiotic grin, making Zack groan again. “Sorry, she got away from me. She’s quick!”
“What the hell’re you doing in there? We're right next to the street! If you’re gonna bring a small child to the center, you have to watch her. You’re seriously the worst father.”
Jay snorted at the scolding and Danny had difficulty suppressing a smile.
“It’s not fucking funny, asshole.”
“Language,” Danny repeated, more forcefully this time, slapping the back of his head.
Running into her father’s arms, Naomi pointed at the renovated warehouse. “Bunny!” she demanded with a pout.
“Fine.” Trudging past Danny, who only smiled at his quick surrender, Zack followed father and daughter into the art center to paint.
Left alone, Danny watched a thick strip of white cover his wife’s face. So much had happened since this painting that the last five years felt more like a lifetime. The feelings from back then weren’t gone, just somehow quiet in his mind and at rest in his heart. Layered over them were new, wonderful things, blanketing past pains in a comforting warmth.
Pushing every last breath from his lungs, expelling any remaining attachment, he left the now mostly white wall to join his son and friend and check on Naomi’s urgent bunny request.
“Are you sure about this?”
Zack scowled and unbuckled his seatbelt. “Why do you keep fucking asking me that?”
He knew why Danny was asking. He knew he was worried and he supposed he would feel the same if their positions were reversed, but it didn’t make the question less annoying. Glancing past his father, Zack swallowed hard. Maybe it wasn’t annoying. Maybe it was just so valid, he didn’t want to think about it, because then he might realize he wasn’t sure about this and chicken out.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, trying to reassure them both.
The man gave his shoulder a tight squeeze and smiled, a smile that always made him feel better. He would never tell Danny that, but he was pretty sure the man already knew.
“I’ll be here waiting. If you’re not comfortable, just come out and we’ll leave.”
Zack huffed out a laugh. Who’s more nervous here? He let the strap snap back beside the seat and opened the door, then took a breath, slamming the door shut and walking around to poke his head into Danny’s window.
“I’ll be fine.” Those words were more confident.
“I know.” The man ruffled his curls and he slapped the hand away, but that face only kept smiling. “I’ll be right here.”
With a small nod, he turned and approached the large, guarded gate, told the man his name, then after a quick inspection, was directed down an outdoor corridor. The tall fencing and swirling barbed wire made his chest tighten, and he swallowed again, pushing the nerves back into his stomach. Inside, he handed over his ID, filled out the visitor paperwork, and was searched, this time more thoroughly. He purposely didn’t bring anything, so the process went smoothly, and in minutes he was led through another secure door and into a small, glassed-in room.
There were others already sitting around tables, chatting or staring awkwardly at each other, and his eyes drifted until finally locking onto a barely familiar face. It was older, yet not as haggard – not the shrunken, sickly face from his memories. For a brief moment, he thought he should feel pleased, but the thought quickly passed.
“Well, shit. Look at my Z.” The voice was softer than he remembered, excited, but that only made him more tense.
The woman waved him over to her table in the corner, gesturing for him to sit. Their eyes met, so close now he could see the reflections of the bright fluorescents, and he cleared his throat.
“Really?” She huffed and leaned back in her chair. Both the sound and expression were so similar to his, he couldn't help feeling a little sick. “You’re still not gonna call me mom?”
“If you were ever my mom, I might think about it.”
Joey nodded. “Still a little shit, I see. I gave you life.”
“And it’s been a fucking great one. Thanks.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Fuck. I didn’t come here to fight.”
That made the woman smile, also softer than he remembered, and he winced. Must be easier to smile when you’re not completely wasted or high. Or both. She leaned forward again, resting her elbows gently on the table. Letting out another sigh, he did his best to release the anger.
“So, why did you come? You haven’t visited in... eight years?”
“You were so young...” She trailed off, looking almost sad, but he ignored it. She had no right to feel anything. “And now you’re, what, seventeen? Eighteen?”
“Nineteen. You can’t even remember my fucking birthdate. Nice.”
She waved the comment off. “You always were small for your age.” There was a pause and she smiled again. “Damn. Nineteen. My baby's all grown up. And you look so good.”
“No thanks to you.” He groaned, rubbing the back of his neck. “... Sorry.”
“I deserve it.” Another pause and she laid her forearms on the table, as if she wanted to reach out. “You do look good though. I’m glad.”
He nodded and they stared at each other for a few moments in silence. It had taken a lot of courage to finally come here, and he couldn’t let himself be swayed by softness and a smile, so he took a quick breath and broke the tension.
“I came to say goodbye.”
Her eyebrows raised slightly, clearly not understanding his meaning. “It isn’t like we see each other often. Nine years, you said.”
“I mean goodbye for good.”
“What?” Her voice was hushed, her eyebrows higher and her eyes wide. He thought he could see the blue shine a bit more in the harsh light and was certain if she cried, he would have to leave. Instead, she just let out a small sigh, her expression relaxing. “I understand.”
He hadn’t expected her to, but he wasn’t the only one who had changed. Still, he didn’t want to know. He wasn’t a child anymore, and he had a new life to live. And there was no room for her in it.
“It’s been a long time, and I’m in a good place now. A really good place. I’m still your son, so I wanted to tell you. And if you had any questions... let you ask them. Closure, or some shit like that.”
She smirked. “Counseling?”
“That’s part of it.” She would be familiar with the process, jumping between prison and rehab so often, but since she was still here, it clearly hadn’t helped her any. But it helped him. “So? Questions?”
The smirk returned to a soft smile and she moved her arms back. She knew there would be no contact between them today. Or ever.
“Then ask.” He didn’t want to drag this out, but she knew that too.
“Adopted, when I was fifteen.” He felt the corner of his mouth lift thinking about it and huffed out a small laugh. “By a very strange man.”
“Really? Seems a bit late to bother.”
He couldn’t argue with that. No one wanted a fucked up teen. Almost no one, anyway. “His wife died and he was in a dark place. He told me once that I saved his life, but I think that’s bullshit.” He huffed again. “Doesn’t really matter. He’s family now. He usually has no fucking clue what he’s doing, but he cares about me.”
Joey smirked, that line of questioning ended. “That’s good then.” Scratching at an arm, she thought of something else to ask. “School?”
“Dropped out at sixteen. I got into a lotta trouble, so Danny signed me out and I did a high school equivalency instead.”
“Danny's the father?” He nodded. He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or jealous to hear the man’s name. “And now?”
His lip curled again. “Going to college, for art. Danny converted this old, shitty warehouse into an art center. They've got classes, groups, graffiti collabs... It’s interesting, I suppose. Wouldn’t hurt to learn more.”
“So Danny has money." This time, Joey was clearly bitter and he frowned. "Guess you scored.”
“Says the rich bitch who lost everything because of drugs.”
It was the truth, so she moved on. “Girlfriend?”
“Boyfriend.” Her eyebrow raised, but she didn’t say anything. “Andre.”
“That’s good too.”
Suddenly, his chest grew hot and his stomach knotted. This was too casual, too friendly, and a panicked voice in the back of his mind told him to stop.
“Anyway, I just wanted you to know. For my own peace of mind, or something.”
Another soft nod from her, along with a soft smile, and she held out her hand. “This is it, then?”
He quickly shook, then pulled back and shoved the hand in a pocket. “Take care of yourself, I guess.” After a short breath, he added, “I changed my name, so don’t bother looking me up.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned and rushed to the exit, his heart pounding as the guard pat him down a final time and let him go. He almost ran across the street, and before he was in the passenger seat, the engine was running and the car was in drive.
Danny didn’t ask or say anything, just briefly rubbing his back as he buckled the seatbelt. Then they were off, the prison shrinking into the background until it disappeared completely.
“Hungry?” the man asked after a short while, and Zack huffed his small laugh.
Danny grinned wide and Zack slouched comfortably into the seat. It was finally over, this life finally his, and for the first time in a long time, he smiled.