It’s been one year since Erin moved in with Marissa and me, and my life has never been fuller. Every day I wake up, grateful that she’s in my life to keep me sane. She has this magical beauty about her, finding joy in everything she does, everything that happens, and mainly in me. Especially when I know I’m not the easiest man to deal with. I’m the most heartless person in her life, but every fucking day, she wakes up next to me, putting a smile on my face. Even on the days I don’t feel like smiling.
She has shown me what it feels like to truly love a person and yeah, to be a little fucking vulnerable—but not too much. It’s hard to have emotions when I’m constantly fighting to keep the bad ones down.
She’s five months pregnant, which is why she has her hands on Marissa’s hips while my daughter stands on a ladder on the front porch putting rubber little stickers on the windows to celebrate Veterans Day. I won’t let Erin climb up on anything, whether it’s Veterans Day or not. Erin and Marissa take the day way more seriously than I do.
“How does it look, Dad?”
It looks like a seven-year-old has tried to write on a window. I open my mouth, and Erin glares at me. “What?”
“She did a great job, yes?”
I nod, wanting to change that smug look on Erin’s face into the expression she gives me when we fuck. “The D is backward, Mar.” I shrug. I can only hold back so much. “And the red really looks kind of pink, don’t you guys think?”
Erin throws the plastic wrap she has balled up in her hands at me, and it bounces off my hat. “It’s all the store had. It’s the lighting. It’s not really pink. It’s red, white, and blue. Just like it should be.”
I roll my eyes.
“Done. Now let’s put the banners on.” Marissa climbs down the stepladder.
The two of them pull apart the banner. It’s a half circle, and they have four of them. Our fucking house is going to look like a dollar store amped up on drugs. Thank fuck I talked Marissa out of the strings of red, white, and blue lights she wanted to put up. The banners have strings on both ends, so Marissa grabs one end of a banner while Erin takes the other, and they hoist it over the porch railing.
“I’ll tie mine first, and then we can make sure it’s straight before you tie your end, okay?”
“I don’t know if I can tie it tight,” Marissa says as Erin pulls the string together and wraps it around the top of the rail. “Here, Dad. You do it.”
I shake my head. I already think this is too much. I’m by no means a hero, and it bugs the hell out of me when people make a big deal about being a veteran. I did what I signed up to do. Honestly, I didn’t even think I was going to ever make it back from my first tour, let alone a second one.
“Dad. Take it.”
I glance at Erin, who is waiting for me to take it. The gentle look of understanding in her eyes convinces me to step forward and pull the string around the railing. Marissa bounds down the steps and stands in the grass, clapping her hands in joy.
“It looks great. Do the next one,” she demands.
“You’re lucky you’re so cute or I’d be hating you for this,” I grumble to Erin.
She shakes her head. “You could never hate. You have too much love in you for that. Besides, this wasn’t even my idea. It was hers. And look how happy she is.”
Erin is right. I glance at Marissa while she runs her hands along the flag’s pleats. It’s fifty degrees out, and her hands are turning white, but she doesn’t seem to care. Her only goal right now is that we honor and show our support for veterans. “Yeah” is all I say to Erin.
We finish tying the rest of the fans up along the railing, and Marissa claps her hands together. “So beautiful. Now all of Akron Springs will know how important this is.” She jumps in place for a few seconds and then stops like she does when I yell at her. “Can I go and get it now?” She looks to Erin for an answer.
“Of course. It’s your surprise. You don’t have to ask me.”
Marissa runs inside, letting the screen door slam behind her. I fold my arms across my chest. Erin gives me a big grin.
“I hope this day isn’t that hard for you. She’s excited about this. She’s kept it a secret for a week.”
“That’s a long time for her,” I say.
“It is. You good?” Erin puts her hands on my shoulders, rises on her tiptoes, and kisses me. Her nose and lips are cold against mine. She smells like cinnamon and apples, and my dick starts to perk up at the idea of finishing what I tried to start before Marissa got dropped off earlier. The screen door flings open, and Erin pulls away.
“Look what I got for you.” Marissa struggles to hold the sign up. It’s a yard sign that reads Support a Veteran and displays a black ribbon across the United States Marine Corps emblem. She flips the sign over, and in her handwriting, it reads, “and if you don’t, go to hell.”
I bust up laughing and glance at Erin, who is shrugging. “Kids, right?” she says.
“Who taught you that?”
“You, of course. You say ‘hell’ a lot, Dad.”
“Well, it could have been worse. You could have written ‘fuck’ or something else.”
“Exactly.” She hands me the sign. “Will you put it in the ground? You have to put it out so people can read both sides, Dad.”
“Yeah.” I push the metal ends into the ground, following her instructions to a T. I turn around, and both of my girls are staring at me. “What?”
Erin smiles and steps to me. “The baby is moving. Do you want to feel it?”
“I do. I do. I do.” Marissa leaps forward and puts her hands on Erin’s belly.
I follow and do the same. I never thought I wanted another kid, but Erin has done something to me. She’s made me a changed man, even though she’s always accepted me as I am. She’s put more love in my heart than I’ve ever allowed. I’d never admit it out loud, but she’s made me realize that I’m worthy of love when for so long I haven’t believed that I am. Some days, the negative thoughts try to come back, and I do my best to push them away. Beneath my hands, the baby kicks.
“Did you feel me kick you when I was in Mom’s tummy?” Marissa asks.
I shake my head. In that moment, a lightbulb goes off. “We should name him Niko.” We’ve been talking about it since we found out he was a boy, but all the names sound basic and boring.
A large smile graces Erin’s face, and I know she loves it too. “Niko Handler. It suits him.” She rubs her belly. “I love it.”
A car honks, and Marissa’s mom is waiting at the curb. “I have to go. Dad, I’ll see you tomorrow night.” She runs into my arms and hugs me, and I pat her back. We’ve been able to see Marissa more since Erin moved in and convinced me that I should spend more time with her than I was. Fortunately, her mother is fine with it.
Erin waves at them as the car pulls away, and I go straight for Erin. “Finally. All to myself.” I wrap my hand around her neck and give her a light squeeze. “Your pregnant body does wicked fucking things to my body.”
“My pregnant body does wicked fucking things to my body too,” she jokes.
“You gonna sit on my face and let me treat you like the queen that you are?”
She nods, and I grip her hand in mine.
Yeah, if I think about it too much, it almost makes me hyperventilate. I’ve never been this full of happiness in my whole life. Full of love. Full of unadulterated joy. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. Makes me feel vulnerable, and I hate that. I have so much trust in Erin that I would be wrecked if she ever betrayed me. I keep my breathing steady, not letting my heart rate quicken the way it threatens to.
I squeeze Erin’s hand as we make our way up the patio steps. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you for everything.”