If you haven’t read my series on J.D. and Ari, you can do so here before continuing on.J.D. exhales on Ari’s exposed neck from behind. He feels her stomach flutter under his touch after slipping his right hand between her dress and her skin through the opening of the zipper. He draws his hand out then turns her around to face him. Their mouths meet in an ardent dance and he slides the straps of her dress over her shoulders. The red dress pools around her feet.
eHAri tugs his black dress shirt out of his jeans then unbuttons it hurriedly. He drops arms to his side and she pushes his shirt off to join her dress on the floor. She runs her hands up his stomach to his chest. A quick, warm breath escapes him against her lips.
J.D. wakes to the sound of Ethan playing in his crib through the baby monitor. He reaches across the bed and his hand finds emptiness. An invisible punch hits him in the gut and he pulls Ari’s pillow into him, clutching it to his chest. The faint sweet aroma of white ginger lingers. Tears surface easily and his body trembles in grief.
“Good morning, little man,” Tommy greets Ethan cheerfully.
Ethan giggles and crashes two toys together.
“Uncle Brad made pancakes. You hungry?”
J.D. wipes his face with his hand and remains curled up with Ari’s pillow.
How did he become one of the grieving family members he had to inform on the bad days at work? Only no one informed him. She slipped away with his arms around her.
Memories of her meander through his head. How she protested his chivalry in the beginning because it countered her independence. The warmth of her trembling hand the first time he held it in his car. Her long, silken licorice hair he loved tangling his fingers in. The endless glimmer in her obsidian eyes when she smiled. How her tender touch always eased his stress. How the press of her lips in a simple peck on the cheek set him on fire.
He inhales deeply to ease his heart ache then shoves the covers off and reluctantly sets the pillow back in place. He pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes then trudges to the bathroom and catches a glimpse of his red eyes in the mirror. He cannot remember when he ever cried so much.
Tommy and Brad sit at the table on either side of Ethan’s highchair in the small dining room when J.D. emerges from his shower. Ethan shoves a little piece of pancake in his mouth then picks another up and holds it out to Brad. Brad opens his mouth and allows Ethan to drop the morsel inside. Ethan claps with a squinty smile.
J.D. pours a cup of coffee feeling numb and directionless.
Tommy joins him in the kitchen. “Let me fix you a plate,” he offers.
“I’m not hungry,” J.D. states blandly and leans against the counter with the mug in hand while watching Ethan.
Brad shifts his eyes to the kitchen. “You didn’t eat last night.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Ari did this too, you know.”
J.D. glares at Brad. “Like you would know what it feels like to lose your wife because of a psycho stalker,” he snaps bitterly.
“She was a little sister to me, J.D. Being married to her doesn’t make your pain any worse or greater than mine, just different. We all lost Ari,” Brad responds sternly. “I know the signs. I went through it twice with her before you met and when you were in D.C. She didn’t like me forcing her to socialize when she wanted to hole up in her dorm. But if I hadn’t, you two wouldn’t have met.”
J.D. snorts and rolls his eyes away from Brad.
“I know you’re grieving, but you can’t take care of Ethan if you don’t take care of yourself.”
J.D. hears the echo of familiar words spoken in the spot where he now stands while pleading with Ari.
Tommy holds out a plate of pancakes. J.D. presses his lips together then takes the plate with his coffee and sits at the table. Ethan holds out a piece of pancake across the table to J.D.
J.D. takes Ethan’s offering. “Thanks, buddy.” He pops it in his mouth and chews.
“Mom and Dad get in early this afternoon,” Tommy tells him as he resumes his seat at the table. “Do you want them to stay here or with me?”
“I don’t care.” He pours syrup over the pancakes.
“Ari’s dad called while you were in the shower,” Brad informs him, cutting up more pancake pieces for Ethan.
J.D. clenches his jaw and holds a forkful of pancake in the air. “What did he want?”
“A visit from you and Ethan.”
“What a winner,” Tommy says sarcastically.
J.D. sighs then feels the anguish creeping back in, tightening his chest. He pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyelids together.
Ethan slaps both hands on the highchair tray making the adults pay attention to him. He picks up his cup and holds it overhead.
Brad snatches the cup from Ethan’s hands. “I guess you’re pau, yeah?” He stands and lifts Ethan out of the chair then takes him to the bathroom to wash up.
J.D. leans back in his chair. “It’s too much,” he says weakly.
“You just lost your wife and unborn baby unexpectedly, Jack. Of course it’s too much. But life doesn’t stop while we get our bearings.”
“I want her back.” He breaks down and cries again.
Tommy pulls J.D. into his arms and strokes his head. “I’m sorry you’re going through this. You know I’m here for whatever you need.”
Brad leaves to shower at home the same time Tommy leaves for the airport. J.D. plays blocks with Ethan on the living room floor while Ari’s favorite tape, Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs, plays on the stereo.
Ethan picks up a block from the track they made and sits up. He regards J.D. with his big obsidian eyes and wild dark curls. “Mommy?”
J.D.’s heart jumps into his throat and lodges there as the front door opens.
“Look who I brought, Ethan!” Tommy calls.
Ethan turns to Tommy and his eyes, Ari’s eyes, shine when Karen and Rick follow Tommy through the door. He clambers to his feet and runs to them. Rick grabs him under his arms and tosses him in the air. Ethan squawks with delight.
J.D. sits blank and unmoving.
“Jack?” Tommy asks, kicking off his slippers.
He stares at the floor in response.
Karen hurries over and kneels next to him. “Honey, what is it?”
He turns slowly to his mother with tears threatening to fall. “He asked for Ari.” His body shudders as the damn breaks and the hot, salty tears stream down his face.
Karen wraps her arms around him. He squeezes her into him and holds on for dear life.
“What do I tell him?” he sobs. “He’s not going to understand.” His grief shifts to anger in a heartbeat and he pushes Karen away. “What the hell did I do to deserve this? Is it because I treated her like shit in college and was too immature to deal with my feelings? And damn that asshole for taking them away from me!”
Rick slips out to the lanai with Ethan through the kitchen and dining room.
“Jack, getting angry isn’t going to help.” Karen reaches for him again.
He throws his hands up to thwart her and stands up over her, clenching his fists. “Fuck that, Mom! I was patient and understanding while he stalked her twice and look where that got me!”
She shakes her head as she fights back her own tears and sits back on her heels with her hands folded in her lap.
“It’s not fair!”
“No, it’s not. It’s just life, Jack,” she chokes.
Rage boils inside J.D. and the urge to release it rather than contain wins. He marches over to the bookcase next to the futon and pulls it down. Books scatter across the floor then the bookcase crashes down.
Karen scampers out of the way and Tommy rushes over, grabbing J.D.’s arm. Karen collects books into her arms and keeps her head down to hide her tears.
“Calm down, Jack,” Tommy says sharply.
J.D. yanks his arm out of Tommy’s grip and storms off to his room, slamming the door behind him. He crawls onto the bed and pulls Ari’s pillow into him. He inhales deeply and closes his eyes.
Brad shakes him awake forcefully.
“What?” he groans and shrugs away.
Brad holds out the phone to him. “Ari’s grandmother.”
The words jolt him mentally and he takes the phone. “Lola?”
He feels an inner tug to cry again hearing her voice.
“We get da plot next to her brother,” Lola says. “And Charlie stay working on getting her body here. Visitation and service two weeks from today.”
He sits up with the pillow in his lap, ashamed she has done so much when all he has done is cry and take his anger out on family and inanimate objects. “How much do I need to send you?” he asks, resting his arms on bent knees and running his left hand through his hair.
“Nah. No need.”
“I want to,” he protests.
“No,” she says decisively.
He lays the pillow next to him. “Thanks, Lola.”
“Eh,” she responds dismissively. “Downstairs stay ready for you.”
J.D. releases a flood of tears.
“You family. No turn away family just because Ari’s gone. You going need family for watch Ethan when you work.”
“Why her?” he asks between sniffles.
“Not her. Us,” she answers. “God putting us in fire to make us better, stronger. Refine us. Ari had her turn in da fire many times. Our turn now.”
“How can you believe that?”
“Why not believe dat? Look all she went through wit’ her brother, her parents, forced to move, dat guy in college, Lance, and da baby. She came out better in da end, yeah?”
J.D. is quiet for a moment as Lola’s simple answer sinks in. “Yeah.”
“How much better we going be after dis? I going miss her every day, but I going have you and Ethan. You going have all of us.”
He wipes his face with the back of his hand. “Her dad called while I was in the shower.”
“I tol’ him not fo’ bug you,” she says angrily.
“I won’t take Ethan to him,” he assures her. “Ari wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“She knew he had fo’ stop running away. You no runaway either.” Her tone left no room for arguing or defiance.
“I won’t,” he promises.
“I going kick your okolele if you try.”
For the first time since Ari’s death the day before, J.D. smiles and laughs.