could suck the leather off a couch.

Michael had spent the better part of a week trying to get into Ellen’s pants when up walked Gina, her cousin. She’d pretty much ripped Michael a new one for messing around with her favorite baby cousin, but when he’d shipped out a couple of days later, it was Gina he was thinking about. Her curly brown hair, her delicate features, the smooth curve of her ass. He started writing to her, and to his surprise, she wrote back- real mean at first, but then she calmed down a little, almost got sweet on him. He was in Kuwait, supposedly keeping the peace, when some dumb-ass teenager fooling around with a handgun accidentally shot him in the leg. The kid was a lousy shot, but the wound wouldn’t heal. When Michael was sent to the base in Germany for surgery, it was Gina he called first.

They got married a week after he was discharged and two weeks later he signed up with the Atlanta Police Department. Gina graduated from nursing school at Georgia Baptist and got a good job at Crawford Long Hospital. Two years later, she went over to Piedmont where they paid her more. Michael got his gold shield and was moved from his patrol beat at Grady to Vice, with a pay bump to match. Soon, their life was rolling along better than Michael had ever expected. They bought a house just north of Atlanta, started putting money away for a rainy day, thinking about having a kid or two and making it a real family. Then Tim came along.

He was a quiet baby, but Michael saw a sparkle in his big blue eyes. The first time he held Tim was like holding his own heart in his hands.

It was Barbara, Gina’s mom, who saw the problems first. He never cries. He doesn’t engage. He stares at the wall for hours. Michael fought it tooth and nail, but the doctor confirmed Barbara’s suspicions. Tim had been deprived of oxygen at some point during Gina’s pregnancy. His brain would never develop past the level of a six- year-old. They didn’t know how or why, but that was just the way it was.

Michael had never liked Barbara, but Tim’s diagnosis made him hate her. It was a cliche to despise your mother-in-law, but she had always thought her daughter traded down and now she saw Tim’s problem as Michael’s failure. She was also some kind of religious nut, quick to find fault in others, not so quick to see it in herself. She wasn’t just the glass-is-half-empty type; she thought the glass was half empty and they were all going to hell for it.

“Tim?” Michael called, putting on a T-shirt as he walked through the house. “Where are you, buddy?”

He heard giggling behind the couch, but kept walking toward the kitchen.

“Where’d Tim go?” he asked, noting his son had scattered a full box of Cheerios all over the kitchen table. Tim’s blue bowl was filled to the rim with milk, and for just a second Michael could see Aleesha Monroe’s red, red mouth, the way it had been filled with her own blood.

“Boo!” Tim screamed, grabbing Michael around the waist.

Michael startled, even though Tim did this practically every morning. His heart was thumping in his chest as he lifted his son up into his arms. The kid was eight now, much too big to be held, but Michael couldn’t help himself. He stroked back the cowlick on the top of Tim’s head. “You sleep okay, kiddo?”

Tim nodded, pulling away from Michael’s hand, pushing at his shoulder so he could get down.

“Let’s clean up this mess before Ba-Ba gets here,” he suggested, scooping some of the cereal into his hand and tossing it into the box. Barbara came during the week to watch Tim. She took him to school, picked him up, made sure he had his snack and did his homework. Most days, she spent more time with him than either Michael or Gina, but it wasn’t like either of them had a choice.

“Ba-Ba won’t like this mess,” Michael said.

“Nope,” Tim agreed. He was sitting at the table, legs pulled up underneath him. The fly to his Spider-Man pajamas sagged open.

“Tuck in your equipment, buddy,” Michael admonished, trying to fight the wave of sadness that came over him as Tim fumbled with the buttons.

Michael had been an only child, probably a little more than spoiled. When Tim came along, he didn’t know anything about caring for a baby. Changing Tim’s diaper had been embarrassing, something to get over with as quickly as possible and with minimal contact. Now, all Michael could think about was the fact that Tim would hit puberty in a few years. His body would start growing, changing him into a man, but his mind would never catch up. He would never know what it was like to make love to a woman, to use what God gave him to bring pleasure to another human being. He would never have children of his own. Tim would never know the joy and heartache of being a father.

“Who made this mess?” Gina asked. She was wrapped in the blue silk robe Michael had given her for Christmas a couple of years ago, her hair swirled up in a towel. “Did you make this mess?” she teased Tim, cupping his chin in her hand as she kissed his lips. “Ba-Ba won’t like this,” she said. Michael got a secret kick that the kid hadn’t been able to call Barbara grandma like she wanted.

Tim started to help clean up, making more of a mess in the process. “Uh-oh,” he said, dropping to his knees, picking up one Cheerio at a time, counting them out loud as he handed them to his mother.

Gina asked Michael, “You getting home at a decent hour tonight?”

“I told you I had a case.”

“In a bar?” she said, and he turned his back to her, taking a couple of mugs down from the cabinet. He’d been too wound up last night to come straight home. Leo had suggested they get a drink, talk about the case, and Michael had taken him up on the offer, using the excuse to toss back a couple of bourbons and take the edge off what he’d seen.

“Eleven…” Tim counted. “Twelve…”

Gina said, “You smell like an ashtray.”

“I didn’t smoke.”

“I didn’t say you did.” She dropped a handful of Cheerios into the box and held out her hand for more.

“Fourteen,” Tim continued.

“I just needed some time.” Michael poured coffee into the mugs. “Leo wanted to talk about the case.”

“Leo wanted an excuse to get shitfaced.”

“Uh-oh,” Tim sang.

“Sorry, baby,” Gina apologized to their son. She softened her tone. “You skipped a number. What happened to thirteen?”

Tim shrugged. For the moment, he could only count to twenty-eight, but Gina made sure he hit every number along the way.

Gina told Tim, “Go get dressed for Ba-Ba. She’ll be here soon.”

Tim stood and bounced out of the room, skipping from one foot to the other.

Gina dropped the Cheerios into the box and sat down with a groan. She had pulled a double shift this weekend to pick up some extra money. The day hadn’t even started and already she looked exhausted.

“Busy night?” he asked.

She took a sip of coffee, looking at him over the steam rising from the mug. “I need money for the new therapist.”

Michael sighed, leaning against the counter. Tim’s old speech therapist had taken him as far as she could. The kid needed a specialist, and the good specialists weren’t on the state health insurance plan.

“Five hundred dollars,” Gina said. “That’ll get him through the end of the month.”

“Christ.” Michael rubbed his fingers into his eyes, feeling a headache coming on. He thought about the BMW and the Lincoln he’d seen at Grady Homes last night. Tim could see fifty specialists for that kind of money.

“Take it out of savings,” he said.

She snorted a laugh. “What savings?”

Christmas. They had raided their savings for Christmas.

“I’m gonna ask for another shift at the hospital.” She held up her hand to stop his protest. “He’s got to have the best.”

“He’s got to have his mother.”

“How about your mother?” she shot back.

Michael’s jaw set. “I’m not going to ask her for another dime.”

She put down the mug on the table with a thump that spilled coffee onto the back of her hand. There was no way to win this argument- Michael should know, they’d had it practically every week over the last five years. He was already working overtime, trying to bring in extra cash so Tim could have the things he needed. Gina took

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