Better Than Perfect(3)

By: Kristina Mathews

“You knew my dad?” The boy seemed more impressed by that than the fact that people waited in line for his autograph.

“Yes. I knew him.” Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat. “Before he married your mom.”

“Cool.” The kid smiled and nodded his head, like it was no big deal. “I mean, I know you played for the Wolf Pack when they went to Nevada, but I had no idea you guys were, like, friends.”

Sure. Friends.

“Zach.” She placed her hand on his shoulder, ready to steer him away. “I’m sure Mr. Scottsdale is a busy man. Let’s leave him alone.”

They’d once been as close as two people could be. But now he was Mr. Scottsdale.

The boy shrugged, dismissing her and looking up to Johnny with admiration. “It’s totally awesome to meet you.”

Johnny nodded, giving his most sincere smile, even though seeing Alice, and her kid, hit him like a 97-mile-an-hour fastball.

They started to walk away.

“Give my best to Mel.” As if he hadn’t already done that.

Alice turned around.

“Mel died. Eight years ago.” A pained expression flashed across her face.

“I’m sorry. For your loss.” Johnny said the words. He wanted more than anything to mean them, but he’d carried that resentment around for so long, it had become as much a part of him as his right arm.

“Thank you.” Alice gave him a sad little smile. It was forced. Polite. The kind of smile she’d give a stranger. “It was good seeing you. Really good.”

“Yeah. Sure.” He could say the same, but he’d be lying. Seeing her again only reminded him of everything he’d sacrificed.

* * * *

The minute she’d seen Johnny on the stage, Alice’s heart had swelled big enough to fill the stadium. There he’d been, larger than life. Damn. The man looked good. Better than on TV. Better than she remembered. He’d gained some muscle. A lot of muscle. Even without the jersey, there’d be no doubt he was an athlete. He moved with the kind of confidence and grace that came with being totally in tune with his body. Like he’d once been totally in tune with hers. She ached at the memory, but shook it off, uncomfortable having such thoughts with her son sitting next to her. Like Johnny had clearly been uncomfortable onstage, addressing the media and the crowds. He never did like to talk about his game. He’d simply let his talent speak for itself.

Just as she’d predicted, women lined up at his booth. They all wanted his autograph. Some of them wanted a little more. She hadn’t been able to handle it back then. And now? What he did was his business. Especially since she’d been the one to walk out on him.

“Mom. Are you okay?” Zach was protective of her. And a little too observant.

“I’m fine, Zach.” She shook her head to clear the fog of memories that rolled over her. With only the briefest look into his eyes, she couldn’t forget the three years they’d spent together, nearly inseparable. Studying. Hanging out. Making love. “I’m surprised to see him, that’s all.”

“But you knew he’d be here.” Zach had that tone, the unspoken duh. They’d been coming to Fan Fest every year since Mel’s death. She’d known Johnny would be here. She just wasn’t prepared for the impact of seeing him again. She’d thought she’d put those feelings behind her. Packed them away with her college sweatshirts and student ID card. “You were so excited when you heard it on the radio. Your favorite player finally becoming a Goliath. Why didn’t you tell me you guys were, like, friends?”

“I didn’t want you to think it’s a big deal.” She tried to place her hand on his shoulder, but he squirmed to avoid the contact. That was new. Not unexpected, given his age, but she missed her little boy. The first time they’d come to Fan Fest, he’d held her hand. Until they’d gotten to the miniature version of the ballpark. He’d joined the t-ball game like he was born to play.

“It is a big deal.” Zach looked at her like she was hopelessly out of touch. Something he did a lot these days. “Mom, you actually know Johnny Scottsdale.”

There it was. The star-struck admiration bordering on worship.

“I knew him, Zach.” Alice tried to keep her tone neutral. She couldn’t betray her emotions. A wave of regret washed over her. The question of what might have been. “But that was a long time ago.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool if he came to the foundation’s minicamp?” Zach couldn’t know why it would be such a bad idea.

She’d hoped to avoid him. Avoid digging up the past. And the question that had plagued her more and more as Zach grew. “I already have a pitcher lined up. Nathan Cooper. He’s done it for years.”