‹ Prequel: Infinite

Summer Boy

Live Without

Ronnie and I took the nephews home early that evening and dropped them with their mom and older half-sister, who was back from her dad’s house. We hugged each of them goodbye on the front steps with the car idling in the driveway, Sascha strapped right into his car-seat. We didn’t know when we would be back in Las Vegas or when we would see them again before the holidays. Each of them, Nolan, Devin, Tanner, and Reeve, gave Ronnie and I sincere hugs, thanking us for the day at the aquarium and pool. Arch also hugged each of them goodbye as well, closer to the Radke brood than ever before. After making the brothers promise to say goodbye to their father for us, Ronnie and I returned back to the hotel with our boys so we could pack up and prepare for the four hour drive home. 

We made it back to LA just as the sky was beginning to darken and the sun crested over the buildings, dipping low behind the mountains and the ocean. We drove along the coast highway, watching our children’s head dip back against their car-seats as we headed home into the heart of the city. I was relieved and happy to be home when Ronnie finally pulled into the back drive behind the house. Even though it wasn’t late, the ride had lulled both kids to sleep, and I was eager to keep them that way for as much of the night as possible.

I threw the door open and climbed out, grinning back at Ronnie’s laughter as I bolted toward the house, unable to hold my bladder for much longer. I rushed up the back steps and had my keys ready to shove into the sliding glass door when I got there. I threw the door open, calling a thank you back to Ronnie for getting the boys, and raced to the first-floor bathroom. 

When I wandered back to the living room, Ronnie was coming through the open door with Sascha in one arm and Arch almost awake in the other. Arch’s lids were heavy and his head laid on Ronnie’s shoulder, on the brink of falling back asleep. I took Arch from him despite his quiet protests, and we walked upstairs together to deposit the boys in their separate rooms. We didn’t speak a word, intent of letting the boys stay asleep, and met back up on the stairs to get the luggage from the car.

“Happy to be home?” Ronnie asked quietly, lightly leaning into me as we rounded the steps down to the first floor.

I nodded contently. This place had become our home, no questions asked, immediately after we moved in. I thought it would be harder to leave the Pasadena house behind, but this place was perfect for this new part of our life. The two bedroom house wasn’t big enough for our family, wasn’t convenient enough to work for us. Especially not with Ronnie moved in the way he was. Once I had thought that Ronnie and I would live there together, then Arch and I, and now we were a makeshift family at double the size.

We lugged the bags into the living room, where I tossed them down onto the couch and fell beside them, tired but comfortable. 

Ronnie laughed quietly and shook his dark head. He dragged my duffel out from beneath me and took it up to the bedroom, clomping up the stairs. I could hear him curling around the second floor landing to my bedroom. The sound of him came right back to the stairs and a second later he was standing at the back of the couch behind me. 

“Atti, let’s get you upstairs,” he said, leaning against the couch to peer down at me.

I shook my head, quietly shushing him. “No, let’s just enjoy the quiet,” I answered, face down on the couch. “If we don’t go up there, maybe they’ll stay asleep.” I tucked my bent arms beneath my head and turned to look up at him, knowing I could reel him in to my side with the temptation of an hour or two without crying or rambunctious boys. 

Ronnie nodded succinctly and patted my legs. “Alright, move over,” he said and practically hopped over the back of the couch to land beside me just as I straightened up. 

I admonished Ronnie as I dragged my legs into keep from being landed on. Ronnie laughed at my concern and pushed himself forward to grab the TV remote from the coffee table. When we moved houses, we set ground rules for Arch, namely no TVs in the bedrooms, which meant that this was the only one in the house. It also meant that this was Arch’s favorite room in the house, and he spent a lot of time on this couch. Normally, if the TV was on, he was right here watching it.

I curled up against the arm of the couch instead of my six year old, pulling the throw blanket down to cover my legs. Realistically, Ronnie and I both knew that we’d have to go check on the boys and feed Sascha soon, but these quiet moments were rare since we brought Sascha home. It was a transition when Arch first came to be with me, and I had thought that life was difficult to balance with a young child, but there was nothing like having a young kid and a newborn under the same roof. We were constantly aware that we needed to balance the attention to both boys. Sascha needed more from us than Arch, simply because he was so young, but Arch still needed affection.

Having Ronnie here helped balance everything. When we bought the house, we hadn’t intended for him to move in, or at least I hadn’t, but I wasn’t sure if I could manage the kids without him now. He was a constant help, whether it be Sascha crying in the middle of the night or getting Arch ready in the morning. Our lives had been integrated for so long that it was just natural to slip back into it. We were comfortable balancing everything between us, especially the responsibilities of the boys.

Ronnie stretched out, shifting to lay his head against my shoulder as we idly watched something on TV. To us, it didn’t even matter what was on, just that we could have the moment to ourselves back in our own house.

“Atticus,” Ronnie murmured, looking up at me.

I slid my attention from the screen to him. “What?”

“What’re we doing for Arch’s birthday?”

I frowned in surprise and chuckled at the question. “That’s what you’re thinking about in our moment of silence?” I asked, shaking my head at him. “We’re supposed to be kid-free.”

Ronnie nodded, his hair brushing against my hair arm. “Seven’s a big number,” he said, “and I wasn’t around for his birthday last year. I don’t want to skip out on him again.”

I couldn’t help but smile, even though he’d turned his attention back to the TV. Lightly, I reached up and traced my fingers through his hair, feeling as he shifted closer to me. I glanced down and saw that his eyes were closed and he practically hummed at the feel of me playing with his hair. This once had been second nature to us; an easy night on the couch after days of running back and forth for work, passing each other for only minutes at a time during the day.

Ronnie moved and laid his head in my lap, yanking the blanket down over him so that it covered us both. He tossed the TV remote onto the table, letting it land with a clank. When he rolled back, his dark eyes stayed trained on the TV, and the flickering from the light threw shadows across from face. I glanced away, trying to focus on the mundane news recap, but when I looked back to Ronnie, he was already looking up at me. He moved slowly but instantly, turning around so that he was on his knees facing me. His fingers slid along my jaw as he brought my mouth to his.

It was such a familiar move that it felt like my body accepted this moment as commonplace. I’d spent more years kissing Ronnie than everyone else combined, and some muscle memory knew that and knew the feel of him this close to me. But it didn’t take more than a moment for my brain to catch up to the present. My hands against his chest, I urged him back, shaking my head as he backed away immediately, glancing me over with concern.

“Are you okay?” he asked, trailing his gaze over me.

“Chance-“ I started, looking up startled as Ronnie flinched and pulled away completely. He moved to stand, his vehemence startling me as well.

“You can’t look at me like that,” he said angrily, “and then whisper another man’s name when I kiss you, Atticus.”

I stared back, unsure of where this anger had come from so quickly. It wasn’t news that I cared about Chance, and I hadn’t invited Ronnie to touch me that way. “I didn’t look at you like anything,” I responded, trying to sound open rather than incredulous. “I didn’t mean for that to happen. I can’t walk around with my eyes shut constantly, Ronnie.”

“It might help if you did,” he answered in the same tone, turning away. His voice was harder when he spoke, as though he were biting out the words through a clenched jaw. “I’m tired of pretending that I don’t see what we’re feeling, Atticus. I’m trying so fucking hard to make this our new normal, but it’s getting harder, baby, and I don’t want to feel this way anymore.”

I frowned, surprised at the vulnerability that cut through the heart of him. We yelled at each other better than anything else nowadays. Our situation was filled with tension and that usually boiled over in different ways. For me, guilt bubbled at the surface. “Feel what way?” I asked, scared that I already knew the answer.

He pinned me with those eyes as he turned to face me. It was that one action that confirmed my thoughts. I’d already known that he was struggling with his arrangement, with this transition in our life from together, not together, to this.

I sighed and got up as well, tossing the throw blanket in a crumpled heap on the couch. “I don’t know what to say to that, Ron,” I answered, hating how callous the words sounded coming out of my mouth. I also hated that it wasn’t entirely the truth. I reveled in how close he remained despite our breakup. I wanted him here near me and the boys but not in the way he wanted to be here.

He looked at me with an expression that I had never seen. It reminded me of the first time we broke up: the day he discovered Chance at my father’s house last summer and took off; it was more that heartbreak. There was a hint of something else and I could see the hurt coming before the words even slipped out of his mouth.

“I’m leaving, Atticus,” he said.

I did a double-take, mouth dry, heart pounding so loud in my ears that I thought I’d heard him wrong. “What?”

He nodded, arms folded over his chest. “We’re leaving for tour in eight and a half weeks,” he said. “I asked your father to give me as much time as possible, but we can’t extend it any longer. I’ve been here almost a year, and it’s time for us to go. I’ll be here to see you back to work and get the boys settled with daycare, and then I’m leaving.”

I shook my head, searching for understanding. “What do you mean you talked to Brett?” I questioned. “Is that why he extended my maternity leave so easily? You two planned it ahead of time?”

Ronnie nodded, not at all ashamed to go behind my back with my father. It was something they had a history of. For as much as they hadn’t liked each other the entire time Ronnie and I were together, they were quick to take each other’s sides when it concerned what they thought was best for me.

I couldn’t think of a rational thing to say. I knew that Ronnie would have to return someday. He hadn’t walked away from music completely; he’d just put it on the backburner when I called a year ago and told him that I was having his baby. It was my worst-nightmare made real – having the child of someone who wouldn’t be in the state for most of the year, most of our life together. When Arch came along, I couldn’t go with Ronnie, and so I had to choose. I could hear Ronnie’s words from so long ago ringing in my head, his reminder that our life wasn’t child-appropriate. I knew first-hand what it meant to have parents who travelled and left you at home. My father had adopted that methodology when we were children, and we’d spent years missing him until we learned how not to.

Now I could see that same future for Sascha, for Arch. I became a new version of the stay-at-home-mom, a role I never wanted for myself. Maybe it was my childhood that forced me to be independent, but I hated waiting around for someone to come home to me, and I didn’t want my children to feel that same way. It was part of the reason that Ronnie and I couldn’t work. In the heat of the break-up, he’d offered to throw it all away and stay in LA with me for the rest of our lives together. But I had known, even then, before Sascha, that it would never work. Music had pulled Ronnie from the darkest times of his life, from a childhood that might’ve killed anyone else, and I wouldn’t try to tear that from him. He wouldn’t be the same man.

Now he was leaving. And I could see the dark irony in the way our life had played out. We’d ended our relationship after four years because I didn’t want this life with him, and here we were now, separated, staring down the barrel of that same fate.

“Where are you going?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest, trying to let go, to learn not to miss him before he even walked out that door.

“Quick jot down to South America,” he said easily. “Four months. Back by Christmas.”

I shook my head, mouth opening and closing as I tried to rationalize it. Tried to accept it, argue it, find some way to change it. He would miss so many of Sascha’s firsts. Three months with a father, four without. I couldn’t see how Sascha would even remember him when he returned.

Ronnie closed the space between us, pulling me to his chest as he cradled my head against him. I wrapped my arms around his slim waist and held onto him, letting myself cry for what we’d miss when he left. The anger seeped out of both of us and Ronnie held onto me. I could feel his regret in the way his body curved into mine, curling around me like that might shield me from the pain of him leaving.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into my hair. “I wish I could stay.”

I nodded without lifting my head from his chest. I didn’t want to look at him right now. I didn’t want to be angry or argue with him. I could feel that irrational emotion clinging to me, just below the regret and dismay.

“You’ll be okay, Atti,” he said, tightening his hold on me. “You’ve got love for those boys like I’ve never seen. You’re all the parent they need while I’m gone. You can do this. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t believe that.”

“You’re their father,” I replied, shaking my head against him. “I don’t want to do this without you. That was the deal. We wouldn’t do this if we couldn’t be here for them the way they deserve.”

Ronnie murmured a unpleased noise and shook his head, pushing me back by the shoulders. “Listen to me,” he insisted, meeting my dark eyes with his own. “I’m nothing like your father, Atticus. I won’t disappear for months and put music above my children. And you’re nothing like our mothers. Our boys have better parents than we ever did, and you’re enough for the both of us. I’ll be back before we know it.”

I nodded, unclenching my fists from his t-shirt.

“Plus,” Ronnie added posthumously, not moving as I began turning from him, “you’ll have Chance while I’m gone. That’s the best way to fill my absence, isn’t it?”

I closed my eyes and let that anger surge in my blood for just a moment. It wasn’t about Chance, I knew that. Ronnie was hurting as much as I was, as much as the Arch would be when he found out Ronnie was leaving. Ronnie was missing out on more than anyone, and I reminded myself of that as I turned back to him.

“Don’t bring him into it,” I replied, meeting his eyes. “I’m tired of arguing with you about him.”

“Well, I’m right, aren’t I?” he asked with a sense of twisted humor. “Whether I’m here or not, Chance is always right beside you, looking after you and our kids. He’ll step in and fill my place when I’m gone. That’s all he’s good for.”

“Don’t do that,” I rebuked quietly, refusing to be provoked, to spend any of this night arguing with him. “You’re hurting yourself as much as you’re hurting me.”

“I don’t feel it,” he answered with a shake of his head. He stepped back and practically shrugged away everything he was feeling. He stood quiet, looking down to me with eyes so full of something I didn’t want to acknowledge. Breaking the silence and without looking away, he asked, “You going to marry him someday?”

I sighed and turned away. “Ronnie, don’t ask me that,” I complained, curling my feet up beneath me. I shook my head at him, warning, asking, pleading him away from his anger.

He ignored that silent request and continued, “You want to live in this in-between and pretend that nothing is different, Atticus, but everything is different. None of the reasons we broke up are valid anymore, and I can’t figure out what you’re so scared of. You keep pushing me away, and it’s killing me, baby, and now I have to leave, and I’m terrified that your life will be so different when I get back that I won’t even recognize you.”

“Ronnie.” I stood in front of him and reached out to touch him, ground him. “I’m not going to marry Chance when you’re gone, that’s not even a possibility. Everything will be just as you left it when you return. Sascha and Arch will be right here waiting for you.”

Ronnie met my eyes. “Will you be?"

I didn’t have an answer for him. I wasn’t sure if I was waiting for him now or just syphoning his enthusiasm for this life to keep myself afloat. When he was here, I didn’t have to think too much about what my life was. I didn’t have to make choices. But now he was asking me, pointing out those cracks in my façade, and forcing me to face it. Like him, I had thought that he and I were set in stone, like two creatures of star-dust brought back together after the Big Bang, and deciding against that had wrecked my certainty, made me question myself and my decisions. He was right. I didn’t know anything about where the next four months would take me – without him and Chance, I was just floating through this part of my life. They kept me evenly grounded, and Ronnie could see that scale tipping toward Chance the minute he left. I too could see myself tumbling down that direction, just so Chance might catch and steady me before I fell.

Somehow Ronnie always ended up reassuring me, even when he was in the darkest places. He took my hands in his, met my eyes, and spoke, “I know how quickly things can change, baby,” he said quietly, shaking his head at the truth of it. “You were going to marry me once and we were more real than anything in this world. That’s what scares me: if you could change your mind about us, then I don’t know what else you’re capable of running from.”
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"Found you when your heart was broke
I filled your cup until it overflowed
Took it so far to keep you close
I was afraid to leave you on your own

Gave love 'bout a hundred tries
just running from the demons in your mind
Then I took yours and make it mine
I didn't notice 'cause my love was blind."