“Aric, could you please remember to take Marissa’s cleats when you take her to soccer practice today?” my wife, Katharina, said to me as I measured out the coffee grounds.
“Geez, I left them behind one time, and now you won’t let me forget it,” I muttered jokingly. “Are you ever going to let me live that down?”
“Probably not,” she laughed.
“Mom, are you going to make it to the match today?” Marissa asked as she ate her breakfast.
“I’m going to do my best, sweetheart,” Katharina said, leaning over to kiss our daughter on the head. “Mr. Stamkos has me working on a big project, and the deadline is in two days.”
“That man is a slave driver,” I groused, hitting the start button on the coffee maker. “I don’t remember the last time we’ve had a family night. He’s constantly throwing projects at you. Aren’t there other people in the office who can handle the work?”
Katharina sighed. “Yes, there are people who are just as qualified as I am. However, Mr. Stamkos doesn’t trust them. He says they’re idiots who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag. I’ve been with the company the longest. He trusts me.”
“If he trusts you so much, tell him to throw in a corner office and a raise.”
She walked over and kissed me. “I love having you in my corner,” she said. “It makes me feel like a brave warrior as I go into battle every day.”
“I’ll be more than happy to fight for you,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her. “I shall be Lancelot to your Guinevere any day.”
“Why, you silver-tongued devil!” she said, laughing. “What are you planning to do today?”
“Drop the kids off at school, talk my wife into playing hooky from work, then spend the day in bed doing unspeakable things to her.”
“Oh my god, that is so gross!” Marissa said. “I can’t believe you said that in front of me.”
“You’ll survive,” I said. “Where’s your brother?”
“Upstairs in bed still, I think.”
Grabbing a frozen bag of peas from the freezer, I headed upstairs to my son’s room. When I opened the door, I spotted Jax sprawled out on his bed. I tossed the frozen peas at him, watching them land on his bare back. He shot out of bed, spun around, and glared at me. “Why do you always do that?”
“Because it gets you out of bed,” I replied. “Get it in gear, or else you’re going to be late.”
I closed the door and heard a thunk as Jax threw the bag of peas.
Katharina was shoving papers into her briefcase as I came back downstairs. “I’ve got to get going, or I’ll be late,” she said, finishing off the last of her coffee. She kissed Marissa again, then kissed me. “I’ll do my best to make her match, but I wouldn’t count on it,” she whispered to me.
“Don’t worry about it. She’ll understand,” I assured her.
“I promise I’ll turn down the next assignment so we can spend some quality time together.”
I smiled at her. “That would be great,” I said, even though I knew it wouldn’t happen.
“Get that next chapter written while we’re all gone today,” Katharina said, grabbing her keys off the counter. “I want to know how that battle turns out.”
“I’ll get it done. I wouldn’t want to disappoint my biggest fan.”
She gave me another kiss and headed for the door. “Love you!”
“Love you, too.”
“You two are so disgusting,” Marissa said.
Forty minutes later, I watched Marissa and Jax get on the school bus. As the bus drove away, I noticed a man standing across the street, staring at me. He was about six feet tall, wearing black jeans, a black shirt, a black leather jacket, and boots. We watched each other for a minute, neither of us moving. Finally, I said, “Can I help you with something?”
The man shook his head. “I’m not the one with the problem.”
“Well, it’s not me, either.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the man replied. “You have more problems than you know what to do with.”
“Then you must know something I don’t.”
“I don’t have time for this,” I said, turning toward the house. “I’ve got work to do.”
“I would make the time, my friend.”
I spun around to reply, but he was gone. What the hell? I looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of him anywhere. Chalking the whole thing up to a case of mistaken identity, I went back inside and headed to my office. Booting up the computer, I opened my latest work in progress, a fictional story about the Greek Gods, in particular Ares, the God of War. He was a blood-thirsty man, fierce in battle, passionate with the ladies, in particular his sister-in-law, Aphrodite.
The past few days, I had struggled to hit my daily word count. The story seemed elusive, unwilling to come to life. But today, for some reason, I didn’t seem to have that problem. My fingers flew across the keyboard as the battle raged on the screen. Swords clashed, blood spilled, men died. When I finally took a break, I noticed it was late afternoon. Saving my work, I quickly got up, grabbed the soccer equipment, and hurried out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, I picked up Marissa from school and drove to the soccer field. “I’m going to be the last one there again,” she whined.
“I’m sorry, Risa. I got on a roll with my manuscript, and I lost track of time.”
“It’s always something,” she complained. “It’s either Mom and her work or you and your stupid Greek Gods. Who cares about them, anyway? They’re just a bunch of myths. More like a load of crap, if you ask me.”
“Well, that crap paid for your precious electronics, your prom dress, and a few other things,” I reminded her.
“Whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes.
When we got to the field, I parked the car and turned to look at her. “Marissa, listen to me. There is nothing in this world more important to me than you, your brother, and your mother. You have always come first, before anything else. I would move heaven and earth to protect you. You all are my heart and soul. Without you, I would be nothing.”
“I know, Dad. It’s just…”
“We don’t spend a lot of time doing fun stuff anymore,” I finished for her.
“Well, I tell you what. Why don’t we plan a fun day, just the two of us?”
“No Jax. We can do whatever you’d like to do.”
“Whitewater rafting! And can we go to the archery? I want to practice for the next competition.”
“I thought you wanted to have fun?”
“Archery is fun for me!”
I laughed. “Okay, okay…rafting and archery. And anything else we can come up with.”
“Awesome! Thanks, Dad!” She hopped out of the car and ran over to join her teammates.
Shaking my head, I got out of the car, grabbed the equipment, and walked over to the sidelines. I talked to a few of the other parents as the rest of the kids showed up. Then the game started, and it was a spirited contest. Good defense by both teams, but Marissa managed to break their line and score a goal right before halftime. When the whistle blew, she ran over and threw her arms around me. “Look at you, hot stuff!” I said proudly.
“That was so cool!” she said excitedly. She looked around. “Where’s Mom?”
“I haven’t seen her yet, sweetie.”
She looked sad for a moment, but shrugged it off. “I can’t wait to tell her about it later!”
“She’ll be thrilled.”
“I’ll be right back.” She ran off toward the bathroom.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check my messages. There was one from Katharina. “Tied up, but should be there for the second half. Love you!”
A scream tore me away from the phone. It had come from the direction of the bathroom. I started running. As I came around the corner, I saw the man I had seen in front of my house earlier carrying Marissa toward a white van.
Picking up speed, I tackled him from behind, knocking both of them to the ground. “Run, Marissa!” I yelled at my daughter.
She jumped up, holding her left arm with her right hand, and ran back toward the field, crying as she went. The man shoved me aside and got to his feet. I stood up and grabbed him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Get off me, man!” He tried to shove my hands away, but my grip on his jacket was too strong.
I punched him in the face. He staggered backward as blood gushed from his nose. “You’re going to regret that,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a knife.
We circled each other warily as a crowd started to gather. He lunged at me, but I caught his arm before he could cut me. I bent his arm, shaking it, trying to get him to drop the knife. I must have shaken him harder than I thought because I heard a bone snap. He howled in pain and let the knife go. Pulling his left hand back, he punched me on the side of the head. I released his broken arm and hit him, sending him to the ground.
Before he could get to his feet, I was on top of him, hitting him repeatedly in the face. A couple of men grabbed my arms and pulled me off him. “That’s enough, Aric,” one of them said. “You knocked him out.”
Breathing hard, I looked down at the man, who was indeed unconscious. Marissa came flying at me, throwing her good arm around me. “Daddy! Are you okay?”
I took her face in my hands. “What happened, Marissa?”
“When I came out of the bathroom, he was standing there. When I tried to go around him, he grabbed me, and I screamed. He picked me up and started walking away. Then you came and tackled us. I hurt my arm.”
I gently took her injured arm in my hands. “I am so sorry, sweetheart.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. You saved me, and you kicked his butt. It was just like those Greek Gods you write about. It was awesome! You’re a hero!”
Pulling her close, I looked down at the bloodied man on the ground. I had never done anything like that before in my life. If they hadn’t stopped me, I might have beaten him to death.
“Ares, stop! You’ve beaten him. Leave him alone.”
I looked down at the soldier on the battlefield, my sword sticking out of his stomach. With a feeling of satisfaction, I pulled it out of him, wiping the blood on his tunic. “Nothing like a good fight to get the juices flowing, is there?”
“Aric?” Katharina appeared before me. “What’s going on?”
“This guy tried to kidnap me, and Daddy kicked his butt!”
“Your father did what?” She looked at Marissa, then me. “Aric, what’s going on?”
“I…I’m not sure.”
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