I first started working on this piece in late 2019. I’ve used a myriad of elements to make this story: anecdotal custody cases I’d heard or read about, custody battles relayed to me directly from prior clients that I’ve helped over the years – both men and women, as well as the occasional Amber Alert that has come across our phones where it involves a child and parent. Although these elements helped with the inspiration for this story: this piece is entirely fictional. Any character’s resemblance or similarity to any person, place or event, real or fiction, is purely coincidental.

Tom

In the cool of the morning, just before dawn, a father and son were parked in an old pickup truck overlooking a valley and a small, sleepy town off the distance below them. The son slept soundly, a folded up blanket wedged between the door and his head, another covering his body. The father stared out over the small, rural valley. He’d found this overlook one day while driving to clear his head and he had been wanting to share this place with his son. It was a 45 minute drive from his house on the outskirts of the city to the overlook. Ever since he “found” the spot, he was fond of coming here to get away from all the noise and just think.

On most days, the view was magnificent at sunrise.

John heard a soft sigh come from his son as he slept. Oh, how he missed the sound of his son breathing while he slept as a baby and as a toddler; now here he was a six year old. Fugit Irreparabile Tempus… He leaned over and kissed the top of his son’s head and inhaled deeply, remembering. It had been months since he was able to do this simple thing.

Months.

Scents have an interesting way of cutting directly to your soul, the longing and heartache of missing his boy erupted from within his core as soon as the familiar fragrance filled his nostrils. Like a sudden crack in the walls of a fortified city, the fragrance broke through, connecting the present to cherished memories. The edges of his eyes watered and John fought the tears back, he wouldn’t break in front of his son. His son needed to see security and stability in this father. He pulled away as he gently ran his hand over his son’s head. The boy moved slightly, readjusting himself.

How peaceful most children slept…

John was a “good dad” by most people’s reckoning of him. Responsible, involved, loving. A steady career with continued movement up the corporate ladder. Walking that fine line of work/life balance to stay attentive to his child. No drug abuse, no domestic violence. Attentive to his wife the best he knew how, always looking to improve. Involved in social settings, church, etc. He had done everything right.

In almost the same breath she had said how she loved him but wasn’t in love with him, and that there was another man. He should’ve seen it coming, he should’ve seen the signs, but like most men he either turned a blind eye to it or didn’t see it coming. Probably somewhere in the middle. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch. Vows, after all, were supposed to mean something, right? For both parties? “Till death do us part…in sickness and health…for better or worse…” Apparently feelings of unhappiness and boredom trump vows nowadays. Celebrated in books, movies, etc. “We’re working on some things…” seems to be universally loaded with the subtext of “We’re working on a few things he needs to fix…” Even the church had flocked around her, telling him to man up, placing the entire burden of an apparently broken marriage on his shoulders. These Christians were more brutal than anyone outside the church. He was on the ropes before he knew it.

After months of begging, pleading and trying to do the right thing and fight for the marriage, he waived the white flag agreeing to end the marriage amicably. It wasn’t long after that he discovered she had gotten a lawyer who was able to paint a false narrative of the state of the marriage. Despite character testimonies to the contrary, his own attorney was inept at disproving the accusations and combined with a Judge who seemed to be a white knight for her side, the Court was without mercy.

As someone who had only worked part-time, the sum of the required Alimony and Child Support allowed her to live without the responsibility of rejoining the workforce. She got the house while he paid the mortgage. He moved in to an older, turn of the century two bed, one bath home. She got the car, he paid the installments and was allowed to keep his old truck, a keepsake from his youth. To add insult to injury, the courts gave practically full custody to the mother. He was allowed… allowed… John hated that term for his own son… every other weekend. John went from seeing his son every day of his life to every other weekend.

Two and a half days out of every fourteen. How is this justice?

John noticed the changing of the night sky as dawn continued its approach, a faint light silhouetted the small mountains on the eastern side of the valley. Having turned off his phone to give himself entirely over to the time with his son, John looked at his watch. He’d have to take his son back home later that afternoon. Despite all his efforts to capture each moment, the next few hours would fly irreparably fast. He’d walk a razor’s edge between savoring every moment with his boy and suppressing the pain welling inside as the end of his visit drew closer and closer.

Despite the current custody agreement, God knows if he’d see him again on the agreed upon date. The mother had been using the boy as a power play; leverage over John. She also hounded him with text messages any time their son was with him. Trying to rob him of time he could spend with his son instead of answering her constant texts and messages. Somehow, some way, she had not only lost all respect for him, but she took a sadistic pleasure in interrupting or threatening to withhold the only thing he wanted: time with his son.

John reminded himself that he was working with a new law firm, one that specialized in men’s custody rights; they would be creating a case for split custody and going back to court. Upon guidance from counsel this last week, he turned the phone off after dinner and taking some selfies with his little man last night. Her texts would still be waiting for him, and depending on what was said in the messages, his team could potentially use them to build the case further. The anger at what he’d been through welled up inside him, following close on the heels of the heartache. John took a few long, steady breaths and centered himself back into a more calm, Stoic mode.

It is what it is… for now. This is going to change, one day. Focus on the present and enjoy the time you have. Fight like hell to make sure your son knows he is loved and cherished by his father.

After sunrise, they drove down to the sleepy town below and had breakfast at an old country diner. They sat near the front by the large windows looking out at Main Street. His son liked sitting by the windows and the boy ate like a little boy does, making a mess of the large flapjacks he was served and snacked on John’s bacon. Messes don’t seem to matter as much when you have precious little time with your loved ones. Last night was playtime, fun, games, pizza. This morning, they talked about how school would be over soon and John learned about the things his son wanted to do for the summer. John caught up on his son’s action figures, the video games he was playing, the new friend who moved in down the street.

Kid stuff.

Wonderful kid stuff.

John sipped on his coffee and noticed the local sheriff drive by again. Was this the third or fourth time? Something about this made him nervous, John dismissed it as his anxiety kicking in to the paranoid. When John went to pick up his son, she’d demanded the boy be brought home six hours earlier than originally agreed. John, despite getting his ass handed to him in court, had striven to stay on the high road. Be accommodating, be nice.

John put his foot down. Not this time. He had acquiesed before, but repeated the words his counsel advised him to say in asserting his current legal rights. This was his weekend and he was going to bring back their son at the agreed upon, court appointed time.

She wouldn’t have called the police, would she? 

Despite his doubts, his gut was telling him otherwise. This time, the sheriff parked and came in, approaching the counter a few yards from John’s table. John overheard the greetings from the Sheriff to the waitress and other staff, exchanging pleasantries, asking how the shifts were going for each other, how the diner was getting ready to make pies for the upcoming festival, etc.

Local stuff.

The waitress offered the Sheriff some coffee and he thanked her for it as she poured.

“Hey Dad! Do you think we could go to the lake today?”

“Huh? Yeah, that should be alright.”

“Yes! Can we skip rocks?!”

“Of course, buddy!”

“Cool!”

The City Police Officer on duty parked in the last open spot in front of the diner.

“Hey look, dad! Now there are two police officers here! That’s so cool!”

The Sheriff spoke something in to his receiver’s microphone but John couldn’t tell exactly what was being said. His thoughts were entertaining his anxiety and he was rapidly shutting down the engines so they wouldn’t get carried away. He calculated taking his kid calmly to the counter and paying for the meal and making his exit, but if she did do something stupid, then that may make him look guilty, trying to run. No, this is my legal time with my boy, he said to himself as he watched his son eat and play with his food, the ear to ear smile on his child’s face warmed him to his core. Everything will be OK.

“Excuse me, sir?” The Sheriff was right next to him now, John hadn’t even heard him approach, lost in thought as he had been.

“I’m Jeff Cromley, the County Sheriff and I was wondering if I may have a word with you.” The Sheriff’s voice had this gentle southern accent, not originally from around here but it was one of those tones of voice that was disarming and sincere.

You know that heart-wrenching, gut-punch, oh-shit feeling you get when you know without question that things have just gone sideways in your life?

John had that feeling now.