“Daddy!” Thomas’s voice rang out across the park. “Daddy, watch!”
My body sagged into the park bench. I was exhausted. Beyond exhausted. I’d put in my eighteen hours at the hospital, then rushed home to get Thomas and Eli off the bus. I hadn’t slept during my shift thanks to the insanity that was the emergency room, so I was going on twenty-four hours without sleep. I’d thought that going to the park would give the kids a chance to run off some energy and give me a little bit of time to decompress after my shift.
I was wrong.
Eli called out next. “Daddy, push me on the swing. Please?”
I forced my eyes open and tried to plaster a smile on my face. “Give me a second.” I yawned and reached high over my head, trying to stretch exhausted joints. My back popped, my neck cracked, and a headache sat just behind my eyes, reminding me with each passing minute that I hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours.
I glanced over to where I heard Thomas’s voice, and I found him high above the playground’s jungle gym, climbing over the plastic tubes. “Thomas, please get down from there.” I’d seen enough injuries from kids falling off playground equipment that it should have sent terror through my heart, except my brain had reached the point where it refused to process it.
Single parenting was hard. No, that was an understatement. Single parenting was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Living three hours from my nearest family made my job that much harder. When my wife unexpectedly left me six years earlier with a two-year-old and a four-year-old, I’d been dumbstruck. I’d left for work, kissed her and the boys goodbye, and come home the next day to a small moving truck in our driveway and a packet of divorce papers that contained custody documents. She was done. She didn’t want to be a wife, or a mother—all she wanted was freedom. She had kissed the boys goodbye, given me a cold hug, and walked out of our lives. Nicole hadn’t even returned for the divorce proceedings.
I’d dealt with every stage of grief as though she’d died. Sometimes I still found it easier to believe she’d died than to think that she’d left us and never even sent a card to tell us where she was. Over the span of a few years, the boys stopped asking about her, and by that point they had few, if any, memories of her.
Days where I got to work and my feet hit the ground running, only stopping when I clocked out eighteen hours later were, thankfully, rare. Very rare. However, each time I had to come home to parent my boys alone after a full day of no sleep, I found myself angry at my ex-wife all over again.
I made my way to the swings and spent ten minutes pushing Eli before my phone rang. It was on the second ring before my brain processed it was my phone, and it took another two rings for me to step away from the swing and get it out of my back pocket. I was at risk of it going to voicemail before I answered, so I didn’t bother to look at the screen as I swiped up to accept.
“Hello?” I questioned through a yawn.
“Damn, you sound like shit.”
I pulled the phone from my ear and looked at the screen. “Carl?” My brother sounded identical to my dad, which caused me pause every time they called.
“Yup. You okay?”
Even through my exhausted haze I could hear the concern in his voice and was touched by it. He was usually so busy with his job as a government contractor that we didn’t get much time to talk. When he was home, he spent the time with his own family and our parents. Last I’d heard he was supposed to be home in a few weeks. Thinking about the date, I guessed he’d managed to get leave as expected. “Long night at work. At the park with the boys in hopes they wear themselves out so we can all get sleep tonight.”
Carl hummed into the line. “You work yourself to the bone up there in Louisville.”
Between the mortgage, car payment, private school tuition, and the nanny who watched the boys while I worked, I didn’t have a choice. “It can be difficult. Did you get leave just to call and give me a hard time?”
Carl laughed so hard I had to pull the phone from my ear. “Sometimes. Actually, I was calling because I overheard something interesting while I was waiting on Dad’s oil change today.”
I stifled a yawn. “Oh? What’s that?” I didn’t know if I cared much about small town gossip, but Carl sounded excited.
“The doctor here in town is retiring and he’s looking to sell the clinic.”
Carl blew out a breath like I was an idiot. “Mark, you’re qualified. From what Jeff says, there’s no one in town who wants the job. Apparently, there aren’t many doctors here.”
“The owner of the garage. He’s also a pretty good friend, and he knows Doc well.”
“Carl, I’m settled here.”
Carl blew what sounded like a raspberry into the phone. “You’re alone up there. I talked with Doc, asked him when he’s looking to retire. He says he’d like to be out by Christmas. But if he doesn’t find someone, he’s going to close the clinic.”
I walked to the bench closest to the swings. “I’m not just going to take a job in Fairview because you call me out of the blue.” Work was hard, the hours were long, and of course he’d called me after one of the most difficult shifts I’d had in months, but none of that meant I was looking to make a change.
My job paid the bills and then some. The kids were settled here; everything they knew was here. School, friends, sports, doctors—they were all in Louisville. Did I want to go from a big city to a small town? I thought I remembered my mom mentioning that there were only about ten thousand people who lived there. There were over 600,000 in Louisville. Ten thousand was almost small enough that everyone would know everyone.
Then again, my parents were there. Carl and his family lived there. I could actually see them all without needing to take a day off work or a weekend off activities.
Doctor of a small town clinic sounded a bit too Hallmark Channel movie to me. On the other hand, it would be nice to have people nearby. There was a park in the middle of town, and kids were always there when we went in the summer. The boys would make friends. I yawned and my jaw popped. I was going to fall asleep on the bench if I sat there much longer. “Give me his number. I can at least look into it.” Had I said that out loud?
I could hear the triumph in Carl’s voice. “I’ll send you his number as soon as we get off the phone.” He paused for a moment before he continued. “Hey, Mark?”
“It would be nice to have you and the boys nearby. I miss seeing you. Being gone so often is hard, but coming home and knowing that one of us will have to travel three hours if we want to see each other sucks.”
Twist that knife a little deeper, Carl. “I miss you too. And I miss Mom and Dad. But I don’t know that I’m cut out to be the head of a small town clinic.”
“Just think it over and talk with Doc. He’s a great guy.”
I promised to think it over. First, I needed to get the boys home, fed, help them with homework, and tucked in bed, and hopefully have the energy to make it across the hall to my room before I passed out. I managed to check off every item on my to-do list in short succession, but through it all Doc’s number seemed to be burning a hole in my pocket.
I got the kids in bed at eight. Eli had seemed to be as exhausted as I was, and while it was still early for Thomas, he had picked up on how tired I was and promised to read in his bed until nine. I said goodnight and headed to my room.
I should have fallen asleep quickly. My head should have hit the pillow and I should have been out like a light. At twenty after eight, I was still staring at my ceiling, my thoughts swirling about the job in Tennessee. It wasn’t like it was mine for the taking, and I hadn’t made up my mind, but I needed more information or I’d drive myself nuts. Maybe I’d talk to the guy Carl called Doc and realize I wasn’t a good fit for the position. Maybe the terms would be impossible or the income wouldn’t be there to support a family.
Huffing, I rolled over, grabbed my phone from the charger, and tapped Doc’s number into my phone. I didn’t know why I hadn’t expected him to answer at eight twenty-five at night, but I hadn’t, so hearing a voice surprised me.
“This is Doc.”