“Okay, bud,” I said, reaching down to rustle Finn’s hair as we closed the door behind us. “Last chance. Are you sure you don’t want to stay home with Grandma?”
Finn shook his head, a wide grin on his face. “No way. I want to meet my uncle.”
I nodded and swallowed back the worry threatening to break free as I smiled at my son. There was a noticeable pep in his step as we walked down our driveway in the military housing neighborhood. We’d only moved to San Diego from South Carolina a week earlier. Once I’d found out I had a half-brother who was also a Marine stationed at Miramar, I’d wasted no time in tracking him down. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how close he lived with his wife. They were right down the street.
Nerves swam in my gut. I had no idea what they would be like. With the little I knew about the father we share, I had no frame of reference. He could be great. He could be everything I’d ever dreamed of having in a brother. Or, he could be a total tool. He could slam the door in my face and call me a freak for looking him up out of the blue like this. I shuddered at the thought. What would Finn think if that happened? How would I explain that to an eight-year-old?
Finn grabbed my hand. “Relax, Dad.”
Unsurprised that he’d picked up on my nervous energy, I blew out a breath. “Sorry.”
“He’s gonna love us. It’ll be great.”
“I’m sure it will.” I gave him what I hoped was an excited smile.
His deep-brown eyes widened and he leaned back, wrinkling his nose and laughing. “Now you look scary. Don’t smile at Uncle Spencer like that.”
I laughed and pulled him close to my side. “I’ll try not to.”
Glancing up at the clear, blue sky, I sent a prayer up that Uncle Spencer wouldn’t say something to hurt my kid. He’d had plenty of hurt in his short life and not enough family. Hence why he was so excited to meet a new relative. Dear God, please let him be as cool as Finn hopes he is. I wasn’t sure if I could handle seeing the disappointed look on his face after everything he’d been through.
I’d planned to keep my half-brother’s existence a secret from Finn until I knew if he’d be a good influence. But, as usual, the little sneak was hiding behind the couch when I’d been talking about it with my mom. At that point, I’d had to explain everything. Truth be told, it was a weight lifted off my shoulders. We’d been through a lot and I didn’t like keeping anything from him. But now, as we headed over to meet the guy, that same weight felt like it was pressing down on my chest. Had I made a mistake?
Finn had been reciting an episode of Ben 10: Omniverse word for word as we walked, and I’d tuned back in just in time to hear him ask if I could believe that they were traveling through time and not through universes like they usually did.
“Oh, man,” I replied, wrinkling my brow like I was blown away. “That is wild.”
“I know. That was the last episode of the whole series, too.”
“What are you going to watch now?”
“I’m going to go back to the beginning and watch it again,” he said, his tone matter-of-fact.
“All of it? Even the filler episodes?” I remembered him skipping those in an anime show he liked, though the name of it always escaped me.
“Yes, because I can’t skip that many filler episodes. They start after the Incurseans come and last forever. I still like them.”
“What’s an Incursean?”
He looked at me like I should know this, then sighed. “A frog alien.”
“Right, sorry.” I scratched my head, finding myself out of my depth with his interests. Again.
“Hey, is this it?” Finn asked excitedly, pointing up at the townhome on our right.
I balked, looking back the way we came and spotting our house in the distance. “Wow, yeah. That was a quick walk.”
“I can’t believe he lives so close,” Finn exclaimed.
I’d been thinking the same thing, but with more of a nervous lean to it. “Yep.”
He ran to the door before I could stop him and eagerly pressed the bell. I jogged up the driveway and got to his side just as the door opened, revealing a pretty blonde in a bright sundress standing behind the screen door.
“Hi,” she greeted us, a warm smile for Finn before her gaze turned to me. “Can I help you?”
“Hi,” Finn said, opening his mouth to say more, but it came out muffled as I placed my hand over his mouth.
“Hi,” I said, smiling tightly. “We’re here to see Spencer. Is he around?”
She chuckled and nodded. “Yeah, one sec, I’ll go grab him.”
Finn pulled my hand off his mouth and glared up at me after she left. “I was going to ask if she’s my aunt.”
“I know,” I whispered. “Keep your cool, little dude. We don’t want to scare them.”
A moment later, the door opened wider and a young guy stepped up to the screen. His hand hovered over the door handle for a moment as he looked at me and then at Finn. When his eyes—the same eyes I knew I had—traveled back to mine, the recognition in them was apparent. Looking at him was like looking at myself, but a handful of years younger. The resemblance between us was solid. Immediately, I figured our shared father must look a lot like us too, and it made me even more nervous to meet him.
He shook his head as if to clear it, probably freaked out by the similarities between us. He pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch. “Who are you?”
His wife—or at least, the girl I assumed was his wife—sucked in a breath. “Spence.”
“No,” I said, holding up a hand. It made total sense that he’d be a bit confused by us standing here, showing up out of the blue. Especially since the family resemblance was strong. “It’s okay. I’m uh … well, we’re …”
“You guys are brothers,” Finn supplied when my words failed me.
“Right,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “What he said. Well, half-brothers.”
Almost as if he’d expected there to be some explanation for our shared blue eyes, blond hair, and height, Spencer nodded once and crossed his arms over his chest. He tilted his head at Finn. Then he looked back at me. Then down at Finn again. His face was blank, but I could tell he was doing a lot of thinking. Finally, his gaze landed on his girl. She gave him a small smile and nod, and even though I didn’t know them, I could see years of trust and love between them. My heart squeezed. I knew what it felt like to have what they seemed to have. And even though I didn’t know him, he was still my blood. And it made me happy to see he’d found what I once had.
Spencer turned back to me and cleared his throat, a smile tugging up the corner of his mouth. “You look like my dad. I could see it right away.”
Relief washed over me. If he was about to slam the door in our faces, he probably wouldn’t start with that.
“You guys look a lot like each other, too,” the girl beside him chimed in, her eyes flicking between us.
Finn bounced up and down, a wide smile for his uncle. “Can you tell us about him? About your dad, I mean? He was a Marine too, right? Like you guys? Is that why you’re a Marine?”
“Easy, Finn,” I said, squeezing his shoulder slightly. “Just breathe, buddy.”
“Uh, sure, I can tell you about him,” Spencer said, chuckling and bending down to get eye-level with my son. “If he’s my brother, what does that make you?”
“Your nephew.” Finn straightened his shoulders.
Spencer smiled. “I’ve always wanted a nephew.”
“I’ve always wanted an uncle,” Finn asserted. Then his gaze traveled to the girl in the doorway, her hand over her mouth. “Is she my aunt?”
Spencer straightened and held out a hand for her. “Sorry, yeah, this is my wife.”
“Ellie,” she said, stepping forward and shaking my hand, and then Finn’s. “Nice to meet you both.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” I said. “Sorry to barge in on you guys. I hope we’re not interrupting.”
Ellie waved a hand. “It’s totally fine. Why don’t you guys come in and hang out? We’re having a going away party for one of our friends.”
“We’d love to,” Finn piped up.
“Actually, do you want to take a walk so we can talk? There’s a playground over there,” Spencer asked me, and I nodded. He kissed Ellie on the cheek. “You can tell the others I stepped out, right babe?”
“Yeah, of course,” she replied, heading for the door again. “Take your time.”
We said our goodbyes and headed down the driveway. Again, I felt Finn buzzing with energy beside me.
“So, tell us about my grandpa,” Finn said.
Spencer made a face. “Oh, man. Grandpa.”
“Yeah,” Finn said, rolling his eyes and pointing at me. “Because I’m his kid, and he’s your dad’s kid. So your dad is my grandpa.”
With a laugh, Spencer looked at me, and I shrugged.
“Guess so,” Spencer allowed. “What are your names? Sorry, I’m still a little blown away over here. I didn’t catch them.”
Realizing how dumb it was that I hadn’t even introduced us, I let out a breath and held out my hand for him to shake. “Sorry, man. I’m Owen O’Malley. This is my son, Finn.”
“And you’re Spencer, aka Uncle Spencer to me,” Finn said. “And your dad is Mike, aka Grandpa.”
“Right,” Spencer said as we walked, leading us down a sidewalk toward the playground at the end of the row houses. “Man, this is nuts. I’m dying to hear how all of this came out.”
“Oh, I can tell you that,” Finn offered. “First, my dad got orders to San Diego.”
“You’re a Marine, too, then?” Spencer asked me.
“Yep, I’m in air traffic control,” I replied.
“And when he told my grandma that we were moving here,” Finn continued, “Grandma got super weird. Like really weird. All twitchy and stuff.”
I chuckled, remembering my mom’s reaction when she’d heard the news. As a rule, she was a very calm woman. She didn’t let things get her down, had a strong faith, and was rarely frazzled. One of those everything happens according to God’s plan, don’t sweat the small stuff types. Seeing her all “twitchy” was a rare sight.
“But they didn’t tell me anything,” Finn went on, “so I was really confused. I thought she didn’t want to leave South Carolina. She lives with us.”
“We tried to keep it on the down low, but this little special agent hears everything,” I said, nudging Finn with my elbow. “After he went to bed that night, my mom told me San Diego was where my dad had gone when he’d left combat training. Obviously, that was a long time ago, but still. It hit a nerve for her.”
Spencer looked up like he was trying to connect dots in his head. “Okay, combat training. Dad went to SOI-East for combat training. So did your mom live near Camp Geiger?”
“Yep,” I replied. “He was about to head to Pendleton for his first duty station. She was a server at an off-base sports bar. He went in to blow off some steam the night before he left, and the rest is history.”
“Ah,” Spencer said, connecting the dots of what must have happened that night between our father and my mother.
We’d reached the playground and Finn tugged on my arm. “Can I go swing?”
“Yeah, go for it,” I said. “Stay where I can see you.”
“Okay,” Finn hollered behind him as he ran for the swings. I watched him for a minute to make sure he got settled before turning back to Spencer. “He’s eight.”
Spencer nodded. “He seems really cool.”
“He is,” I confirmed. “Coolest kid I know.”
“So,” Spencer said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “If I’m counting right, that would make you about six years older than me?”
I shrugged. “If you say so.”
“And, uh, sorry if this is weird but … did they not exchange phone numbers? Did she never tell him she was pregnant? I can’t imagine my dad would know about you and not … like, be there. You know?”
“She’s really not proud of this, but she only knew his first name. Mike. And that he’d just finished combat training and was about to move to San Diego. Not much to go on since she didn’t even know which base he was going to. It could have been Miramar or Pendleton.”
Spencer snickered. “It was Pendleton, which is a huge base anyway. And Mike isn’t exactly a unique name.”
“My dad—er, our dad, I guess—was no angel, either. He joined the Marines because the judge said it was either that or jail. I guess that was a thing back then.”
“I see,” I said, not loving the picture he painted of the man I’d grown up wondering about.
I’d spent countless nights lying awake in bed thinking about my dad. My mom had always been honest with me about how little she knew about him, and that left a lot of room to imagine what he was like. Sometimes I’d pictured him as a nice, blue-collar guy who got out of the Marines and became a mechanic. He had a pretty wife and a bunch of other kids, and if he’d known about me, he would have welcomed me and my mom into his life with open arms.
Other times I pictured him as a bad guy. Got kicked out of the Marines, couldn’t hold a job, and wouldn’t be the kind of dude my mom would want me to know anyway. When I thought of him like that, I told myself I was better off with only my mom. It helped sometimes.
The versions I imagined of my dad always swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, with no in-between. I was inexplicably bummed out that he sounded like the bad version.
Spencer waved a hand. “It worked out though, he wound up turning his life around and making a career out of it. He retired as a master sergeant.”
My chest swelled. He was the good guy. “Wow. And he and your mom …”
“They were married,” Spencer rubbed the back of his neck. “She died when I was twelve.”
“Aw, man. I’m so sorry.” A buried part of me, the part who had to watch my son deal with that kind of pain, threatened to surface. I had a lot of practice squashing it, but this day was already doing a number on my nerves and it was harder than normal.
“Thanks. Anyway, so, okay. My dad hooked up with your mom, and then she didn’t know how to get ahold of him. Did you decide to track him down when you found out you were moving here?”
“Pretty much, yeah. A buddy suggested one of those mail-in DNA tests. He said he’d seen on the news how people were finding their long-lost relatives with it. I knew it was a long shot because if he hadn’t taken the test, he wouldn’t show up. But I figured I might be able to find some other family member.”
Spencer nodded. “Ah-ha. That makes sense. Ellie and I took it last year when they had a two-for-one deal. Thought it would be cool to look into our ancestors and stuff. Didn’t see anything about a long-lost brother, though.”
“Probably because I hadn’t taken the test yet.”
“Right.” Spencer stuffed his hands in his pockets and blew out a breath.
“I know this is a lot,” I offered, keeping my eyes on Finn as he swung back and forth on the swing set.
“Nah—I mean, yeah, it is, but it’s also pretty cool.”
Relief filled me again and I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I cleared my throat. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Nope. It’s just me. I wasn’t lying earlier when I said I’ve always wanted a nephew. I’ve always wanted siblings and a big family. Ellie and I are both only children so we don’t really have a lot of family. Did your mom have more kids? Did you grow up with a stepdad?”
I shook my head. “No, my mom never married, no more kids. It was only the two of us.”
“Your son—what was his name? Sorry.”
“Thanks, yeah, Finn said your mom lived with you. So it’s you, your mom, Finn, and your wife?”
I swallowed. “My uh … Rebecca, my wife, passed away about three years ago. Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
The look on Spencer’s face at that moment could only be described as knowing. I’d talked to many people while my wife was sick and then after she died, and the look in their eyes right after I told them about Rebecca always told me how the rest of the conversation would go. If they’d never experienced a loss at this level, it was pity. It was distant sadness. It was the embodiment of the phrase “I couldn’t imagine.”
I know people meant well, so I handled it better now than I used to. After Rebecca first got sick, and I was constantly living with the fear of her diagnosis and potentially losing her, I seethed with rage every time someone looked at me with that pitying expression. I found myself wanting to literally slap it off their face. It was completely outrageous and unhealthy, and it took me a long time to stop feeling that way. The only things that helped me go from anger to acceptance were God, time, and my need to be a good example for Finn. I was all he had.
The alternative to the pitying look was the expression Spencer now wore. It was the look of someone who knew our pain and knew it was so deep that a moment of silence and a simple “I’m sorry” were enough. More words didn’t make anything better.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his words sliding into place like pieces of a puzzle.
“Thank you. My mom moved in to help us when Rebecca first got sick and then stayed after she passed to help me with Finn.”
I watched as his gaze locked on Finn. I knew he must be thinking about the loss they shared. “How’s he doing with it?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “He had a lot of time to process that she was sick. She was always really open with him about how she might not get better. I hated it so much at the time.”
“My mom was the same way with me. I remember it making my dad uncomfortable.”
Guilt crept up the back of my neck. I hoped beyond hope that I hadn’t done anything to show Finn how much I’d hated it. I didn’t know if those were good memories of his mom or not, but I prayed my own emotional response hadn’t put a stain on them or anything. On the other hand, Spencer had been twelve when his mom died, not five. Maybe he remembered more than Finn would. Which had its good and bad points.
“I can see now that it helped him let her go, in a way. He was sad, obviously. But he wasn’t confused about it. He saw her get sicker and sicker. The first year was the worst, but it gets better each year, I guess.”
Spencer’s eyes held mine. “It’ll keep getting better. Don’t worry.”
“And, uh, if you think he might want to talk about it, let me know. I’m not promising to know exactly what to say, but I might be able to help a little.”
I nodded in reply, not trusting myself to speak. A lot of scenarios went through my mind leading up to this day. Finding that my half-brother had lost his mom as a kid, and might be able to give Finn some comfort in that area, blew my mind. Yep, my ability to hold my bearing was slipping fast.
Spencer shuddered as if he were trying to shake off his own emotions, then chuckled. “Back to the story. You saw my name on the DNA test results and then used your super stalker skills to find my address?”
“Pretty much,” I replied with a laugh. “First I Googled you. Then I saw on your social media profile that you were a Marine. It was easy from there.”
“MOL.” Spencer made a clicking sound with his mouth and pointed a finger, correctly guessing that I’d used Marine Online, the database Marines used for all kinds of administrative tasks. One of its many features was that you could look people up if they were a former or current Marine, then find out where they were stationed and with what unit.
Finn ran up to us then, out of breath. “Do you and Aunt Ellie want to come over for dinner? My grandma is a great cook.”
I laughed and ran a hand over the back of my neck. “Finn.”
Again, Spencer bent to Finn’s level. “We would love to come over for dinner. Pick a day, and we’ll be there.”
“Tomorrow it is.” Spencer held his hand out for a high five. An overjoyed Finn slapped it as hard as he could, then bubbled up with laughter as Spencer feigned a wounded hand.