Danny Acevedo won't hear his son call him "Pops" this morning. They won't sit at the IHOP and, between mouthfuls of pancakes, talk about their dream to restore the white 1989 Honda Prelude Si parked in their driveway. This afternoon, they won't fix a transmission or a clutch or a timing belt together for the thousandth time. Danny, between tugs on a wrench, won't tease him about kissing his girlfriend, and the 47-year-old won't listen to his boy tell the bad joke about what the frog likes to drink — "croaka-cola." Tonight, Danny won't hear his 18-year-old son, Enrique "Ricky" Daniel Acevedo, wish him "Happy Father's Day." Danny won't do any of that because a year ago, last Father's Day, Ricky was carjacked and stabbed in the neck on a rural stretch of roadway south of Brooksville. There, on the sunbaked pavement, Danny's only boy — his "shadow" — bled to death.
They didn't speak that day. Danny had left Ricky a few voicemails about going to breakfast, but he didn't call back. That wasn't unusual, though. Like many teenagers, Ricky stayed out in the evenings and slept late in the mornings. He had spent the previous night at a friend's house, but he wouldn't miss the Father's Day dinner later that June 20. Danny knew that.
Danny went to his dad's house near Brooksville early that afternoon. As the family ate and laughed and told stories about growing up in Long Island, his cell phone rang. He didn't recognize the number, so he ignored it. It rang again. He ignored it.
Soon after, his dad's house phone rang. It was Danny's niece, panicked. Something bad had happened to Ricky, she told them, and they needed to come right away to Brooksville Regional Hospital.
When they got there, Ricky wasn't at the hospital. In fact, he wasn't at any hospital. Concern grew into fear. An hour passed, then another, and another.
Then, in an instant, Danny recalls, the night skies tore open and a violent storm enveloped Hernando County.
"In my soul," Danny said, "I felt my son leaving us."
Investigators would later tell Danny and his wife, 44-year-old Carmen, that Ricky had not been the target. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of three evil people all now charged with first-degree murder.
Steven Wesolek, 20; his 15-year-old girlfriend, Sabrina Dicus; and her 39-year-old mom, Sherrie Dicus, had planned an ambush for weeks, according to investigators. The three homeless suspects had intended to kill Ricky's friend and Wesolek's ex-girlfriend, Skyler Nicholle Collins, and then steal her red 2001 Ford Mustang convertible before eventually driving to Ohio to "start a new life."
Early that Sunday afternoon, Wesolek had called Collins for a ride. Unwilling to let her pick them up alone, Ricky joined his friend and drove her car.
Collins sat in the passenger seat, with Wesolek and the Dicuses squeezed into the back. As the Mustang approached the intersection of Ayers and Culbreath roads, authorities say, Ricky was stabbed and Collins was nearly strangled before she escaped.
Ricky slammed on the brakes, and the two stumbled out of the car. He staggered back toward the crossroads, collapsed and died.
"I just lost it," Danny said of the moment he learned the news. "When you go through something like that, you ask, 'Where did I go wrong?' I asked God questions: 'Where did I go wrong?' "
Danny had always wanted a boy. He and his wife had two daughters when, at last, doctors told them Carmen was pregnant with a son, so the couple filled their house with clothes and toys for him.
But doctors were wrong and, instead, out came another daughter, now 23-year-old Carmen Lynn Acevedo.
"I was in shock," Danny said. "I was definitely in shock."
He loved his new baby girl. But, still, a part of him was disappointed. He gave up on having another child, but Carmen wanted to try just once more.
Carmen insisted, this time they were having a boy. But Danny wouldn't listen. He even refused to look at the sonograms.
"The proof is in the pudding," he would tell his wife.
Then, on Sept. 22, 1991, Ricky arrived.
"Finally, he was born, and I looked at him," Danny said. "My whole world just lit up."
He was so excited he dropped the camera.
Danny, now a welder at Monitor Products on Flight Path Drive, has always worked on the side as a mechanic from his home.
As a toddler, his son would sit outside and watch him work on the cars parked in their driveway. At age 2, he had started to bring his father tools. To Ricky, they were all called screwdrivers.
His parents bought him a red and yellow Playskool toy car. As he saw his dad place pieces of cardboard on the ground and climb under engines, Ricky did the same. He set the cardboard on the ground, laid on his back and pulled the toy car over him.
In her mind, Ricky's sister, Carmen Lynn, still sees her brother mimicking Danny's every habit.
"When you saw my dad," she said, "the tail wasn't too far behind."
Ricky, as a 6-year-old, sat next to the middle console in his father's black and gold 1979 Trans Am. Smiling, the little boy stared at his dad until Danny nodded. With both hands, Ricky would pull the shifter, and Danny would punch the gas.
At stoplights, Ricky would sit up and peer out the window, looking for potential competition.
"Dad, that guy looks like he wants to race."
"I'm not going to race, Ricky."
"But dad, look at him."
A few years later, when the floor jack's handle was still nearly as tall as Ricky, he and his father rebuilt their first engine together: a 1986 Toyota Supra.
A teacher once called Danny to tell him that his son talked about cars too much in school. After family trips, cousins said the same thing.
When a girl asked Ricky to a dance in middle school, he declined. He told her he had to work on some vehicles with his dad.
Father and son seldom argued, but when they did, it wasn't about booze or girls or broken curfews. It was about Danny's car tools. Ricky tended to borrow his dad's equipment or, when he got frustrated with an unfinished project, leave pliers and screwdrivers strewn across the driveway.
Still, neither could stay mad, or apart.
"Every day, they'd always be together," said Ricky's longtime friend, Allen Torres. "He was the only one that I knew who stuck around his dad real close."
Danny still works on cars. In a way, it preserves Ricky's memory — the silly jokes, the talks about life, a son trying to impress his father by never asking for help.
On a recent warm afternoon, Danny crawled out from beneath a Nissan pickup with a faulty clutch. He wiped the grease from his rough, calloused fingers as sweat dripped from his wire-rimmed glasses.
"This," he said, "is what me and my baby used to do all the time."
Sometimes, in moments when he's lost in his work, Danny still calls out for Ricky to come help him.
When Danny and Carmen decided to renew their vows in 2009 on the 25th anniversary of when they'd begun dating, he wanted to discuss their plans with his son.
"I told him, 'Sit down, I gotta talk to you,' " Danny remembered of his conversation in the family's garage with then 16-year-old Ricky. "He thought he was in trouble."
Danny told Ricky he wanted him to be his best man.
"Yeah," Danny answered, "because you're my best friend."
Ricky in a tuxedo, standing next to his father, paced nervously before what would be a brief but tender toast. Danny treasures those memories, but they're also painful. Danny will never don a tux for his son's wedding. He'll never stand next to Ricky as his son's best man. He'll never feel the nerves before toasting his boy's happiest moment.
At a friend's recent wedding, Danny couldn't bear the idea of what would never be. He broke down.
Today at their home in Spring Hill, Danny and Carmen and their three daughters — Lillian Gonzalez, 27; Anairis Acevedo, 25, and Carmen Lynn —will host Ricky's friends for a cookout.
They'll tell stories — about the dozens of kids in the neighborhood who brought their broken bicycles for him to fix; about the guinea pig, the 50 or so turtles, the cat named Harley, the mutt named Bear, the Labrador named Jack Sparrow and all the other animals Ricky adopted; about one of his sister's weddings, when he wore a white suit and did the "sprinkler" move on the dance floor.
His buddies, maybe once or twice — in Ricky's memory — will peel their cars out and burn some tire rubber onto the road.
Either tonight or Monday, the family will visit Ricky's gravesite at Grace Memorial Gardens in Hudson.
That place, perhaps more than anywhere else, shows that none of the people who most loved Ricky have neared moving on from his death. His sisters, between tears, lay trinkets around his headstone that remind them of him. Once, his former girlfriend, Katelyn "Kitty" Lanham, was so overwhelmed by her pain at the cemetery that she became ill.
Before Carmen leaves, she trims the grass around his grave with a pair of scissors. She cleans his stone with a rag and a bottle of Lysol.
"My routine," she calls it.
Danny talks to his son and, in a moment alone, bows his head and asks for a favor.
"I pray to God," he said, "to give him a little kiss for me."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.