“Smile!” All three women say to the kids sitting on the park bench, dressed up in their costumes. The girls are about ten times more excited than the four kids.
“This is so lame. Can I please just go to Chloe’s now?” Sydney complains, which these days is pretty typical. The girl would rather eat anthrax than hang around any of us ‘old people’.
“Just take your brother up and down the street.” Garrett rolls his eyes at his now sixteen-year-old daughter.
A low displeasured grunt echoes through the cold air of downtown Climax Cove. “Let’s go Jackson,” Sydney mumbles to the four-year-old.
“YAY!” Jackson jumps from the park bench, running down toward Nail Me Hardware. Leave it to Garrett and Charlie’s kid to want the free tape measure. Talk about a mini me. He’s got Charlie’s attitude with Garrett’s mind for building.
Toby’s eyes shift to Sydney as she passes—right to her chest. She’s not wearing a costume but is wearing a coat—Toby must be using spidey vision. At twelve, he’s already way too much like me.
“Wanna go?” I ask Toby, putting him in a headlock and giving him a noogie.
He wiggles out of my hold and immediately looks around the street to see who’s near, finger combing his hair down.
“I’m way too old for this.” He shrugs his shoulders and pulls out his phone.
“Come on, Toby. Do you want to help me in the bakery?” Ava comes and wraps her arms around Toby, leaning her head against his. They’re almost the same height and I’m sure by the end of the school season Ava will be the shortest in our family.
“No. I wanna go home and play Fortnite.”
Fortnite! I fucking hate that shit. He’s forever on that stupid game with his friends and whenever I ask him to do something it’s always, ‘after this next battle’.
“One night away from Fortnite isn’t going to kill you,” I say.
I turn around. Is that my dad?
“It’s you, dumbass.” Marcus places his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been doing that for months. Just accept the fact you’ve morphed into your father these past few years.”
“Never.” My voice holds conviction, but my buddy is right. The things I find coming out of my mouth make me shudder to say the least.
Ava giggles and whispers into Toby’s ear. The two share a bond that I’m kind of jealous about. So jealous my ass will be next to Toby’s tonight playing Fortnite for a few extra bonus points.
Aw, come on. Everyone wants to be the favorite.
“Thanks, Ava.” Toby smiles, tucks his phone into his pocket and heads down the street, bumping into some kid he knows from school.
“Did you just overrule me?” I wrap my arms around my wife and lift her feet off the ground.
She giggles and slaps my locked hands to let her go. Believe me she usually welcomes my body this close to hers.
“He’s twelve. He doesn’t want to walk the streets with adults. He doesn’t want to dress up.”
Maybe if I kiss her she’ll stop lecturing me.
“First off, the Identity Thief costume was funny, and it wasn’t like I suggested he dress as Thomas the Train.”
Cat laughs from behind me, stealing Ava’s attention away, who tucks her lips in trying not to react.
“Shit man, Thomas the Tank is not the hot thing anymore. You’re so out of the loop.” Garrett joins the girls and I’m growing more annoyed as this pick-on-Dane session continues.
“Screw this. I’ll be at Happy Daze.” I step off the curb almost running into an Elsa.
See I know my shit.
Ava grabs my arm. “You are not. Come and help me at the bakery. You can hand out the cookies with my coupon vouchers.”
“If you weren’t so hot in that black skeleton onesie I’d be able to say no.”
She smiles the one that says, ‘wait until later and we’ll have some fun after closing time’. With Toby now older and able to handle himself on his own for a few hours, Ava and I have taken full advantage of the freedom. It’s like we’re honeymooners again. Evening quickies in the bakery stock room, trips to the field that Ava thinks is so pretty during the warmer months. Ava even went down on me the way home the other night. What wife gives highway head? She’s awesome and that’s why my ass will be following her snug onesie into the bakery.
“Let’s go let Sydney off the hook.” Charlie’s holding Sebastian. She should since she’s relying on a scarf that’s wrapped around her body to hold her newborn up. One weak thread and she’s the next story on Yahoo.
“She needs to learn she can’t always do what she wants to do. If she wants a car, she can take her younger brother trick or treating,” Garrett mumbles but follows his wife down the street in the direction their other children headed.
“I have no one!” Lily cries out from the bench. “No one to trick or treat with.” Tears start streaming down her face and Marcus’s smile fades looking at his baby girl. He hasn’t quite figured out that his daughter might become an actress when she’s older. Toby was never this dramatic at ten.
“Oh Lily,” Cat says nonchalantly. She’s onto Lily’s flare for dramatics. “Look. There’s Mallory.” Her hand moves off the stroller she’s pushing back and forth to point across the street.
“Why is she trick or treating at Happy Daze?” I ask, watching the little girl and her mom walk into my bar.
“Aren’t you handing out candy?” Cat asks, stepping around to look inside the stroller.
She’s always checking up on Frankie. Like the kid can get out of the contraption Cat puts her in. I’ll admit that she’s a cutie in her peacock costume though.
“I’m handing out free drink coupons,” I say with a shrug.
Ava swats my arm and Cat gives me the stink eye. “No candy?” they ask in unison.
Hmm. Whenever the girls ask the same question at the same time it usually doesn’t turn out well for me.
“It’s like trick or treat for the parents. When you finally let Frankie out of that straitjacket stroller to trick or treat, you’ll be thankful that someone like me is looking out for the overworked parents.”
Cat looks down at her daughter, legs kicking, and head turned trying to see around the back. She clearly wants to be a part of everything.
“Are you suggesting I’m a bad parent?” Cat points to herself with a tone that reflects how audacious I am for suggesting that.
“Not at all,” I say.
Ava threads her arm through mine. “Come on.”
“Hold up!” Cat’s voice grows louder, and she steps toward me, finger already pointed and ready to stab into my chest. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? Imagine your wake-up call is a little girl wailing into a microphone beside your ear. You haven’t even really opened your eyes yet and you’re changing a diaper. Oh, and surprise! She pooped, and it went up past the edge of the diaper onto her back.”
I cringe. Those days are long gone for me. Cat’s not ready to stop and Marcus is sitting on the bench with Lily, grinning at me like he’s about to get a lap dance, enjoying the fact that I’m taking the brunt of Cat’s wrath.
“Not only do you have to change her, but now you have to bathe her. You no sooner get the bath done and then the next child wakes up. She has to get to school. There are bags to be packed, lunches to be made, hair to do, breakfast to eat. You want to collapse from exhaustion by the time the one leaves, but oh wait, the other one has finished her breakfast and she wants to play and try the stairs for fun and giggles. By the time lunch rolls around I’m still in my pajamas with oatmeal in my hair and a Spaghettios stain on my shirt. So, the next time you decide you want to judge me for keeping my eighteen-month-old in a stroller, remember that Dane.”
I stand there wide-eyed, not wanting to say anything else. I meant no offense and I want to tell Cat that, but I don’t think she’ll take it too well. So, I nod and keep my mouth shut.
Ava is pursing her lips again.
Marcus stands from the bench and slaps me on the back. “Good talk.” He laughs following his wife and two daughters across the street to my bar. I don’t give a shit what she says, Cat will be happy for that free drink before the night is over.
“Let’s go.” Ava effectively drags me away.
“I didn’t mean…”
“I know, but she’s tired and had a long day today and you insinuated she was a bad mom. Don’t ever go there with any mother, babe.”
We walk into her bakery. Ava’s employee, Kimmy, is handing out cookies to all the kids dressed up. She’s totally got it covered so I head to the back with Ava. She takes off her coat with her back to me and hurriedly puts on her apron before piling her hair on top of her head.
“You’re baking tonight?” I ask.
She shrugs and puts more cookies into plastic bags, placing them in a bowl.
“How much longer are you open?” I look through the opening to the front of the bakery. Kids aren’t lingering like usual in here, eager to get on to the next store.
“We’re open until seven. Why?” She walks up to me, situating herself between my legs.
My hands instantly go to her hips and her arms circle around my neck. She leans into me, her body fitting with mine like she was always meant to be there.
“What’s wrong?” I whisper.
“Just tired. It’s been a long week.”
I had a feeling tonight could bring this issue up. Ava and I have been trying. Trying, without success, to get pregnant. I’m a loser who can’t knock up my girl. All those years I swore by condoms because I couldn’t stomach the thought of being a father with a woman I didn’t love. Of course, as soon as I find the love my life, I can’t become a father. To say I’ve never felt more like a failure would be an understatement.
“It’s not the fact that…”
She shakes her head in the crook of my neck before I finish the sentence. Ava doesn’t really care to talk about the issue while I’ve been searching for info on nearby fertility clinics and adoption. It doesn’t matter if the baby is biologically ours.
“Babe.” I crane my neck back, trying to see her, to push her to open up to me. Discuss the fact that her constant ‘if it’s meant to be it will happen’ isn’t going to make us parents again any time soon.
She flips around so her back is to me. “Untie my apron.” She cracks her neck, her hand massaging the tense muscles.
I glance over my shoulder seeing Kimmy now outside so the kids can continue moving from store to store. She’s smart and Ava should thank me for firing her from my bar. She was meant to work for Ava, not me.
“Your wish is always my command.” My fingers manipulate the strings around her waist and she pulls it off over her head, leaving it on the prep table. “Come here. Let Kimmy close up and we’ll go home and watch Friday the 13th.” I open my arms for her.
She slowly turns, rosy red cheeks, and a wide smile on her face.
I never saw her entire costume earlier. I only knew it was a black onesie with a white skeleton outline. Usually she’s Alice in Wonderland—every year. I was giving her props for being something different but wondered why she’d gone so generic. Not that I’m wearing a costume or anything.
As my eyes scan the curves of her body, my stomach flutters with exhilaration when they land on her stomach. Her hands touch her belly and my gaze flies up to meet hers, asking for clarification.
“You didn’t buy that costume off the clearance rack because it was cheap, or something did you?” I stand placing my hands on each side of her face, searching for what my heart is already soaring about.
She shakes her head. “No.”
My hand covers the little baby skeleton printed on her stomach and her own hand falls on top of mine.
“Really?” I whisper.
She nods, tears welling up in her eyes. “Really.”
Unable to control myself, I press my lips to hers, my hand never leaving her stomach. “I love you.”
“I love you.”
We embrace for a few more minutes, exchanging whispers of affection between us as I try to take in the news.
“Cat’s gonna rake me over the coals when this little one comes,” I say, not caring in the least because, holy shit, we’re gonna have a baby!
Ava giggles and her head falls to my shoulder. “Pretty much.”
Damn, I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut. Lesson learned I suppose. All it really means is my kid won’t be strapped in a stroller.
“No, Dane.” Ava shakes her head as though she knows what’s going through my head. “We’re using a stroller.” She walks to the front of the store.
“Just hear my argument…” I follow her like I usually do, her laughter the best sound in the entire world. I can’t wait until the cries of our baby joins her laughter.
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