The icy scent of frost floated in through the window, cracked open an inch to let the blazing hot air from the furnace out. Max paused the composition he was mixing on his laptop and inhaled. The air smelled like snow—a clean, cold smell that burned his nostrils. Glancing at the calendar above his desk, Max counted the days until the end of the fall semester. Little more than two weeks remained. He needed to hurry up and finish his final projects.
Leaning back in the squeaky desk chair he had owned since he was twelve, Max stretched his arms toward the drop ceiling. He lowered his arms, then moved his neck from side to side, stretching the tense muscles. Mixing was his least favorite thing to do. He’d always loved music—until he started majoring in it. He had the state of Connecticut to thank for that—all elementary education students were required to double major.
A cry from the top of the stairs interrupted his stretching routine: “Daddy,” his daughter Chloe wailed.
Max chuckled. He almost wanted to ignore her; he already knew what she wanted. Ignoring her would be mean, though. She was only two. “Yes?” he called, his voice echoing to the floor above him.
For a moment, she said nothing. Shaking his head, Max turned back to his desk. Just as he slipped his earbuds back in, she called out again. “I wanna watch George,” she said.
He glanced at the digital display of the alarm clock next to his bed. Exactly twenty minutes had passed since she last came to the top of the stairs. He needed to buy some longer DVDs.
“Coming,” he said. He yawned, wondering where his mother was. Betty Batista usually watched his daughter all day, even if he was off from work and spent the day doing homework. She had said she was going out grocery shopping, but that had been three hours earlier.
Sighing, he jumped to his feet. The chair rolled away, smacking into the desk. He shook his head. Whoever had finished the basement hadn’t really known what they were doing.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he stretched his arms out toward his daughter. Despite the dark circles under his eyes and his messy hair, she squealed with laughter and darted back into the kitchen. “I’m gonna tickle you,” he roared. Chloe raced into the living room, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. She dived onto the couch, tucking herself into a ball, her face buried in the cushions.
Max smirked. He scooped her up from the couch, tossing her into the air. When he caught her, he wiggled his fingers against her belly. She howled with laughter. Spinning her around, he plopped her down on the couch. She giggled, kicking her legs.
“Tickle me!” she said. Two tiny brown ponytails danced on the top of her head. Her blue eyes sparkled. For a moment, she looked just like her mother. Max turned away and knelt in front of the family DVD player, restarting the pair of Curious George episodes. “Tickle me,” Chloe said again. He turned around. She watched him with her head cocked to the side. “Daddy?”
He gave her a smile, stifling a yawn. “Sorry, baby. Daddy’s gotta work. You watch George, okay?” He stood and kissed her soft cheek.
Chloe frowned. “I want you to watch it with me.” Her lower lip quivered.
Max glanced out the window into the still empty driveway. “Where’s Grandma?” He took a step away from the couch.
Chloe shrieked, the sound piercing his ears and echoing off the walls of the house.
Grimacing, Max stared at his daughter. “Where did you come from?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She continued screaming. Pain exploded in his temple. Wincing, he rubbed at his head. “Look, George is starting.” He pointed to the television and took a step back. Chloe only glanced at the screen, her shrieking reaching another octave. “Knock it off!” he yelled, but the volume of her wailing only got louder. Gritting his teeth, Max turned and left the living room. As he entered the kitchen, he heard something hard clatter onto the coffee table. He froze in his tracks and pivoted on the balls of his feet. “If you break that, Grandma’s gonna be mad at you.”
Chloe screamed even louder.
He paced the kitchen, his fists clenched. On any other day, he could probably ignore the tantrum. Lately, though, all Chloe did was shriek and pound at the floor when she didn’t get her way. Max was running out of ways to deal with it. Usually, his mother handled the tantrums with a swift swat on Chloe’s diaper-padded butt. Max had never spanked Chloe, and he didn’t want to start anytime soon. His father, Alexander, could usually silence Chloe with just a few low words. She listened to Max less and less. Sometimes, he wondered if she even realized he was her father.
Fighting the urge to retreat into the basement, he went back into the living room. Chloe sat on the floor, the cushions of the couch strewn around her. When she saw Max, she cried harder, her face streaked with tears, cheeks blazing.
“If you don’t stop crying, I’m gonna shut the TV off.”
She screamed, and a headache pinged into the space between Max’s eyes.
“Fine,” he said. Stomping to the other side of the room, he turned the DVD player off.
Eyes widening, Chloe kicked at the coffee table. Candles and other knickknacks tumbled to the floor.
“Come on, kid,” Max grumbled. He ran a hand through his hair. “Why are you acting like this?” While she continued to scream, he sat on the arm of the couch. She had napped earlier in the afternoon, for forty-five minutes, and had slept in until around ten. She couldn’t be tired. She couldn’t be hungry, either, because they had just eaten lunch an hour before, when he watched the DVD with her for the first time. He sighed.
Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the front door opened. His mother walked in, a smile on her face. She started to say something. Her expression sagged the second she heard Chloe. She put her hands on her hips, glaring at Max.
“She won’t stop,” he said, raising his voice over his daughter. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
Betty shook her head, her short gray hair glinting in the late afternoon light. Through the open door, Max saw that the sky had darkened, threatening snow. His mother marched inside, closing the door behind her. Lifting Chloe, she bounced the toddler on her hip. “I know,” she soothed, stroking Chloe’s hair.
Slowly, Chloe quieted.
Max gaped. He wanted to tell his mother not to spoil his daughter. Instead, he tugged at his hair. “How did you do that?” he asked.
“She just needed some attention,” Betty said. She kissed her granddaughter’s cheeks. “Huh, baby?” Chloe snuggled into her grandmother, nestling her face into Betty’s shoulder.
“I’ve got a lot of homework,” Max said, turning toward the kitchen. “I’ll see you later.” He rounded the corner, heading toward the basement.
“Hold it,” his mother called after him.
He glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve gotta work, Mom.”
“We need to talk,” she said.
Max froze, one hand on the stair railing. “About what?”
“Come in here and have a seat,” she called to him.
Frowning, Max turned around and went back into the living room. His mother sat on the couch, Chloe in her arms. On the TV, the first episode on the Curious George DVD began.
“What’s up?” he asked, sitting on the love seat across from Betty. For the first time, he realized that his mother hadn’t brought in any grocery bags. “What’s going on? Is Dad okay?”
Betty waved a hand at him. “Your father’s fine. He’s at the office, driving your brothers crazy.” She rocked Chloe in her arms.
“Then what is it?” Max searched her face, but her expression gave nothing away.
“Well,” she said slowly. She shifted Chloe to her other side. “Your father and I have been talking.” Glancing at the TV, she watched the cartoon for several long seconds.
“About what?” Max asked. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans.
“We love you and Chloe very, very much,” his mother said, “but we both agree that it’s time.”
Max leaned forward. His heart thudded in his chest. “Time for what?”
Betty shot him a look, her lips twisting in a wry smile. “Don’t play dumb, Max. We’ve been more than generous here. I can’t raise Chloe for you, though. I just can’t.”
He frowned. “But you’re not.” Even as the words left his lips, he knew they weren’t true.
“Max,” his mother said, dangerously close to using his full name. “I watch her all day, sometimes from seven in the morning to midnight. I’m not a full-time nanny. I have my own life, you know.”
Max blinked at her and rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Well, the semester is almost over. It won’t be all day during winter break.”
“Max,” his mother said sharply. “You’re not hearing me. It’s time for you to move out, on your own. And you need to take Chloe with you.” The toddler in question squirmed out of her arms and slid to the floor, her eyes fixated on the monkey on TV.
Gaping at his mother, Max sank back against the love seat in disbelief. “Move out?”
Betty nodded. “It’s time.”
“Why?” He ran a hand through his hair. “You said I could stay here while I went to school.”
His mother sighed. “Things change. That’s life.” She crossed her legs. “I’m not getting any younger, kiddo. I’m retired but I’m not dead—yet. I want to work on my own dreams while I still have time.”
“Dreams?” he repeated. “Mom, you’re sixty-seven. I thought you were done working. I thought you hated working.” He stood and began pacing.
“I hated working in the office,” she said. “I love your father, but he was a pain in the ass to work with.” She smiled, her eyes sparkling. “We’ve discussed finances, and we’ve decided that I can start that interior design business I keep talking about.” She stood, smoothing her dress pants. “I can’t work at home with a toddler running around, and you need to be independent. I can’t have you two living in my basement until you turn forty. Besides, it’ll be good for you both, like bonding.” Stepping over Chloe, his mother strode out of the living room. “You have until the end of the month,” she called over her shoulder.
Max stared after her, jaw hanging open. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to say to his mother.
* * *
Max left Chloe in the living room, retreating to his bedroom in the basement. The furnace blazed even hotter, and he cringed as he closed the door behind him. That was one thing he wouldn’t miss. As he stared around his room, the situation began to fully sink in. His mother had kicked him out. He yanked at his hair in an effort to wake up. It had to be a dream. Eyes wide, he took a deep breath, blowing it out through his nostrils. He slowly counted to ten.
As he calmed down, he confirmed that he was not, in fact, dreaming. He blew out another long breath. He needed to think.
He wished that he could just dismiss the conversation as a prank. His mom knew how to do a lot of things, but playing a joke was not one of them. He needed to find a place for him and Chloe to live, ASAP. Stalking across the room, he snatched his phone from his desk. He scrolled through his contacts, his mind whirling. There had to be someone that he and Chloe could stay with for a little while.
His oldest brothers were both married with young children. As the youngest of five, Max had thought he could live with his parents longer than his elder brothers had. Having a daughter at such a young age should have earned him that right. He selected Xavier, the brother closest to him in age, from his contacts.
His brother picked up on the second ring. “Maxi Pad,” he exclaimed.
“Eggs,” Max said in a flat tone. Leave it to Xavier to remember his childhood nickname.
“What’s up, little bro?”
“No time to catch up,” Max said, brushing aside the earlier dig. “Mom and Dad are kicking me out. I need to find a place ASAP. Can Chloe and I crash with you?”
Xavier hesitated. “Eh,” he said, drawing out the word.
“What’s wrong?” Max asked. “You already have two roommates. What’s two more?”
“Sorry,” Xavier said. “There’s no way we can have a baby around.”
Max scowled. “Chloe’s not a baby. She’s two, almost three.”
“Yeah, dude,” Xavier said. “My point exactly. Listen, we’re all surgical residents here. We work all kinds of crazy hours.”
Max began pacing. “You won’t even notice we’re there. Chloe will be really quiet.”
“Yeah,” Xavier said again slowly. “We do a lot of drinking around here. Babies and booze don’t mix, man. I can’t be waking up half-hungover because your kid’s crying.”
Frustrated, Max tightened his fingers around his phone and forced himself to take a breath. “Come on, Eggs. You’re killing me.”
“No way, José,” Xavier said, and hung up.
Max stared at the dark screen of his phone, his heart slamming in his chest. He thought for sure that Xavier would have said yes. Of all his brothers, they were the closest. “So much for that,” he said out loud. He went through his contacts again.
Levi, the third-born Batista boy, had always been nice to Max. He was nine years older than Max, but he didn’t act like a regular real adult. Levi would help. Max pressed the phone to his ear.
“Levi Batista,” his brother answered.
“You’re all formal, now that you’ve got that New York Times bestseller status,” Max said.
Levi laughed in embarrassment. “Hey, dude,” he said. “What’s up?”
“So I have a situation I’m hoping you can help me out with,” Max said. He explained what happened. “Eggs said no. I know you guys just got married, but do you think Chloe and I can crash with you?”
Levi sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Gonna have to check with the wife on that one,” he said.
“Come on,” Max said. “Just for a little while. At least until Mom changes her mind. You know she’s not gonna go anywhere with this business.” His eyebrows furrowed. In twenty years as her son, he’d never known his mother to have dreams. The mother he knew enjoyed taking care of her sons and relaxing with magazines and wine.
“Babe,” Levi called to his new wife. “Do you think my little brother can come stay with us for a bit?”
Max cringed. “Dude, don’t ask her like that. I’m not even married and I know that.”
In the background, he could hear Levi’s wife ask if he meant the little brother with the little girl.
“Yes, Max and Chloe,” Levi said.
Max held his breath. Even though Levi had just gotten married, maybe his wife was in one of those baby-making moods that women got into. Having Chloe around would cure the baby fever, at least temporarily.
“Hell no,” his sister-in-law said. “Is he crazy? I wanna have sex in my own house. I wanna walk around naked. I do not want any kids running around.”
Clearing his throat, Levi said, “Sorry, dude.” He hung up.
Max stared at his phone in disbelief. He had struck out twice in a row. Licking his lips, he continued through his contacts. There had to be someone. He couldn’t ask his two oldest brothers if he could live with them, but maybe he could ask Tristan for help finding an apartment. At the very least, when the end of the month rolled around, he wouldn’t be homeless. He could figure out rent and bills and stuff later. Maybe he could even borrow money from Levi and Xavier.
Rather than calling Tristan and going through the whole conversation all over again, he texted his oldest brother: Need your real estate agent friend’s # ASAP. He hit send and waited, tossing the phone onto his bed. He plopped into his rolling chair and turned in a slow circle.
Next to him, his phone vibrated.
He dove for it, springing onto the bed. On the display, without a single letter requesting an explanation or turning him down, was the guy’s number.
Max pumped a fist in the air and hit dial. He would show his mother that he could figure things out without her help. Even if he had to get the cheapest, crappiest apartment in town, he would prove to her that he didn’t need her or his father. She would feel stupid when she realized that her youngest son could survive on his own, and he would do it without his parents or brothers.
“Yeah,” the real estate guy said, answering on the first ring.
“Um,” Max said, his mind spinning. He squinted, lips twisting. He hadn’t thought about what he should say. Clearing his throat, he decided to drop his brother’s name first. If the guy knew who Max was, he might give him a break on rent. “I’m Tristan Batista’s brother, Max. I need an apartment as soon as possible.”
“What’s your budget?” the real estate guy asked, sounding bored.
Max glanced around his bedroom for inspiration. “Um,” he said again. “Cheap?”
“How about a three-bedroom in Brooklyn, at the bottom of Congress, for six?”
“I said ‘cheap,’ not ‘get me shot up,’” Max said. “And I only need two bedrooms. It’s just me and my daughter. What else do you have?”
“I’ve got a one-bedroom in Bradley Gardens. It’s seven-fifty. Security cameras, blah, blah, blah. It’s got a storage room that could pass as a kid’s bedroom if you don’t have DCF breathing down your neck.”
Max considered it. Levi had lived in a similar apartment, back when he was studying at the community college. Max hadn’t had to deal with his ex-girlfriend in years, and gaining custody of Chloe had been easy. Still, he wanted his daughter to have a real bedroom. He gnawed on a knuckle. “What else?” he asked.
“Behind Target. Three-bedroom. Seven-seventy-five. That’s my final offer,” the real estate guy said.
“I’ll take it,” Max said immediately. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it later. “What do you need from me?”
“Deposit. First month’s rent. I’ll kill the deposit if you pay me in cash.” The guy sounded slightly more interested than he had before.
Max glanced at the jar of bills stashed on top of his dresser. He probably had at least that much in there. He had been saving for an audio mixer, though.
He sighed. It wasn’t like he planned on having a career in music. That road, as his parents often reminded him, led nowhere. If he was going to make it on his own, he needed to start making more sacrifices for Chloe. Besides, he wasn’t good enough at music to do anything outside of what he needed to get done for school. It was time to let go of his childhood pipe dreams. He was only studying music to fulfill his elementary education degree requirement, anyway. “Okay,” he said.
“Good.” The realtor gave him the address and a time to meet, and they hung up.
Max flopped back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. The furnace kicked on again, washing the basement in blazing heat. Wiping his brow, he smiled in satisfaction. As long as he worked thirty or more hours at the music store and didn’t spend it on anything stupid, he and Chloe would be fine.
He sat up fast. His mother had also said that she couldn’t watch his daughter anymore.
Groaning, he tugged at his hair again. He needed to find someone to babysit Chloe for him while he worked and went to class, or he wouldn’t have a job—or future—at all.
Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.
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