Three days after his mother told him it was time, Max packed his and Chloe’s few belongings into his beat up old Taurus, strapped his daughter into her car seat, and left his childhood home. His little girl kicked the seat behind him the whole way, and he drove with a box in his lap, but he was free. In a weird sort of way, it felt good to move out.
When he dropped the last box on what would eventually be the living room floor, Max turned to Chloe. She sat on the floor by the double windows, a toy clutched in one of her hands. “Well, Chloe, here we are. Home, sweet home.” He looked around the nearly empty room, frowning. His mother had let him take his desk, twin bed, and all of Chloe’s furniture, but he had nothing else. “Lonely home,” he amended.
“Daddy,” Chloe said, and turned away from him.
Shrugging, he ambled into the kitchen to start unpacking. It took three minutes. He spent two minutes trying to open the box, and another minute putting his daughter’s baby food into a cabinet. Stomach growling, he pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“Guess I’ll order some pizza,” he said. “Chloe, are you going to eat some pizza?”
His daughter gave no response, babbling happily to herself as she smashed two plastic action figures against each other in the living room.
He called his favorite pizza place, ordered a large pepperoni, and returned to the living room to watch Chloe. Then, his phone still in his hand, he scrolled through his contacts. “I think I know who’ll take that third bedroom,” he told Chloe.
“Hey, asshole,” his best friend, Riley, answered in her best fake British accent.
“Hey, yourself,” he told her. “I just ordered a huge pepperoni pizza. Wanna split it?”
She snorted. “Short on cash?”
“Nope,” he said. “I was hoping you’d come keep my bed warm. I’m all alone in my new apartment and it’s scary by myself.”
“Maybe some other time,” she said, laughing. “Wait, what? You got your own apartment?”
“If you bring beer, I’ll let you get drunk and sleep on my floor.” He stretched his legs out, pointing the toes of his scuffed Nikes toward the ceiling.
“I wish I had my own place,” Riley said. “My parents are killing me.”
Grinning, Max gave Chloe the thumbs up sign. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word. “I happen to have a third bedroom, empty and ready for you.”
“Wow,” Riley said. “I don’t know what to say. This is so . . . sudden.”
Max laughed. “Seriously, though.” He wished she was sitting right across from him. It would be easier to read her face.
“Seriously?” she said.
“Why not?” Riley had been his only high school friend to stick around after Nicole got pregnant. “You, me, Chloe. We’d be a happy family. And you could help me fill this place with furniture. Don’t you get a discount at Kohl’s?”
“Barely,” Riley said. “We don’t sell much furniture, anyway. When did you move out of your parents’ house?”
Max lifted his eyebrows. “I guess I didn’t tell you.” He filled her in, feeling a little bad for not calling her first. Luckily, Riley had never been the needy kind of friend that demanded every detail of his life. They just worked.
“That’s crazy! Your mom just kicked you out? What is she gonna do, use your room as an office?”
“If that was the case,” he said, “she could have used one of the guest bedrooms, or the spare room they’re using for storage.”
“Christmas decorations and Martha Stewart catalogs,” Riley said. “It would be the perfect storefront.”
“Seriously, though,” Max said. “You can move in whenever you want.”
For a moment, Riley was silent. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Why not?” Max jumped up and went to the front window. He peered out into the dark street at a passing car, but the car didn’t slow. “You complain about living with your parents all the time.”
“Duh,” she said, “but I can’t exactly pay rent on makeup commission.”
“I thought you said the stuff you sell is expensive.” He watched another car approach, hoping it was his pizza.
“I still don’t get paid that much. It sucks.”
He frowned. “Damn, I really thought you would be all over this. I need someone to help me out with Chloe.”
“I would if I could, handsome. I can help out when I’m not working,” Riley offered.
“Thanks, Riles. I need someone in between, too, though. I can get extra hours at the music store and make rent no problem, but Chloe can’t exactly stay here by herself, and my mom won’t watch her anymore.” A car pulled up in front of the house, and a guy wearing a Yankees cap got out of the driver’s seat. He jogged around to the passenger side and pulled out a box of pizza. Max opened the door and pulled out a twenty.
“Why don’t you post an ad online?” Riley said, laughing.
As Max shut the door, holding the pizza box in one hand and holding his phone with the other, he froze. “That’s actually not a bad idea.” He strode toward the kitchen.
Riley snorted. “I was kidding, dumb dumb.”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of a good idea.” Max opened the pizza box; cheese bubbled around overflowing slices of pepperoni. He inhaled and sighed, grinning. Then he grimaced. He had no plates.
“Please don’t do that,” Riley said.
“Why not?” he asked, lifting a slice from the pie. Heat seared his fingers. He dropped it onto the cardboard lid.
“Because you’ll end up with an axe murderer or something. I don’t really care if you get killed, but I like Chloe.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly, lifting the slice of pizza again. It was still hot, but he took a bite from it, slurping. “You’re missing out on some really good pizza.”
“Why don’t you put her in like, a day care or something?” Riley asked. “My sister uses Easter Seals. They’re accredited and shit, so your kid gets an education, too.”
“I don’t work nine to five,” Max said, taking another bite. “Plus I’m not really ready for her to go to school yet.”
“Gross,” Riley said. “Please don’t be that creepy father with attachment issues.”
“I don’t have attachment issues,” Max said, putting his slice down. “She’s only two. She’s still so little. I want her to be a kid.”
“Why don’t you have one of your brothers watch her, then? What about the journalist? Don’t writers work from home?” Riley asked.
Max plucked a slice of pepperoni from the pizza and popped it into his mouth. “He still has to work at the newspaper,” he said, chewing. “And the rest of them are too busy. I’ll just post an ad.”
“No,” Riley said. The tone she used reminded him of his mother.
“Are you gonna be my live-in nanny?” Max asked.
She sighed. “No.”
“Then I’ve gotta go. I need my phone,” he said, and hung up before she could suggest anything else. He pointed a finger at Chloe. “You are not going to school yet, young lady.” He opened his browser and went to Craigslist. Scrolling through, he passed listings of free and cheap furniture. They would come in handy later. He went to the jobs section and started a new topic: “FULL-TIME NANNY, BEDROOM AVAILABLE.”
He cross-posted it to the apartments section, then picked up another slice of pizza.
* * *
Snow swirled down from the sky, coating the Taurus and the asphalt of the parking lot. Max stared at the screen of his laptop, completely oblivious. His finger twitched toward the refresh button, clicking it for the tenth time in the last minute. Still no responses.
Gritting his teeth, he drummed his fingers on the keyboard. Two weeks had passed since he originally posted the ad, and not a single person had replied. Next to him sat a stack of textbooks and final exam notes. He refreshed the page again.
Jumping up from the desk, he left the living room and paced toward Chloe’s room. He inched her door open and peeked inside at her. She lay on her back inside her crib, an arm slung up over her head, her elbow bent. A dark curl lay against her forehead. Her eyes were closed, black lashes stark against her creamy complexion. Max sighed. If he didn’t find someone to watch her soon, he had no idea what he was going to do.
Closing the door, he padded back into the living room. He dropped into his desk chair again and hit refresh three times.
He swallowed hard. Rubbing his temples, he stared at the screen. Riley helped him out when she could, but if he couldn’t find someone permanent before the semester ended, he was going to have to drop out of school. He tried to imagine working days in a factory, standing in an assembly line, back aching. His grandfather had worked third shift long past his retirement. Max sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was end up like Grandpa Batista.
Glancing at the time, he frowned. It was past two in the morning, and he had a final exam at nine. Yawning, he closed his laptop, then stood from his desk. As he reached for his phone, the screen lit up, and a new text appeared. Call me if you’re up, Riley had written.
Max frowned. He unlocked the phone and called her.
“Hey,” she said, her voice hoarse.
“You do know it’s two in the morning, Riles?” he teased.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice cracking.
He hesitated, the dirty joke he had been about to spring dying on his lips. “Are you okay?”
“No,” she moaned. “I feel like someone tried to strangle me. My throat is killing me. I can’t swallow, either.”
Max grimaced. “Allergies?”
“Dumbass,” she said. “I think it’s a cold, maybe strep.” She sighed. “So I’m not gonna be able to watch Chloe in the morning.”
Max’s stomach clenched. “I have a final,” he said.
“Jeez,” Riley said. “I’m sorry that I don’t feel good.”
Guilt swept through him. He swallowed hard. “Sorry, Rie. Can I get you anything?”
She sighed again. “No. I’m gonna go to bed now.” Without another word, she hung up.
Max lowered his phone and stared at the screen as it went dark. With no one to watch Chloe, he would have to stay home—and miss his exam. Sucking in a deep breath, he ran his hands through his hair. If he dodged the exam, his GPA probably wouldn’t be affected too much, but he would definitely have to repeat the course. Professor Lee had made it clear—in bold letters on the syllabus—that the midterm and final counted for 75 percent of their total grade. Nausea curled into his stomach, and he leaned over, resting his cheek on the cool wood of the desk.
Even worse, he was supposed to work in the afternoon. He couldn’t afford to miss work, especially not with his first month of rent due so soon. He wished his parents could be normal, reasonable people. He wondered what kind of mother and father kicked their son and granddaughter out. If his mother had asked him to contribute toward groceries or even rent, he would have been more than happy to. It wasn’t fair.
Slowly, he lifted his head from the desk. If he emailed his professor right away, and said he was sick, he would probably be able to make up the exam. He could pretend that he was the one with strep or whatever. Maybe he could even email his boss at the music store with the same excuse. He had never missed a class or a day of work. That had to count for something.
Turning his computer back on, he slowly exhaled. Everything would be okay. Surely Riley would be feeling better by the next day, when she was supposed to watch Chloe for him while he took another final.
As he started typing the first email, another text came in on his phone.
I’m gonna have to cancel for Tuesday, too. I forgot I have to work.
Clenching his phone in his hand, Max curled his lip. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. He wondered how Riley could possibly have forgotten she had to work. Maybe she was mad at him for being so insensitive about her being sick. He sighed. Girls were so complicated—even Riley, who he had known for years.
Massaging his temples, he breathed in deeply. At least he had a good excuse for missing two days in a row. He could just pretend that he was still sick.
Still, he surmised, faking sick wouldn’t get him very far for very long. He couldn’t afford to miss work, and he definitely couldn’t flunk out of school. Something had to give—and soon.
Single dad Max isn’t looking for love—or so he thinks.
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