Queens, New York
MATT HAIGHT wheeled his overloaded shopping cart through the throng of shoppers in Pathmark. He had a list, a handful of coupons, and the twins to keep an eye on. If he let them run loose, there’d be fifteen boxes of cereal in the cart by the time they hit the checkout.
“Danny, Elizabeth, stay in the same aisle as me, okay?” Matt stopped at a display of shampoo and tried to find the note from Katie (formerly Kathleen, now only answering to Katie—particularly to the hundreds of boys who seemed to call on a regular basis) on his list. She was pretty nice for a teenager with a high IQ, but he knew better than to mess with her beauty routine.
“We’re fiiiiiine,” Elizabeth sang, skipping over to the cart and standing on the back of it. “We just want to look at the canned pasta.”
“Look at it? Really? Or figure a way to smuggle it into the cart?”
“It’s just so yummy,” she wheedled, flashing her big eyes and dimples.
“It’s got enough sodium to stun an elephant.” Matt found the shampoo Katie had written down and put two bottles in his cart. He was three-quarters through the list and almost out of room. Feeding two adult men and three growing children required a flatbed.
Danny appeared at Matt’s side looking suspicious; Matt suspected he was already trying to smuggle some contraband pasta into the cart. The boy had hit nine and gone into growth-spurt mode. If they weren’t feeding him, they were trying to find pants to fit him.
“My God, I’m Suzy Homemaker,” Matt mumbled, ticking shampoo off his list. “Listen, I might be able to look the other way this once, but you guys have to help me finish this list before I lose it.”
“Lose the list?” Elizabeth asked, staring at the paper in his hand.
“Lose his mind,” Danny said helpfully, pulling a can of ravioli out from the inside of his sweat jacket. A semishoplift of crap in a can.
“Yes, lose my mind. We have to finish this. We have to run to the drugstore. We have to get Katie at field hockey.”
“We have to buy ramen noodles for Miranda to take back to her dorm.” Elizabeth found her sister’s poor school diet to be an object of fascination and glamor.
“Right.” Matt scribbled that onto his list. Two grown men, three growing children, and one NYU freshman—next shopping trip he was bringing teamsters to load the flatbed.
They pushed on into the next aisle. Matt sent Elizabeth in search of yogurt (he had a coupon) and Danny for orange juice (ditto). Matt filled up the last tiny sliver of space in the cart with three gallons of milk and two-dozen eggs.
He was rearranging cans of tuna and three bags of mixed vegetables when that familiar feeling of “no really, what? This is my life now!” hit him like a hot flash. Lifelong bachelor in a studio apartment last year—taking care of four kids and a semihousehusband the next. Seemingly straight with a string of meaningless sexual relationships for most of his life—living with a guy, in love with a guy, crazy about his kids in the space of fifteen months.
Matt got these moments a few times a week. They weren’t regret, they were more like stunned realization. He had no complaints (okay, he really hated food shopping); he had no apprehension (okay, he was a little afraid of PTA meetings). He was in love and content. He’d take a bullet for Miranda, Katie, Danny, and Elizabeth. Hell, he’d change his name to Suzy if they needed him to.
Okay, he probably wouldn’t make it legal and put it on his driver’s license or anything. “Found it,” Danny said, lugging two gallons and looking at the cart speculatively. “This gonna fit?”
“No. Maybe. Okay, we need another cart.” He admitted defeat. No amount of reorganization was going to make this happen.
“Can I go get it?” Danny looked down the aisle where Elizabeth was still counting out yogurt containers, no doubt picking all her favorites.
Matt contemplated this. Nine wasn’t a baby, and they needed to give Danny some independence, including some time away from Elizabeth, who seemed perfectly content to share a metaphorical womb with her twin forever.
“Okay, but you get the cart and come right back here. No sightseeing, no side trips down the candy aisle. We’ll wait right here.”
Danny’s face lit up. He shoved the cartons at Matt, then sprinted down the dairy aisle, dodging shoppers like a madman.
Matt sighed. He hoped his insurance covered underage cart drivers.
The back pocket of his jeans vibrated, then segued into the theme song from S.W.A.T. (a daily reminder of Miranda’s sarcastic sense of humor). He shifted his hold on the orange juice and grabbed the phone.
“Hey,” Matt said, smiling.
“Hey,” Evan said on the other end. Matt could hear street noise in the background. “How’s it going?”
“Almost finished looting Pathmark, then picking up the prescriptions and then picking up Katie,” Matt recited. “When I ask you what you want for dinner tonight, you better say takeout.”
Evan sighed. “Actually?”
Matt caught the sigh and followed up with one of his own. “Ahhh, don’t need to still have my badge to know the rest of that sentence. ‘Late night, won’t be home, eat without me, leftovers in the microwave, I love you and I’m sorry.’ How’d I do?”
“Unfortunately, perfect. I’m sorry—I really am. Last night this week, I promise.”
Matt didn’t bother to point out it was Thursday. “Sure, no problem.”
Evan didn’t say anything for a long time. Matt knew he was being a little bit of an asshole. He knew the pressures of being a detective in New York City—he used to be one. He knew Evan was a workaholic at worst, a devoted cop at best. He understood—it wasn’t a problem—but shit if he didn’t want to apologize to every wife or husband of a cop who’d ever gotten bitter or bitchy about the hours and doing it all themselves. “You wanna call later and talk to the kids?” Matt asked, looking down the aisle to where Elizabeth was walking back to him, precariously holding a dozen cups of yogurt.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” The guilt in Evan’s voice was heavy. “I’ll call around seven.”
“Okay. Dinner’ll be in the microwave,” Matt said with faux cheer and hung up before his guilt and Evan’s guilt collided and formed a hole in the time/space continuum.
“You got all blueberry, didn’t you?” he asked as Elizabeth kept the stack steady with her chin.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the healthiest,” she pointed out.
“Odd claim from the worshipper of MSG.” Matt looked the other way to see if Danny was coming back with the cart. They were running out of arms.
“It’s called balance,” she said sweetly.
“Ha, good one.”
Danny finally turned the corner, and Matt let go of that tiny level of paranoia he had when the kids were out of his sight for too long. Too many cases during his years in Homicide where a parent tearfully swore they’d only turned away for a second.
“Listen, Dad’s working late tonight….”
“Can we get pizza, then?” Elizabeth didn’t seem too fazed by the news, but as Danny skidded to a stop next to them, he overheard her question and frowned.
“Dad going to be late?”
“You know, pizza is not code for Dad being late,” Matt said, putting down the orange juice and reaching for the cartons from Elizabeth. “Except in this case, when it is.”
“Whatever,” Danny mumbled, and while Matt had only been semiparenting under a year, he knew what that meant. And it wasn’t good.
“All right, people, let’s move out. Danny, you got the second cart, Elizabeth is in charge of coupons, and we’re moving on. I think we need butter and cheese and….” He changed the subject as quickly as possible and moved the troops closer to the finish line.
THEIR LAST stop was the high school, where Katie had “school hasn’t even started yet and there’s already” field hockey practice. She sat on the steps waiting for them, all glamorous blonde curls and plaid skirt and knee socks, talking to some boys. Matt resisted the urge to get out and kill said boys preemptively. He knew exactly what they were thinking.
He honked the SUV’s horn aggressively.
Katie gave the boys a wave, picked up her bag, and ran to the SUV. Matt barely gave her time to buckle up in the front seat before he took off.
“We’re having pizza tonight, and Matt remembered your shampoo,” Elizabeth announced from the backseat.
“Dad’s working late?” Katie changed the radio station, from Matt’s classic rock to people screaming to a thumping bass beat, then nabbed a pair of the extra sunglasses off the dashboard and put them on.
“Yes.” Matt frowned. “Who were those boys?”
“Miscreants and troublemakers. I think they’re on parole,” Katie said blithely, bopping her head to the music.
“Oh right, I forgot to tell you. Those brochures from the convents in the Swiss Alps finally came.”
BETWEEN THE four of them, they got the SUV unloaded pretty quickly. Matt turned on the small television in the kitchen for some manly ESPN as he rearranged the fridge and pantry to accommodate all the food. This kitchen was slightly bigger than the one in the old house; it was part of the reason they chose it. Well, that and the facts that the kids could stay in their schools and there were enough bedrooms and two entrances. Which meant that should the “roommate” story be needed, it would seem plausible.
Not that anyone believed that. Matt was amazed at just how quickly their neighbors figured out his and Evan’s relationship. If he’d lived next door to them, he wouldn’t have noticed unless they were doing it on the front lawn and Matt happened to be walking by. Apparently in the suburbs, people noticed. At a professional level.
No one said anything to them, but he did note just how few barbecues they were invited to and how many playdates did not happen at their house. He tried not to take it personally. Plus he really didn’t want to go to barbecues to make small talk with strangers, or have other people’s kids running around.
“I’m ordering the pizza,” Katie announced, walking into the kitchen and grabbing the cordless. “By the way, Danny is doing that not-talking sulking thing in the sunroom. Do you want peppers?”
“Okay, okay, and okay.” Matt crammed the last box of cereal in the pantry and shoved the door closed. “Any tips on what to say?” Of all the children, Katie was Matt’s second-in-command. Calm and levelheaded where her older sister Miranda chose the dramatic, Katie cheerfully and sarcastically shepherded her younger siblings and Matt through the complicated routine of everyday life. She was also okay with Matt asking her stupid questions—like what to say when tween angst hit the only Cerelli boy child.
Katie shrugged. “I don’t know. Mom used to tell me that what Dad did was important, that he was helping people who needed it and stuff like that.” She paused thoughtfully. “Then she’d give us all twenty dollars!”
“You’re kinda evil,” Matt pointed out almost admiringly. “Order a salad and some broccoli and something for your dad.”
And Matt went off to deal with his least favorite form of almost stepparenting.
FOR ABOUT twenty minutes, Matt just lounged on the second old couch they’d thrown in the extra room. It housed anything that didn’t fit in the rest of the house, which meant two couches, four bookcases, and three assorted tables wedged under the windows, plus an old wooden toy chest for a coffee table. Danny remained on the other couch, seemingly engrossed in a game on his tablet. Matt looked at the ceiling, pondered repainting, and then finally cleared his throat. He wanted to get this over with before the food got there. “So….”
“What?” Danny looked in Matt’s general direction, all scowl and averted eyes. Matt didn’t take it personally. Apparently nine was the new thirteen.
“Listen, I know you’re pissed about your dad working,” Matt began, drumming his fingers on the obnoxious rose pattern of the upholstery.
Danny snorted, his fingers never stopping work on manipulating his game.
“Well, am I wrong?”
“His job is important.”
“He’d rather be home.”
Matt sighed. “I know you know all of this, and it doesn’t matter anyway because it sucks. Period. You don’t care about his job—you want him home. I get that. You want me to give you twenty dollars and we’ll call this little talk over?”
That made Danny look up. “Twenty bucks? What do I have to do?”
“Not be all upset and scarred for life because your dad is working late?”
A ghost of a smile made a guest appearance on the corner of Danny’s face. “Do I have to sign a paper or something?”
“No, just don’t set fires or end up in juvie.”
Matt dug into his pocket for his wallet as Danny shook his head. “I’ll remind you later.”
“Thanks, I gotta go to the ATM.” Matt rolled off the couch. “Hey, good talk.”
Danny snickered, still shaking his head. All in all, Matt thought that went well.