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“So, after the library today, how about we stop and get some lunch? I know this cool place that let’s you open peanuts and throw the shells on the floor.”

“No way!” Matthew whispered loudly, moving closer to my face, if that were even possible.

“You don’t think much of personal space, do you, buddy?”

He pulled back and crinkled his little nose up. “What’s that?”

“Never mind.” I laughed. “You ready to go? Let’s leave early so we can get a prime seat on that friendship rug.”

“What’s a prime seat?” he asked again.

Michelle covered her mouth with her hand and laughed quietly. “You’ll learn,” she joked as she shook her head and handed me Matthew’s backpack.

I threw the backpack over my shoulder and we were out the door.

A couple hours later, we’d read one book about a calf who’d wandered away from his farm and couldn’t find his way home, sang the longest version of “Old MacDonald” I’d ever heard, and done a dance where we all had to pretend to be a different animal. I wanted to be an elephant with a huge trunk, for obvious reasons, but Matthew told me I couldn’t since they don’t live on farms, so he made me be a duck.

Storytime ended and I buckled him into the backseat of my car.

“Where are we going again?” he asked in his squeaky little voice.

“There’s this restaurant I like called Cowboy Phil’s. When you sit down, they put a bowl of peanuts on the table and you get to eat them and throw the shells right on the floor.”

In the rearview mirror, I could see his little mouth drop open and his eyes grow huge. “Whoa!” he whispered.

“Yep, and they have an arcade there and all these cool animals that were alive a long time ago, but now they’re stuffed. It’s pretty awesome.”

Without saying another word, he folded his hands in his lap and looked out the window, smiling. Again with that damn smile.

The hostess led us to a table right in the middle of the restaurant and set our menus down, along with the peanuts. Matthew hadn’t even climbed onto his chair yet and he was already grabbing at the bowl.

“Hang on, hang on.” I laughed as I helped him into his seat.

The hostess smiled and walked away as I settled into my chair next to him.

Before we even picked up the menus to look at them, my phone beeped with a text alert.

It was from Michelle.

M: Hi. I know this is totally neurotic, but I’m not used to being away from him for this long. How’s it going?

I couldn’t help myself.

He’s great. We just picked up two hookers and we’re heading back to the hotel to smoke a couple of joints. Why didn’t you tell me he hated vodka? Rum it is!

I’m so dead.

I looked up at Matthew, who was furiously pounding peanuts with his fist like a hammer and throwing them on the floor without eating them first.

“You’re supposed to eat the peanut first, goofball.”

He looked up at me innocently and shrugged. “I don’t like peanuts.”

As I laughed at him again, my phone beeped.

M: You are SO not funny.

Instead of texting back, I leaned in close to Matthew. “Hey, take a selfie with me to send to your mom, okay?”

He nodded excitedly. “Should we duck face?”

“Really? You don’t know what personal space is, but you can make a duck face?” I rolled my eyes.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” I pulled his little face against mine and we both smiled as I took the picture and sent it off to Michelle.

“So what do you want to eat?” I picked up the menu and scanned it.

“I want pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, and noodles,” he answered without looking up at me from his busy peanut-crushing session.

“They don’t have noodles and I’m not ordering you a whole pizza, so how about chicken nuggets?”

He shrugged. “Sounds good.”

My phone beeped again.

M: Look at that happy face!

His or mine?

The waitress finally came over and took our order. Matthew’s face lit up when I suggested we check out the arcade while we wait for the food. On the way to the arcade, I stopped at the bar and traded a twenty-dollar bill for two rolls of quarters. One for Matthew. One for me.

It didn’t take long for us to become fully engrossed in the games. I was well on my way to setting a new record on the Elvis Presley pinball machine, while Matthew was a few machines down, spinning the steering wheel on a racing game.

I heard a couple kids come into the room but was too engrossed in what I was doing to pay much attention.

Within a minute or so, Matthew yelled out. “Hey!”

My head snapped toward the right to see Matthew standing next to the game he was just on with his hands on his hips, frowning at one of what I thought were boys but were more like teenagers, now sitting in his seat. “That was mine. I was here first.”

The little fucker didn’t even look up; he just scoffed. “Sorry, kid. This is my game. I play it all the time when I’m here and I’m here, so I’m playing it.”

I walked up behind the bratty punk and placed my hands on the seat, right behind his shoulders, as his friends took a few steps back. “I’m sorry, did you not hear him? He was here first.”

“Did you not hear me?” he spit back without looking up. “I said I wanted to play it, so I’m gonna play it.”

“Okay.” I tapped his shoulder. “Here’s the deal—if we’re in the business of doing what we want to do when we want to do it, whether it’s right or wrong, I’m in the mood to beat the shit out of some snot-nosed, pimple-faced teenage shit-for-brains who likes to pick on little kids. The only one I see in this room is you, so could you stand up, please?”

He let go of the steering wheel and jumped off the seat in one swift motion, turning to face me but not expecting to be looking at my chest. His eyes slowly drifted up to mine as his mouth fell open.

“I’m guessing mine are the only tits you’ve ever seen, son.”

“Listen, I’m sorry.” He held his hands up and backed away. “I didn’t mean to be mean to your kid.”

“So what? You were accidentally mean to him? Don’t give me that shit. You had no problem being a little prick until you saw that I could crush you with my pinkie. Now get the hell out of here before I actually do it.”

He turned and started toward the door when I called out to him.

“Hey! I believe you owe this young man a dollar.”

“Yes. Yes, sir.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “This is all I have.”

I crossed my arms over my chest, flexing just a little bit. “And your point is?”

“Here. Sorry, kid.” He shoved the money into Matthew’s hand and quickly bolted for the door.

Matthew looked up at me and his chin trembled.

“Hey, hey… it’s okay.” I knelt down in front of him and put my hands on his shoulders, looking him straight in the eyes. “You did good, Matthew. Always do that, okay? If anyone picks on you, you defend yourself. Don’t let them treat you like that, okay?”

He stared down at the ground and swallowed, and I couldn’t help the urge I had to hug that kid. I thought I might explode if I didn’t, but I didn’t want to freak him out.

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