M: Just kidding. LOL

What? LOL?

Are you kidding me right now? That was a joke?

M: Consider it payback for the hookers text. ;)

Holy crap. What a little shit.

There’s a big difference between women you pay for sex and your entire kitchen burning down. Thanks for giving me a damn heart attack.

“Who are you texting?”

I looked up and Louie was staring at me from across the locker room.

Brody walked up and stopped next to him. “Yeah, you’re smiling like an idiot.”

“No one,” I said defensively as I stood up and shoved my phone into my bag. “See you ladies in two days.”

I headed outside and tossed my bag down in the passenger seat just as my phone started buzzing like crazy. Before I started my engine, I checked my messages. Three of them, all from Michelle.

M: Ha! A little scare is good for you from time to time.

M: Viper, answer me. I was just kidding.

M: Hey! You’re not really mad, are you? Please answer me.

I couldn’t stop the mischievous smile from forming on my lips as I drove out of the parking lot and headed straight for her house, after one quick stop.

DOING MY BEST to look pissed off, I rang her doorbell. I had to concentrate on keeping my eyebrows down low and not smiling when she rounded the corner and walked toward the door. The look on her face made it really hard, though. She was biting her lip and her eyes looked sad as she pulled the door open.

“Listen, I know my joke was stupid. I never should have scared you like that,” she rambled as I stepped inside, keeping my hands hidden behind my back. “I feel so bad and I’m really sorry.”

I kept my eyes down on the floor, because I knew if I looked up at her, I was going to start laughing. “I don’t even know what to say to what you did, Michelle. Except…” I pulled the pizza out from behind my back. “A little scare is good for you from time to time.”

She looked down at the pizza and back up at me, her mouth dropping open as her blue eyes grew huge. “You big jerk!”

I flinched as she balled up her fist and punched my arm.

“I thought you were mad at me!” She hit me three more times. “I felt bad.”

“You can’t fool the master,” I said in my cockiest tone with a smirk on my face.

She rolled her eyes and groaned in annoyance as she grabbed the pizza box from me and stomped off toward the kitchen.

I followed along behind her, enjoying the view so much it made me angry with myself.

We walked into the kitchen and Maura was sitting in her highchair, desperately trying to pinch weird little pieces of cereal or something in between her fingers.

“Hey, little one.” I bent down and kissed the top of her head, pausing to take a closer look at her tray. “What are these?”

“They’re called Puffs. Kinda like cereal for babies, but they pretty much melt in your mouth so even without teeth, they can have them.” She flipped the lid off of the pizza and got a stack of paper plates out of the cabinet.

I grabbed one of the pieces of cereal and put it in my mouth as Maura stared right at me.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” I said. A huge grin broke out across her face as she picked up another piece and tried to feed it to me. I opened my mouth and she slowly put the cereal in, craning her neck just a little to watch me chew it. “Mmmm, so yummy. Thank you.” I rubbed her soft cheek as I stood up. “Hey,”—I looked around the kitchen and into the family room—“where’s my little buddy?”

Matthew always came running to greet me at the front door.

“He’s in there,”—she nodded toward the couch—“curled up under a blanket, sick.”

I walked around the couch and sure enough, Matthew was wrapped in a little ball, staring at the TV.

“What’s up, my man?” I said softly as I sat down next to him.

His eyes shifted to me when he heard my voice, but he just groaned.

I set my hand on his head, rubbing his forehead with my thumb. “What’s wrong with you?”

“My tummy hurts.” His voice cracked as his eyes started to water.

I didn’t know what to do. “Can I get you anything? You want some pizza?”

“No!” Michelle shouted from the kitchen. “He’s been throwing up on and off all day. Food is out of the question for now, especially pizza.”

“Throwing up is bad, right? He can dehydrate?” I called to Michelle as I stared down at Matthew. The poor little guy was as white as I’d ever seen him, with dark circles under his eyes. He looked awful. I had to do something.

“Yeah, he can,” —she put her hands on her hips and shrugged— “but I can’t get him to drink anything. I filled that cup on the coffee table at nine o’clock this morning. He’s barely touched it.”

She was right. The Thomas the Train cup was filled almost all the way to the top.

I leaned down close to him. “Hey, buddy… did you know sometimes I get the stomach flu too?”

He turned his head just a little toward me. “You do?”

“Yep, sometimes. And you know what makes me feel better?”

“What?” he asked in a gravelly little voice.

“When I drink Gatorade. It has these magic little electrolyte thingies in there that make your stomach feel so much better. Want me to run and get you some?”

He didn’t look too enthusiastic, but he did nod, so I kissed his forehead and walked back to the kitchen. “You don’t have Gatorade in the house, right?”

Michelle looked around the kitchen, thinking for a quick second, before shaking her head. “No, we haven’t had Gatorade in the house… for a long time.”

I knew what that pause was. She knew what that pause was. Neither of us wanted to acknowledge the pause.

“Okay, I’m gonna run to the store. Do you need anything else?”

“Nope.” She sighed. “We’re good on everything else.”

“Okay, be back soon.”

ABOUT HALF AN hour later, I walked back through the front door carrying four plastic bags.

Michelle stared at the bags with wide eyes as I walked through the kitchen and set them on the table. “How much Gatorade did you buy?”

“A lot,” I sighed, looking at the bags and then back at her. “It’s not just Gatorade, though. The pharmacist said saltines would be good for his tummy if he felt like eating, so I got two boxes. Then I was trying to think of fun ways to try and get him to drink, and I found a package of silly straws, so I got those too. Then I thought maybe we could bribe him to drink, so I got him a color book and crayons.”

Michelle sucked in a quick breath and swallowed as she looked back and forth between me and the bags on the table. “You got all that stuff for him?”

“Of course,” I replied. “He’s my buddy. I feel bad that he’s so sick.”

All of a sudden, Matthew’s little head popped up on the other side of the couch. “Did you get blue Gatorade? It’s my favorite.”

“Ha!” I pumped my fist in the air in celebration. “I sure did. Would you also like a silly straw?”

Matthew cracked a small smile as he nodded.

“Coming right up!” I called to him. I turned to ask Michelle where his cups were, but she was gone. A sniffling sound came from around the corner and I followed it. Michelle was leaning against the dining room wall, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt.

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