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“He immediately threw me into hockey so I could get my ass kicked and really learn how to fight, but the real fighting started after I got home. If he sensed I was about to cry, over any little thing, he would stand in front of me, inches from my face, and scream at me until I pulled it together. Or he’d make me do three hundred push-ups in one night, until I couldn’t even lift my arms to brush my teeth before bed. This one time, I remember getting into a fight at school, and they sent a note home saying that I would have a twenty-minute detention the next day. That night, he made me sit in the bathtub full of ice and freezing water. Every time I complained or cried, he would pour more freezing water over my head and add another minute to the timer. He never actually hit me or anything like that, but I almost wish that he had. The bruises would have gone away, but the shit I had to put up with has lasted so much longer.”

I took a deep breath and laced my fingers together in an attempt to stop my hands from trembling. “Anyway, thankfully, it turned out I was good at hockey and had my pick of colleges. I left home the summer after my senior year of high school and never looked back. Instead of going home during summers, I would stay with friends or live on campus. I was drafted straight out of college, and I’ve been on my own ever since.”

“Where was your mom during all this?”

An awkward laugh escaped me. “Sitting in the living room watching Wheel of Fortune.”

Michelle closed her eyes and shook her head as two tears ran down her cheek. “So instead of protecting you from the bullies—”

“My father became the ultimate bully,” I finished her sentence.

“I think about Matthew and someone doing that to him,” she stuttered through a sob, “and I think I would kill them with my own bare hands.”

“That’s how it should be,” I said, “but not all parents come with that built-in protective gene, I guess.”

“Have they ever tried to contact you?”

“Oh, yeah. When I got drafted, it was all over the news, especially in my hometown. They called, wrote to me, even showed up at my first apartment once. The last thing I remember saying to my father was that I was bigger and could fight a lot better than when I was twelve, so he needed to get the fuck away from me fast. My mom stood next to him, sobbing into a tissue.”

“I’m so sorry.” Michelle squeezed my hand again.

“Eh, it is what it is, right? Like you said, we all have our fucked-up stories about our childhood. I just know that if I ever become a father, I’m gonna go to the ends of the fucking earth to protect my kids. I’ll slay bullies, principals, dragons… it doesn’t matter. No one will hurt my kids.” My eyes started to sting but not because I was thinking about my future unborn children; I was thinking of Matthew and Maura sleeping upstairs.

“Do you ever cry?”

The house was so quiet you could hear the clock ticking in the kitchen, but that question rang out in the darkness loud and clear.

“No,” I replied. “Since I moved out of that house, I’ve only cried once.”

She didn’t ask when that had been. She knew.

I put my feet up on the coffee table as she curled up on the couch with her head on my lap. Gently, I pulled her bun down and slowly combed her hair with my fingers until she was snoring softly, and for a long time after that until I fell asleep.

“VIPER!”

My eyes snapped open at the sound of my name, but my back was locked up. I blinked a couple times, trying to get my bearings and remember what the hell had happened the night before. I lifted my head to look around and realized I was lying on my side on Michelle’s couch with my arm wrapped around her waist. She must have been exhausted because she slept right through Matthew’s morning wake-up call. I carefully lifted my arm off of her and brought my hand to my lips, signaling for Matthew to be quiet. I slid out from behind Michelle and scooted down the couch like an inchworm as Matthew covered his mouth and giggled. I finally stood and stretched my arms up as far as they would go.

Matthew wrinkled his nose and jerked his head back as he pointed at my morning friend pitching a tent in my pants. “What’s that?”

“Uh… we’ll talk about that in a few years,” I whispered as I adjusted myself and turned him around to walk toward the kitchen. I grabbed a blanket off the nearby chair and carefully draped it over Michelle. We went upstairs to check on Maura, who was standing, bouncing up and down in her crib.

“Good morning,” I said as I walked over to pick her up.

She grinned at me and shot her arms out, anxious to be picked up. I gently scooped her up and sat on the floor of her bedroom with her and Matthew.

“Why are we up here?” Matthew asked, completely confused.

“We’re just gonna stay up here and let your mommy rest for a little longer, okay?”

He nodded.

I lifted Maura and felt that her bottom was damp. “Uh-oh. Your sister is wet. Wanna teach me how to change a diaper?”

He turned his nose up again and shook his head.

“Thanks for nothing, bud.” I rustled his hair, which was already messy from sleeping. “Brody does this all the time. Surely I can figure it out, right?”

I scanned the room for a diaper storage area.

Nothing.

“Do you know where Mom keeps the diapers at least?”

He jumped up and opened a drawer in the white dresser. It was stocked, full of diapers and wipes and weird creams and potions. I grabbed one diaper and turned back to Maura, who was staring as nervously at me as I was at her.

I laid her on the ground and pulled her pajama bottoms off, tossing them to the side. Paying careful attention to how I took her diaper off, I figured I could just reverse that to put the new one on. Easier said than done.

It took me three attempts to get the new diaper situated under her, but eventually I did. I pulled the little tabs out and secured them, feeling like I’d just walked through some daddy rite of passage.

“Look at that. I did it!” I lifted Maura proudly to show Matthew, who covered his mouth with his hand and giggled as he pointed behind me.

Michelle leaned against the door frame with her arms folded across her chest, smiling at us. Her hair was a little wild, but sexy as hell. She totally rocked that morning-after look like a fucking boss.

“Good morning.”

“Morning.” She grinned as she came over and sat down with us.

“I tried to let you sleep a little longer. Sorry if we woke you.”

“No, that’s okay.” Matthew plopped down in her lap and she wrapped her arms around him, kissing the side of his head. “I appreciate it, though.”

“Look what I did.” I pointed to Maura’s diaper. “First time ever trying it, and I nailed it.”

Leaning down to inspect my dirty work, she pulled her bottom lip up and nodded. “Oh, you nailed it all right… assuming the backward diaper thing is in these days.”

Matthew giggled so hard that he tipped right off her lap as she took Maura from me and fixed her diaper.

I held my hands up. “I get points for trying, though, right?”

Michelle reattached the tabs on Maura’s diaper and sat her up straight. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled sweetly. “You get points for a lot more than that.”

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