“Yes, buddy?” I stopped in the bathroom doorway and leaned back.

“How did that baby get in your tummy?”

“Uh . . .” I stammered. “You know what? I’m worried that we’re gonna be late, so let’s talk about that part later, okay?”

“Okay.” He turned and walked down the hall, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

 

His classroom was decorated so perfectly with blue, glittery snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and construction paper mittens taped to the walls.

Miss Lori, Matthew’s teacher, asked all the parents to sit in the chairs and face the small riser that was along the far wall. I sat in the front row, down at the end, just in case I needed to get up and deal with an unpredictable toddler.

As the parents took their seats, Miss Lori took her spot at the piano. Matthew and all of his classmates giggled nervously and waved at their parents. Miss Lori turned and whispered something to them, then counted to three. When she got to three, they all began singing “Frosty the Snowman” as she played the tune on the piano. At first Matthew was shy and stared at the ground, but by the second verse, he was belting the song out as loud and proud as he could.

“Five Little Snowflakes” was up next, and Maura was happily clapping along and wiggling her little booty as much as she could from my lap as I tried to video with my phone. They were on the third little snowflake when Matthew looked toward the classroom door and his face lit up.

“Viper!” he called out above all the other kids singing.

I dropped my phone in my lap and followed him with my eyes as he sprinted to the door and leaped into Viper’s arms. Viper scooped him up and closed his eyes as they squeezed each other. Miss Lori kept playing the song, but the other kids were so distracted by what was going on that they eventually trailed off. The piano stopped as Viper set Matthew down.

“Go finish singing, bud. I’ll talk to you after, okay?” he said.

Matthew nodded and excitedly bounced back to his spot on the step. Viper stood and scanned the group of parents until our eyes met. “Sorry about that,” he apologized to the parents with a wave as he walked past them and sat in the chair next to me.

My throat felt like it was going to close up and my whole body tingled with anxiety. Never in a million years did I expect Viper to show up at Matthew’s school program. I didn’t look at him as he sat down, but the minute Maura saw him, she reached her arms out for him.

“Hey, sweet baby!” he said as he shifted her onto his lap and kissed her cheek at least a dozen times.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to get up and leave, but I couldn’t pull Matthew from his performance, nor did I want to make a huge scene. Matthew kept looking over at Viper with a big grin on his face to make sure he was watching him sing, and I just tried to breathe normally. My hands were shaking so bad I rolled them into fists so that no one else would see. But someone did see. Viper saw. He reached over and wrapped his hand around mine. I still refused to look over at him, but I didn’t pull back. Not only was Matthew watching us like a hawk, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, it felt amazing to have his warm hand covering mine. I’d had zero contact with him in over a month, but my body craved his touch, which was something I couldn’t turn off, no matter how hard I tried.

As tears stung my eyes, I tried to focus on Matthew and the absolute joy that was on his face as he belted out song after song.

The singing part ended and the food part began. Parents stood around and made small talk as the kids feasted on cheese and crackers, cookies, fruit, and popcorn. Maura wanted nothing to do with me and I had yet to make eye contact with Viper again. As the party wrapped up, I led the way as Matthew skipped to the coatroom and grabbed his jacked from his cubby. Viper and Maura followed us.

“Viper, are you coming home with us?” Matthew asked innocently.

My heart climbed into my throat and clung to the side of it for dear life. No matter how many times I swallowed, I couldn’t get it to go back down. I was terrified he was going to say yes, but even more terrified he was going to say no.

“Yeah, buddy. I am,” Viper answered. Matthew threw his little hands in the air and spun in a circle, nearly falling over. Viper lifted his eyes to mine and spoke softly. “Is that okay with you?”

“It’s fine. They miss you,” I answered dryly, refusing to admit that I missed him, too.

 

The whole way home I kept checking my rearview mirror, half-expecting that he would change his mind and bolt again. But he didn’t. I pulled my car into the garage and he pulled his into the driveway right behind me.

He followed us into the house and I had no idea what I was going to say. I wanted to yell. I wanted to cry. I wanted to punch him in the face. I wanted him to hold me. I was a fucking mess, and I had no idea which Michelle was going to take over.

As soon as we were in the house, Matthew started talking to Viper a mile a minute and didn’t stop for at least an hour. Maura also refused to leave Viper’s arms, even fussing when he put her down for one minute to use the bathroom. As soon as he was out, she clung to him again. I mostly stayed in the kitchen, folding laundry and avoiding Viper’s stare every time he looked over at me. After a little while, I noticed the family room was quiet. Matthew and Maura had both fallen asleep with their heads lying on Viper’s shoulders. He shot me a small smile as I walked over and picked Maura up to carry her to her room. He carefully held Matthew’s head as he slid out from under him.

“Want me to take her up?” he offered, holding his hands out.

“Nope, I got her.”

“You sure?”

I gave him a quick glare. “Yeah. They’re my kids, remember?” Before he could answer I turned and hustled up to Maura’s room. I expected him to be gone when I went back downstairs, but he was sitting at the kitchen island.

“Are you leaving or what?” I asked, leaning my back against the kitchen counter.

“I was kinda hoping I could stay and we could talk?” His eyes were soft and pained. It was hard to be mad at him when he looked like that.

“Fine. Talk.”

“Michelle . . . I’ve thought over and over about what I was going to say to you when I saw you, but now that you’re in front of me, I just want to hug you. Can I hug you?”

“No.”