"How about we eat outside today, Zach?" Abby smiles gently, handing him his plate of pizza. Zach looks past her, at the tense forms of his mother and father, before looking back up at his nanny and nodding.
She shuts the door behind them, muffling the loud argument.
"How was school?" She asks, unaffected as they sit down at the patio table.
"Fine." Zach sighs, stabbing at his pizza. "It's my fault they're fighting, aren't they?"
Abby has a mouthful of pizza, but she raises her eyebrows as she chews.
"Of course not, Zach." Abby says when she finishes, placing a hand on his head. "Why would you think that?"
"They're fighting about me." Zach whispers, feet swinging pensively. He can't hear the exact words, but he recognizes the sound of his name.
"They just wants what's best for you." She leans down to his eye level, but he doesn't quite believe her.
"I heard my teacher say they were separated, but they're together, aren't they? What does that mean?" He asks innocently, and Abby's mouth falls open like she's about to say something, but she changes her mind, closing it instead.
The door flies open, and slams as his mother storms out of the house, her heels clicking viciously as she paces.
"Pizza?" Zach inquires softly. His mother scoffs, rolls her eyes at him.
"No, I don't want some of your carb filled, cheesy heart attack, Zachary." She scolds, before shooting Abby a look. "Abigail," She regards her coldly before strutting down the stairs and out of sight.
A half a second later, his father comes fuming out. He says something that sounds like 'fucking nutter' under his breath before sinking into a chair, running a hand through his hair.
"Want pizza?" Abby inquires quietly.
"Sure." He says sarcastically, grabbing a piece and biting in to it angrily. He stands up quickly, pushing the chair aside and heading inside without another word.
Zach meets Abby's exasperated gaze.
"Can we play tic-tac-toe now?"
He tries to sleep at night, but sometimes, he just can't - they're too loud.
He pushes his blankets aside, pads into the hallway as the voices grow louder.
"I can't believe you."
"Do you realize how selfish you are?"
"I am not the one who's dragging us to court again."
"You have no right to him."
"Oh, I have every right - I'm his mother."
"No, you're a fucking head case!"
"Mommy? Daddy?" Zach reaches them in the living room, where they are standing across the room from each other, both looking exhausted and furious, arms crossed over their chests.
His father sighs.
"Now you see what you've done?" He hisses.
Zach looks back and forth between the two of them.
"Zach," His mother grins, walking over to him and leaning down. "Your father is an asshole."
"Shut up!" His father rages. "You have no right to undermine me to our son."
"Get over yourself, Edward." She laughs lowly. "Zach's coming with me, aren't you, Zachary?"
Zach looks up at his mother, her smile not reassuring in the slightest.
"I will see you in court, Catherine." His father says through his teeth, before exiting the townhouse, slamming the door behind him. His mother waits until she hears his car roaring away to turn to him.
"Come here, Zach." She whispers, holding out her arms, and Zach hesitantly wraps himself around her, letting her pick him up.
"Can I sleep with you?" He murmurs into her shoulder as they move down the hall.
"You're too old for such things." She breaths. "But I will, however, stay with you until you fall asleep." They reach his bedroom, and she steps around the toys coating his floor to place him on his bed.
"Will you tell me a story?" He asks as they lay there.
"Okay." She says, shifting next to him uneasily. "There was once a king and a queen, and they lived in a big palace with all the other nobles. Everyone loved them, but they were cruel, silly people. So, the knights of the kingdom rose up, the just ones, and burned the castle to the ground, so they could take over the kingdom for themselves."
Zach is already asleep.
"Oh, for fuck's sake." His mother murmurs as they walk into the courthouse, Abby following closely behind him. Waiting for them is a tall, kind looking woman with dark hair.
"Is that Cammie's mom?" Zach looks up at his own mother.
"Isn't it a conflict of interest that the court psychologist's daughter is friends with my son?" She hisses under her breath. "Okay, Zach, just tell her how much Daddy yells at you - how traumatic is was for you, or something."
"What?" Zach questions in horror as Rachel Morgan walks over to them.
"Go, Zachary." His mother orders, pushing him forward.
"Hi, Zach." Dr. Morgan smiles down at him, taking his hand. "I'm just going to ask you some questions, okay?" Zach looks over his shoulder, at his mother's predatory demeanor and his nanny smiling reassuringly.
"This is bullshit, Edward."
He can hear them arguing when he arrives home from school.
"How is joint custody bullshit, Catherine? Enlighten me."
"You know I should have sole custody! When have you ever been there for him?"
"When have I? When have you?!" He yells, and Zach peers around the door nervously. His father sees him. "Pack a bag, Zachary."
Zach looks over at his mother, his hands clinging to his Superman backpack tighter.
"Go, Zach." His mother says hoarsely, and he hesitantly obliges.
The taxi ride across town is quite silent, until they pull up at a chic apartment building.
"You'll be with your mother every other week, okay? You'll have your own room here, with me." His father explains as they ride up in the elevator. The door opens with a ding, and Abby's waiting for them when they open the door to the apartment.
"Hey, Zach." She grins, and he rushes over to hug her. "Do you want to see your room?" He nods into her hair, and she carries him to his room - covered in copies of toys from his mother's house, and new ones, too.
"I'll leave you two to...chat." His father says slowly, before leaving them alone.
"Can I take these when we go back to Mommy's?" Zach inquires, hugging a stuffed dinosaur.
"I'm not going back to Mommy's with you, sweetheart." Abby whispers, sitting on the ground next to him. "But when you come back, you can play with them all you want." He doesn't say anything, so she rambles on. "Are you surprised to see me here, Zach?"
"A little." He answers quietly.
"Well, you see, when you're not here, your father gets sad, and lonely. And we're friends...so we decided I would stay and keep him company. You know, cheer him up." She explains. "Is that okay?"
Zach nods, and continues to play with his dinosaur.
"This is Joe, Zach." His mother introduces the tall, handsome blond man next to her. "Now that your father has married Abigail, that tramp," She continues through her teeth. "Joe and I have gotten married."
"Can I be the ring bearer?" Zach asks innocently.
"Well, we already got married, Zachary. And it was sort of low key, just a justice of the peace kind of thing." His mother explains, but then her phone is buzzing, and she's bolting towards the door. "Work." She explains. "Watch him, will you?" She kisses Joe quickly, ruffles Zach's hair, and is gone.
"So, Zach," Joe starts awkwardly. "What do you like to do?"
"Play a game?" Zach suggests, stepping away from Joe nervously.
"Alright, sure." Joe nods, and Zach reaches for the chess set in the cabinet. "You play chess?"
"Mommy taught me." Zach whispers as he sets up the board on the floor, Joe sinking down across from him.
"Wow." After a few minutes of silence, Joe says, "Your mother and I have been friends for a very long time, Zach."
Zach doesn't say anything.
"So we decided to get married." Zach raises an eyebrow at this as he moves his knight. "Is...is that okay, Zach?"
Zach just whispers, "Checkmate."
"Are you sure that it is your mother's day to pick you up, Zach?" His teacher asks him, an hour after school has ended. Zach shrugs, gazing down the empty halls.
"Zach," Abby turns the corner, taking off her sunglasses to reveal her sad eyes. She turns to his teacher. "I'm Abby, I'm his step mother."
"I thought that it was his mother's day to pick him up." His teacher raises an eyebrow.
"It is, I don't know what-"
"Um, hi." A voice interrupts, and there, standing at the end of the hall, is Joe. "My name is Joe Solomon, I'm sort of Zach's step father. His mother sent me to pick him up."
"Do you know this man?" The teacher glances at Abby.
"Never seen him before." Abby eyes him carefully.
"I'm married to Catherine?" He explains, and Abby raises an eyebrow in disbelief. "Hey, Zach."
"Hi Joe." Zach looks up from his lap.
"You know this man, Zachary?" His teacher inquired.
"My Daddy married my nanny, so the court made my Mommy marry Joe." Zach explains bluntly, and Abby blushes profusely as Joe laughs quietly.
"I can get Catherine on the phone, if you want." Joe suggests.
"No, it's fine." Abby sighs. "I'm sure you...are who you say."
They exit the school together, Abby's arms wrapped wearily around herself.
"Abby can come to lunch with us, if she wants." Joe asks carefully as they reach the corner.
"No, it's fine." Abby sighs. "I'll see you in a few days, okay Zach?" She leans down to hug him.
"Bye." Zach murmurs.
"I love you I love you I love you." She hugs him tighter, laughing, and he giggles as he tries to squirm away. "Nice meeting you, Joe!" She calls as she walks down the street and out of sight.
"Where's my mommy?" Zach asks Joe, squeezing his hand as they walk to the park.
"She's in Milan for work." He informs him.
"Italy. Across a whole ocean." Joe tells Zach. "She'll be back soon."
"What's Italy like?" Zach asks as they reach the park, sitting on a bench.
"Pretty. Lots of statues."
"What kind of statues?" Zach wonders, and Joe sighs with a laugh.
"All kinds. Characters from really old stories, emperors, famous artists." Joe explains. "Some are small, and others are bigger than real people!"
"Can we go?"
"Maybe one day we'll all go." Joe suggests. "Now, are we having sandwiches or not?"
When Zach goes up to his father's apartment, Abby is on the phone.
"Do you know how long you'll be gone?" She murmurs into the phone. "What do you mean?...Edward, I thought - I didn't know...What business venture? When will you be back?...Everything's so confusing, I don't know anything anymore...Fine, fine. Bye." She hangs up tersely, and when she turns to face Zach, there are tears shining in her eyes.
"Hey, Zach." She whispers gently, stepping towards him. "It's just going to be you and me this time, okay? Your father is in England."
"Why are you crying?" He whispers, and Abby laughs a little.
"It's nothing, Zach. It's not you, don't worry. I'm just...This is just..." She shakes her head, looking for the right word. "Confusing."
"Don't cry." He says quietly, and Abby grins.
"I'm okay now that you're here."
"How was Italy?" Zach asks his mother, looking up from his train set.
"What?" His mother looks up from her phone.
"Italy. With the statues." He inquires, and she blinks.
"What statues, Zach?" She asks in annoyance.
"The big ones! Joe said..." His voice trails off in worry, looking back and forth between Joe and his mother.
"What did Joe say?" She says through her teeth, but she's looking at Joe.
"He asked where you were, and I said Italy, and he asked me what Italy was like, and I told him Italy had a lot of statues..."
"And?" She demands, straightening.
"Well, I said maybe we could all go there together someday. And then we ate sandwiches." He explains, and Catherine sighs slowly, closing her eyes.
"Zach, go to your room." His mother seethes, and Zach looks quickly between Joe and his mother. "Now."
Zach scampers off down the hall, but pauses in front of his room to listen.
"What is it?"
"Joe, it's your job to take care of my son - pick him up from school, feed him, when I am not otherwise available; not to make friends with him."
"He's just a kid, Catherine."
"It doesn't matter." She replies sharply.
And that night, at dinner - his mother is at a party, so it's just Joe and him.
"Mommy's mad at you, isn't she?" Zach says as he chews his peas.
"Yeah, a little, but..." Joe looks down at him. "It's not your fault Zach."
"No, Zach." His eyes are big and sad, full of sympathy. "It never is."
"You can play for half an hour, then it's homework, okay?" Abby informs him as she opens the apartment door, and there, standing right there, is his father, on the phone.
"I'll call you back, they're here." His father hangs up, turning to face them. "Zach!"
Zach rushes up to his father, who leans down to pull him in to a brief hug.
"Edward," Abby leans against the door frame, but when Zach looks over his shoulder at her, she doesn't look particularly pleased. "I didn't know you were coming back from England."
"I'm here for the next two days, and then I'm headed back to England for a brief while." Edward stands to his full height, and Zach can feel the temperature in the room plummet.
"Zach, why don't you go start your homework?" Abby looks away from Edward.
"Can I get a snack first?" Zach inquires, already halfway to the cabinet to get animal crackers. He listens as his father steps closer to Abby.
"You're just spending more and more time in England, aren't you?" She whispers sarcastically, and his father huffs.
"There are a lot of business ventures over there, you know that-"
"When are you going to be here, for once? With me? With Zach?" She asks, exasperated.
"Why don't we just move to England with you?"
"You know Catherine would never go for that."
Zach goes to his room without another word.
Abby is gone when he wakes up.
"Are you not hungry, Zach?" His father inquires over breakfast, and Zach looks away from the woman walking her dogs outside to meet his father's concerned gaze.
"I don't quite know." His father sighs, and Zach's eyes widen. "You know I'm headed back to England soon." Zach nods. "Would you like to come with me?"
"What would I do?" Zach asks with interest.
"Well, you would live with me. You would go to a new school, you could play football or cricket or something. Just me and you...but Mummy wouldn't be there." He explains.
"Would I still see her?" Zach wonders.
"I'm sure I could settle things quickly with her." He brushes his son off, and Zach freezes. His father notices this. "But we don't have to talk about this now, okay?"
"Abby's gone." Zach informs Joe as they walk to the park.
"What'd you mean?" Joe stops walking, and Zach shrugs. "Where'd she go?"
"I don't know."
"Do you know when she'll be back?" Zach shakes his head, and Joe sighs, before moving to grab his phone. "I'll call her and see if she wants to go to the puppet show with us, okay?"
Abby meets them at the puppet show, but when she moves to hug him, he steps away.
"Where's have you been?" He asks quietly, eyes wide and her face kind of cracks a little at the seams.
"I just needed to take some me time, Zach. Do you understand?" She kneels in front of him, and he nods shyly.
"You're fighting with Daddy." He says, no question in his tone, and she sighs.
"We're disagreeing, yes, but you know I would never leave you, don't you?" Her eyebrows furrow in worry, and Zach nods. She grins. "Good."
Zach thinks that he could stay in that day forever, with Joe and Abby. They sit together in the front row of Little Red Riding Hood, and let him run around the park and play with the other kids and get dirty. Joe holds him on the monkey bars and Abby lets him share her ice cream, too.
And as they walk down the street to the cupcake shop, Joe lets him climb all over him like a spider monkey, and Abby casually bumps into both of them easily, and Zach is certain he could stay there forever.
But then -
"Zach!" And his mother is walking down the streets towards him, large sunglasses covering her eyes, smiling. Joe freezes in his place, and Abby tenses, but Zach slowly hops down from Joe's arms and runs into his mother's outstretched ones. "What have you done today?"
"We saw a puppet show." Zach notifies her as she hoists him into her arms.
"What are you doing here?" Joe says icily.
"What do you mean?" His mother smiles. "I'm here for a day before I head to Seoul."
"You didn't tell me." He shoves his hands in his pockets, and Zach squirms in his mother's arms to look at Joe when he hears the tone of his voice.
"Do I really have to tell you everything, Joe?" His mother raises an eyebrow. "And besides, it wasn't an extended stay - just one day."
"Can we all go get cupcakes now?" Zach inquires softly, but his mother just strokes his hair gently.
"How about just you and me, Zach?" She grins before turning her attention to Joe and Abby. "Surprising, seeing you two together."
"We're taking care of your son." Abby bites, his mother scoffs, and then Joe is stepping so close to them that Zach can feel Joe's breath stir over his face.
"You don't deserve him." Joe seethes, his eyes dark and angry and it scares Zach.
"Need I remind you, Joseph," His mother says through her teeth, leaning closer to him. "Zachary is my son. Not yours, and certainly not hers." She shoots Abby a look of disdain before turning and strutting down the street, leaving Zach to look over her shoulders and watch Abby and Joe's forms disappear.
The next morning, his mother is on a plane to Seoul and Abby and Joe are taking him away.
They end up at Joe's lake house, far away from the city. Zach gets to bring some of his toys and he has his own room. Sometimes he'll wake up and not know where he is, but then he will pad softly across the floor and look out and see Abby fast asleep in the room across from him, and Joe is always up and doing something because he can never sleep.
Sometimes, when Zach has nightmares, he scampers to Abby's room and pushes his way to the middle of the bed and next to her, into her arms and she hugs him tight and tells him there is no such thing as monsters. Other times, he goes and finds Joe on the couch, and they just stare at each other until Zach drifts off to sleep.
They splash around in the lake, all three of them - and they play games and watch all of Zach's favorite movies, and Zach thinks this is the happiest he has ever been.
Then one night after dinner, there is the crunch of gravel outside and car lights shining in the window, and Zach bolts out of the house when he sees his mother step from her car.
"Hi, sweetheart!" She leans down to hug him, but he stops just a foot in front of her. She continues like his pause is perfectly natural. "So, how about we go somewhere, hm? How does Italy sound? You told me you wanted to see the statues."
"Me, you...and Joe." He whispers, and behind him he can hear Joe and Abby step outside.
"Zach, Joe wants to stay here." His mother says sharply, punctuating the statement with a grin. "I have two tickets to Rome, now let's go." She reaches for him, but he takes a step back, eyes wide. She straightens in agitation. "God, Zachary, I have no idea what your problem has been lately. We are going to Italy."
"No," Zach whispers.
"Excuse me?" His mother rages.
"We are going to go swimming tomorrow." Zach insists.
"We can swim in Italy, Zachary." She hisses, reaching for him again, but he steps back again. "Zachary, please, it's not like you're..." Her voice drops sharply in realization. "Afraid of me."
Zach's eyes widen, and his mother slowly drops to her knees.
"You want to stay here, then. With Abby and Joe."
Zach nods, slowly approaching her.
"Okay," She whispers, pushing her hands behind her ears and swallowing hard. "Okay, but I am your mother, Zach, you know that? I will always be your mother."
"I know." He says quietly, wrapping his arms around her neck.
"I love you Zach, alright? I love you." She whispers in his ear, her arms squeezing him tightly to her. After a few moments, she lets go of him, and rises to her feet. "I'll see you soon; have fun with Abby and Joe, okay?"
He walks back to Abby and Joe, who are standing by the front door as his mother's car roars away. They look down at him with a mix of concern and pride until he takes both of their hands in his.
"Let's go play monopoly now, okay?" He suggests, looking up at them with a small, sad smile. Abby grins, and Joe laughs slightly, and Zach is one hundred and fifty percent sure that he could stay in that moment forever.