"Well, Junior?" asked his father. "Did you enjoy your party?"
"No," said Nathaniel. His mother squeezed his shoulder in warning.
"No?" asked his father. "Is that all the gratitude I get?"
Nathaniel had been reliably informed by one of his classmates that birthday parties were fun and that kids his own age were supposed to make up the guest list, not business associates of his father's. But Nathaniel knew that if he didn't speak carefully he would anger his father.
"No, sir," he said. "Thank you for the party."
"Junior thinks he's too good for a party," said his father.
"He said thank you, Nathan," said Nathaniel's mother in a brittle voice.
"He also said he didn't enjoy the party. Well, Junior? Was it too grown up for you?"
"That's right," said Nathan approvingly. "You're a man now. And as a man, you're going to start to learn your father's trade."
"Nathan," said his wife sharply.
"Shut up, Mary," said Nathan. "Lola!" he called to one of his associates. "Why don't you show Junior here how to properly use a knife?"
"Oh, Junior," said Lola, pressing a blood-red lipstick kiss to Nathaniel's cheek. He felt sick to his stomach. "We're going to have such fun together."
"Alex, you're late," said his mother as he came into the house.
Alex cursed quietly. He was only a couple minutes late; he had hoped that she wouldn't notice. "Sorry, mom," he said contritely.
"Why were you late?" she asked.
"No reason," he lied.
She gripped his upper arm. "Don't lie to me," she hissed.
"I… I just wanted to play…" he said weakly.
She tightened her grip. "What did you want to play?" she asked dangerously.
"Exy," he admitted, then quickly added, "It's my birthday, and…"
"Alex," she said. "Your birthday is in August. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Mom, you're hurting me," he said.
She squeezed one last time before letting go and caressing the side of his face. "These rules are how I keep you safe," she said. "Well? When is your birthday?"
"August 24th," he said dully.
"And? Will I ever hear that you were playing that terrible sport ever again?"
"No," he said. "You won't."
Kevin had been throwing a constant tantrum for a day and a half. He had a minor ear infection for which Abby, Palmetto's doctor, had prescribed antibiotics which had not yet taken effect. Kevin was a clingy child at the best of times; in the almost two months since they'd arrived in Palmetto he'd sobbed pathetically every time that Neil left him at daycare and wrapped himself around Neil like a miniature octopus whenever Neil reappeared at the end of the day. The discomfort of his infection exacerbated this trait. He would only quiet down when Neil was holding him and would scream like a banshee whenever Neil put him in his crib.
Neil had been reduced to his own tears of frustration. He'd been awake for almost thirty-six hours straight between work and dealing with Kevin. He thought longingly of getting into his car and driving far, far away from responsibilities and screaming toddlers. He thought even more longingly of lying down and sleeping forever.
He'd completely lost track of time as he paced their small room at the Foxhole trying to soothe Kevin to sleep. He'd been more or less quiet for awhile, his face burrowed into the side of Neil's neck, but Neil had learned the hard way that putting him down at this stage would just restart his tears. Neil cautiously sat on edge of the bed and, when Kevin didn't object, he lay back against his pillows and allowed Kevin to settle on his chest.
Kevin started fussing a little as Neil adjusted his position, so Neil resumed singing softly. Singing seemed to reassure Kevin of Neil's presence; he'd been singing on and off for hours until his throat was scratchy and dry. He'd started by singing lullabies and other songs for children but he didn't have a large repertoire of those types of songs, never having heard them in his own childhood. What he did have an encyclopedic knowledge of was mid-to-late-nineties Top 40 hits from when he and his mother had been on the run and had spent hours and hours in the car with only the radio for entertainment.
He'd sung Kevin the entire catalogue of both the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, throwing in a couple earworms like Hanson's MmmBop and Ace of Base's The Sign before veering into hits by other boy bands like *NSYNC and 98°. He figured he'd start covering Alanis Morrisette next. He and his mother had driven across Canada in early '96 on their way to settling in Montreal for several months. Due to Canadian content requirements it had seemed like every second song on the radio was by Alanis.
He glanced at the glowing, red clock on the bedside table. It indicated that it was 1:32am on January 19th, his birthday. Not that he was ever going to tell anyone. The new identities that he'd acquired for himself and Kevin had changed both their birthdays: Kevin's moved back a week to March 2nd and his own was now March 31st.
"Oh," he said in surprise. Never in a million years could he ever have predicted that he'd be a single parent with a cranky toddler at nineteen. "Happy Birthday to me," he sang. "Kevin, please let me sleep. Let me slee-eep, let me slee-eep. Kevin, please go to sleep."
Neil blinked blearily awake on his twenty-fourth birthday. There had been a nasty cold making its way through Kevin's class; Kevin himself had been home sick two days the previous week. Neil had been feeling run down all weekend and Monday morning dawned for him with a hacking cough and the inability to breath through his nose.
Unfortunately he couldn't afford any more sick days, especially since he'd just put an offer on a house, and there were no such thing as sick days from being a single parent. He dragged himself out of bed and lurched, zombie-like, into the living room. Kevin was still in his pyjamas, amusing himself with his toys. He was playing a game of his own devising, called 'Judge'. As far as Neil could tell the object of the game was for Judge Twilight Sparkle to chastise and punish the other toys for breaking rules. Since the rules that the toys had broken were along the lines of 'touching things that didn't belong the them' and 'teasing' Neil suspected that Kevin was pretending that the toys were his classmates.
"Time to get dressed, buddy," rasped Neil.
"No," said Kevin.
Neil sighed. He didn't have the energy to have a drawn out argument. Kevin periodically decided that changing his clothes was a waste of time. If he was dressed he refused to change into pyjamas; if he was in pyjamas he refused to get dressed. He argued that it would be more efficient if he only wore one set of clothes all the time.
"If you never change clothes then how are you going to put on your costume this evening?" asked Neil. Kevin's dance class, taught by Renee, had their bi-annual recital that night. Kevin was playing a tree. Neil was looking forward to it the same way he looked forward to going to the dentist.
"Adults change out of their pjs in the morning," added Neil, knowing this would win him the argument. Kevin wanted nothing more than to be an adult.
Without further argument, Neil got the two of them ready and out the door, heading to Andrew's for breakfast. He collapsed into a booth once they got there.
"What do you want?" asked Andrew.
"Death," replied Neil.
"That's not on offer."
Neil made a sound similar to, "Grnnchlkgr."
Andrew seemed to interpret that as an actual answer and he moved on to Kevin. "And you, kiddo? What do you want for breakfast?"
"Waffles," said Kevin. "And you shouldn't call me kiddo anymore, Andrew. I'm almost grown up now."
"Are you," said Andrew dryly.
"Yup. I'll be eight soon which is almost sixteen."
"And sixteen is grown up?"
"My dad said that he's going to let me drive."
"Did he?" said Andrew, shifting his eyes to Neil.
Neil gave him a flat look. "Yes, Andrew, I told my seven-year-old son who still wears footie pyjamas that I'd let him drive because I'm just that irresponsible."
"Dad," whined Kevin. "I'm almost eight, not seven. And you said I could drive."
"When you're sixteen."
"Which is soon," protested Kevin.
"I think we have to work on your math skills," said Neil.
Andrew left to fill their orders and Kevin lapsed into thoughtful silence. Neil closed his eyes to rest them.
"Dad?" said Kevin tentatively. "If you die, who's going to take care of me?"
"I'm not going to die from a head cold," said Neil, rolling his eyes.
"But what if you do?" said Kevin with wide eyes.
"Then you'll stay with Andrew," Neil told him indulgently. Allison had showed up at their apartment last spring with legal forms and had forced him to make a will. Andrew had agreed to be Kevin's guardian and if he was unavailable (or, as Allison put it, had been killed when he swore vengeance against the cryptid that had murdered Neil) then Dan and Matt would step in. "But I'm not going anywhere," Neil reassured Kevin. "I'm only twenty-four."
"You're twenty-three," corrected Andrew, bringing Neil a large bowl of chicken noodle soup.
"Almost twenty-four," said Neil. "I was using Kevin math."
Neil's day dragged on interminably and at the end of it, instead of getting to go home and chug enough Nyquil to knock him out, he had to attend a dance recital performed by a group of six-to-ten-year-olds. He was surprised to find Andrew waiting for him in the town's (thankfully heated) gazebo when he arrived.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "These things are approximately seventeen hours long and full of showboating elementary schoolers. There's absolutely no reason to be here unless you're forced to be."
He caught a woman giving him the stink eye.
"Oh, come off it, Brenda," he said nastily. "This isn't Juilliard. There's no actual talent here."
Andrew steered him away to find seats. "Renee asked me to stop you from starting fights with the other parents," he said, once they were sitting. "I can also cover for you if you pass out from illness."
"Excellent," said Neil. "That way I can nap and you can tell me how much enthusiasm I have to fake based on how badly Kevin messes up."
"Such a supportive father."
"Renee has him playing a stationary role, which is pretty indicative of his dancing ability," said Neil. "His need to be the centre of attention doesn't help."
It was as mind-numbing as Neil predicted, the music exacerbating his headache until he felt as if steel pokers were being driven into his brain. Kevin managed his part without too much trouble, although he did wave and call, "Hi, Andrew!" in excitement when he first stepped onto the stage and saw that Andrew was unexpectedly present.
"I don't want to brag but I was better than everybody else," Kevin announced after the show. "They never listen. When I'm grown up, I'm going to make them follow the rules."
"They're also going to be grown up when you are," Neil pointed out.
That fact stymied Kevin, so he decided to ignore it. "Are we going home now? I'm tired. Dad, can you carry me?"
Neil, who could barely carry himself and had been on the brink of convincing Andrew that he needed a piggy back ride, simply stared at his four-foot son.
"Adults don't get carried," said Andrew.
Both Neil and Kevin sighed in disappointment.
Neil's phone was ringing incessantly. He'd tried to ignore it as it was before 7am on a Sunday but it just started ringing again every time it stopped.
"What?" he finally asked, answering it.
"Neil," said Jean, dragging out the 'e' sound. "Were you aware that we're double booked?"
"That we're— of course we're not double booked," said Neil. "The Johnson anniversary party is today."
"Yes," said Jean. "And the Campbell wedding."
"No, they booked next week," said Neil. "The 26th. I would have noticed if they requested the 19th."
"Nevertheless they are here and expecting to be married," said Jean.
"Everything's booked for next week," said Neil.
"Come and fix it; I do not wish to deal with them anymore."
Neil had only taken over as manager of the Foxhole Inn from Wymack several months previously and he hadn't quite settled into the job yet. If he had somehow managed to double book the inn it was going to be a big blow against Wymack's faith in him.
He hurried downstairs to knock on Kevin's bedroom door. "Up, Kevin," he said. "I have to go to work; there's an emergency."
Kevin blinked awake. It took him a couple moments to parse Neil's words. "But we were supposed to spend the day in Columbia," he said. "You were going to take me to Excites!"
"I know, bud, I'm sorry," said Neil. "I'll make it up to you. Do you want to spend the day with the Dermotts or with Andrew?"
Kevin pouted and grumbled but eventually grudgingly said he'd go to Laila's. He was still sullen as Neil drove him to his friend's house.
"You're ruining my life and I hate you," he said angrily before exiting the car and slamming the door.
Neil knew he was only lashing out in disappointment but he was already feeling guilty due to all the long hours he'd been working recently. He closed his eyes tightly in frustration before he headed to Andrew's to get a coffee.
"I thought you were taking Kevin to Columbia today," said Andrew.
"Something came up at work," said Neil shortly. "Can I get a coffee to go?"
"Again?" said Andrew, pouring coffee into a takeaway cup. "This is the third weekend in a row that you've been called in."
"You specifically scheduled your weekends off so you could spend time with Kevin."
"He's been talking about this trip all week."
"I know, Andrew!" exploded Neil. "I know that I'm a giant disaster, a terrible parent, and a failure! I don't need you to tell me!"
Andrew blinked in surprise. "Neil…" he said cautiously.
"Can I have my coffee?" said Neil in a forcibly neutral voice. "I have to get to work."
Andrew handed it over without expression and Neil hightailed it out of the diner.
The Foxhole was in a flurry of activity when he got there. It took him hours to sort through the confusion and get everything organized and settled.
"I need a hug," he told Matt, who had been called in to help in the kitchen.
Matt instantly dropped what he was doing and wrapped his arms around Neil.
"You're doing your best," he said. "And your best is good enough."
To top everything off, his car got a flat when he was finally on his way home.
He was surprised to find the lights on at his place, having expected Kevin to spend the night at Laila's.
Andrew was waiting for him. "Kevin's asleep," he informed Neil. "He came by my place earlier, worried that you were upset with him. He wanted to wait up for you but I didn't know how late you'd be."
"Got a flat," Neil said tiredly. "Thanks for staying with him."
"Have you eaten? I saved you a plate."
Andrew led the way into the kitchen, oddly fidgety. Neil wondered if he got the same squirmy, uncomfortable feeling in his gut that Neil did everytime they were angry with each other.
Before eating, Neil quickly ducked into Kevin's bedroom to say goodnight.
"Dad?" asked Kevin sleepily, as Neil kissed his forehead. "I don't hate you." His temper was always quick to depart, leaving him anxious that Neil actually believed any angry words he'd spoken.
"I know," whispered Neil. "Love you, too."
Andrew was still tense when Neil returned to the kitchen.
"Sorry I snapped at you earlier," Neil apologized.
Andrew's shoulders relaxed. "I don't think you're a failure," he said. "And you're a good parent."
Neil shrugged. "I have my moments," he said. He groaned in relief as he sat down.
"I shouldn't be surprised," sighed Neil, "the 19th is always garbage."
Neil woke when Andrew started to stir.
"What timezit?" he said, slurring his words together.
"Just past eight."
"It's Saturday," Neil whined. "Sleep more."
"You'll ruin your sleeping schedule if you sleep too long," warned Andrew.
"It's my birthday."
"Your birthday is in March."
"That's what my ID says and it's when we celebrate it, but today is the actual anniversary of my birth."
"Thirty-four years ago today I entered the world, squalling and red-faced, to a couple who should never have had children," said Neil.
"I didn't know that," said Andrew with consternation.
Neil squinted up at Andrew. "You didn't know my parents shouldn't have had children? I would have thought it was obvious from their terrible parenting skills."
"No," said Andrew, clearly troubled. "I didn't know that today is your birthday."
"No reason you should," said Neil with a yawn. "I've never told anyone. Also, Kevin was actually born on February 22nd. Don't tell him, though. It'll make him have another identity crisis."
"I thought I knew everything about you."
"Need some mystery to keep the romance alive, baby," said Neil, leering.
Andrew huffed in amusement and climbed out of bed.
"Give me ten more minutes," bargained Neil.
"Sleep as long as you like."
"Maybe I should tell you that every day is my birthday," mused Neil, snuggling back into the comforter.
When Neil finally got out of bed and padded down the stairs, Kevin had spread papers and fliers out over the entire kitchen. He was frantically making pro/con lists for all the different colleges that had scouted him. It was still too soon for any of them to have made an offer but Kevin wanted to have his lists ready so that he could... well, knowing Kevin, Neil suspected that he would panic and make all new lists once he actually received scholarship offers.
"If you go to Atlanta, Andrew and I could come to some of your home games," he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee and glancing at a brochure over Kevin's shoulder.
"I know," said Kevin irritably. "Distance away from home is one of the factors I'm considering."
"And distance away from Thea?" Neil asked slyly. Kevin's girlfriend attended college in Columbia.
Kevin blushed and didn't answer.
"Where's Andrew, anyway?" said Neil, looking around as if Andrew would magically materialize.
"I dunno. He said he'd be back later."
Neil rested his chin on the top of Kevin's head. While sitting he was the perfect height for Neil to do so. "What are we doing today?"
"Hibernating?" suggested Kevin. "It's cold."
"'Cold,' he says," said Neil. Kevin groaned theatrically. "Child, you know nothing about the cold," continued Neil. "Why, I grew up in Baltimore and I once experienced a winter in Montreal."
"And did you have to walk to school uphill both ways?" asked Kevin sarcastically.
"Your spoiled South Carolinian self has never been truly cold," finished Neil. "But, yeah, it's chilly; I'm all for staying in. Movie or Xbox?"
"We should wait for Andrew to watch anything but until he gets back I'm willing to smoke you at Madden."
"Them's fighting words, boyo."
"You are the most embarrassing person on the planet," muttered Kevin, gathering up his papers before heading to the living room.
Neil and Kevin were trash-talking each other (Neil was better at it; Kevin didn't have the appropriate cutthroat attitude) when Andrew got back, laden with shopping bags.
"Oh, good," he said when he saw what they were doing. "You've moved on from inane arguments about real sports to arguments about virtual sports."
"Just waiting for you, honey bunch," said Neil sweetly.
"We're hibernating," explained Kevin.
"Ah," said Andrew in understanding, as he headed to the kitchen. "Whose turn is it to pick the movie?"
"Mine," said Kevin instantly. "We're watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy."
"Didn't you pick last time?" said Andrew. "Let your dad have a turn."
Neil got up to follow Andrew. "I pick The Princess Bride."
"Shocker," muttered Kevin, getting up to raid their DVD cabinet.
"Did you go grocery shopping?" Neil asked. "I said I'd go with you."
"You hate grocery shopping," said Andrew.
Neil draped his arms around Andrew's neck. "I know what you're doing and you don't have to." He spotted a bakery box on the counter behind Andrew. "Ooh, did you get cake?"
"Coffee-flavoured cake," said Neil. "Honestly, you didn't have to."
"I want you to have a good day."
"We’re all together and healthy and I don't have to go to work. Today's already been the best January 19th in my memory. Now, let's go cuddle on the couch and watch my favourite movie while eating cake that tastes like coffee. Then I'll be the happiest person on Earth."
"No being gross in the kitchen," Kevin called.
"You can't even see us," Neil said.
"I've lived with you long enough to know that the heart eyes you make when you use that tone are nauseating," retorted Kevin. "Hurry up or I'll start the movie without you."
"And maybe next year, when we have the house to ourselves, will be even better," said Neil dryly.