Technically, Eric bought the apartment above the Matthews’.
“Yeah, but I don’t want it,” Eric said as he made himself at home in Cory and Topanga’s living room. “I’d like a place to stay when I fly back from LA for premieres and stuff, and I hate putting the kids out of their room. It’s not like I want to move here.”
Topanga said, “Okay, but—”
“Also, I got a great deal because it’s haunted,” Eric said. He leaned over and hit Cory in the shoulder. “Dad said ventriloquism would never amount to anything, huh? Guess who got 15% knocked off for hauntings!”
“He’d be really proud,” Cory agreed, once he finished crying because Eric still hit really hard.
“And you’re saying,” Maya asked, slowly, because it was a Saturday and of course she was over. “You bought a huge, beautiful apartment in this really nice building, in this really nice neighborhood, using money from voice acting? Who are you?”
Eric tapped Cory on the shoulder again and asked, “What’s with you collecting every sassy leather jacket from the wrong side of the tracks? Are there even wrong sides of tracks in Manhattan anymore?”
“Riley, I’m sorry, but I’m going to destroy your uncle,” Maya said. “Josh can live. He’s too cute to die.”
“Hey,” Eric said. “That’s Riley’s cute, hilarious, super cool uncle you’re threatening.” He sat up on the couch and said to Riley, “Go get them, get the pictures of me from high school. I was a god, okay.”
“And now you’re Mr. Roadkill,” Maya said.
“How is Shawn?” Eric asked Cory. “Is he still taking black and white pictures of sad rocks and winning prizes for them?”
“Ooh, let me get Shawn’s medal from the Royal Geographic Society,” Riley said. “It’s like a real medal and everything, and it came with a huge check.”
“Huge enough for that apartment upstairs?” Eric asked, whistling and motioning upwards with his thumb. “Because Mr. Squirrel, acclaimed star of his own lucrative family-friendly film and television franchise, would like to remind everyone you can’t live in a medal.”
“Everyone be quiet,” Topanga announced. “Eric, what do you want us to do with the apartment? We have a lot of money details to talk about.”
“I will move in,” Auggie said. “I will need proof of five ghosts, please.”
Eric picked up Auggie and said, “Buddy, don’t you worry, I’m sure I saw a river of blood up there with your name on it.”
“Don’t hurt me, Mr. Squirrel,” Auggie whined.
“You officially have one uncle too many,” Maya whispered to Riley. “You could have stopped at Josh. No offense to your grandparents, but they should have skipped to your dad and then Josh.”
“You haven’t met Aunt Morgan,” Riley said. “You’d really like her. She’s like the smart parts of Dad, the mean parts of Eric, and the cool parts of Josh, and she has a lot of tattoos.”
“Ugh,” Maya said. “She sounds too cool. Stop having so much family.”
“So does anyone actually want to see this place and the skeletons I buried in the floorboards or what?” Eric asked.
“What,” Maya said.
“Hang on,” Shawn said. “Eric gave you the apartment upstairs?”
Cory nodded and locked the door behind them.
“Hang on,” Shawn repeated. “Eric gave you this apartment?”
“We were thinking of getting the staircase downstairs extended so it comes up here,” Cory said. “But that’s nuts—we’ll probably keep the apartments separate. All Eric wants is the spare bedroom the couple of times he’s here from LA during the year.”
“Huh,” Shawn said.
“All anyone would have to pay are maintenance fees and utilities,” Cory said.
Shawn nodded and continued the tour through the rooms (already furnished).
“And it’s not haunted,” Cory said, “Unless the kids ask and then yes, it’s haunted. One of the ghosts is named Grandma Ruth, who died of loneliness when her grandkids didn’t send thank you notes.”
“Nice touch,” Shawn said.
They reached the master bedroom and Shawn asked, “Eric doesn’t want this room, right? He said he wants someone to live here and he’ll borrow the spare bedroom when he’s in town.”
“Yeah,” Cory said. “But knowing Eric, he’ll haunt you out of bed until you come down with us and he can sleep in the master bedroom.”
“What a hardship,” Shawn said.
He turned suddenly and slipped a finger into one of Cory’s pockets. “What if I took it? I know you’ve joked about it, but—”
“I’m not offering this to anyone else,” Cory said as he pulled Shawn close. “I’m asking you, I’m telling you that you should take this place.”
Shawn leaned in and kissed him, a strangely gentle kiss for their first or fifth since he had come home this time.
“I still have to travel,” Shawn said, quiet against the line of Cory’s jaw. “I still—I’ll be around more, but not—not PTA more. School plays, talent shows, maybe. I’m still awful at homework.”
Cory cracked up and kissed him again. “I think I’ve got the homework angle down, and Topanga’s planning a coup of the PTA. She’ll have an efficient dictatorship in place by the time Auggie’s in fourth grade.”
“You’ve got it all covered,” Shawn said, the smile fading a little. “What do you need me for?”
“Everything else,” Cory said. “For them. For me and Topanga, so can be ourselves once in a while.”
Shawn nodded, kissed him again. “Let’s haunt the hell out of this apartment, Cor.”
“Aw, man,” Maya said as Riley shrieked and threw her arms around Shawn’s neck. “Does this mean you guys are gonna sing that Cory and Shawn Show theme song all the time now?”
“Like they ever stopped,” Topanga said. “I’m copied on all the emails with the lyrics, by the way, if you ever want to take me off that message chain.”
“I do the books, you bake cupcakes!” Cory sang.
“You study physics and I am a snake!”
“Wait, I don’t understand how this show works,” Riley said.
“I still won’t watch it,” Auggie said. “EVER.”
“Come on,” Shawn said to Auggie. “Not even a little?”
“Only if you morph into a new animal every week,” Auggie said. “And Dad doesn’t sing.”
“But I’m so good at singing,” Cory said. “Right?”
“We have to be somewhere else now,” Riley said. “Right, Maya? We have to go to my room and apply to colleges five years early.”
“Run, girls! I’ll defeat them with gentle criticism!” Topanga said.
The apartment was haunted, but not by Grandma Ruth. The ghost’s name was Eric and Shawn realized successful, competent, famous Eric was a supervillain uncle.
Just as Cory warned him, actually, when he showed him the apartment.
“Don’t let me put you out, man, come on, stick around,” Eric said as he helped himself to the wine Shawn kept in the fridge for Cory and Topanga. “Auggie’s in charge of movie night downstairs and I’m in the ensemble. It’s awful listening to myself work—my work’s almost too good? I guess there’s always room for improvement.” He twisted the cap off the bottle and said, “It’s like writing, I guess, but for money?”
Shawn pulled out his phone that hadn’t buzzed. “I think this is from Auggie on Cory’s phone. It’s all caps and says I need to help with storytime?”
“You have fun in the nursery,” Eric said. “Maybe I’ll come down later, but probably not. Gotta rest the cords and besides, they’ve got Uncle Shawnie there.”
Shawn nodded and left.
He had his hand on the doorknob of the apartment downstairs when he realized: no one had called him their uncle before, not even Cory’s mom and dad, especially not Cory and Topanga or the kids.
In the apartment, he had a seat saved at the end of the couch on Cory’s other side. Riley looked up from her phone and said, “Mom, Shawn’s here. Does that mean I can go to my room?”
“Family night,” Topanga said. “I’m not checking my phone, Dad’s not grading, Shawn’s not writing, it is family night.”
“Eric said to listen for John Stamos laughing in the background of every scene,” Cory said when Shawn sat down. “Said the guy just couldn’t keep it together. I love me some Stamos.”
“I know you do,” Shawn said as he leaned against Cory and reached across the back of the couch to touch Topanga’s hair. She started the movie and touched his fingers without looking. “Riley, no phone, remember?”
“Farkle said he saw Lucas out in their neighborhood with someone,” Riley pleaded. “Wait, okay, never mind, he thinks it was his mom. Definitely his mom.” She tilted her head as she pinched her phone screen. “How is the zoom on Farkle’s phone that good?” She shuddered and put her phone with the others piled in the middle of the coffee table. “I don’t want to know.”
“The lab should’ve left his eyes to bake a little longer,” Cory said.
“What?” Riley asked.
“You’re missing Stamos,” Auggie whined.
“You always remember your first Stamos,” Cory said.
“What?” Riley asked, then her phone buzzed again.
“Phone. Down,” Shawn said.
Another phone buzzed in the pile and Topanga sighed. “I need to take this.”
“Phone down,” Riley mocked as she pointed to her own phone.
“Sweetie, when your texts pay the mortgage, you can absolutely tell me what to do,” Topanga said as she excused herself.
Riley sulked, then asked, “Who’s Stamos and why have you guys been whispering his name for like five minutes?”
“If you watched the movie, RILEY, you’d find out,” Auggie said.
“It’s animated and I’ve been watching and I don’t know how to tell a Stamos from everyone else except Uncle Eric.”
And there was that word again. Shawn wanted to ask, just a quiet thing in Cory’s ear (I’m not their UNCLE, am I?) but the answer was—it was so obvious, but so equally obvious that he could be incredibly wrong.
“It’s not too late for popcorn, right?” Shawn asked.
Riley beamed and gave Shawn her hammiest, most adoring look.
“Shawn’s my favorite,” Riley declared.
“Is that all it took?” Shawn asked. “Popcorn?”
In Riley’s face, the parts that were Topanga’s all-knowing, playing-every-guy sharp angles softened into something too Cory in its earnestness.
“Just everything,” she said. “The popcorn doesn’t hurt, though.”
“Stamos is playing the bad guy and he just blew up a whole termite colony,” Auggie said. “Did anyone see that?”
“Wait, termites are the good guys now?” Cory asked.
“Family night is dead, Dad,” Auggie said. “It’s Auggie time and Auggie’s watching this movie without you guys.”
“I have to go,” Topanga said on the phone, loud enough for everyone to hear. “We’re watching the cartoon story of some termites save their creepy little nest and MY FAMILY IS ABOUT TO LEAVE THE ROOM, EVEN THOUGH I SAID IT’S FAMILY NIGHT.”
“FARKLE GAVE LUCAS MY NUMBER,” Riley screamed at her phone. “I’M NOT EVEN SUPPOSED TO HAVE A PHONE.”
“Riley, just be cool,” Shawn said.
Cory’s curiosity got the better of him. “So, honey, what does Lucas want?” he asked. Shawn recognized the return of the Most Hysterically Chill Guy of the Year. “Because there’s a student homework portal if he forgot his assignments and he should think to rely on that objective educational resource before contacting his classmates.”
Shawn returned with popcorn and said, “That actually sounded calm, Cor, I’m impressed.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” Cory asked. “I mean, it’s 7:30 on a school night, and it’s interesting that KIDS THESE DAYS think TEXTING after DARK is something that you DO.” Cory took the popcorn bowl from Shawn and leaned over the coffee table so he could say to Riley, “I’ll have you know I didn’t call your mother on the phone until high school.”
“You guys had phones then?” Riley asked.
“What?” Cory gasped. “We are all your young and cool parents! Riley! Take it back! Tell me I’m your cool dad.” He turned to Shawn and said, “I’m cool, right?”
“Come on,” Shawn said, resting his hand on the back of Cory’s neck. “You know you’re not. No one’s here because you’re cool.”
“It’s better when you say it,” Cory sighed.
Topanga returned and grabbed one of the mail baskets next to the door. “Everyone. Phones. Now.”
Riley parted with her phone in this moment of crisis like she was giving up her actual hand, but once she placed it in the basket next to Topanga’s phone she breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s fine,” Riley said, more to herself than anyone else. “We’ll watch the movie, and then I’ll… read a book… and then I’ll go to sleep… and then I’ll go to school… and then when Lucas asks if I got his text, I can just laugh it off! And say, yeah! But I was sooooo busy tonight. Not too busy for you, but you know, busy, because it’s—” Riley snapped out of it and leaned in to tell Cory, “And I bet you called Shawn all the time, it’s not like you didn’t call people, Dad.”
“No, I didn’t call people, you were right the first time, we didn’t have phones,” Cory said.
“Are you sharing the popcorn?” Shawn asked as he tried to tug the bowl out of Cory’s lap.
“I NEED THIS RIGHT NOW.”
Topanga sat down again, this time next to Riley, who curled up at her side. “Everyone, take a breath. Everyone.”
“Auggie, restart the movie. We’re going to have 83 minutes of insulated, uninterrupted family time, even if termites are gross and we can’t actually see John Stamos’s face.”
“Seriously, who is this Stamos guy?” Riley asked.
“We’ve completely failed her,” Cory sighed. “I don’t even want the popcorn anymore.”
Topanga took the bowl from Cory and Shawn and put it on the table in front of her and Riley. “Okay, family time starts—”
The landline rang and the caller ID flashed MATTHEWS JOSH on the TV.
“COME ON,” Topanga yelled.
The fire escapes between the apartments connected.
It’s common sense, but Shawn didn’t realize it until he walked into the living room and noticed the random city noise at his window was actually Maya sitting on the fire escape, tapping the window like she didn’t care that it was 35 degrees out.
“How long have you been out there?” he asked. “We have phones, you know. You could actually knock. These apartments connect through hallways and stairwells. There’s even an elevator.”
She climbed in and sat in the window seat that mirrored the one downstairs. “I’m mad at Riley and I made a dramatic exit.”
“Right upstairs,” Shawn said. “Got it. Do you need a walk to the subway to get back?”
“No,” she said with a little scoff. “But I know Riley’s parents will get mad if I go by myself, even though I go by myself all the time.”
“Not at night and not from here,” Shawn said as he grabbed his jacket. “Let’s go.”
She waited until they were at the stairs down to the subway turnstile and platform to say something besides wow that’s a lot of vomit on the sidewalk for this time at night.
“Do you ever. Like. Does Riley’s dad ever not get you?” she asked. “Like Riley looks at things and her solutions are so simple. Maya just do this, Maya do that, Maya I’ll help you, but it’s—and she doesn’t get it and she doesn’t want to get it. She can fix it all with some rainbow stickers and hugs and an inspirational speech!”
“Kid, don’t get me started on the inspirational speeches,” Shawn said. “You’re so young. There’s so many speeches ahead of you. God. So many. I’m sorry in advance. I’ll try and be there to deflect as many as I can, okay?”
“No, that’s okay,” Maya said. “I just needed to know that it wasn’t just me.”
Shawn nodded and led her down the stairs to the turnstile.
“I hate fighting with her,” Maya said.
“This sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out,” Shawn said. “Keep fighting her on stuff like this.” Shawn hesitated for a second, trying to put the words together, figure out what he meant. “They’re people who, for better and for worse, have this view of how the world should be. And then somehow, they picked up people like you and me, and we see it for how it is. All the fights Topanga and I have with Cory are about trying to make those two work.”
“It’s fucked up, Shawn,” Maya said. Her voice cracked as she dug into her pocket for the MetroCard she was already holding. “When it’s their world we’re living in, it’s so easy for them to see everything their way.”
Shawn rested a hand on her shoulder and said, “Look at me, okay? You’ve just put into words what I’ve been trying to say my whole life. You’ll be okay.”
She nodded. “I’ll text Riley when I get home. Thanks for the walk and the really short inspirational speech.” She swiped through and turned to ask, “When’s the next part of your piece on the New Jersey tomato blight coming out? I’m weirdly invested.”
“You are weird and I appreciate the investment,” Shawn said. “I’ll let you know.”
The ghost of Eric returned for Easter and a spring movie premiere.
“No big special Easter dinner?” Eric asked. “What kind of heathens are you?”
“Heathens who respect Easter chocolate sales and very little else,” Topanga replied. “How’s your upstairs investment?”
“Pretty good,” Eric admitted. “Shawn, I’d pick you up to thank you for making the place look lived in and comfy, but I’m disappointed there was no chocolate on my pillow when I came in.”
“You know this isn’t actually a hotel, right?” Shawn asked.
“What if I got you and the kids cute uniforms?” Eric asked.
“Uncle Eric’s funny,” Auggie said to Topanga. “He thinks we’re help.”
“I mean, why else are there so many of you?” Eric asked.
“We have two more siblings,” Cory chimed in. “You remember Morgan and Josh, right?”
“Yeah, and look at the lowlifes they turned out to be,” Eric said.
“Josh just started college,” Cory said. “Morgan’s in business—”
Eric fake-snored and they sat down to Sunday dinner, which wasn’t a Special Easter Sunday Dinner but still Sunday dinner.
“You know,” Shawn said. “You can always take the apartment back if you want.”
“Shawn,” Cory interrupted.
“What?” Riley asked. “You can’t leave. You can’t leave leave. You live here! You can’t go.”
“You’d really go again, huh, Shawn?” Maya asked.
Shawn looked across the table at her and said, to Maya and everyone, “No, I wouldn’t go again. I’ve traveled less these past few months so I can be around more, but if Eric wants his place back, I can find another.” He looked at Riley and Auggie, then Cory and Topanga. “I’d still be around, just. Not upstairs.”
“Oh my GOD,” Eric moaned. “Make me out to be that troll from It’s a Wonderful Life.” Eric sighed and said, “No, Shawn, I was joking, I don’t want the apartment back, it was a joke.”
Shawn saw that Cory, in a rare turn, actually looked kind of pissed—something he hadn’t seen in a long time.
Neither had Eric, who turned to Cory and added, “Except it’s not a joke, because I said anyone in the family could live there and I meant it.”
Eric looked to Shawn and said, “Seriously, man, the place looks great. I’m glad it’s not going to waste. I’m glad it’s with family.”
They went back to eating, mostly in silence until Auggie said, “I can leave you brown stuff on your pillow if you want, Uncle Eric.”
“You’re gross, buddy, but I appreciate the care. Keep your butt to yourself.”
Shawn was in southern California researching a sappy feature update to one of his first travel pieces when he had first left New York.
On the fourth day, he started the drive back west to LA from his remote campsite. After a few hours, his phone started to buzz with the calls and messages he had avoided while taking notes and writing at the campsite.
Shawn, it’s Topanga. I know you’re not—you’re unavailable for a few days, but please call when you get a chance, okay? Miss you. Call me.
Hey, it’s me. Something’s happened with Maya and we need to talk to you. Okay, that sounds worse than it should. She’s all right, she’s with us, but her—living situation has changed, and we’re taking her in for now. And—okay, I can’t do all the explaining on a VOICEMAIL, who even leaves these anymore, I’m sorry this is so long. Are you still coming back Thursday morning? What time, like five or six? We’ll talk at dinner.
Shawn, it’s Topanga again. Call me BEFORE you get to the airport, BEFORE you get on your flight, okay? We might need you to do something for us in LA. Let me know when you get this.
In a suburb before diving into LA, Shawn pulled into a superstore parking lot and called Topanga’s work cell.
“Hey, I just got back to civilization. What happened?”
“Shawn,” Topanga said, her voice full of relief before her tone snapped tight again. “Katy, Maya’s mother, apparently left her thirteen-year-old daughter alone in their apartment so she could fly to Los Angeles to film some pilots, which is very impressive for her and less so for her daughter, who broke down after school two days ago and admitted that she couldn’t go back to their apartment because the landlord was going to evict her and turn her over to social services.”
Shawn asked, “Do you want me to find her? Topanga, you’re the lawyer. What the hell do we do if we find her?”
“I don’t know. Short term, Maya lives with us,” Topanga said. “She’s staying in Riley’s room and Riley doesn’t mind at all, but long term? I don’t know. This woman left her phone in the apartment, so we can’t assume that she.” Topanga sighed. “That she wants to be found, or that she’ll come back.”
It hung in the air between them: what they could do, what they had to do.
“Go get her stuff from the apartment and put her in the spare bedroom of my place,” Shawn said. “You and Cory get her whatever she wants in the apartment, whatever she needs to feel safe, I’ll pay you back.”
“It’s the long term I’m worried about, too,” Topanga said, “She’s—none of us can adopt her. She has to be surrendered as a child for adoption before anyone of us sign on as a guardian.” A pause, and Topanga said, “She’s told us before that her father remarried and has a new family, and she doesn’t know where he lives. He hasn’t sent her anything in years.”
This was too familiar, too fucking familiar. He was—fuck, how old was he then? How old is he now? How long has it been since he left? Since he was left?
“I can’t go find Maya’s mother,” Shawn finally said. “I can’t do it, I can’t—Topanga, I can take care of Maya, and I will, I’ll take the next damn flight back into New York and I’ll take care of her, but I can’t—”
How could he make someone else’s mother come back when his own never did? What case could he make to a stranger that he couldn’t make to his own mother?
“I can’t do that to myself,” he said to Topanga. “I can’t do that to Maya. But I can come back and we can take care of her. Right? Can we do that? Can we manage the three of them?”
The tension broke with Topanga’s sudden laugh. “You say that like we haven’t been all along,” Topanga said. “All three of us, all three of them, it’s been us all along. Come home, okay?”
“I’ll be there.”
Two nights later, Shawn and Maya sat across from each other at the dining room table in Shawn’s apartment. Topanga said Cory and Riley had gone with her to the store to stock the fridge with anything she liked, but Shawn saw they had only brought back milk and butter and a loaf of bread.
She sat across from him slouched in her chair with her arms crossed. Shawn was the adult, so he sat up and didn’t fold his arms (Cory’s suggestion, to seem more open). He put his hands on the table, but didn’t fold them either (or he would seem impatient or angry).
Shawn broke the silence:
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Not your fault,” she said. “We’re just a couple of abandoned losers. It’s cool. It happens.”
Shawn stared at her and Maya stared back.
“It’s not your fault,” Shawn said. “Maya. Can you say that?”
“Maybe it’s not my fault,” Maya said, “But I’m the reason we’re here right now. You’re looking at the common denominator here, right? Two parents who leave, what have they got in common? It’s me.”
“That’s their business,” Shawn said. “It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did. You didn’t do anything except need them and they couldn’t take care of you.”
“And you’re gonna take care of me now,” Maya said. “You, Shawn. When you’re the one who leaves.”
Later, the words would haunt him, and it would be what he’d come back to whenever he thought he’d let Maya down: you’re the one who leaves.
At the moment, he didn’t even think of his response, he just said it:
“I always come back.”
Maya shrugged, so he continued.
“And hey, haven’t you been over at Cory and Topanga’s often enough your whole life to know that? Maya, who’s been taking care of you for years already, if not them? If not us?”
She nodded again and looked down at the table.
“I always thought,” Maya said, then shook her head and started over. “This isn’t the first time Mom’s gone to LA for pilot season, but it’s—this is the first time she left her phone, and the first time she didn’t leave rent money. I don’t think it was like— it’s not because she hates me or anything. I think she forgot. She’s not good with money. Or scheduling. Maybe she thought that she’d get paid really quick and then she could wire me something. Or she had a good feeling about this job, right, and she’d fly me out really soon, before the landlord or anyone noticed.”
Maya didn’t say anything for a bit, but she did uncross her arms and mimic Shawn: sitting up straight in her seat, hands on the table and close to her. Hands folded, her face so—and that cold defensiveness was so familiar, but she was a girl so she hid it with a smile.
“You know better, okay?” Shawn said. “I’m not your mom or dad, but this? This is home,” Shawn said. “That’s all there is to it. It’s with us, with me, with Cory and Topanga. This is home for as long as you want it.”
Maya was a crazy little genius when it came to crying without showing it: a hard swipe at her cheek with her thumbnail, the tear gone in a flash.
“Okay,” she said. “Are you going to tell me to do my homework?”
“Cory promised me he’s on homework duty,” Shawn replied. “Personally, I think you should do your homework before you become a travel writer squatting in a celebrity brother-in-law’s apartment.”
“It’s kind of a cool life,” Maya said. “Oh, also, follow up question: if you do end up raising me, you and the Matthews, does that mean I can’t marry Josh? Or does it mean I can only marry Josh?”
“I think you need a formal petition to the parent council for that,” Shawn said. “And maybe Josh. Maybe he should have some input on that. Just a suggestion, before you buy a wedding suit or anything.”
Maya laughed a little, then held out her hand for a handshake. “This sounds like a good deal, Hunter. Let’s shake on it.”
Shawn raised his eyebrows and pushed her hand down.
“This isn’t a business deal,” he said. “It’s not—there’s no contracts, no terms, no conditions. We’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of you. We’re not going anywhere.” She raised an eyebrow, so he said: “We won’t report you to child services if you fail a math test. It will never be like that. No strings attached. We’re here for you.”
“See, but that doesn’t make sense,” Maya replied. “It just doesn’t. Here you are, with the most amazing life ever, seeing the world, and you’re cutting down on that to take care of someone else’s kid? Sorry, and your friends’ kids? What’s in it for you?”
“It’s a long story,” Shawn said. “I owe it this kid I knew back home.” He looked away from Maya as he said, “When he was your age, he would have done anything to have people waiting for him at home, people who weren’t landlords or waiting to shut off a utility.”
Maya nodded and looked down at her nails.
“But if you want to try and make honor roll, just to prove that I’m pretty good at this parenting thing—”
“I’ll unpack my stuff into my new room,” Maya said. “And it’d be way easier to make honor roll if that guy teaching history wasn’t so set on students getting answers right all the time. Pull some strings with him, would you?”
“I make no promises,” he said. She left the table and walked around him, shoulder-checking him as she passed.
It was a start.
“You said no PTA nights,” Cory said.
“I said what?” Shawn asked. Shawn’s latest flight had arrived a few hours ago, enough time to run home, drop everything, nap for 20 minutes, and then run to school for the show. He wasn’t sure yet if he could walk upright and listen to Cory.
“Remember when Eric first bought the apartment? Like a year or ten ago? You said you couldn’t be around for PTA nights, but here you are.” Cory cackled, victorious.
“Does this count?” Shawn asked. “I thought this was an art show. By the way, how did you find the last school in America with an art program?”
“It’s the only thing parents in Manhattan are willing to fight for,” Cory replied.
Once inside, Cory took a step away from Shawn. “I have to go find my kids’ work to support,” Cory said. “Like, student kids. You find our kids and support the hell out of them.” Cory took his hand for a second and met his eyes. “You can do it.”
Then he ran off, as if Shawn had any idea where anything was in this building.
A woman Shawn recognized as Maya’s English teacher stepped out of a classroom. She started, then recognized him, too. “Shawn Hunter, right? Are you looking for Maya’s work?”
“Yeah,” Shawn said. “How…”
“Please,” she laughed. “Cory and Riley and Maya talk about you all the time. He has a picture of you in his staff locker.”
“He does not,” Shawn said, but he knew better.
“It’s so good of you to come and support Maya,” she added. “I’ve seen her work for the show and it’s excellent. We’re all so proud of her.”
They walked turned into the eighth grade corridor, and of course Shawn would have found it because it seemed like most of the school was already packed in there.
“Intimidating,” Shawn said as they stopped. “I didn’t know teenagers were this crazy for art.”
“They’re people,” she replied. “They know talent when they see it.”
Riley and Maya emerged from a particularly dense knot of kids and fell over against each other, laughing with their arms around each other’s waists. Riley noticed Shawn and waved him over. “Thanks for finding him, Ms. Elsebai!”
“You’re here,” Maya said, a step behind Riley and going with Really, Really Casual for tonight’s performance. “Cory said your flight wouldn’t get in until tonight.”
“Cory read AM as PM,” Shawn said. He motioned to the crowd and asked, “All this for you?”
“These weirdos,” Maya shrugged.
“Maya drew pop stars in space,” Riley said. “Wait, no, they’re pop stars. That’s the joke.”
“It is a joke, yes,” Maya said.
“She was keeping it a secret from all of you and it’s finally out here and it’s so good, come look come look.”
“OUTTA THE WAY, CREEPS,” yelled their friend Denise. “WE GOT A PARENT HERE.”
Shawn wasn’t sure what he was expecting when Riley said pop stars in space, but there it was: a portrait of Nicki Minaj wearing a galaxy for a skirt and the Pillars of Creation as a corset.
“Andromeda?” Shawn asked. “Did you know you can see it from here with just a small telescope?”
“I think I read that in one of your articles,” Maya said, still Casual. “Nicki was the first one I did.”
“And you drew this?” Shawn asked as he leaned in closer to the mounted sheet, kids still clustered around the three of them and chattering nonstop. “Just markers?”
“Ink and gel, please,” Maya said with a little scoff. “I started them in art class and finished them at home.”
“And this is Lorde with the Hubble deep field in her hair,” Riley said, pushing through people to the next portrait.
“I also did Beyoncé wearing the Blue Marble as a pendant,” Maya said. “And Ariana Grande hula hooping with the rings of Saturn. My Taylor Swift isn’t finished, though. I was going to replace her skin with the Carina Nebula but it’s exhausting and I need more pens.”
Shawn turned and pulled Maya into a hug, one sappy enough to make the jaded gossipy teens around them awww and push them out of the way to get back to brainstorming more ideas for Maya (especially for wildly underutilized Uranus).
“It’s not a big deal,” Maya said as she hugged Shawn back. “I had the ideas for a while, I just didn’t—drawing wasn’t a thing I had a lot of time for until I moved in with you guys. Suddenly I had time and you gave me money for more pens, so I just—I did it.”
“I know,” Shawn said. “I’m glad you did it. They’re amazing, Maya.”
They stepped back from each other and Shawn caught sight of Cory and Riley standing a ways off, Cory’s arm around Riley’s shoulders.
“NO YOU’RE CRYING,” Cory shouted at Shawn. “And you,” he added to Maya. “You know where to find the Carina Nebula but you can’t recite the preamble to the Constitution for me? COME ON. History’s cool, too!”
“Can’t please everyone,” Shawn sighed.
“He loves it,” Riley assured Maya.
“Of course I do,” Cory said. “See? See what a good team you two make?”
“Who two?” Maya asked. “There’s a lot more than two of us here.”
“I want the Lorde one framed in my room,” Riley said. “You know, if you want to let me frame it and put it in my room, but I call dibs on Lorde.”
“Let’s go look at some other losers’ work before you guys embarrass me more,” Maya said.
Cory led the way to his sixth graders’ work while he talked to Riley about quiz bowl. Shawn followed and Maya touched his arm quickly.
“Thanks again,” Maya said. “For being here. No one’s ever at these things just for me.”
Shawn put an arm around her shoulders and led her down the hall after Cory and Riley. “That’s my job, Maya. I’ll be here for you. And this was only my first art show! Once I really get into the swing of things, I’ll be super embarrassing for you.”
“Definitely not part of the deal,” Maya said. “YOU SAID YOU’D BE COOL.”
“Yeah, that’s never happening,” he replied. “Wait until you’ve lived with us a few years and we start collecting embarrassing stories about you! You’ll never make it out of high school alive.”
Maya fake-sobbed and cried, “RILEY! We have to save ourselves!”
She dashed ahead and took Riley’s hand. Both of them ran down the hall, shrieking, into the sixth grade corridor.