Chapter 2: September
Friday, September 20.
It’s a Friday, the end of the third week of the new school year, and Stef only has to finish correcting today’s spelling tests, and then they get to go home and do something fun, like stay up until eleven watching Netflix with their brother (look, they’re a teacher, okay, they have to be up at six every weekday, and they can’t function without a solid eight hours of beauty sleep, so they don’t wanna throw off their sleep schedule too much)!
The tests are easy enough to correct. There’s only so many ways to misspell ‘rainforest,’ after all.
There’s a knock on Stef’s classroom door. They look up to find Simon, one of their favorite people and definitely their favorite teacher, peering inside, a concerned look on his face.
“Hey,” he says, flicking his blond bangs out of his face. “Sorry to bother you, but I think one of your kids missed her bus or something.”
“Oh, man!” Stef quickly gets to their feet, tossing their red pen onto their desk. “She okay? Upset or anythin’? Wait, who is it?
“I don’t know her name,” Simon says apologetically. “She’s just standin’ out front; only recognized her ‘cause I’ve seen her walkin’ with you a couple times. The buses already left a while ago, so I guess she could be waitin’ on someone to pick ‘er up. If that’s the case, though, they’re pretty late.”
“School ended half an hour ago, Si! They’re more than late!” Stef doesn’t bother to conceal their worry. They’ve got seventeen kids in their class this year, and they love each and every one of them.
Stef and Simon march down the halls, much quieter now than during the day. Stef hopes that whichever kid it is isn’t too upset; but if she is, Stef’s more than ready to offer her comfort in the form of hugs and access to their secret stash of Oreos, and they’ll gladly chew out whichever parent forgot to pick up their entire child.
They arrive in the lunch room, and Simon points out the wide windows to the benches outside, where a single child waits by the empty pick-up zone.
“Oh, dang,” Stef says, and they’re kind of boiling mad, because what the heck kind of monsters would forget a kid like Georgie for half a freaking hour?
“Thanks, Simon,” they say, and dash outside.
It’s not too hot out today, they notice. It’s still mid-September, still technically summer and not quite fall, but it’s cooler today than it has been so far this month.
Georgie looks up, probably at the sound of Stef’s feet on the ground, and grins at them. She’s a sweet kid, and real feisty, with dark brown skin and a head of thick curls, seemingly always ready with a helping hand or a quick remark. Stef has to wonder whether her parents have similar personalities, or if she drives them crazy. They’ve only seen her parents from a distance, once or twice: a hugely tall man and woman, the man with skin about as dark as hers and bleach-blond curls, the woman with lighter, tan skin and crazy pink-and-green hair. Hm. Georgie probably gets her personality from them, if they think about it.
“Heya, Mx. Campbell!” she greets, swinging her feet back and forth under the bench.
“Hi, Georgie,” Stef says, giving her one of their best, most reassuring grins. “Did you miss your bus, kiddo?”
She shakes her head, dark curls bouncing. “No,” she says. “My daddy’s s’posed to pick me up.” She frowns. “He’s late, though.”
“He sure is,” Stef agrees, and barely keeps themself from adding a scathing remark about her missing parent. “Do you want me to call ‘im?” they ask instead.
Georgie narrows her eyes and purses her lips. She hums for a moment, and opens her mouth to reply, when the sound of shoes slapping against pavement catches her attention, and they both turn toward the source of the noise.
“Oh!” she says, jumping to her feet. “Daddy!”
Stef blinks, startled. This is not, in fact, the tall, grinning black man they had seen several times at a distance, but a slightly-less tall man with tan skin and a head of hair nearly as curly as Georgie’s and a shade or two lighter.
The man only comes to a stop when he’s directly in front of Georgie, and then he bends at the waist, his hands on his knees as he catches his breath. “Oh my god, Georgie,” he pants between breaths, “I’m so sorry I’m late!”
He straightens up a moment later, giving Stef a full view of him, and they freeze in place as they suddenly take in the sight of the most beautiful man they’ve ever seen in their life.
He may not be as tall as the guy Stef had been thinking of, but he’s still a good couple of inches taller than Stef is. His curly hair cascades down past his shoulders, and though it’s a little damp with sweat, it’s still gorgeous.
He’s broad-shouldered, his baggy T-shirt obscuring his figure a bit. There’s stubble on his chin and above his lip, and Stef doesn’t usually go for that kind of thing, but dang does it look good on him.
“...still not used to school getting out so much earlier than your old one,” the man is saying, and Stef blinks, refocuses on the situation at hand.
“Next time you’re going to be late,” Stef says, schooling their expression into their best disapproving schoolteacher look, “call the school so we can make arrangements, ‘kay?”
The guy--Mr. Martín, Stef figures, if this really is Georgie’s father--at least looks sheepish.
“I am so sorry,” he says. "Work got a little crazy, and I lost track of time, and--sorry. There’s really no excuse for this.” Mr. Martín turns to Georgie. “Do you have all your things?”
Georgie nods, beaming, and holds up her little yellow backpack. She doesn’t seem too upset at having been forgotten for half an hour. “Can we get McDonald’s?” she asks.
“We’ve got food at home, kiddo,” Mr. Martín says, and ruffles her hair before turning his attention to Stef again. “Thanks for waiting with her. I really appreciate that. I’m not usually the one who picks her up, but next time I do, I’ll be more careful with the time.”
Right, right. Married, probably. To that pretty girl with the dyed hair, probably. Or, well, Georgie really looks more like the guy. Maybe Mr. Martín’s married to that guy? Damn, the hot ones are always taken. It’s not fair.
“Uh, it was no problem,” Stef says, blinking and forcing themself to calm down. “Uh, yeah, just, y’know. Call the school next time. I’d be happy to keep her in the classroom with me ‘til you get here.”
“I’ll definitely do that in the future,” Mr. Martín promises, and he smiles, a genuine smile that stretches his lips and dimples his cheeks. Stef’s heart beats a little faster.
Look, they haven’t dated in a while, okay? They’re allowed to figuratively drool over hot dads!
“Yeah, uh, yeah, perfect,” they say. “I’m just glad it all worked out. Um.” They pause. Then, “Well, I’d better get goin’! Got some more tests to grade before I can go home, and, ah, I’m sure you’re busy, so--”
“Oh, right, right, of course,” Mr. Martín says, nodding and sending his curls falling over his face. “Yeah, I need to get Georgie home so she can get somethin’ to eat.” He squeezes Georgie’s shoulder, and Georgie grins.
“Bye, Mx. Campbell!” she says, waving. “See you Monday!”
“Bye, Georgie,” they say, smiling at her and very carefully not looking at her very hot father. “Have a great weekend, okay?”
“I will!” Georgie looks up at Mr. Martín, tugging his hand. “Let’s go, I’m hungry.”
“Okay, okay, we’re goin’!” Mr. Martín laughs, a quiet chuckle. “Thanks again, Mx. Campbell!”
Georgie and her father are already halfway down the road by the time Stef realizes they should have replied.
Too late now.
They turn and head back to their classroom.
Fridays are pretty good days for business, Gabe’s found. A good, steady flow of customers throughout the day, as people take their lunch breaks or stop in for a quick cup of coffee or soup to go, or cash in a paycheck and treat themselves to a good meal.
It’s great! Gabe needs the money and he needs the advertisement a packed parking lot and satisfied customers brings him, he likes rushing around the kitchen and cooking up hot, tasty food for everyone.
The problem today is that, while he doesn’t have many people on staff anyway, today it’s just him and Shaw, taking care of everything.
Without Cole here, Gabe’s the only one in the kitchen. Without Bunny, Shaw’s the only one running tables. The dining room has been at least half-full all day, and it’s just now finally starting to die down. Still, there’s more orders coming in as a few stragglers arrive.
“Tomato soup and grilled cheese!” Shaw calls, adding another ticket to the carousel.
Gabe grits his teeth. He’s three tables behind where he should be, and he really doesn’t want to deal with the repercussions of having people start walking out of his restaurant, especially since this is only his second month of business.
He flips the burgers and checks them one last time; done! Relieved, he quickly plates them and passes them through the window to Shaw. Now he’s only two tables behind.
Gabe glances at the clock as he hurries over to check the next item. It’s 2:13. Oh, Georgie’s school should be out soon. Hopefully Lola won’t mind sticking around for a few extra minutes so he can get caught up back here before making sure she’s all settled in.
He plates the next table’s orders and passes them to Shaw. Now he’s only one table behind, and no new orders have come in yet. Good. Now he’ll have time to clean up a little between customers.
It’s 2:21 now. Georgie should be here soon.
Wait a second.
It’s Friday, which means Lola and Kai don’t work today, which means he has to go get her!
And he’s late!
Gabe throws off his apron and frantically turns off the stove, stripping off his plastic gloves and hairnet as he races through the doors to the dining room. “Gotta go get Georgie!” he calls to Shaw. “Kitchen’s closed ‘til I get back!”
“Didn’t school end at two?” Shaw calls back, gliding over to the next table on aer skates, a pot of coffee in hand.
Gabe’s heart stops in his chest. “Shit,” he says, forgetting for a moment that he’s in a room full of customers and should really be keeping his dialogue family-friendly. “Shit! I’m late!”
He bolts out the door without waiting for a response and starts running down the sidewalk. He’s lucky there aren’t many people out right now, but he still has to dodge around people, half-muttered “sorry’s” leaving his mouth each time. He’s more than halfway to the school, legs and lungs burning, when he realizes he probably should have brought his car instead of going on foot.
He hopes Georgie’s okay, hopes she hasn’t been waiting outside the whole time. He’s almost half an hour late! He’s a terrible father!
He turns the corner and enters the school’s pick-up zone, feet slapping against the sidewalk and his blood rushing in his ears, and he sees Georgie stand up from a bench, her little yellow backpack in hand.
Gabe doesn’t slow down until he’s reached her, and he wants to ask her if she’s okay, to apologize to her, but first he has to breathe again. It’s harder than he’d have thought; he really needs to listen to Madhavi and work on his leg strength a little more.
After a moment, he straightens up a little, feeling well enough to speak. “Oh my god, Georgie, I’m so sorry I’m late.”
He manages to stand up straight then, and as his breathing evens out, he’s able to look her in the eye. She’s watching him with a placid expression, but in her eye he can see a twinkle of amusement, and of annoyance. He’s in trouble.
“I’d forgotten that Lola and Kai don’t work today,” he explains. “And I lost track of time with the rush that came in. I’m still not used to school getting out so much earlier than your old one.”
“Next time you’re going to be late,” says a voice Gabe doesn’t recognize, “call the school so we can make arrangements, ‘kay?”
Gabe lifts his gaze from his daughter to see a person standing just a little farther back, one eyebrow arched up and a disapproving look on their face. He immediately feels himself shrink down a little, embarrassed and angry at himself for failing this most basic part of parenthood: not forgetting your fucking kid.
“I am so sorry,” he says again. “Work got a little crazy, and I lost track of time, and--sorry.” He stops himself before he can ramble on too long. “Sorry. There’s really no excuse for this.” He turns back to Georgie, careful not to let his nerves show on his face as he smiles at her. “Do you have all your things?”
Georgie nods, lifting her backpack up to show him. “Can we get McDonald’s?” she asks, and Gabe berates himself once again. Damn it, she’s been sitting here for half an hour, of course she’s hungry.
“We’ve got food at home, kiddo,” he says, and ruffles her hair apologetically.
She sticks her tongue out at him, so he figures he’s been forgiven. That’s a relief, at least.
He turns back to the other person, takes in their appearance. They’re about average height, with light skin and bright firetruck-red hair, pulled back from their face in a short ponytail. They’re thin, wiry, and dressed in a short-sleeved button-down and slacks. Their nails are painted a red nearly the same shade as their hair.
They’re...well. Pretty doesn’t seem to quite fit, but it’s as close as he can get.
He sucks in a breath and says, “Thanks for waiting with her. I really appreciate that. I’m not usually the one who picks her up, but--” damn it, he’s making excuses again, “--next time I do, I’ll be more careful with the time.”
The person blinks, then nods, their expression softening a little. “Uh, it was no problem,” they say. “Just, y’know, call the school next time. I’d be happy to keep her in the classroom with me ‘til you get here.”
“I’ll definitely do that in the future,” he replies, relief making himself relax a little. Classroom, huh? He wonders if this is Georgie’s teacher, then. Mx…. Mx…. Oh, what was their name?
“Yeah, perfect,” they say, smiling faintly at him. “I’m just glad it all worked out.” They pause, and they stare at each other for one long, drawn-out moment. Gabe notices that their cheeks are dusted with freckles, their eyes a hazel leaning more toward green.
They clear their throat, and Gabe feels his cheeks heat up. He hadn’t meant to stare. “Well, I’d better get goin’!” they say, glancing away, off to one side. “Got some more tests to grade before I can go home, and, ah, I’m sure you’re busy, so--”
“Right, right.” Gabe cuts them off, hoping to save himself some more embarrassment. “Yeah, I, uh, I need to get Georgie home so she can get somethin’ to eat.” He puts his hand on Georgie’s shoulder and gives it a little squeeze.
“Bye, Mx. Campbell!” she says, and, oh, that’s right! Mx. Campbell , the teacher Georgie’s been raving about since her first day of school, when Mx. Campbell purportedly set a dollar bill on fire to showcase some kind of chemical reaction or something. Gabe’s not entirely sure what happened, but his daughter’s never been so psyched up for school ‘til now, so they’re pretty great in his book. “See you Monday!”
Mx. Campbell looks over at Georgie again and breaks into a grin. “Bye, Georgie! Have a great weekend, okay?”
“I will!” Georgie takes his hand and looks up at him. “Let’s go, I’m hungry!”
He can’t help but laugh a little at the face she pulls, mock anger and real impatience coloring her features. “Okay, okay,” he says. “We’re goin’!” He looks at Mx. Campbell again, sees a soft smile on their face that makes them look even nicer. “Thanks again, Mx. Campbell!” he says.
Mx. Campbell doesn’t reply, just waves one hand, a little distractedly, Gabe thinks. He shrugs, and turns away to head back to the diner, Georgie’s hand clutched in his.
“What do you wanna eat when we get back?” he asks. “Anything off the menu, to make up for leaving you here so long.”
Georgie hums, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips. “I don’t know yet,” she says. “Somethin’ good though.”
“I don’t make anything that’s not good, kiddo.”
“Your bean soup is nasty!” she corrects, making a horrifyingly realistic retching noise.
“Don’t do that, you’ll make yourself throw up. And my bean soup is delicious, you just don’t like beans. And don’t worry, you’ll like ‘em when you get older.”
“Jason’s old, an’ he doesn’t like beans!”
“Jason’s thirty-one, and he has bad taste. He also doesn’t like my banana bread. ‘Too moist,’ ” he says, in a squeaky voice that sounds nothing like Georgie’s step-father. “‘Too much cinnamon.’ ” He scoffs. “Enjoy your flavorless, crusty-ass banana bread, Jason.”
Georgie giggles, swinging their connected hands back and forth. “I’m gonna tell Dad you said that,” she says warningly.
Gabe widens his eyes comically, presses his free hand against his chest. “You wouldn’t!” he exclaims. “Please, Georgie, don’t tell him, I’ll do anything!”
“”Will you make me a grilled cheese?” she asks, grinning mischievously. “With chicken noodle soup instead of tomato?”
He makes a face at her. “I guess,” he says. “But that just goes to show that your taste is just as bad as Jason’s.” He swiftly pulls his hand from her grasp and reaches over to tickle her opposite side.
She throws herself against his legs, letting out a shriek of laughter. “Don’t!” she whines. “You’re the worst!”
He laughs and takes her hand again. “Sorry,” he says, knowing he doesn’t sound sorry at all. “I love you.”
Georgie tilts her head back and looks up at him, beaming. “Love you, too,” she says, and squeezes his hand.
It’s another good day, in a long string of good days. He may not be the best parent, but he makes his kid happy, provides for her as best he can, and that’s the important part.
“Marco!” Stef calls, dropping their bag by the door as they enter the apartment.
“Polo,” comes Marco’s disinterested reply.
Stef rolls their eyes and follows his voice into the living room, where they find him on the couch, his long legs stretched out over the cushions, eyes glued to his phone. It’s an image Stef’s gotten used to seeing over the last few years, but it doesn’t fill them with the same sense of dread it used to, so they don’t mind it.
They walk over and lift Marco’s feet up, settling themself into the corner of the sofa and placing his feet into their lap.
Marco glances up from his phone, his lips twitching into a tiny smile, and Stef’s heart soars.
“So I saw the most beautiful man in the world today,” they blurt out.
Marco rolls his eyes and looks back down at his phone, thumbs tap-tap-tapping against the screen. “Every man’s the most beautiful you’ve ever seen,” he says.
“Not true!” Stef protests, leaning over to poke at Marco’s knee through the hole in his jeans.
“That guy at the grocery store last week,” Marco says, still typing on his phone. “The guy at the garden center. Simon. That--”
“Not true!” Stef says again, more emphatically. “You’re just listing out hot guys, okay, that’s different! And anyway, Simon’s not a guy, so--”
“I can list other people you’ve called ‘the most beautiful whatever you’ve ever seen,’” Marco says. “Holly. Manami. Shaw. The girl from the--”
“Shut up!” Stef says, grabbing a throw pillow and chucking it at him. It bounces off his shoulder and lands on the floor, and Marco barely gives it a glance before going back to his phone. Jerk. “Anyway, whatever, it’s Friday night! Time to watch some crappy old sitcoms! Tonight feels like a Munsters night, huh?”
“Oh,” Marco says, in That Voice. “Sorry, Stef. Got a date tonight.”
“Oh,” Stef replies, trying their best to keep the disappointment and resentment out of their tone. “What time?”
Marco glances at his phone again. “‘Bout an hour,” he says. “Try to be nice to him this time, okay?”
Stef doesn’t reply, because they don’t know what to say. If their brother won’t listen to them when they express their worry over the situation, well, what’s the point in bringing it up every time?
Instead, they pick up the remote and turn on the TV, and, doing their best to sound cheerful, say, “We can fit in a couple episodes before then! Let’s see, what one did we leave off on?”
Thankfully, Marco doesn’t bring up his date with Dante again, just settling in to watch The Munsters, intermittently texting or whatever it is he’s doing on his phone.
When Marco leaves an hour later, Stef resigns themself to an evening spent alone.
Monday, September 23.
“Bye, Daddy!” Georgie calls, rushing into the kitchen and wrapping her arms around his waist.
“Bye, Georgie!” Gabe says, leaning down to press a kiss to the top of her head, carefully keeping his grease-coated gloved hands from touching her. “Have fun at school today, okay?”
“I will!” She grins at him, and lets go. “See you after school! Lola’s pickin’ me up today, so don’t worry, okay?”
He smiles sheepishly at her. “Will do. Now go on, you don’t wanna be late for Mx. Campbell. They might blame me.” He chuckles a little, and she sticks her tongue out at him.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Martín, I’ll totally have her there on time!” Lola, Georgie’s babysitter, says from the doorway. “Come on, Georgie, let’s leave your daddy alone to finish his work, m’kay?”
“Okay.” Georgie runs over to her, turning around to wave to him. “Bye!” she calls again. “Love you!”
“Love you too!” he calls back, and then they’re both gone. He turns back to his work, and a moment later, hears a little laugh off to his other side. He rolls his eyes and looks over at Cole.
“Yes?” he asks, arching an eyebrow.
“Nothin’,” Cole says, grinning down at the pancakes he’s making. “She’s a cute kid, is all.”
“Yeah,” Gabe says, smiling at the pile of pork sausage in front of him. “She’s the cutest. She’s the best kid.” He forms another patty between his hands. “Don’t let other parents try to tell you otherwise. My kid’s definitely the best kid.”
Cole hums a reply, shooting Gabe another smile before hurrying off to finish other work elsewhere.
Gabe spends the rest of the morning in a great mood, humming to himself as he works.
Wednesday, September 25.
Stef always feels a little bad about having to shush kids who are having a good time together. If they could, they’d let all the kids play and have fun all day, but unfortunately this is a school, and that means that they have to teach things and keep everybody on task.
“Sarah,” they say quietly, standing behind the giggling girls, “Georgie. I need you to focus on your reading, okay? You can talk at recess.”
“Sorry, Mx. Campbell,” the girls say simultaneously, causing them both to burst into giggles again.
Unfortunately, Stef can’t show them any sign of amusement, for fear of encouraging them, so they say, more sternly, “Girls. Don’t make me separate you two.”
Sarah mutters another “sorry” and turns back to the book open on the desk in front of her, but Georgie takes another moment to quiet down before doing the same.
“Thanks for listening,” Stef says with a smile, and they catch the furtive glances between the two of them just before they turn away, so they figure they’ll be back over here to quiet them down again in a few minutes. Oh, well. So be it.
Sinking back into their seat, Stef tugs absentmindedly at the hem of their cardigan and looks up at the clock. There’s only about ten minutes left of silent reading time, and then Stef has a fifteen-minute break while the kids yell and scream and climb things they shouldn’t climb outside for a bit.
They glance around the room and don’t see anyone distracting anyone else from their reading, so they pull out their teacher’s manual and stare blankly at it while they think about their plans for the rest of the day.
When the kids come in from recess, Stef’s gonna set them to learning about science. It’s just reading and lecturing today, but they’re hoping to be able to do a fun lab on Friday. After that, it’s gym class, and then closing group time before they send all the kids home for the day. They’ve already got the rest of the week’s lessons planned out, so they’ll only have to stay long enough to shut everything down, and maybe go bug Simon or Manami for a bit before they head home.
Then they’ve gotta drive Marco to his appointment, and pick up groceries--they wonder if Marco’d be up for helping them cook tonight, if he’s got the energy for that--have dinner... maybe Shaw has time to hang out tonight. Or tomorrow night. Or this weekend? Ae’s been busier since ae started that new job, and Stef definitely hasn’t had much time, thanks to school. They’ve missed hanging out with aer.
Stef sighs quietly and takes their glasses off, folding them and setting them down between the pages of the book. They’ll text aer while the kids are outside.
They look up at the clock again. There’s only one minute ‘til recess.
Stef stands up a little too quickly, nearly knockin over their chair, and claps their hands twice. “Alright,” they announce, “I want everyone to put their books away and line up at the door for recess! And remember to do so quietly, please!”
The kids scramble to obey everything but the last part, chatting and giggling as they stuff their books in their desks or lockers and race to be first in line.
Stef rolls their eyes and hides a grin, moving to stand in the doorway and reminding everyone not to run until they hit the pavement outside.
“Have fun!” they call as the bell rings, and the kids make their way to the playground.
“Bye, Mx. Campbell!” a few of them call back, and Stef smiles and waves to them.
Once they’re all out of sight, Stef ducks back into the classroom and grabs their phone, shooting off a quick text.
TO: ✨show pony✨: “wannw habg out with me and marco tonight?"
They don't expect to get a reply anytime soon--Shaw's no doubt busy with work right now--so they move to tuck their phone back into their bag.
Then they remember that they'd wanted to ask Marco about dinner before they forget, so they unlock their phone again and send him a text, too.
TO: baby bro: "wanna make dinner wurh me tonigbt? you can pixk what we eat!!"
Less than a minute later, they have a reply.
FROM: baby bro: "okay but we're making spaghetti and i demand tiny meatballs"
Stef makes to reply, but their attention is snagged by another notification: Shaw replying.
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “absofuckinlutely. your place? what time?”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “like 7? unless youb wanna have dinnr with us but i gotta asdk marco.”
TO: baby bro: “spagehtii’s good we cnando baby meatballs for m,y baby bro. shaw for dinner?”
FROM: baby bro: “i’m not into cannibalism and i literally just said i want spaghetti”
FROM: baby bro: “but okay sure”
Stef actually laughs aloud at Marco’s response. Every time he makes a joke, Stef can’t help but feel wildly happy. Even when the jokes are at their expense.
TO: ✨show pony✨: “marcdo sayd dinner’s good! come over around 6. we r havin spaghetiti.’
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “fancy. should i bring anything?”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “garlic bread???”
FROM: ✨show pony✨: “perfect! i’ll snag some from the diner after my shift.”
TO: ✨show pony✨: “tonight we feast!!”
They don’t get a reply after that, so Stef figures ae had to get back to work.They glance at the time; it’s been seven minutes. Their break time’s just about half over. They tuck their phone back into their bag and head over to the whiteboard, to write the necessary information for science class.
“Hey, Mr. Boss-Man,” Shaw sing-songs from the window, and Gabe lifts his head to see aer leaning on the shelf, aer chin resting on aer folded arms.
“Hi, Shaw,” he says, wringing out the cloth he’s using to wipe down the counters and setting it aside. “What’s up?”
“Can I get some of your fancy-shmancy garlic bread to go?” Ae bats aer eyelashes at him, and he laughs. Aer smile widens. “I got a dinner party with some friends in a bit, and I wanna really wow ‘em with my offering.”
Gabe laughs again, nodding. “Sure thing,” he says. “So long as you don’t mind that it was made this morning.”
Shaw scoffs. “Oh, please,” ae says. “Like a little thing like time could ruin something of yours. All your food probably only improves with age."
He rolls his eyes. "That's either a clever insult or a terrible compliment. Garlic bread doesn't exactly ferment, Shaw."
“I mean that your food is so wonderful and angelic--just like you- -that the effects of time don’t actually affect your delightful cooking.”
“Shaw, there’s no need for flattery. I was going to give you the garlic bread, anyway.” He leans to one side to look into the dining room beyond them. “It’s pretty slow out there,” he says. “I think Cole and I can handle the rest if you want to get going. Should just be coffees and things ‘til closing.”
“I was hoping so,” ae says, disappearing from view only to reappear a few seconds later in the kitchen doorway, untying aer apron, “because I told Stef I’d be over before seven.”
“As long as you don’t make a habit of leaving too early,” Gabe says, moving over to select the best of the few remaining loaves of garlic bread from this morning, “then I don’t mind.” He hands the loaf over to aer. “Let me know what your friends think of it, okay? I need validation to live.”
“Oh, pshaw,” ae says. “As if you don’t get enough validation every time Bunny and I come back here with a ‘compliments to the chef.’ ”
He laughs again, feeling his face heat up a little. “Well,” he says, “that definitely helps.”
He and Shaw exchange a few more words while he works and ae gets ready to go, and once ae’s gone, the kitchen feels almost too quiet.
Well, once his business starts bringing in a little more money, he’ll be able to afford a few more employees.
For now, he’ll just have to deal with the quietude until Georgie comes in to help him wash the dishes.
Stef's frowning at a mini meatball recipe on their phone when they hear the knock, followed shortly by, "Hello, my lovelies, open the fuck up!"
"Can you get the door, Marco?" they ask their brother, who's staring resolutely at a pot of water that hasn't yet started to boil.
Marco nods and makes his way out of the kitchen. They can hear the door open as they open up the can of breadcrumbs they'd purchased earlier.
"Marco!" they can hear Shaw exclaim. "You look so good, all that metal gone-- beautiful!"
"Good to see you, too," Marco says, and it's quiet, but Stef knows what it must mean to Shaw to hear.
"Hey, Shaw! Get in here and tell me if I'm doin' this right!" they call. "And can I use dried parsley instead'a fresh?"
"How the hell should I know?" Shaw says, stepping--well, rolling (ae never takes aer skates off)--into the kitchen, pulling Marco along by his hand clasped in aer's. "I don't even know what the fuck you're makin', dumplin'."
"Mini meatballs," Marco says.
"You work in a restaurant," Stef says, pitching their voice up to increase the audible incredulity, "and you mean to tell me you don't know if I can use dried parsley instead'a fresh?!"
"It's not like I work in the kitchen!" Shaw protests, setting a bag down on the counter.
"Still! Shouldn't you pick it up by, like, osmosis or somethin'?" Stef nudges aer in the ribs as ae draws closer, and Shaw laughs, swatting at them.
"Do you pick up your baby brother's frankly excellent coding skills by osmosis?" Shaw asks, and Stef sticks their tongue out at aer.
"Shut up," they say, "and help cook!"
Friday, September 27.
It’s a week after that first time that Stef sees Mr. Martín again.
The past few days--those times when Stef’s glancing out the window at just the right time--they’ve only seen Georgie get picked up by the woman with the wild-colored hair or the man with the bleach-blond curls. Each time, they’ve greeted her with a hug or a kiss on the cheek, and Stef just can’t figure it out. Whose kid is she? Maybe the woman is Mr. Martín’s sister? Georgie’s aunt?
Whatever. It’s not their business to know.
Still, glancing out the lunchroom windows when they pass by to go ask Manami if she’s got some extra googly eyes for next week’s art project, they spot Mr. Martín’s luxurious head of hair and stop in their tracks to watch.
He says something to Georgie--obviously they can’t hear what he’s saying through the glass and across the distance, probably wouldn’t have been able to hear him even without those things, just because of how noisy it must be out there with all the kids and parents heading home--and Georgie leaps up to give him a high-five. It’s cute.
He’s ridiculously attractive when he grins at her, the way his eyes light up and his mouth widens, his whole face just screaming joy.
They watch as the two of them turn away and walk hand-in-hand down the sidewalk.
It’s not their business!
Stef shakes their head to clear it and continues on to the kindergarten hall.
Saturday, September 28.
“You’re sure you can handle it?” Gabe asks, hoping he doesn’t sound as nervous as he feels.
Cole, endlessly patient, definitely one of Gabe’s favorite people, just smiles at him. “I’m sure,” he says. “It’s only for a couple of hours. You need a break, you’ve been working almost nonstop since we opened.” And he means since August, not just since six this morning. “Enjoy the nice weather, have fun with Georgie. I can handle the kitchen, Gabe.”
“If you’re sure,” Gabe says, and Cole rolls his eyes good-naturedly at him.
“Have fun,” he repeats, and flicks his towel at Gabe. “Now get going, or I’ll chase you out of here myself. Or, better yet, I’ll have Shaw chase you out. Ae’s like a demon on those wheels, and ae’d get a kick out of chasing you around like that. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
That startles a laugh out of Gabe, and he can’t help but agree. “I’ll be back by five,” he says. “Hopefully before then, so I can help with the dinner rush--”
“You’ll be back at 5:30, no earlier,” Cole says. “Seriously, Gabe, I know you wanna spend more time with your kid. The three of us can handle it without you for a while.”
“Okay,” Gabe says, and sucks in a breath. “Okay, okay, yeah. Great. Perfect. I’ll--I’ll go get Georgie. See you at five.” He turns and heads out into the dining room, hanging his apron up as he goes.
“5:30!” Cole calls after him, and Gabe laughs again, under his breath.
There aren’t many people in the dining room right now: two booths, one with three people and one with four, and a single person seated at the bar, who’s been nursing a cup of coffee for a few hours now, scribbling in a notebook and muttering under their breath. It’s fairly quiet, though Gabe knows it’ll pick up in a bit.
He makes his way over to Georgie, who’s seated in an out-of-the-way booth in the far corner. She’s got papers spread all across the table, and a box of markers laying open on its side.
She’s drawing something he can’t quite see, something using a lot of color, and she looks up when she hears him approaching. “Daddy!” she exclaims, quickly shuffling all the papers into one pile. “Are we gonna go now?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Cole’s got the kitchen. Do you wanna bring your drawings, or leave ‘em here?”
“Leave ‘em here,” she says, putting the markers back in rainbow order. “They might get dirty if I take ‘em, and I’m makin’ somethin’ really cool so I don’t want ‘em to get dirty.”
“Oh? What are you makin’?”
“It’s a secret!” Georgie says, sticking her tongue out at him. “You’ll see it when I’m done!”
“Okay, okay.” Gabe grins at her, and puts his hand on her back when she stands up. “Do you need to get anything before we leave? Or should we just put your things in the office and get outta here?”
“I don’t need anythin’,” she says, and runs off to his office before he can even ask if she wants any help.
She’s back a few moments later, hands empty, and she grabs one of his hands. “C’mon, c’mon, ” she says, tugging him toward the door.
“Bye-bye, pumpkin,” Gabe hears Shaw call from somewhere in the room, “have fun at the park!”
“I will!” Georgie calls back. “Bye, Shaw!”
The park’s close enough that it’s practically their back yard, and, as usual, Georgie runs off as soon as they get there, heading over to a group of kids hanging out around the slide. He sighs a little, and sits down under a tree. Is it really considered spending time with Georgie if he’s just sort of supervising from a distance?
Whatever. Being away from the stress of the kitchen will do him good either way, and if Georgie gets tired of her friends, she might find that her father is still a pretty good playmate, despite his age.
Besides, he’s in the middle of a really good book, and he really only has about half an hour each night in which to read it, so this is a good opportunity for him.
It’s maybe fifteen minutes later when he hears a familiar voice beside him. “Hey, Mr. Martín. Fancy seein’ you here, huh?”
He’s smiling before he even lifts his gaze from his phone. “Hey, Kai,” he says. “I’ve told you before, you can call me Gabe. ‘Mr. Martín’ makes me feel old.”
“Sorry, man,” Kai says with an easy grin. “I’m still used to callin’ all dads ‘mister,’ ya know? Respect for my elders an’ all that.” He huffs out a laugh and sits in the grass beside him.
“I’m barely older than you,” Gabe mutters good-naturedly. He sets his phone screen-down on his leg and turns himself more fully toward Kai.
“Yeah, but you have a kid. That makes you a mister.”
“Oh my God,” Gabe says, burying his face in his hands. “You’re fired, I’ll find a new babysitter for Georgie.”
“Uh-huh,” Kai says, unaffected. “You’re not that lame.”
“I’m not lame at all.”
“I know. That’s why we agreed to watch Georgie for ya.” Kai turns his attention to the playground, where Georgie and her friends seem to be engaged in some game of tag involving hiding behind the play equipment and making pew pew noises at each other.
“Has she been doing okay, have you noticed?” Gabe asks. “I mean, has she seemed...I don’t know. Is she adjusting okay?”
Kai looks back at him, peering over the tops of his sunglasses. He’s quiet for a moment, then he says, “I dunno. Haven’t noticed anything weird with her. She’s happy, I think. Why?”
Gabe shrugs, picking up his phone and fiddling with it. “I just, you know. I worry. I mean, back in Oregon, she had Damien and Jason, her grandparents, all her school friends.... Here, it’s just me. She’s starting over from scratch, and I just…” He shrugs again, setting his phone down. “I just don’t know if I’m giving her everything she needs.”
Kai hums, reaches over and puts a hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “You’re doin’ fine,” he says. “Actually, I think you’re a pretty rad dad. Don’t worry so much. If Lola thought Georgie needed somethin’, she’d tell ya in a heartbeat.”
Gabe smiles at him, feeling a little misty-eyed. “Thanks, Kai. It means a lot.”
Kai grins back at him, pushing his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “‘S what I’m here for, dude.”
The rest of their time here passes peacefully, and Gabe spends most of it watching his daughter laugh and play.