For Emily

Part 1

I got home after another long day on the job.

I let myself into my apartment and crashed into the couch. I could spare a few minutes to myself before I got to work again. Keeping my place clean and putting food on the table was almost a second job. But it was a necessary one, since I couldn't trust my roommate to do any of that. He was no slouch... well, who am I kidding? He was a bit of a slouch.

But not in a bad sense. It's hard to explain, but Brandon Short was just a typical young adult male in every respect. You couldn't trust in him to look after himself. Social norms would have you believe it was because he was wasting away on the Internet, or because he spent too much time playing video games. But no, he was a harder worker than anyone I'd ever known. He was up in the morning before dawn, attended class during the day and worked in the afternoon. By the time he got back, it'd be to have a bite to eat and get right to studying so that his grades didn't slip.

Brandon was my oldest and best friend, so I took it upon myself to be his roommate and help him keep up a clean place. Today wasn't a day of cleaning, but I was in the mood for some hot food. Something you couldn't prepare in a microwave. So after wasting a few precious minutes just dozing off on the couch, I dragged myself into the tiny kitchen a few feet away and turned on the stove.

~o~

It wasn't often my cellphone rang.

Outside the occasional telemarketer, the only person who ever called me was my own mother. And I had a special ring tone assigned to her for that reason. So when my phone's standard ring filled the kitchen, I hastily dug the device out of my pocket. The number on the screen wasn't familiar; all the more reason to ignore it and let the machine pick up. If it was important, the person would leave a message.

Sure enough, a couple minutes later, my phone alerted me to a new voice mail. So I dialed 1 and put the device to my ear.

"You have one unheard message." Thanks for letting me know, digital woman's voice. I always figured they made machine voices to sound like women to better catch the attention of men. As the digital voice informed me she was going to share the message, Brandon walked into the apartment. I snapped on the speaker to make sure I'd hear the whole message

"Hello? Is this Nick Walker? My name is Michelle Williams... I don't know if you remember me? You took care of my little girl a few years ago? I need to talk to you about something. Please give me a call at-"

"'Took care of my little girl'?" Brandon cut in. "You sure she's not calling to nail you on child support?"

"She wasn't a girl from school," I spat back with a sarcastic chuckle. "She's a mom from back when I took care of kids at home. Haven't talked to her in years."

"You kept in touch?"

"Nope. Which is why this is so weird. Why'd she call me? And how'd she get my number?" I put the phone down and got to serving my simple spaghetti meal into two separate plates.

"Why don't you call her back? Was she hot? Maybe she wants something more now that you aren't jailbait." Just like Bran to suggest the perverted.

"She was okay," I said, thinking back to what she looked like. Had she not been a mom, and had she been several years younger...

"Would smash?"

"Maybe. That Internet lingo is really starting to grow on me."

Bran laughed. I put my plate on the table, but rather than get to eating I picked up the phone. Chances were she was still waiting for my call.

"Call her. I want to hear the juicy bits." He said from the table, wolfing down the hot meal I'd prepared.

My own curiosity was overflowing, I had to admit. I searched through my call history and saw her number at the top of the list. A few taps later the phone was dialing the number. Bran was expecting me to put her on speaker so he could hear, but I kept the phone on my ear.

"Hello? Nick?"

"Yeah, that's me. Is this Michelle?"

"Yes, thank you for calling me back."

"No problem. Is there anything I can do for you?" I glanced at Bran, who was nodding his head with a creepy expression on his face. I had to hold in a chuckle myself.

"Do you still take care of kids?"

"Kinda. I work at a daycare now. I can give you their number if you need a place."

"Actually, I need someone particular. I have, uh, things to do and have to be out of town for a bit. So I need someone who can look after her for a few days."

"Overnight and stuff?" I asked, ready to turn her down.

"Yes. I know Emily really got along well with you when she was little." She was going there.

"Listen, Michelle, I'm sorry, but-"

"I can pay." She cut me off. "Please?"

I looked over at Bran, who was already making signs for me to turn her down. He picked up on the whole 'stay overnight' stuff. Turning her down was entirely within my power.

"Alright," I said. Bran groaned behind me, and somehow I knew he figured I wouldn't turn down a lady's request. It was a weakness of mine.

"Thank you! Only a few days, I swear. Can I bring her over tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow?" I looked at Bran again, which only made him groan harder. Tomorrow was Friday. The little girl would be staying over the weekend.

"That'll be fine," I told Michelle with a smile.

~o~

I dropped another combo, giving Bran the perfect chance to finish me off. We were playing a fighting game before calling it a night. Normally we wouldn't be doing something like that with work and class in the morning, but our minds were on the impending third party staying over our place.

"How much she said she'd pay you?" Bran asked after claiming another win.

"She didn't. She just said she could pay."

"Well, you could research how much other people are taking for overnight. You might be able to get a bit of money out of her."

"I'm doing it as a favor, almost. If she gives me money, whatever it is, I'll take it. But I won't name a price."

"You're too soft. She must be hot." We got to picking characters for the next round.

"I don't plan on warming up to her for that reason. Too much baggage." I explained.

"A kid is too much baggage." He agreed.

"I do want kids at some point in my life."

"Me too. Maybe."

"Have you ever had to look after kids?"

"I had a little sister. She was a demon."

"She was seven years younger than you."

"Still an annoying brat."

We went silent as the sounds of two guys beating up on each other filled the room.

"This could be a learning experience." I said between rounds. I had won this time.

"Maybe. I don't want the kid in my room."

"I wouldn't want her in my room, either. But where is she gonna sleep?"

"The couch."

"Out here? Alone?"

"You're right. We can't leave the video games out here. I'll hide them in my closet."

"Not that! I mean out here, alone? She's like five or something."

"I slept in my own room alone since I was two."

"In your own house."

"So what, then? You're going to let her sleep in your own room?"

Before I could answer, the next round began. I used the time to think how I'd remedy this problem if I couldn't get the girl to sleep on the couch alone.

"I could let her sleep on my bed." I continued, claiming another victory in the game.

"With you?"

"Or alone, and I sleep on the floor next to the bed. Prevent her from sneaking out in the middle of the night."

"Where's she gonna go? A club?"

"Maybe, we don't know."

"That's just stupid."

"I could always cancel."

"Why don't you?"

"Can't."

"Why bring it up, then?"

"I don't know. Something about this has me jittery."

"Sounds like your jimmies are rustled."

"You really need to stop with the Internet jokes."

~o~

Work went by in the blink of an eye the following day. Clearly the universe was pushing me into this babysitting gig.

During lunch hour, I had gotten another call from Michelle asking for directions to my apartment. My coworkers probably thought I was dating someone. As you might imagine, a man working with children is quite a rarity. The only reason I wasn't seeking relationships where I worked was because most of the women there weren't my type.

Michelle said she'd be at my place by seven. My cellphone said it was just past six when I got home. Less than an hour of freedom left. By all accounts I had no reason to be so scared of this charge. I had taken care of kids much younger when I was just in high school, and now I worked in a daycare taking care of many kids of various ages all at once.

Of course, I figured it was because this would be my first charge solo. When I was in high school, I had my family to help out at home. On the job, I have coworkers to pick up my slack. Here, I was alone. I couldn't count on Bran; even if he offered to help he had no experience whatsoever. And if anything happened to the little girl on my watch...

I pushed the thought out of my head.

I turned on the TV, hoping something would get my mind off the whole ordeal for at least a half hour. Of course, modern television was such tripe I couldn't hope to find anything worth watching at six in the afternoon. But somehow it made time zoom by.

There was a knock on the door. My cellphone said it was 6:53PM. Oh boy.

I wasted a full sixty seconds just standing in front of the front door. The person on the other side knocked again before the sixty seconds were up, and in between knocks she whispered something to someone else beside her. It was after the third knock that I opened the door.

Perhaps it was my lingering teenage foolishness, but Michelle Williams was a stunning woman to behold as she stood outside my door. I didn't have more than a second to inspect her body from top to bottom, so I doubt I got the full splendor in so short a time. More importantly, my gaze fell to the little girl at her side. She was a tiny thing; couldn't be more than three feet tall. Her dark hair was kept out of her face with a single barrette, and she looked up at me with curious eyes. I was familiar to her, since she squinted slightly and cocked her head to a side as tried to remember where she had last seen me.

"Hello, Nick. Thank you for everything." Michelle wasted no time in handing me a couple bags.

"Come inside, both of you." I placed the bags on the table, but when I turned around only Emily had followed me into the house. Michelle was gone.

"Michelle?" I called out into the hallway. The little girl shook her head.

"Mommy went to the car."

"Are there more bags?" I asked, mostly to myself.

"Just one..." Emily seemed depressed over that for some reason.

"Okay, just go sit on the couch over there. Do you want me to put something on for you?" Granted, my selection of films for children were limited.

Regardless, Emily shook her head. There was a commercial playing, and she seemed entertained enough watching that. It would only be for a moment, anyway. A few minutes later, Michelle returned with the third bag Emily had mentioned.

"That's everything."

I opened the first bag on the table, finding clothes packed to the brim inside. Kids had accidents from just horsing around, so it was a good thing she packed in what looked to be six or seven different outfits.

"I hope that'll be enough clothes for the weekend. I didn't want to bring too many in case you had nowhere to put them."

"This should be fine. I'll use the wash if I have to." Never mind that would be an additional cost to me.

"This other bag has some of her favorite snacks. Just cookies and those cereal bar things. She's not a picky eater, so anything you buy or make she'll eat." Most parents I dealt with seemed to say the same thing. It was rarely true.

"I'm sure it'll be fine. What's in the last bag?"

Michelle opened the backpack and pulled out two different nightgowns and a pair of sandals.

"Sleepwear. There's also this." She placed the clothes on the table and produced a familiar garment. The diaper was a slightly larger size, which would fit Emily just fine. She was a small kid, anyway. I had hoped I wouldn't have to deal with diapers this weekend; I got enough of that at work.

"She only needs them at night. Even if she goes before bedtime she might wake up wet. Bedtime's at seven, usually."

"I'll be sure she gets to sleep early." Not a priority, given the evening really started at eight for me. I was liable to forget.

"Is there anything else you need to know?" Michelle asked. She seemed to be eager to leave.

"Two things: how do I get in touch with you, and when will you be back?" Worst case scenario I just give her a call if the girl acts up and I send her packing. I'm a patient man, but I wasn't about to ruin a weekend over a few bucks.

"You can call me at my cell. You have the number in your call history, right?"

"Yeah. I'll add it to my contacts."

"I'll be back on Sunday morning, hopefully. If something happens, I'll let you know soon as I can. I don't think I'll be back later than Sunday evening." If she were going by plane, delays were always a possibility. Part of me wanted to ask her where she was off to, but that wasn't really my concern.

"Sounds good. I think we're all set."

"Here's the money," she said, handing me a sealed envelope. I wanted to open it right then and there to see what I was getting for my trouble, but that would've been rude. I put it on the table without looking at it twice to give the impression money wasn't a problem for me.

"Thank you again, Nick. You don't know how much this means to me."

"Not at all. But tell me," I said, not able to let it go, "why did you come to me?"

"You're the only babysitter Emily ever had. I'm just happy you were able to look after her."

Michelle went over almost everything again as I walked her out the apartment. I heard it all the first time, and I did this for a living so it's not like she had to say it all again. Still, when she was finally gone, and I was back inside the apartment, something hit me.

She didn't actually say good-bye to her daughter.

~o~

With the whole panic I had over this gig, as well as making sure everything was alright for Emily on her first night with us, I didn't even get around to cooking something for dinner. This was brought to my attention when Bran finally got home at around nine. Despite Emily's bedtime being at seven -roughly the hour when Michelle brought her over- she was still wide awake and watching meaningless TV with me.

"Emily, this is Bran. He's my friend." I introduced. She nodded her head silently and went back to watching TV.

"She looks like you." Bran joked.

"Shut up. There's nothing to eat, by the way."

"Damn. I'm kinda hungry, too. Any bread left? I'll make myself a sandwich or something." Bran checked the cupboard, but there wasn't anything to find. Again, with the whole Michelle ordeal, I had forgotten to swing by the market and restock our supplies.

"We could order a pizza or something. I got the money there for looking after her."

"I want pizza." We both looked over to Emily, who was watching us intently. No wonder she hadn't said a word since she got here. I was already off to a poor start by letting her go hungry.

"Pizza it is. Your treat." Bran said, patting me on the shoulder. I had already offered to treat, anyway. I opened the envelope with the money, hoping it wasn't bulky because Michelle had decided to pay me in singles.

It was a thick stack of bills, thicker than I had anticipated. What surprised me most was the first bill on the stack was a twenty. So was the next. And the next. And the one after that. Even Bran who was standing next to me couldn't believe the amount Michelle had left.

I started counting properly from the top. One hundred. Two. Three. Four. Five. All in twenties. Then there was more: one, two three, four, five... all the way to twenty. Twenty hundred dollar bills. She had left behind two and a half grand.

"That can't be right." Bran said, stunned by the stack of cash.

"I have to call her. No way this can be right. It's too good to be true."

"Mommy said to tell you it was okay." Emily said from her spot on the couch. "That she was getting more from my daddy."

Bran and I looked at each other. We didn't have to say what we were thinking, either. I put the stack of money into the envelope, keeping only forty for the pizza.

"Let me order the pizza, then. You like pepperoni?" I asked the little girl.

She nodded her head, then went back to watching the TV.

~o~

When the pizza arrived about an hour later, we all sat down at the table to enjoy it. For such a tiny girl, she managed to wolf down nearly three slices. Guess she was pretty hungry. After she was done, she finally let out a big yawn at the table.

"Way past your bedtime. Want to get changed so you can go to sleep?"

"I want to take a bath first. Can I?" She asked me.

"Don't see why not. Come on, I'll show you the bathroom."

To my surprise, I didn't have to do much for her. The faucet was a bit different from the one she was used to, but she figured it out without much input from me. I showed her which of the shampoo bottles she could use, as well as give her a fresh bar of soap, and she was ready to go. I couldn't remember being that independent when I was that young, but my memory of those days were always kind of fuzzy.

When I got back to the kitchen, I grabbed another slice of pizza to finish off the night.

"How old is she?" Bran asked.

"I don't even know. I took care of her until she turned two. It's been... three years? So I guess five?" The math seemed to add up.

"Least she's not a pain in the ass. She might even sleep out here on the couch and we can all enjoy our beds tonight."

"Maybe." I figured it wasn't worth mentioning to him that she still needed to use a diaper to bed. Really that was one of my problems now with letting her sleep in my bed. Would really suck if she sprung a leak and ruined my sheets and mattress. Then again, with the amount of money Michelle had paid me for looking after her I could just get a new one if that happened.

"So she's here until Sunday?"

"Yup. Morning, unless something happens and she gets here in the evening she said."

"She said her mom was getting more money from the dad. You thinking what I'm thinking?" Bran asked.

"Bad marriage, they split and now Michelle is going after child support. Or at least a ton of cash from the dad. Maybe he's got money. Lots of money."

"And if he doesn't want to get stuck paying child support, he might even throw her a fat check to shut her up."

"Sounds like something I'd do if I were in his position." Not that I'd ever abandon my wife and child. I'd hope.

"What if the mom comes onto you? If she gets that money..." Bran's voice trailed off.

"Baggage." My answer was flat. He nodded.

"Baggage. Kid's not all that bad, though. Possible?"

"Maybe." That really meant no. Bran knew it, and so did I.

Bran got to messing around on the computer while I tended my business with Emily. She finished her bath and was in my room shortly after. She handed me the brush from one of the bags and turned around. I had long hair once, so I knew something about keeping it tame. Really just me being lazy and not wanting to go to a barber. When I did end up cutting it, it made for a nice donation to a children's organization.

"Now you ready for bed?" I asked Emily after I finished with her hair.

"Almost." She pointed to the third bag. There was a diaper sticking out, as if she went to do it herself but repented at the last minute.

So I helped her get into one, which I could tell she really didn't like. But routine demanded it, and she probably knew she wasn't capable of doing anything about it yet. Once that was done, she looked up at me.

"Where will I sleep?" She asked.

I didn't have the heart to force her onto the couch alone.

"Right here, on my bed. I'll sleep on the floor."

She gave me a warm smile, and climbed into the bed.

~o~

"So you're not going to call her?" Bran asked me during the course of the evening.

"No. That much money wasn't a mistake. She did it on purpose."

"I guess. Wouldn't want to give up a paycheck that sweet, either. Maybe I should volunteer to look after the girl for a weekend."

"You're not good with kids."

"True. I'll stick to computers and idiots who don't know how to close a pop-up window. Least with them I can tell to fuck off if they piss me off."

"Might want to keep the language in check. Never know if Emily could be listening in. Wouldn't want her to say something like that in front of Michelle. That'd be real awkward."

"I'll try. Not used to watching what I say in my own place."

"Do it, and I'll buy you lunch." I bribed.

"You got it."

~o~

Sleeping on the floor wasn't as bad as I had expected. Between the carpet and the spare comforter I used as a cushion, it was decently soft and easy on my back. A second person in the room also helped to keep it warmer than usual.

When I finally managed to open my eyes, the first thing I saw was Emily's face looking down at me from the bed. I slipped on my glasses so that I could better make out her face.

"Morning. Sleep good?" I asked her.

She nodded.

"How long have you been staring at me?"

She shrugged.

"Long?"

She pondered it for a moment, then nodded.

"Why aren't you saying anything?"

"Mommy said not to make any noise in the morning."

"Good lesson. But it's okay, now." I stretched my arms out.

"Change me." She whispered, embarrassed by the request.

I let out a sigh.

Bran was already planted on his computer by the time Emily and I emerged from my room. She had a bit of a spring to her step, given she was no longer trapped in the soggy undergarment. Once Bran heard us enter the kitchen, he turned to face us.

"I haven't had breakfast." He told me.

"Waiting for me to make something, then?"

"You always do. And you have to cook something for the kid, anyway."

I looked down at Emily, who smiled back at me.

"I'm hungry."

I opened a cupboard, expecting to find some ingredients to make breakfast.

"There's nothing to eat, remember? You forgot to buy stuff last night." Bran reminded me. His attention was back on the computer screen.

"Right. I'll go down to the corner store and buy a few things." I started for my room, when Emily zipped past and beat me to my room. She closed the door behind her. I tried to open the door, but it was locked.

"Emily? What are you doing in there?" I asked through the sealed door. There were shuffling sounds on the other side, followed by something mildly heavy falling down from somewhere. A moment later, the doorknob clicked. I tried it again, and this time the door opened.

Emily stood ready on the other side. She had changed into an orange blouse and green skirt, but still lacked shoes on her feet.

"Let me guess: you want to go with?"

She nodded.

"Why don't you just wait here with Bran? I'll be back in like ten minutes, okay?"

She shook her head.

"Why not?"

"Mommy said you were taking care of me."

"Bran can look after you for a few minutes too, you know."

She shook her head again.

"Got something against Bran?"

She shook her head.

"Fine. You can come." I said, giving in. A smile erupted on her little face, and she ran back to the bed to finish getting dressed. As soon as she had her shoes on, I told her to wait for me by the front door.

Once I was dressed myself, I found her standing by the door as I had instructed. Bran was sitting right next to her, given that the table with both our computers was right next to the front door. Of course, the two weren't saying a word to each other.

"You taking her with you?" He asked me when I walked up behind him.

"She wants to go."

"Sure that's a good idea?"

"I've taken kids around parts of the city before. We're just going to the corner store."

"Stay safe."

Emily smiled, taking his words at face value. I, on the other hand, knew it was another Internet meme reference. All the same, I knew he meant well by the words.

"I'll be right back. Don't die of hunger on me."

"I make no guarantees."

~o~

Like any little kid, Emily begged me to let her press the button on the elevator for the first floor. I obliged her, but not when she begged me to let her press all the buttons on the panel before we got out on the first floor. Though I admit I was tempted to let her do that, too.

Our building didn't have a doorman, so I was glad I didn't have to explain who Emily was to anyone on the way out of the building. I wasn't as neighborly as I should be, so I hardly knew anyone else in the building. Before heading out onto the street, I made double sure I had my keys and wallet. Then I took hold of Emily's hand and pushed open the door.

The sounds of the street outside were the same as always. Car engines revving, indistinct chatter of the masses on the street, the occasional police siren or ambulance horn. These sounds were background noise to me, but to the little girl at my side they were a whole new world. I ventured a guess that Michelle still lived in the suburbs, so Emily probably hadn't ever visited the city before now. And seeing as how they arrived later in the afternoon yesterday, Emily hadn't gotten a good look at the city from the backseat of a car.

I tightened my grip on the girl's hand slightly to get her attention.

"Don't let go of my hand, okay?" I instructed.

"Okay." She smiled.

The corner store was a block down the road, past a street crossing and a few other particular stores and fast food chains. The stores I was certain Emily wouldn't have an interest in: a barber shop, an antique store, a hardware outlet. But I didn't know how she'd react to seeing a fast food joint, especially considering she was hungry. I wouldn't mind picking some of that up for breakfast instead of going back to cook. I glanced down at Emily, who was busy taking in the sights around her. She was a calm, quiet kid; I doubted she'd make a fuss over getting something to eat at one of those places.

And so she didn't. Even when we walked past a place just as a patron was leaving and the aroma hit us both like a divine wind. I'm pretty sure both our stomachs growled in unison.

At the corner store, I grabbed a basket and got right to picking out a few things. Emily was a model of child perfection: she didn't say a word the whole time, and didn't ask for anything special as I was collecting groceries. When I needed to let go of her hand to pick something off the shelves, she didn't run off or refuse to grab hold again.

"Hey there, Nick. How's it going?" The shop owner asked me. I had gotten to know him from my frequent visits.

"Great, Dan. You?"

"The usual. Waiting on the holidays. Going upstate to visit my family this year." Dan got to scanning the items from my basket. He noticed the company I had in the process.

"Who's the kid?"

"A friend's. She's staying with me for the weekend." I gave a little tug on Emily's arm. "Say hi, Emily."

Emily looked up at Dan, only to look away again shyly. I knew it was something of an act, but she looked so adorable in the process I let her have this.

"That's okay, sweetie. Care for a lollipop or something? On me." Dan waved his hand in front of the counter, giving Emily her choice of any candy she wanted. Instead of picking one, she looked up at me for permission.

"Go on. But you can't have it now. Too early for candy." She smiled, and wasted no time in picking out a chocolate bar. Made me happy to know she was also a fan of chocolate.

"Thanks for that, Dan."

"No problem. Kid's cute. She suits you, Nick."

"You think?"

"Oh yeah. You know women these days all want the real family man. Sensitive, good with kids, the works. You got an eye on a lady, try and meet up with her while you're looking after the girl. Might work out for you."

"Thought crossed my mind. Maybe."

Dan finished scanning my items, and rang me up. Prices were constantly rising, but I'd never complain about that to Dan. Running a small grocer like he did, I'm sure he had to lower his profits just to stay in business. I paid him, thanked him, grabbed the bag of groceries and was on my way.

Once outside, I was presented with something of a dilemma. The paper bag I was lugging required both my hands to carry. Again proving how good a kid she was, Emily instinctively grabbed onto my pants in place of my hand.

"Hold on tight and don't let go, okay?"

"Okay, Nick."

That was the first time she used my name.

~o~

Breakfast was made soon as I got back, and was just as quickly devoured by my starving roommate and my tiny charge. After that, I got to cleaning up the mess preparation had wrought. Emily took a seat on the couch and just watched whatever channel was on the previous night. It was the commercials that really caught her eye.

"What's your plans for the day?" Bran asked me as I finished up the dishes.

"Not sure. I'll see what I can do to keep Emily busy."

"I forget she's here. She's so quiet."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"Nope. Until we want to do something else and we realize she's here."

"What do you want to do?" I asked him. I had a feeling he was beating around the bush.

"Not be in front of a computer. This programming problem's got my eyes bleeding. I want to give up, but I just can't."

"So you want me to come up with something to do so I can pull you away from the computer?"

Bran didn't have to answer that. Most of the time, if I ever had to or wanted to go out somewhere, I'd just take public transportation. I didn't have a car, but Bran did. Sometimes he'd offer to tag along, just to get out himself. He was a bigger shut-in than myself, but even he appreciated stepping out of his cave once in a while.

"We could see if Emily wants to go out somewhere." I suggested.

"She'd probably want to go to a toy store, or something."

"We could go to a mall. You get out, go where you want. We meet up around lunch time in the food court. My treat."

"Sure are taking advantage of that money."

"Or we could stay here, I put on a movie for Emily and you keep working on that problem."

Bran closed the application window and moved for the Shut Down option.

"I'll get ready."

Once he was locked up in his own room, I sat down by Emily on the couch. I didn't even have to tell her what we were going to do.

"The mall?" She asked, taking her eyes off the TV.

"Yup. You like going there, right?"

She nodded. "Mommy takes me."

"Cool. We'll hang out for a little while at the mall, get some lunch later, then come home. How's that?"

The little girl smiled and nodded. She never raised a complaint or even asked for something specific. As I pondered whether that made Michelle a stern parent or an extremely doting one, Bran emerged from his room ready to go. He had his car keys, but I told him they weren't going to be necessary.

"Can't take the car, man."

"Why not?"

"She's too little. If a cop sees us we'd get busted. Remember those commercials?"

Bran snapped his fingers. "Four-foot-something, right?"

"Four-foot-nine. Obviously we don't have a booster seat."

"So how are we getting there? Bus?"

I looked at Emily, wondering if she had anything to say about our travel means. She turned off the TV with the remote, something I didn't teach her but she figured out all on her own.

"Mommy said there was a train."

"Subway, then?" Bran asked.

"It's cheaper than the bus."

~o~

Being residents of the city, both Bran and I had annual passes for using the subway train. The same did not apply to Emily, meaning a long wait in line for picking up a day pass for her. Bran suggested I just wear a baggy jacket and hide her, but even I couldn't make a five year-old vanish that easily. So the first part of our outing was spent waiting in line. For about half an hour. Thankfully, Emily didn't say a word the entire time.

"You know," Bran whispered while we were in line, "you never notice these things."

"Notice what?"

"The girls, man. Always so busy getting to where we're going, we never take a chance to stop and enjoy the scenery."

He had a point. Once quick glance around the subway entrance and I spotted no less than three gorgeous women. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. Bran was more of a summer apparel guy, but I preferred to let my imagination soar and partake of the winter clothing. It was the middle of October, and there was already a chill in the air. I hadn't noticed it when I stepped out in the morning to buy the groceries, so I let Emily leave the house without a coat. This time, she was properly dressed.

"I'll go on ahead. I don't think we send the right message hanging out together."

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"Two of us? Bachelor friends. Three of us? A couple and their kid."

I wanted to tell him, "That's ridiculous!" But he had a bit of a point. As it stood, Emily could easily be confused for my own daughter, given we had the same hair color and there was a slight resemblance. People were generally stupid, too. Of course, the odds of Bran actually scoring a date with one of the ladies around us weren't in his favor.

"See you on the platform, then." With that, Bran walked off into the crowds.

"Nick?" Emily tugged on my hand to get my attention.

"Yeah?"

"I thought couples were a boy and girl?"

"They are."

"They can't be two boys, right?"

I suddenly realized where she was going with this. In the world we were living in, couples could be just about any combination now. And by the time she was old enough to start dating, I'm certain there would be next to no stigma attached to it.

"I'll tell you about that when you're older, okay?"

That seemed to be enough for her.

At the ticket booth, I asked the woman working the counter for a child's day pass. I'm guessing the request raised a red flag for her.

"You're the child's parent or legal guardian?"

Technically I was the latter by word of mouth.

"I am."

She looked through the glass down at Emily, who gave her a perfectly timed smile. Her gaze then turned to me, as if to assess the possible relationship.

"Alright. That'll be five dollars."

I paid the woman, got the ticket, and made for the platform. Along the way, Emily asked me something:

"What is leega garden?"

"You mean 'legal guardian'? It's the person who takes care of you."

"Like Mommy?"

"Yup. And me, because she told me to take care of you. See?"

I noticed she was putting it all together in her head, so I gave her a moment to process it all. Finally, she looked back up at me.

"So you're like my daddy?"

"Kinda. You already have a daddy, right?"

"But he doesn't take care of me."

Guess that meant Michelle was separated from her husband for quite some time. Emily kept looking at me, expecting a very specific answer to her original question.

"Then sure. I guess you could say I'm like your dad."

~o~

When we finally got to the mall, Bran took off on his own. Where Emily and I went from now on was entirely up to me, but I didn't want to go dragging her around for no reason. I knelt down in front of her.

"Do you want to go somewhere?"

She just shrugged.

"There's a toy store somewhere in this mall. How about there?"

She shrugged again. "Okay."

Her aloof attitude held up pretty well as we walked around the mall looking for that store. But it didn't do as well when we finally arrived. I could tell from the way her face lit up that she wanted to let go of my hand and just run free throughout the store. There were a few other people in the store, mostly parents with their own children. I gave Emily a tug to grab her attention.

"Go have some fun. Just be careful, okay? I'll be watching you."

"Okay!" She beamed.

I let go of her hand, and off she went down the first aisle she could find. I started after her, slowing my pace enough to glance over some of the toys along the way. It had been years since I walked into a store like this. In my adult life I never really turned to collecting action figures as a hobby like so many other guys. I had read online that if you knew which to buy, it could turn into quite a profitable investment. Of course, that investment would only pay off many years down the road. Good for my kids, not for me.

I followed Emily around a corner, and watched her from behind a shelf as she looked upon a row of dolls. I figured if she asked me for one, I could indulge her. She had been nothing but an angel the whole time, and I was certain Michelle wouldn't mind the little gift. But Emily didn't even touch a single doll on the shelf. After looking them over a few times, she just walked off and turned a corner. When I saw the same dolls she was eying, I realized why she didn't ask for one. They were horrendous.

Aisle by aisle I followed Emily around the store. Every other minute she'd stop and look at something on the shelf, only to walk away moments later. Unlike the other children around her, who would beg and plead their parents for any random toy they saw. If she were older, you'd think she was hunting down a specific toy. Finally it got to me, and I walked up next to her.

"Looking for something?" I asked her. She turned to me.

"No."

"There's nothing you like? Nothing you want?" Perhaps not the smartest question to ask a kid in a toy store.

Emily shook her head.

"Really? You sure?"

She nodded.

"Well, then if you're ready to go, we can go."

When I said that, I noticed her expression darkened. Something told me she wanted a number of these toys, but dared not ask for them. I figured she was taught not to ask for things, a feat to behold all things considering. This kid had more self-control than many adults, I'd wager.

"Let's go this way," I told her, taking a longer way out of the store.

I was determined to put a smile on her face. As we walked around an aisle on the way out of the store, I kept my focus squarely on her gaze. I slowed my pace to a crawl, allowing her the maximum time to look over everything around her. For a second or two she'd look at a toy, then look away. Then at another, but always she'd turn away.

Then as we walked out of the aisle, I noticed her gaze became fixated on a stuffed animal in a bin at the end of a different aisle. Even as we moved further away from the bin towards the exit, she didn't look away from that bin of stuffed animals. I couldn't tell which one she was eying, so I had to find some way to turn around. When we reached the front counter, an idea struck.

"Excuse me," I said to the young man watching over the register, "I have a question about something over there."

I noticed Emily was looking at me closely, but I paid her no attention.

"What is it?"

"Over here. Just a quick question, if you don't mind."

I turned around and walked towards the bin of stuffed animals. I could tell from the corner of my eye that the closer we got to the animals, the more anxious and excited Emily became at my side. I stopped in front of the bin, but my attention was at one of the boxes on the highest shelf. When the employee came up next to me, I pointed at the box.

"Could you get that up there for me?" I asked him. I glanced down at Emily, who was staring at the stuffed animals.

"Is there something you need to know about this item, sir?"

"Actually..." I leaned in a bit closer to him, so that I could keep my voice low. "I'm buying time."

"Sir?" He asked, confused.

I pointed with my free hand towards Emily, who was still staring at the bin of stuffed animals.

"She wants one, but I don't know which one." I whispered to him.

"I think she's looking at the duck, sir." He whispered back, finally catching on.

"Let's find out. Grab it and take it to the register, please."

"Will that be all, sir?" The young man asked in his normal voice.

"Yes, thank you." I responded, keeping up the pretense.

He walked around me to the bin, and picked up the stuffed duck. As expected, Emily's concentration was shattered, and her eyes followed the toy taken from her all the way back to the register.

"Sorry about that, Emily. We can go, now."

She was absolutely devastated, but she didn't say a word. It was tearing me apart, but it would pay off in the end once she saw that I bought the duck for her. Again we made for the exit, taking a bit longer than normal so that I could fish some money out of my pocket to pay for the stuffed animal. I'd have to lose the change to make the purchase secret from Emily, but it didn't matter. It would be worth it.

As I approached the register, I gave the young man a slight nod. He pointed to a plastic bag, but I shook my head. It would only make more noise. I pulled the twenty from my pocket and placed it on the counter. The man passed me the stuffed duck just as silently, and I quickly tucked it away into my jacket pocket.

"Keep the change." I told him. Emily heard me, and looked up.

"Sorry, just talking to myself sweetie."

"Oh."

We walked out of the store, and I made sure to give the young man a salute for helping me with that little ruse.

~o~

"You think her mom's going to say anything about feeding her so much fast food?" Bran asked me when I brought back a tray from one of the places in the food court.

"Would your mom mind?" I asked Emily directly.

"We eat this at home." She answered, digging into the chicken I had bought for her.

"This is so unhealthy." Bran commented.

"Bit hypocritical, don't you think?"

"Difference is it's my choice to eat this. It's wrong to make her eat it. She's a kid."

I looked at Emily, who was so happy enjoying her food. She ate more than a typical five year-old, yet was so skinny and small you'd think she was malnourished or something.

"I promise this is the last time I'll make her eat this kind of food this weekend. Means I'll have to cook something tonight, though."

"Think of it as your obligation for taking care of her." Bran commented.

"While you order something, I bet."

"Me? Spend money on food? Never!"

"But if I'm paying, it's all good, huh?"

"You invited. I didn't ask."

"You didn't turn it down, either."

"Would you?"

I groaned.

After we finished having lunch, Emily told me she had to go to the bathroom. I took the opportunity to prepare a little surprise for her upon our return to the table. I took off my jacket and handed it to Bran.

"Look in the pocket, take it out and have it ready."

It wasn't very clear, but once he saw the plush animal he'd understand. Yet another dilemma hit me when I got to the restrooms. I couldn't just waltz into the ladies' room, but I was unsure about taking Emily into the men's room. I stood in front of the two entrances for a moment, almost panicking at this scenario.

"I have to go!" Emily reminded me, now doing the little dance to emphasize her point. If she could take a bath by herself, I could trust in her ability to go into the ladies' room herself.

"Go on. Wash your hands afterward and don't talk to any strangers, okay?"

She ran inside, while I remained by the door. Naturally I got a few odd stares from the women going in and out of the restroom, but I tried my best to keep a straight face. Not like I was trying to sneak a peek in there, after all. A few minutes later, Emily emerged, drying her hands with a paper towel. I gave her a pat on the head.

"Good girl. Let's go, I have a surprise for you."

When we got back to the table, she saw the stuffed duck sitting on top of my jacket. Her eyes went wide, her jaw dropped, and she almost started crying, especially when she took the animal in her hands. She hugged that bird so tight, if it were real she'd have killed it.

"Nice surprise." Bran told me.

"I'll tell you about it later."

After Emily was done squeezing the non-existent life from the plush duck, she jumped into my arms to thank me next. Her grip around my neck was starting to hurt after a few moments, but I knew it was just a sign of her appreciation. I really only started to feel embarrassment when a few people around us started "aww"-ing.

"Thank you," Emily whispered in my ear as she hugged me. "Thank you, Daddy."

~o~

The trip back home took twice as long thanks to engine troubles on the subway train. We didn't know how long it would take before it was fixed, so we took the bus back instead. The entire ride Emily was playing with her new toy, which brought a smile to my face. I spent the first part of the ride telling Bran about the toy store.

"What did you do?" I asked him after finishing the story.

"I came close to buying a new cellphone."

"Too expensive?"

"And I didn't like the kinds they had there."

"It's probably cheaper online, anyway."

"Has the mom called?" Bran asked, changing the topic.

"No. Why?"

"Strange, don't you think? Even if she's busy, you'd think she'd call to see how everything is going."

"Maybe. Maybe she trusts me enough not to call?"

"Or maybe she doesn't care enough to call."

It was just like Bran to look at the worst possibility. Still, his question did get me thinking. At the daycare, there were some parents who dropped their kids off and then didn't so much as give them a second glance when they picked them up at the end of the day. These were the same parents that were constantly on their phones, yapping away about this or that and completely ignoring their children. I wanted to say it was just because their children could be a royal pain, and some of them truly were.

But then there were the neglectful parents of good kids. Like Emily beside me, there were just some kids I took care of that didn't have a single bad thought in their minds. They were calm, polite, well-behaved; and their parents couldn't care less. Perhaps I was getting too close to it all. Perhaps I was getting too close to Emily. She wasn't my daughter, after all. Despite whatever she might call me.

~o~

The outing had taken its toll on Emily's energy, so after an early dinner she asked if she could take a bath to get ready for bed. I had to stop her from taking the duck into the bath with her when that happened.

"But ducks love the water." She argued.

"Real ducks. This is a special duck. He hates the water!" I convinced her.

So while she took a bath, I followed Bran's advice and dialed Michelle's number. Regardless of her reasons for not calling, I felt it was time I checked in with her. However, the call went directly to voicemail. That meant her phone was off.

"Hey, Michelle. This is Nick. I just wanted to let you know things are going fine here with Emily. If you need anything, don't forget you can call me anytime."

I left that as a message. I was willing to bet she had the phone off because she was in the air. And if that was the case, she'd be back by tomorrow morning. Only one more night of sleeping on the floor.

Once Emily was out of the bath, she ran into my bedroom and offered me the brush again. I took to brushing her hair while she held onto that duck plush tighter than ever before.

"I think your mom's going to be here tomorrow morning." I told her.

"Did you talk to Mommy?"

"No, but I left her a message on her phone. I think she's on her way here."

Emily went silent. Once I was done brushing her hair, she looked at me with sad eyes.

"I have to go home?"

"Yup. With Mommy, right? Don't you want to go back home?"

Emily just shook her head.

"What? Why not?"

"Your house is prettier." She explained.

"Not really a house," I commented.

"Can I stay with you?" She asked. I let out a soft sigh.

"Tonight. But tomorrow when your mom comes back, you have to go with her, okay?"

Emily didn't like the idea, but she reluctantly nodded. I was certain she'd forget everything by tomorrow, anyway. She jumped into my bed, but this time it was I who remembered. I pulled out one of her nightly undergarments.

"I don't wanna." She pouted.

"You have to, Emily. Come on." I ordered her.

She kept up the pout, but obeyed. Once I had slipped the diaper on her, she scoffed.

"I'm not a baby."

"I know you're not. Go on."

In my experience, reasoning with a kid who was clearly against wearing diapers was pointless.

Once Emily was tucked away, I went back out into the living room. Bran was surfing the Internet, killing time before getting back to work on that problem from this morning. I plopped down in the chair next to him, and switched my own machine on.

"I called Michelle. She didn't have her phone turned on."

"That doesn't sound good." Bran said.

"Really? I thought it just meant she was on a plane back home."

"Tonight? I thought she was coming to pick the kid up tomorrow."

"Maybe she flew back in tonight, but decided to leave her here until tomorrow."

"Something smells fishy. You should call her again later, just to be sure."

"Maybe." I said.

But I got so caught up wasting time online, that I ended up not calling her again.

~o~

Morning came.

The same routine from the previous morning played out. I woke up, helped Emily out of her soaked diaper, then went into the kitchen to start making breakfast. The difference today was I had Emily dress before breakfast so she'd be ready to leave when her mother arrived.

Bran wasn't at his computer that morning. Being Sunday, he chose to sleep in a bit. I was certain he'd emerge once the scent of breakfast seeped through the crack under his door. And that probably would've been the case if there hadn't been a knock at the door before I even started cooking. I looked to the clock, which read 8:47AM. If that was Michelle, she was here early.

But it wasn't her. It was the mailman, here early to deliver an envelope that had been overnighted to my address. I signed for the delivery, then walked to the table to open it. Emily was sitting at the table, waiting for either breakfast or her mom to arrive.

Inside the manilla envelope were two things: a folded note, and a cashier's check. Naturally, my eyes wandered to the amount written on the check before bothering with the note. If I had been drowsy earlier that morning, I certainly wasn't anymore. The check was for ten thousand dollars.

"This can't be right." I was stunned. I double, even triple-checked the name on the check. It was written to me, to be cashed at a local bank. It had to be from Michelle.

I opened up the letter next. It read:

Things came up. I can't pick Emily up yet. The check should cover everything until I get back. Please look after her. I promise I will come back for her. Michelle.

It was almost like a telegram. What immediately stuck out in my mind was there was no date. She didn't even give me a date to look forward to her return. Or even a date to give Emily. I looked at the little girl, sitting at my table. Oblivious to what had just transpired right before her eyes.

"What?" She asked me, tilting her head slightly.

I reached for my phone. This had to be a sick joke. There just was no other explanation. I dialed Michelle's number and put the device to my ear.

There was a single ring, then it cut to a pre-recorded message. It wasn't a voicemail box.

"The number you have dialed is no longer in service." The mechanical voice informed me.

I pulled the phone away and hung up. I dialed again.

"The number you have dialed-" I hung up before the message even completed this time.

"Nick?" Emily was starting to get worried. I shot a glace at the mirror in the kitchen. The shock and worry was written clear as day on my face.

"Something's come up," I told her, "with your mom."

"Is Mommy not coming then?"

My ears were now playing tricks on me.

"What do you mean?" I asked her.

"Mommy said she wasn't coming to pick me up. I had to wait here with you."

"When did she say this, Emily? When?"

"The day before yesterday, when we were waiting outside. She said she had to do something, and I was going to stay with you."

"She knew? She left you here on purpose?"

Emily just shrugged, unsure of the question.

"Emily, why didn't you want to go home with Mommy?" I asked, remembering what she said the night before.

"We don't have a home anymore. Mommy sold it."

My eyes went wide. Had Michelle skipped town after dumping her girl on me? Was the money just to keep me quiet? Did she expect me to take the money and turn Emily over to Children's Services or something?

"Emily, you have to tell me the truth now: did your mom tell you where she was going?"

The little girl nodded. My heart began to race a bit quicker than it already was.

"Where, Emily? Where did she say she was going?"

"To find Daddy, and make him pay."