Part 3

Emily quickly became the axis of which my world revolved. Hardly a thought went through my head that wasn't immediately analyzed as how it would factor in Emily in some way. From what we'd have to eat to what I'd end up doing when I had some free time. Bran didn't seem to mind for the most part; so long as I kept up my end of the bargain as his roommate I could do whatever I wanted with my new daughter.

"Who am I to stop you?" He reasoned one evening.

But of course, I would never go so far as to devote every ounce of my being to the little girl. As happy as it made me to be with her, there was still one part of my heart I needed to find a suitable outlet. And for that, there was the possibility it could be Melissa: a girl I never would've met had Emily not become part of my life.

I ended up contacting Melissa again that same week, and we arranged to meet socially for lunch on Saturday. I told her to expect me and Emily, since I had no one to leave her with. She wouldn't stay with Bran even if he were available, which he wasn't due to slave wage labor at a pharmacy. Melissa had no issue with it.

So after a week of work that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye following that Monday, Saturday morning arrived. Being a day off, I slept in a bit longer, allowing Emily to be the one to wake me up. I had told her the night before that we'd be going out to meet with someone today, so she was understandably anxious. So much so that she actually shook me awake soon as she was up.

"Where are we going?" She asked, pushing against my chest with her small hands.

"It's too early, Emily." I mumbled.

"But the sun is already up!"

"The sun is always up early. It's the winter."

"But it's only October...?" I opened my eyes slightly, just so I could see her confused expression. She didn't understand the concept of Daylight Savings just yet. Rather than try and explain it to her, I changed the topic.

"So you want to know where we're going?"

"Yeah! You said we were going to see someone!"

I smiled. I hadn't seen her this excited over anything, so I didn't even want to tell her. I reached out with my right arm and brought her close to me for a hug. She allowed me for a few seconds, but then squirmed to get out of my grasp.

"Come on...!" She whined most adorably.

"Alright, alright," I said, sitting up and stretching my arms up high. Emily mimicked me, which gave me the perfect opportunity to break off my stretch and grab her.

"No! Stop!" She cried out as I tickled her mercilessly. She kicked her legs and jerked her whole body every which way, but years of wrestling with my brothers prevented any trick she could muster to escape. Her laughter drowned out her pleas after a while.

After a few moments, I let her go. It was pretty exhausting to keep her held down, but I was certain, she was drained from the ordeal. Once she had calmed down, her smile vanished and was replaced by a frown.

"What's wrong? Don't like being tickled?" I teased.

She shook her head, and lifted the hem of her nightgown a bit. The diaper she was wearing looked twice as big as it did last night, a clear indication of how soaked it was.

"Let's get you changed, then."

~o~

After breakfast, we took off for the designated meeting place. It was the mall we'd been to the weekend before, the only real social hub I knew in the city. Since I moved there with Bran, I hadn't really done much in the way of exploration. This is something of a guilty confession, seeing as how in my youth I loved to see new places around my small neighborhood growing up. But with it being just the two of us in a strange new urban setting, we couldn't afford to exhaust our precious few hours of downtime or pittance of spending money indulging such fancies. In fact, my not knowing anything around the area would be a great way to open the conversation with Melissa, I figured.

"The mall? But we were here last time!" Emily complained once we arrived.

"Yeah, but this time we're hanging out with someone different."

"Who?"

"You remember the girl from the station the other day? The one you said I liked?"

The gears in her little head were turning. She struggled to form a mental image of Melissa, but I could tell she wasn't having any luck. She looked to the duck plush in her hands, as if the stuffed animal had any answers to offer.

"I don't remember..." She finally admitted.

"It's okay, you'll see her soon enough."

Melissa and I had agreed on meeting up at noon in the food court. We showed up almost an hour earlier, punctuality being something of a pet peeve for me. Turns out it was the same for Melissa, who showed up not five minutes after us.

"Hey!" She said in greeting.

"Hey. It's Nick." I offered her a handshake, since we hadn't been formally introduced. She took it, but after a quick shake pulled me in for a light peck on the cheek.

"I hope that's okay." She said afterward, suddenly embarrassed by the gesture.

"It's okay. That's usually how I greet most of my family, anyway."

"I know, right? You get so used to it sometimes it's like second nature!" Melissa looked down at Emily, who was examining the older girl curiously.

"Emily, right?"

"Uh huh. What's your name?"

"My name is Melissa." She offered to shake the little girl's hand, but Emily refused to offer one and squeezed her duck tighter. Before I could scold her for that, Melissa giggled.

"It's okay. I'm sure we'll get to know each other better in a little while." She turned to me. "We're here early. Want to walk around a bit or sit down and have lunch already?"

"Actually, we had breakfast just before coming here." I explained.

"Oh, great! I also just ate so I was afraid you'd want to eat already."

"We're good for a while longer. Emily, do you want to go somewhere or should we just sit down here?" I asked my little girl.

She shrugged.

"How about we go to the book store?" I suggested to both ladies.

"Fine by me. I love hanging out there." Melissa answered.

Emily nodded silently.

Along the way to the store, Melissa walked beside me to my left, while I held onto Emily's hand to my right. To anyone who saw us, they'd probably guess we were a young family. That possibility alone lifted my spirits, but I made sure to keep my flights of fancy bottled up and listen to what Melissa was talking about. Couldn't drop the ball on the first date I had in a long time.

"So what do you do?" Melissa asked me first.

"I work at a daycare. Taking care of kids and stuff."

"Wow! Really? They let guys do that?"

"There's no law against it. I don't think many guys do it, is all."

"Then how come?"

I shrugged. "Just what I ended up doing. I wanted to study to be a psychiatrist, but one thing lead to another and I kinda dropped those plans."

"Sorry to hear that."

"I think it worked out. Dealing with kids all day is really trying, but there's plenty of breaks during the day. Depending on the age group you can really get away with some slacking. Don't tell my boss I said that, though."

Melissa laughed.

"How about you?" I almost asked her how old she was.

"I'm in school right now. Really not sure what I want to do."

"No major planned?"

Melissa shook her head. "I started out taking courses for law, but after a semester I changed paths and went something artsy. But a semester later I realized art wasn't exactly going to pay the bills, you know?"

"I hear you. Sucks, really."

"Yeah. So now I'm just doing something with nursing? I don't really know, actually. Everyone says it's the safest bet for making money."

"But it's not what you want to do." I guessed.

"I don't really mind. Not very smart to be so aimless now that I'm in college, but..." Melissa shrugged. It was that same attitude I had when I chose to drop my college plans.

When we got to the book store, I let Emily off the hook in the kids' department. She was reluctant at first to be left alone, but I didn't go far. Melissa caught on right away that I didn't want to be separated from Emily, and the little girl didn't want to be left alone, either. All in all she was very respectful to my silent wishes.

"So, about Emily." She opened a few minutes after we had arrived.

"It's the question everyone's been asking me." I said.

"Really? Why?"

"What do you think? I mean, when you see us together?"

Flustered, Melissa looked over to the little girl looking through the many picture books. She eyed me closely, though did surprisingly well not to look away when I stared intently back into her eyes.

"She's not yours." She finally answered.

"What gave it away?"

"You don't look old enough to have a kid her age. I could've been wrong, though."

"You're right. She's not mine." I looked over at Emily, who at that same moment noticed me watching her. She gave me a shy little wave, then kept browsing through the books.

"Friend's? Family?"

"More complicated than that." I took a deep breath, trying to find the simplest, most elegant way to explain it to Melissa.

"Her mom is out of town. Don't know when she'll be back."

"Just like that? And you're taking care of her?"

"Yeah."

"But why? Do you know her mom? Old friend or something?"

"I took care of Emily when she was a baby. When I was in high school I took care of kids to make some money on the side. I hadn't seen her since she was like two. Then out of no where I get a call and her mom needs the favor. She paid up front, so I said why not?"

"Must've been good pay." Melissa commented.

"Actually, I didn't know at the time how long she'd be staying. Her mom said a weekend: from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon at the latest."

"And then she just left?"

I nodded. "My roommate said I didn't have to keep taking care of her. I could leave her with Children's Services and claim her as an abandoned kid. Couldn't do it."

Melissa looked over at Emily again. She had finally decided on a book, and was flipping through the pages while sitting against a wall.

"She's cute. I guess I'd do the same thing?" Melissa sighed, then shook her head. "Nah. I couldn't."

"Not good with kids?"

"I don't think so? Like, I don't have any brothers or sisters and I never babysat. When I was in elementary school I used to hate hanging around the other kids. I know this'll sound weird but I always thought they were so immature."

I chuckled. "Sounds a lot like me."

"Really?" She asked with a glimmer in her eye.

"Only I didn't hang out because I was afraid to make friends."

"To be honest, you look like one of those nerdy types."

I tapped my nose. "You're really good at this."

Melissa put her hands on her hips and smiled triumphantly. Emily came up to us after that, holding that book she was looking at earlier.

"Daddy, can I get this book?"

I took it from her and looked at the cover. It was a picture book about all kinds of birds. Apart from the duck featured prominently on the front cover, there were also pigeons, parrots and penguins. I flipped it over and saw the price tag.

"Are you sure you want this one?" I asked her.

"Uh huh. It's about birds and ducks." The fact she put ducks in their own category proved they were her favorite animal. I didn't really have one, myself.

"Okay." I pulled out my wallet and handed her a twenty. "You want to pay for it yourself?"

"Can you come with me?" She asked.

"Of course. I wasn't going to let you go alone." I turned to Melissa. "Mind waiting here for a minute?"

"Sure thing." She smiled.

Emily lead the way to the counter, and let me hand the book to the cashier. Emily immediately put the twenty on the counter, which caused the lady to giggle.

"First time buying, sweetie?" She asked Emily.

"Uh huh. Daddy let me borrow that."

"Well aren't you a big girl!" The woman took the money and rang her up. However, she handed me the change instead. Not that Emily noticed or cared; she was waiting to be handed her book.

"Here you are, sweetie. Thank you for shopping with us!"

"You're welcome...? But I bought the book. Why are you saying 'thank you'?"

Emily's confusion caused us both to laugh. She seemed to be so out of it at times. After saying good-bye to the cashier, we rejoined Melissa at the entrance.

"Want to head back to the food court now? We can grab lunch or just kill a bit more time there." She recommended.

"Sure. I'm sure Emily wants to read her book already, right?"

Emily nodded, smiling. She had put her duck inside the bag, its head sticking out as if it were a real animal riding along.

Melissa leaned a bit and whispered. "She calls you 'daddy'?"

"My idea." I whispered back.

Melissa smiled. "Aww, that's sweet."

~o~

We ended up having lunch as soon as we got back to the food court. Even if none of us were really hungry, picking at a smaller meal while we talked felt more fun in the end. Or at least Melissa and I reasoned. Emily spent the time picking at her food while she flipped through the book she just got.

"You know it's really nice of you to take care of Emily the way you do." Melissa commented after we'd exhausted several other topics.

"You know my roommate said I used her to get your number in the first place." It was mostly a confession on my part.

"That true?"

"A little. I wasn't out that day looking for girls to pick up, but you just appeared and well, here we are."

"It's not a bad trick. I know a few friends that would jump at you for being such a responsible 'father'. They say all the nice guys are either married or have boyfriends."

"I'm neither."

"But are you available?" Melissa said with a sly smile.

"Depends on you."

Melissa cocked her head slightly, as if pondering the situation. One lunch date was hardly enough time to get to know each other, but enough to consider moving forward with the potential of a relationship. I certainly wasn't against going steady with her. The mood between us was broken once again when Emily spoke up.

"Are you two going to kiss?" She asked with an icky expression on her face.

"No. Not yet, anyway." Melissa said, giving me a wink.

I winked back at her.

~o~

Time seemed to fly by.

Before I realized it, we were at the ends of November, preparing for Thanksgiving. And really it wasn't until that very week that the anxiety of the holiday came crashing down upon me. Thanksgiving meant a family reunion. And that meant the time had finally come to tell my parents about Emily. They already knew about Melissa, whom I had been seeing since that first lunch date in October. Her family lived in another state, so she wouldn't be able to visit them until the Christmas holiday.

Meanwhile, my folks were driving into the city to have dinner with Bran, Melissa and I. And Emily, whom they still didn't know existed. I'd spoken with my mother in particular on a few occasions since Emily arrived, but I never had the courage to tell her what had happened. She had a way of... overreacting? I couldn't even put my finger on it. Really I had no way of knowing what her response would be to my having a girlfriend and a daughter all at once.

"Your mommy and daddy are coming?" Emily asked me the morning of Thanksgiving.

"Yup. They're going to meet you at last."

"Do they want to meet me?"

"Honestly? I haven't told them you're here with me."

"Why not?"

"You'll be like a surprise for them. You want to surprise them, right?"

The little girl beamed. "Yeah!"

On something of a positive note, Emily had been getting better and better with getting through the night dry. On a few instances when I woke up early for work, I noticed she was dry, only to finally flood the diaper just as I shook her awake. Each time I told her she almost made it, which lifted her spirits considerably. I had a feeling it wouldn't be long before we could dispose of those garments entirely.

Melissa came over early that day to help make dinner. My parents would be here by midday to also pitch in, but we wanted to get some of the smaller things completed before they arrived. I had a feeling a lot of time would be lost in the explanation of how Emily came to be my daughter. As for Bran, he was forced to go in to work early that morning. Fortunately, the pay would be greater and he'd be back in time to dine with everyone.

At around 11AM I got a call from my mother.

"We're on our way! We'll be there by like noon."

"Okay. We're already getting things ready to cook here." I told her.

"Melissa is there?"

"Yeah."

"And Brandon?"

"He had to work. He'll be off by four so we have to wait for him."

"Oh man! That sucks."

"Yeah, I know."

"Well, we'll see you in a little while, okay?"

"Okay, Momma."

I heard Melissa chuckle behind me. Emily was looking directly at me the entire time.

"Okay my love. Bye!"

"Bye." I hung up.

"You call her 'Momma'?" Melissa asked, holding back another laugh.

"Yeah. I don't remember why I started calling her that. I think it was a joke and I just never stopped." I gave Melissa a light punch to her shoulder. "What do you call your mom?"

"Mom."

"What's the difference?"

"Momma sounds funnier."

"Oh, bite me."

That hour before my mom arrived was over before I even realized it. A few minutes here, a few there as we prepared things on the stove, and suddenly there was a knock on the door. The clock said 12:05PM, so they were right on time. Once Emily heard the knock, she jumped off the couch and ran to my side.

"What's wrong?" I asked her.

"I'm scared." She whimpered.

"It's okay. There's nothing to worry about."

There was another knock on the door.

"Melissa, could you get that?" I asked my girlfriend.

"Sure. Send me to meet your folks for the first time ever." She pouted.

"Would you rather I send Emily?"

"I'd rather you open the door and we wait over here." She ran over to Emily's side and took her hand.

I sighed, and moved to the door. I felt Emily fidget behind me, as if she wanted to be by my side when the door finally opened. Still, she remained by Melissa's side, and I opened the door. My parents were waiting, hand in hand.

"Momma, Dad." I gave them both a hug at the same time, hoping to keep their attention on me and not the two girls inside the apartment.

It didn't work. My mother always was a very perceptive woman. She knew something funny was up from the whispers beyond the door before I opened it. My mom pushed me away after the hug and let herself into the apartment. She eyed the two girls standing there in the living room by the TV.

"Melissa, right?" She asked the appropriate girl.

"Yeah, that's me. Nice to meet you Misses Walker." She offered her hand to my mom, who ignored it and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"Call me Marie." Her attention turned to Emily. "And who's this?"

Emily stood there, frozen to the spot. Her gaze went past my mother and towards me. I walked over to Emily and picked her up in my arms.

"Momma, this is Emily. You remember her, right?"

"Emily...? You mean the one you took care of years ago?"

I nodded. "I'm taking care of her again."

"On Thanksgiving?"

"Not just Thanksgiving. Everyday from now on. She's mine, now."

~o~

It took a fair bit of explaining, as it always did. My mom had to watch her tongue every few minutes as I told the story, since she'd let slip a few bad words when I told her something relating to Michelle. Meanwhile my father remained silent, lost in thought over the whole matter. Melissa tended the kitchen, while Emily sat in my lap the whole time. Her gaze was on the ground most of the time, as if she didn't dare herself to look at my parents in the eyes.

"This is crazy." My mom finally said once the story was done.

I didn't say a word, and neither did my dad.

"And you've been taking care of her since October?"

"About a month now, yeah."

"And Michelle never called back?"

I shook my head. "Her number was disconnected."

"And all this time you were taking care of her you never said anything to me?" I had a feeling that was what bugged her the most.

I shrugged. "I forgot?"

"Hmm," she snorted. "You didn't want to tell me."

"I knew you'd get this way."

"You know this isn't allowed, right?"

"I know. It's either here with me illegally, or in a foster home."

That really was all I had to say to convince her on the matter. Not that she had any experience in the matter, but my mother always cast suspicion over foster homes.

"And what if Michelle comes back?" She asked.

"I don't think she will." I held onto Emily tighter. We had discussed the possibility of her mother returning, and she had somehow come to terms with it. And once I told my mom all about how she sent me a check for that much money, it was pretty much guaranteed she'd never return.

"But if she does, you'll have to give Emily back."

Those words caused the little girl in my arms to tremble.

"I know. But it won't happen."

"This is crazy..." Mom repeated.

"Just don't say anything to anyone. Not to Grandma or anyone else, okay? The less people know about this the better."

"Of course! We won't say a thing to anyone."

I looked at my dad, who wasn't sure how to respond. Normally he always had something to share regarding the matter, usually something obvious but sternly put. Here, he was at a total loss. Or he didn't want to pitch in at all. I had a feeling he'd say something to my mom in private later. She'd tell me all about it at some point to follow.

But at least the worst was over. I long since knew what I was getting myself into when it came to Emily, and my parents made sure I knew it as well. Melissa was supporting me from her end, and Emily? Well, she was completely dependent on my care in the end. And she wanted it to stay that way.

Still, the rest of the day Emily stayed clung to my leg. My parents made separate efforts to talk to her, but she didn't say a word to either of them. I explained to them at one point while Emily was in the bathroom that she acted the same way the first day I took her with me to work. So rather than try and approach her, they ignored her completely. And that's how, before they finally left after dinner, Emily said something to both of them.

"Bye." Barely more than a whisper.

~o~

It was Christmas Eve when it happened.

Following Thanksgiving dinner, my parents kept in closer touch with me. They wanted to make sure Emily wasn't too much for me to handle, forgetting all the while I had raised her for a whole month without their even knowing she existed. And pretty much all the hard stuff regarding her care was behind us now. Emily was going on nearly a week accident free, so it looked like we'd be able to toss out the diapers by New Year's. Melissa was hanging out a lot more with us at my place since finishing her classes for the semester, and things were looking better than ever for Bran. He had finally gotten an interview for an internship in his field lined up for the week after Christmas.

My family had made it a tradition to celebrate Christmas with the festive dinner on Christmas Eve, so like before we were all gathered around the kitchen working to prepare the meal for when my parents arrived. They'd be later this time around, since they had to visit my brother in a different city. For once Emily allowed herself to remain in Bran's company for more than a few seconds, choosing to watch something on TV any normal parent would find inappropriate for children. But since I needed total freedom of movement to get around the kitchen, I figured a little violence on screen wouldn't be totally negligent of me. I was certain whatever she normally watched on that channel-we-never-seemed-to-change was far worse.

It was about 2:30PM when the doorbell to the apartment rang.

"I'll get it. Coming!" Called Melissa, leaving me to tend the pots on the stove. I heard the door open, but it wasn't my parents.

"Can I help you?" I heard her ask whomever was at the door. A familiar voice came from the hallway.

"Yes, does Nick Walker live here?"

I walked over to the door. I looked to Emily, who also recognized the voice. She got off the couch and followed me to the door. Standing in the hallway, looking a bit older and far more disheveled than when we last saw her, was Michelle.

"Nick. I'm back." She said, smiling as though she were only a few hours late. I looked down at Emily, who was looking up at her mother. She didn't move towards her, only grab onto my pants leg for safety.

"What's wrong?" She asked.

Where to begin? "Where were you?"

"Sorry about what happened. Things got a little crazy and I had to go somewhere else. I know two months isn't exactly what you had in mind when I asked you to look after Emily for me." She knelt down and opened her arms. "Come here, baby!"

Emily didn't move.

"That's why you sent the money?" I asked Michelle.

"I hope it was enough for all the trouble. Anything that was left over is yours. Overdue payment."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Michelle sighed. She probably didn't expect this many questions.

"I told you. I had to go away for a while, and I couldn't use the phone. I managed to send out that money, and I hoped it would be enough. To be honest, I'm surprised you were nice enough to keep Emily for so long. She really is an angel, isn't she?"

Michelle gave up trying to convince her daughter to jump into her arms, so she stood up again. Melissa left the front door to tend the pots, while Bran snuck off into the kitchen himself to give us a bit more privacy to discuss things. Only I didn't want any privacy.

I took a deep breath. "You want Emily back, then?"

"Well, of course. She's my daughter, you know."

I felt Emily's hold on my leg tighten. I knew this would happen at some point. It had to. This or the government interfering. I just had a feeling it would be easier to deal with if it were the government. I did my best to bottle up my feelings and knelt down beside Emily.

"Your mom wants to take you home," I explained to her softly.

Emily shook her head.

"You have to go with her, Emily."

Again the little girl shook her head. Her lip was quivering, and I could see her eyes glazing over. More than a few seconds of that and I'd be forcing back tears myself.

"Emily, you have to come with me." Michelle extended her hand, but the little girl didn't budge. She just shook her head again and again.

"You don't want to come with me for Christmas?"

"No." Emily finally spoke.

"Why not, baby?" Michelle cooed.

"You're not my Mommy anymore."

Emily ran into the kitchen, and clung to Melissa instead. I glanced at Michelle, who looked to be running out of patience already. Melissa hugged Emily, but she wasn't sure what to do from there.

"Emily, let's go. Now!" Michelle yelled across the apartment.

"Let's talk outside, okay?" I stepped in, directing Michelle back out into the hallway. It would be best to keep our discussion away from Emily.

Once outside, I closed the door behind me.

"You're trying to keep my girl, aren't you?" Michelle accused right off the bat.

"Emily said she didn't want to go herself. She's confused."

"What's there to be confused about? I thought she'd be happy to see me again."

"When you left her with me, she told me what you told her. That you were going to make 'her daddy pay'." Michelle's expression darkened. "What did you mean?"

"Her father was holding out on me. So when I left Emily here I went to make him pay up."

"Why'd you take so long to get back?"

Michelle sighed. "Things didn't go as planned."

"What happened?" Had my guess from that weekend been on the money?

Michelle looked away. I could tell she was thinking something over in her head, but I wouldn't be privy to that information.

"Your phone number's still the same, right?" She asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"Take the day off on Monday. Expect my call. And tell Emily I love her, okay?"

I stood there, stunned. "You're leaving?"

"I have to go. Way things are now, it might be easier this way. I'm sorry for tonight."

And just like that, Michelle left. Down the hall and into the elevator, and she was gone just as suddenly as she had reappeared.

~o~

I tried my best to put on a good face at dinner, but it was a lost cause. Everyone there knew what had happened, and it wouldn't take more than couple guesses on the part of my parents to find out. Somehow, Melissa and Emily both kept it together long enough so they'd never find out. I didn't exactly want to keep them out of the loop, but it was Christmas Eve. The least I could do for them was keep the mood festive.

Dinner might've been awkward and mostly silent, but what came next wasn't. Since my parents could visit again the following day, they said it was fine for Emily to open the gifts they brought that night. The little girl still believed wholeheartedly in Santa Claus, so my parents and I all assured her he'd visit that night with more gifts for the morning. So with a renewed smile Emily opened the few gifts brought by my parents, which ended up being another stuffed animal and some clothes.

As with any child, the clothes were immediately tossed aside in favor of the toy, which was a duck similar to the one I had bought for her. I only hoped it wouldn't mean she'd want to lug around both stuffed animals where ever she went. Not long after my parents chose to leave, having had a bit of wine at dinner they didn't want to risk trouble on the road home.

Christmas was a Sunday this year, so I even offered them the chance to stay the night if they wanted. There was hardly any room in our apartment, so naturally they turned me down. Once they were gone, I excused myself to put Emily to bed. Getting her out of the fancy red velvet dress I got her for this occasion would take a bit of time all on its own.

As I got her undressed, the little girl whispered something to me.

"Is Mommy coming back?"

"I don't know." I answered her honestly.

"Was I bad?"

"What? No, of course not. Why would you think that?"

"Because I didn't want to go home with her."

I had a feeling that's what had been weighing on her mind this whole time.

"It's okay, Emily. She was surprised, is all."

"Mommy said she sold our house. Where were we going?"

I smiled weakly at the girl. "I don't know, Emily. Maybe she got a new house?"

"Then why did she leave without me?"

Her questions were getting harder and harder for me to answer without welling up myself. I knew there was still a good chance Michelle would demand I turn Emily over to her on Monday. She had every reason and right to. And the only reason she didn't exact it tonight was because of the date. I was certain of that much.

Finally, I answered her. "I asked her to."

"Why?"

"Because I didn't want you to go and miss Christmas Eve with everyone."

The tears rushed to Emily's eyes almost as fast as they did to mine. The little girl threw her arms around my neck, squeezing as hard as she could.

"I don't want to leave!" She sobbed.

"And I don't want you to leave, either." I said, trying my best to keep my own tears in check. I was on a losing front there.

Bran had warned me about getting too close to Emily. My parents did, too. Even Melissa at one point or another. I didn't need them to warn me; I knew the trouble it would cause. But how could I not grow fond of the girl? I stopped being a babysitter to her almost immediately, as if I knew we'd end up in this situation.

It wasn't in my right, but come Monday I'd try and plead with Michelle. Plead with her that she at least let me check up on Emily from time to time. Even if it ended up hurting us both, I couldn't just hand her over and forget about all the time we'd spent together. Even Bran's stoic heart couldn't just forget it. I was certain Michelle wouldn't turn me down.

I finally put Emily to bed and returned to the living room. Bran was sitting at the table, while Melissa walked right up to me and gave me a hug.

"You were crying." She whispered in my ear.

I had forgotten to clean myself up a bit before going back out there. "I'll be okay."

I truly hoped I would be okay, at least.

~o~

Christmas flew by me so fast it was as though time itself wanted me to reach the fated Monday. Almost as though she'd forgotten the ordeal of the previous night, Emily rose before sunrise to tear open gifts without my permission. When I was a kid, that would've gotten me a stern scolding, but I let her slide that one time. Bran had bought her a few things (which I ended up choosing anyway), while Melissa failed to win the little girl over with a few outfits she bought.

"But look! We'll match!" She tried to justify the gift to the little girl. "Santa wanted us to both wear the same thing!"

Emily didn't really care, though. She was too busy playing with everything she had gotten. A little bit with one toy, then with another, and so on until late into the afternoon. With nothing else to do, I spent the day watching the clock tick closer and closer to the end of the day. It didn't really feel like a long day watching Emily with her boundless energy.

Monday morning, just as Michelle had said, I received a phone call from her. She said nothing more than to meet her somewhere in the city, followed by the address. I asked her if I had to bring Emily, and she told me not to. I asked Bran to look after her, since she was still asleep. Emily wouldn't be happy when I got back, but that was a frown I'd have to suffer.

"It's Michelle, right?" Bran asked me.

"Yeah. She said to meet here at this address. Not sure what she's going to tell me, though."

"What if she tells you to bring the kid over? Or sends the police to take her?"

"She wouldn't do that."

"Let's hope not."

"Just keep an eye on her, alright? She'll get up soon and start asking for me. Keep her busy. Hopefully this won't take long."

The train ride to the meeting place was short, but somehow felt longer than any other ride I'd ever been on. The anxiety was getting to me, and I could feel it. After getting off the train and emerging onto the street, I saw the designated meeting place. It was a corner cafe, and Michelle was already there. With her was a man in a business suit. I already had a bad feeling, like I had come to the table totally unprepared.

"Nick. Glad you were so quick. This guy isn't cheap, you know." She said soon as I was within earshot.

"You must be Mister Walker?" The man offered me his hand.

"Yeah, that's me."

We shook hands. "Daniel Day, attorney."

"Let's get this over with. Five hundred an hour is highway robbery." Michelle said, offering me a chair at the table they were sitting at. So she had gotten a lawyer to take Emily back legally.

"What's this for?" I asked before either of them said anything more.

"You don't know?" Daniel asked, before looking to Michelle. "I thought you said-"

"So I lied. Does it matter?"

"It does if he doesn't agree."

"He'll agree." She looked at me. "You want to stay with Emily, right?"

I was left speechless for a moment. "Yes?"

"So you wouldn't mind at all if I made you her legal guardian, right?"

I couldn't even get an answer out this time. Fortunately, Daniel picked up on my confusion and moved in to explain things.

"Miss Williams wants to transfer legal guardianship of her daughter to you for the time being."

"I get that." I turned to her. "Why?"

"Daniel, give us a minute. I can't let you hear what I'm about to say."

Michelle shooed the lawyer away from the table for a moment. Even though he was clearly too far away to hear anything we said, Michelle leaned in close and kept her voice down.

"When I went to pick Emily up, I saw how happy she was there with you. It's almost a shame I didn't marry you instead."

"So you're just going to let her stay with me?"

"Why do you think I vanished the way I did, Nick?"

"Honestly? You killed your husband." That slipped from my lips so quickly, I didn't realize I had said it until it was too late. Michelle just chortled.

"You're right."

My eyes went wide. She nodded.

"I killed the bastard."

"You're serious?" I was suddenly very uncomfortable sitting next to her.

"Shot him, cut him into a million little pieces and flushed him down the toilet. Cops are onto me and I can't very well be on the run with a kid."

I was shocked. Apparently the shock was so clearly written on my face, Michelle couldn't hold back the guffaw and erupted into an uproarious laugh on the spot. I didn't even know what was going on anymore. Had she really killed her husband?

"Listen, Nick. If you don't want to look after Emily anymore, you just have to tell me."

"So did you kill your husband?"
"Of course not! What's wrong with you?"

I slouched in my chair. This woman was just toying with me at this point.

"Truth is I came into a bit of money. I took advantage of the situation and invested it, and things took off almost overnight. Didn't you wonder how I got that money I sent you?"

"I thought you extorted your husband and paid me off. Then ran away to a third world country to live in luxury for the rest of your life."

I wasn't kidding about that, and somehow Michelle noticed that.

"I still love my daughter, Nick. But I know what a life of constantly moving around is like. I don't want Emily to live like that, not when she's so happy in one place like she is with you. When I went to pick her up, I saw it in her eyes. I mean, what five year-old doesn't jump into her mother's arms after not seeing her for two months?"

I had to admit, that did raise some questions.

"I did it. It was cruel of me, but I drilled it into her head that I'd leave her with you and never come back. Either all my plans would pan out, or I'd come back and beg her to forgive me. Either way, I counted on you to keep her happy. It's why I came to you instead of my own mother."

"I thought you didn't have family here?"

"Not here, but somewhere in the country. I could've left her there."

I sighed. "This was a crazy plan."

"You can say that again. But it worked. I have more money now than I know what to do with."

I suddenly wondered how much -if any- of that would come my way. I was going to be taking care of Emily, after all.

"So honest now: will you look after Emily? Daniel here will take care of all the paperwork for us, he just needed your consent in person. The amount of money I'm paying him, he'll do it all behind the scenes no problem."

I didn't even have to think about it. "Of course I will."

~o~

What Michelle had really done, and whether or not Emily's real father still lived, would forevermore be a mystery to me. All I did know was that through some divine intervention, Emily didn't have to leave. Through nothing short of a miracle, I had earned something of a permanent daughter.

Of course I asked Michelle how long I'd look after Emily. This couldn't be forever. But she had no real answer for me. The upstart business of hers would take years to get off the ground she said, so I wondered how she really had gotten all that money she claimed to have. Whatever the case, Michelle promised me a check every month to help with the expenses associated with looking after Emily. And all I had to do was ask her and she'd float me money to get a bigger apartment when the time came. Just by that, I knew Emily would be with me for years to come.

But the details of everything weren't important.

After signing the paperwork Daniel needed, I ran back home as fast as my legs and the train could take me. Emily was sure to be awake already, and I knew Bran wouldn't be able to handle her if she decided to throw a tantrum.

When I got back, I found Emily sitting on the couch in her nightgown. There were signs of dry tears, but other than that she looked fine. Bran was sitting next to her, and had the greatest sigh of relief once I walked through the door. Emily herself practically flew off the couch and into my arms.

"So what happened?" Bran asked, almost fearful of ruining the reunion.

"Where did you go?" Emily asked.

I smiled at her. "Had to sign some papers."

She tilted her head. "What papers?"

I could tell even Bran was eager to learn of these papers, but the smile on my face probably clued him in to what I was about to say.

"Papers that say you can stay with me."

Emily's eyes lit up, and she threw her arms around me one more time.