Thanks to my betas, Reetchick and Alee for the clarity, coherence, and consistency; and for the astute insights on parenting and the psychology of little girls.
Thanks to Philtre for the knowing and practiced eye and for catching those little goblins that only a proofreader can banish.
Thanks to Tara (LJC) for the name of Chloe's mom.
Gabe leaned over the edge of the half-filled tub. Tugging at his sleeve, he managed to roll it up some more. He dipped the bared elbow in the water, then nodded to his dad. "Yep. It's the right temperature."
"Good." The older man grinned at Gabe's nod of approval and then poured a capful of bubble bath into the water. "We don't want a scalded seven-year-old." His dad turned around. "C'mon, Princess," he called, stepping out into the hallway of the townhouse. "Time for your bath."
"Grandpa--" Chloe came running out her room. "--Will you stay and read me a story before I go to bed?" Jumping up and down, she entered the bathroom and hugged herself tightly in anticipation.
"Of course! You were a good girl tonight. Maybe I'll read you two."
When his dad looked over at him, Gabe nodded his agreement to the older man. He turned and peered at Chloe. "Say... is that the sweatshirt your grandpa gave you for Christmas?" He said it for his dad's benefit.
"Yeah. See?" Chloe spread her arms. My heart belongs to Grandpa, the sweatshirt proclaimed. He looked at his dad. The older man was beaming.
"Okay, take off your clothes and get in the tub, Chloe." Gabe turned off the water while his dad helped her take off the sweatshirt. They exited the bathroom to let her finish undressing. "Put your clothes in the hamper, too."
In the kitchen, he poured half a bottle of beer into a glass for his dad. He kept the bottle for himself.
"When I told her you'd be baby-sitting her this evening, she made sure the housekeeper washed that sweatshirt so that she could wear it just for you."
His dad chuckled. "Hey. That's great." Then his eyes widened. "Now, does that mean she puts on the Grandma sweatshirt when your mom comes over?"
"Oh no, you don't." Gabe shook his head. "I'm not going to get in the middle of a competition between you and mom."
"Hm. Well. Maybe I should start asking to see what she brings home from the department stores. To keep tabs on what she buys for Chloe. I don't want to fall behind."
"If you think that will help you get ahead in that little competition you've got going." Gabe smiled and rolled his eyes.
"Say, there's plenty of tortellini casserole in case you're hungry." His dad pointed at the refrigerator. "Figured you'd prefer that to burnt bagels."
"I usually burn the bagels for breakfast, dad. For dinner I burn the salad." He shot his dad a wry smile when the older man squinted at him. "But thanks. I had a very late lunch at that Indian restaurant over on Fourth Street. And I overate, so I think I'll skip dinner."
"I used the Alfredo sauce your housekeeper made. She also fixed us a great salad dressing before she left. And I also made Chloe a vegetable side-dish. Blanched carrots. She actually liked them."
"Good. Good." He nodded, grateful that his dad enjoyed cooking so much. His expression turned serious.
Taking his cue from Gabe's face, his dad switched topics. "So. How was work today?"
"Well..." He sighed. "My manager and I got chewed out."
"Oh. I see."
"Well, yeah. If we can improve productivity in our division in the next two quarters, we'll be heroes to Lionel Luthor. I could even get promoted someday." He sighed. "If we fail, we'll be schmucks. Unemployed schmucks, most likely."
"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," his dad said, sipping his beer. "But if push comes to shove, would you consider a switch to banking? Metropolis-Union will probably open at least one retail banking branch every month for the next year-and-a-half." His dad took another sip. "I could talk to some friends at Met-Union."
"Thanks. I had enough of Met-Union when I worked there during grad school. We'll see what happens. If Lionel Luthor fires me, I can probably find another job in the same industry. "
His dad took a deep breath. "You know... If you ever lost your job, your mom and I would always help out with the mortgage on this townhouse. You and Chloe could even move in with us until--"
"I finished my bath!" Chloe bounced in, wearing her yellow bathrobe and clutching two books to her chest. Gabe patted his dad's arm once gently to acknowledge the offer he hoped he wouldn't ever have to accept.
"You brushed your teeth, right?" His dad's voice brightened as he turned to Chloe.
"Yes, I did." She waved the books. "Look. They're both Curious George. He's my favorite."
"All right, then." His dad smiled at her and stood up. "I think Curious George was your daddy's favorite when he was a little boy." He paused for effect. "As a matter of fact, I read them as a little boy." He laughed when Gabe's eyebrows shot up.
"When you were a little boy?" Chloe tilted her head to one side in a thinking attitude. "You know what, Grandpa? How about I read and you listen? You know, like when your mommy and daddy used to read to you."
"That's a deal I can't refuse." As they headed out of the kitchen, he looked back. "They grow up so fast." He squinted again at Gabe. "I just noticed your hairline's starting to recede." He ran a hand over his own sparsely-covered head. "I guess you got that from me." He exited, stumbling slightly when Chloe impatiently tugged on his hand.
Gabe got up, placed the glass and the bottle in the sink, and went downstairs to the den. He turned on the computer and while it booted up, he went back upstairs into the foyer and fished some notes out of his briefcase. Once again downstairs, he opened a spreadsheet.
He sighed. He really needed to keep his job at LuthorCorp, where he made enough to take care of Chloe and himself. He sighed again.
Thank God he didn't have to pay alimony to Corinne. And his parents always offered to help him out, but he knew his dad hoped to retire in two or three years. His mom, maybe within five. He wanted them to think about their retirement instead of worrying about him or his brother or his sister.
He added a few more figures and a formula into the spreadsheet and then saved it. Getting out of his chair, he saw that it was almost eight-thirty. Chloe's bedtime. He headed upstairs.
In the hallway, the murmur of Chloe's voice reached his ears. He peeked in and saw that his dad was perched on the edge of her bed, up against the headboard. His dad's head was turned down in what seemed to be an attentive pose, arm curled protectively around his granddaughter.
"...The man in the yellow hat looked at Curious George and... haste-hastily explained to him that..." She was nestled in the crook of her grandfather's arm, her head resting against his chest.
Gabe suddenly wondered if he could start a Norman Rockwell revival. He would title this portrait "At Home With Grandpa"; it would undoubtedly sell quite well.
He looked at his dad, hoping to catch his eye, but his dad didn't look up. Then he noticed how the older man's chest rose slowly and rhythmically. Chloe's voice droned on.
Entering the room, he walked over to the bed. "Dad," he said in a low voice, touching a shoulder. "Time for Chloe to go to bed." His dad's eyes opened.
"Oh. I was just resting my eyes." The older man smiled down at his granddaughter. He stroked her hair and looked up at Gabe.
"I read a book-and-a-half to Grandpa," Chloe crowed. Then she yawned. "It's hard work."
"Yes, it is." His dad nodded. "And you read so well! But now you need to rest up for more hard work tomorrow at school." His dad placed a kiss on Chloe's forehead. Then he got up and stretched. "Good night, Princess."
"I'm going to borrow your phone to call your sister," he said to Gabe as he went out of the bedroom. "By now she should be home." Gabe nodded. He took his dad's place on the bed and lightly put his arm around Chloe.
"When you were a little boy, did Grandpa used to hold you like you hold me?"
"But now he doesn't?"
"Well, now I'm big. Bigger than Grandpa."
"But Grandpa loves you." It was a statement.
"Of course. Grandpa's still my dad." He watched her mull this over. "And Grandma's still my mom." He glanced at his watch: ten minutes past her bedtime. Not a good moment to bring up the subject of mothers. Especially hers.
"So. How was school today?"
"I made friends with the new boy." Chloe smiled at him, not caring how blatant his conversational tactics were. "We ate lunch together and his name is Adam and he used to live in Chicago."
"Oh. I see." He nodded.
"And the teacher asked if Adam could sit next to me, um, you know, to help him out, and I said yes, and we talked when she wasn't looking."
"Good for you." Gabe kissed the top of her head. "That way he won't feel so lonely."
She looked at him thoughtfully. In a soft voice she added, "Adam doesn't have a mom, either."
Gabe willed his face to stay un-bunched. His chest twitched on the inside. "Well, Chloe... you do have a mother. She's just not here, that's all." He placed a large hand gently on her cheek. "Remember? We talked about that."
"But if she's never here, it's the same as not having her." Chloe's voice was matter-of-fact, and Gabe cautiously let himself feel relieved as he saw how her expression remained untroubled. "Besides..."
"I have you. And you still have your daddy, too. And we have Grandma. And that means that Uncle Frank and Aunt Susan still have their mommy and daddy--"
"--Yes, we do, don't we?" He kissed her cheek and then said, "Time to go to sleep, okay? Good night."
"Good night." She slid under the covers and he headed for the door.
He turned around to face her, his hand on the doorknob. "Yes?".
"So Grandpa is still your daddy, right? Like you are mine? I mean, does he still take make sure you eat vegetables? Does he still take care of you and stuff?" Her questions seemed so simple, as were her words. But he realized that she was asking something much more complex; maybe he barely understood himself what it was.
"Well, yeah, sort of. I mean he worries about me still. That's what fathers do. What Grandpa does with me. Even though I'm grown up." He wondered what she was getting at.
"Good. So then I don't have to worry about you all by myself, right? `Cause Grandma and Grandpa can help me take care of you. You know, even though Mom's not around."
So it was as simple as that. He smiled feebly, fighting back what he hoped weren't tears. "Go to sleep, honey. See you tomorrow."
She murmured a reply as her eyes closed.
He switched off the light and quietly shut the door.
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