I checked my watch for the dozenth time that morning. If we didn’t get moving soon, we were going to be late. Yet again.
“Winnie, come on!” I called to the girl who I was acting as a father to. “We have to get out of here, or else we’re going to be late!”
“I need a minute!” she called back, and I practically hopped from foot to foot on the spot with my impatience. I didn’t have time to wait a minute. I needed her out here now. Then maybe I would have time to grab something for breakfast before I—
Breakfast. Shit! That reminded me.
I hurried to the kitchen to grab the bagged lunch the housekeeper had left for Winnie on the kitchen counter, and I thanked God that I had thought to hire her way back when all of this had started.
“Okay, I’m going to leave without you!” I shouted up the stairs, and sure enough, a couple of seconds later, I heard little footsteps thundering down the stairs toward me as Winnie finally decided that she was ready for school.
I handed her the paper bag, she took it from me, and the two of us hurried out to the car as I patted down my sides for keys to make sure I had everything I needed.
“You never forget anything,” she reminded me, smiling in my direction as she saw me panicking. “Remember?”
“Well, I obviously forget that I never forget, or else I wouldn’t need you to remind me,” I told her, and I opened the car door for her and helped her hop in.
“Did you remember your lunch?” she asked as we pulled away.
“No meetings on a Monday,” I said. “I’m going to go out for something to eat instead.”
“Can I come with you?”
“I’m not sure I would be able to get all the way across town and back in time,” I replied apologetically. “But when you get into high school and start having free periods, we can do that.”
“I want to,” she said happily, leaning up on the window and smiling as she looked outside. There were times when she looked so much like my sister, her mother, that I found myself caught off guard. It was like there was a reflection of her right in front of me, even though I knew she had been gone for a long time now.
“You doing anything fun today at school?” I asked, trying to draw my mind from my late sister. The last thing I wanted was to kick this morning off with another wave of the grief that had ruled me for so long. I was just getting to the stage now where I didn’t suffer every time she passed through my mind, but thinking about her was still a shock to the system.
“We’re making birthday cards for our teacher,” she said. “I’m going to do one with a frog on the front. She likes frogs. She always wears a necklace with a silver frog on it.”
I listened to her as she chattered away, and I couldn’t help but smile. She had such a passion for life, and it made me so happy to see my sister’s spirit living on in her sweet little daughter.
I dropped her off outside the school gates and leaned through the window to give her a kiss goodbye.
“I’ll be here to pick you up after school, all right?” I told her.
“Not Yara,” I replied. “You cool with that?”
“As long as we get ice cream,” she said hopefully.
I laughed. She always seemed to know just how to press my buttons to get me to do whatever it was she wanted, even though I knew I should have been harsher on her. I didn’t have it in me. Not after what had happened.
“We’ll see,” I replied, though I already knew that she had me just where she wanted me. She gave me a quick hug and darted off inside the school to escape the impending Portland rain.
I drove up to the office in record time. I was going so fast, I was actually a little surprised that nobody tried to pull me over. I guessed they could see how serious I was about this. I wanted to get there, settle in, and actually get some work done. I had been so distracted last week, struggling to keep my shit together. The good days and the bad days sometimes piled up very suddenly, and I just had to accept that the hard days were going to control me when they came along.
“Morning,” Yara called to me as soon as I entered my office. We were on the third floor of a beautiful office building—well, the main part of the company was, anyway. This was where all the heads of department hung out, where we worked to make sure the pieces below us were running smoothly. There were dozens of our offices all over the country, but this was where it had all started.
Actually, that wasn’t true. It had started with my grandfather, the same man who had started this business all those years ago. He had gotten in on the tech bubble before it had even really swollen to the all-consuming state it was in now, and he had set our family up for life with some amazing investments and by working with some talented up-and-comers. I had taken over as CEO as soon as I was old enough, as soon as my father had stepped down from the role. And the first thing I had done as head of Neo was hire Yara as my publicist.
“Morning,” I said, greeting her right back. Hiring her had been one of the best decisions I’d ever made as part of my time here. I knew from the moment that I met her that I wanted her working alongside me as much as I possibly could. She was passionate, dedicated, and intelligent—everything that I wanted from the people I worked with. Her mind was sharp, and her tongue was sharper, and she knew just how to get what we needed from the people around us.
“You get Winnie off to school okay?” she asked.
I nodded. “Just about. It was kind of a rush.”
Yara had been so helpful with me since I had taken in my niece. We’d become fast friends in the time that we had worked together, and she would never know how grateful I was that she had stepped up to help me parent when I had least expected to become one.
“You picking her up after school today?” she asked, tucking a strand of her cropped brown hair behind her ear. She was wearing the same pair of sensible silver studs in her ears that she always wore, and they caught the light.
“Yeah, no meetings on a Monday, remember?” I said. I had put the rule in place when I realized that I was leaving other people to take care of Winnie for me most afternoons. I wanted there to be at least one day a week that I actually got to spend time with her properly, even if I knew she was going to twist my arm to get something everyone else wasn’t enough of a soft touch to hand over to her.
“Of course, of course, right.” She checked her schedule. “For you maybe, but we aren’t all so lucky.”
“Well, all you have to do is get born into a family that owns the company, and then you can make your own rules,” I said, teasing her lightly. She raised her eyebrows at me.
“Hey, you’re getting dangerously close to letting me hate on you right now,” she warned me. “I’ll catch you for coffee at eleven or so, okay?”
“Please make sure I’m out of here by two-thirty at the latest,” I said.
She nodded, offering me a little salute. “Anything you say, boss.”
And with that, she was off, leaving me to answer all the emails that had accumulated over the weekend. I had started taking that time away from work so I wasn’t hanging on my phone constantly and was actually doing something constructive with Winnie, but it meant that I had at least fifty to get back to by the time I arrived back at my desk.
It was good to keep my mind busy, though, because it was far too easy to get caught up in what was going on in there when I was at rest. It was even harder when I was around Winnie all the time. She was only nine years old, and yet, I felt like she had been through so very much that it sometimes hurt to think about all the pain that she had suffered.
I wondered how she coped sometimes. I struggled enough without my sister, Theresa, Winnie’s mother. About a year ago, she’d died in a car accident—quick, fatal, no room for argument. Everything in my life had flipped into flux in that instant. Nothing could stay the same, not when the person who had done so much to keep it that way was just gone. She had always been the person I’d looked to for support and advice when I felt like I couldn’t keep my shit together, and now I had to step up and take care of her daughter. It was what she had wanted. I had known that for a long time, sure, but the truth was I hadn’t actually imagined that I would ever have to come through and actually do it. I didn’t think I could be a father, not really. But it turned out that when you had no choice, it was amazing what you could achieve. The things that you could do. The places that you could take yourself.
I met Yara for our usual coffee, and we talked about what had happened over the weekend—Yara still went out and partied every now and then, and I listened to her stories of hitting the town with some nostalgia. I had used to be able to do that whenever I wanted. Parenting was fulfilling in a whole different way, of course, but that didn’t mean I didn’t find myself missing it once in a while.
When two-thirty came around, I shut off my computer and drove across town to pick Winnie up from school. She was just approaching the gate when I got there, and I pushed open the door and let her roll across the seat toward me.
“Seatbelt,” I reminded her, and she clipped herself in. She clasped her little bag to her chest and looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“Did you think about the ice cream?” she asked.
I laughed at her. She could be so stubborn when she wanted to be. And I just didn’t have it in me to say no.
“All right, just one scoop,” I replied, though I knew that she would basically be having two—one of hers and then a bunch of mine because I never had much appetite at this time in the afternoon. Besides, now that I had less time to hit the gym, I had to be more careful about what I ate so that I didn’t get that notorious dad body.
“Yay!” She clapped her hands together, and I reached over to give her a hug. I just couldn’t say no to her. I didn’t want to, not after everything that she had been through already. She deserved the best life that she could have, and I was always going to go out of my way to provide it to her.
We pulled away from the school, and rain started to patter on the window. I didn’t mind. I could handle a little gloominess because all the sunshine I needed was right there in the seat beside me.
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