“Daddy,” a small voice whispered.
I lay completely still and kept my eyes closed. My alarm was set for six and hadn’t gone off yet, but my daughters had been up for at least twenty minutes. I’d heard them talking through the thin wall separating my bedroom from the one they shared in my crappy apartment. Now they were playing their favorite game, which was to stand next to me while I slept and talk shit about me.
“Daddy.” The voice was a little louder now, and I recognized it—my five-year-old, Luna. “We heard you snoring.”
I continued playing possum.
(And for the record, I don’t fucking snore.)
“Daddy always looks so funny when he sleeps.” Luna got the game started. “Don’t you think?”
“Yes.” That was Hallie, my eight-year-old. “He makes grumpy faces.”
“And weird breathing noises.”
“Yeah. And he’s so hairy.”
“Daddy’s not that hairy,” Luna whispered defensively. “Just some right there.”
Since the blankets were at my waist, I imagined her little finger pointing at my chest, although they often made fun of my hairy legs and scruffy jaw.
“Yeah, but have you ever seen his armpits?” Hallie asked. “They’re super hairy.”
Just to mess with them, I flopped one arm over my head, putting one armpit on display.
“Ew.” Luna giggled. “You’re right. Gross.”
“I’m never getting tattoos,” Hallie announced. The girls were both fascinated and horrified by the ink on my biceps.
“Why would anybody let someone draw on them with a needle?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could just use a permanent marker and it wouldn’t hurt.”
“That’s a good idea,” Luna said enthusiastically. “Let’s do it on each other later.”
I was about to sit up and inform them there would be no fucking tattoos given with permanent markers on my watch—I could already hear their mother yelling at me for it—when Hallie said, “Let’s poke him.”
One of them poked my ribs with a bony finger.
“Grrr.” I growled long and low and opened one eye. “Who poked the bear?”
“She did.” Standing beside my bed, they pointed at each other.
The hall light lit them from behind, illuminating their messy hair and summer nightgowns—Hallie’s had owls all over it and Luna’s had a unicorn on the front. I couldn’t see their feet, but I knew Luna’s were bare and Hallie had socks on because she hated being barefoot, even in summer.
“What do you want?” I grabbed the covers and pulled them over my head. “I’m hibernating.”
“Hibernation is for the winter, Daddy,” said Hallie. “It’s August right now. You’re just sleeping.”
“Am I?” I said from beneath the blanket.
“Well, you were.”
“You know why?” Coming out from beneath the covers, I reached over to the nightstand and tapped my phone screen. “Because it’s not even fucking five a.m., and that is what normal human beings do at this hour.”
“Mom says you’re not supposed to say that word around us,” Hallie reminded me.
“Mom’s not fucking here.” Remembering not to curse was a tough job after twelve years in the Navy, something my ex didn’t seem to appreciate.
“Can we get up now, Daddy?” Luna tugged the blankets impatiently.
“No. I didn’t even get up this early in boot camp.”
“But we can’t sleep.” Luna hopped onto my bed, climbed over me, and got under the covers.
“We’re too excited about the new house.”
“Oh.” I was excited about today’s move too—I’d never liked this apartment. And despite being called the Luxury Harbor Complex, the place was neither luxurious nor anywhere close to the harbor.
But I hadn’t had much time or choice when I was looking for somewhere to live after Naomi asked me to move out two years ago. All I wanted was somewhere close to the elementary school, somewhere I could afford, and somewhere not too far from the fire station where I worked. As soon as I moved in, I’d started saving for a down payment.
The new place wasn’t big by any measure—it was a two-story, attached townhouse. But it was an end unit, much roomier and newer than the apartment, and the surroundings were way better. There was a grassy area for the girls to play out back, a park within walking distance, and a pool. We’d have two full bathrooms, a garage, and I wouldn’t be able to hear anyone else’s arguments, toilets, or televisions through the walls.
Was it enough to make up for the fact that they’d have to go back and forth between two places for the rest of their childhood? Or wonder why their mom and dad didn’t love each other anymore? Or erase from their memory all the fights they’d heard?
But it was somewhere we’d get a fresh start, a permanent place to call home, and a chance for me to prove I could be the kind of father I wanted to be.
That was enough for me.
“Listen, girls.” I yawned loudly. “Moving into the new house is exciting, but I promise it’s still going to be that way once the sun comes up, so let’s try to get a little more shut-eye.”
Hallie scrambled into the bed too, forcing me to move to the middle to accommodate them both. “Can we sleep in here?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Then I guess you can. But go turn off the hall light first.”
Hallie dutifully got out of bed, switched off the light, and hurried back under the covers.
“And you have to actually sleep, okay? No talking,” I ordered.
Stretching out on my back, I closed my eyes, knowing the silence wouldn’t last. Sure enough, not ten seconds went by before Luna spoke up.
“Daddy, can we please ride in the truck today?”
“Because there’s no time. You guys can stay with Aunt Bree and your cousins while Uncle Justin and I get the big stuff moved in.”
“What about after the big stuff is moved in?” Luna asked hopefully.
“We’ll see. Go to sleep.”
It would have been easier to make the move when I didn’t have the girls, but the timing shook out this way, and I refused to give up any of my days with them. My work schedule—twenty-four hours on and three days off—and the custody arrangement meant that I only got them two days a week, and those two days were always shifting around.
Naomi was willing to be flexible, but since she had to arrange her client appointments at the salon based on my work schedule, I’d promised her I wouldn’t ask for changes once the calendar was set for the month—although that never stopped her from trying to see them during my days or nagging me about things she didn’t think I could handle, like Luna’s nut allergies or Hallie’s compulsive tendencies or any kind of scheduled appointments.
“We’ll bring our stuff and stay the night in our new beds tonight, right?” Hallie pressed.
“Yes.” Frowning, I remembered there was something else I was supposed to do tonight—make an appearance at an engagement party for Chip Carswell, my best friend from high school.
If it was anyone else, I’d have blown it off, but I hadn’t seen Chip in several years, and he was only in town for one night. He pitched for the White Sox, and time off during the season was severely limited. I’d have to bring the girls to the party with me, but maybe that would be good because it would give me an excuse to get in and get out fast. Parties weren’t really my thing.
But I’d told Chip I’d be there, and I didn’t take my word lightly.
“Daddy?” Now it was Hallie.
“I was wondering.”
The girl was always wondering. She asked more fucking questions than anyone I’d ever known and never accepted an answer she didn’t like.
“It’s too early for wondering,” I told her. “No wondering before six a.m. That’s the rule.”
“You can’t just turn off wondering, Daddy. It’s not like a TV.”
“Can I at least mute it?”
“What I was wondering about,” she went on, pretending she hadn’t heard me—a particular skill of hers, possibly learned from her mother—“was did you have to wear boots at boot camp?”
“Is that why it’s called that?”
I yawned again. “Sure.”
“Was it like summer camp?”
“No. Except that it was hot.”
“What did you do there?”
“A lot of push-ups.”
“Is that how you got your muscles?”
“Some of them.”
“And you held your breath under water a long time, right?”
“That was SEAL training.”
She was quiet a moment. “When Mommy first told me you were a Navy SEAL, I pictured you in a dark blue seal costume.”
Eyes closed, I cracked a smile. “Yeah?”
“Yes. And your whiskers were light blue. And I imagined you worked somewhere like Sea World. Swimming in a tank and doing tricks for people, and they’d clap for you.”
“That would have been more fun than what I did.”
“What did you do?”
“Lots of things.” Mostly I’d just tried to keep my team alive and our gear intact. Which wasn’t that different from being a single dad, really.
“Mom says she never knew where you were or what you were doing.”
“That’s because I couldn’t always tell her.”
She lay back and settled under the covers again, turning onto her side to face me. “You were gone a long time.”
“I know.” As always, I felt torn when faced with the truth. I was proud of my career, but it had come at a price—my marriage, seeing my kids born, watching them take their first steps, hearing them say their first words. Three years ago, when I’d come home for good, Hallie hadn’t wanted to hug me—she knew I was her daddy, but I was unfamiliar to her in person. And little Luna screamed her head off when I held her. She had no idea who I was.
I knew guys in the military who could shrug that stuff off, but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t want to be one of them.
“But you’re not going away anymore, right?” Hallie reached over and took my arm, hugging it close like a stuffed animal.
“No. I’m not going away anymore.” Thanks to gunshot wounds in my right leg that had rendered me unfit to be a SEAL, my Navy career was over. No fucking way was I going to take some boring desk job. I’d been offered a teaching position at sniper school, and I’d considered it, but Naomi had made it clear that if I took the position, she wasn’t coming with me to Indiana—that she and our daughters would remain in Michigan where we’d grown up. She wanted a familiar home, she wanted family nearby, she wanted stability, for herself and for the girls . . . and I couldn’t blame her.
I’d told the Navy I was out and moved back here, taking a job as a firefighter and trying to ease back into civilian and family life. But the marriage hadn’t survived, and I was now a single dad.
Truth be told, I liked it better this way.
And most days I thought I was doing a decent fucking job of it, although I swore too much, burned a lot of dinners, and couldn’t get Hallie’s pigtails even to save my life.
But I was here, I was trying my best, and I always put my children first—which was more than my father had done.
And despite the charred hamburgers and constant F-bombs, the girls liked being with me, and they always gave me extra long hugs when it was time for them to go back to their mom.
They often told me they loved me, and I was still getting used to hearing it—and saying it back.
On one side of me, Hallie snuggled closer and brought up her knees, which jabbed me painfully in the hip. On the other side, a sleeping Luna rolled over, slapped a hand on my chest, and kicked me. But they were still breathing, which meant I’d successfully kept two humans alive for one more day.
I called that a victory.
* * *
I woke up before my alarm went off and carefully snaked my way out of bed without waking the girls, which required tactics in stealth and breath control that rivaled what I’d learned in sniper training. But today was going to be hectic, and I wanted just one cup of coffee in the calm before the storm. With one final glance at them, I silently threw on a TCFD T-shirt and traded my sweatpants for a pair of jeans.
In the kitchen, I stuck a pod in the machine, and finished packing up a kitchen box while it brewed. My lease wasn’t up here until the end of the week, so I didn’t have to completely empty the place out, but I wanted to get as much done today as possible. My sister’s husband, Justin, who was also a firefighter on the same shift as me, was helping to move the big stuff this morning—not that there was much of it. The plan was to drop the girls off at their house and then go get the truck. Bree, my younger sister, would bring them over later.
While the girls were still asleep in my room, I stripped their twin beds and stuffed the bedding into big garbage bags. Then I lugged the mattresses aside and grabbed a screwdriver, removing the headboards from the frames. The dresser they’d used at my apartment was already empty, and each of them had a suitcase packed and ready to go. Their clothing for today was laid out on the dresser top.
I was double checking that the closet was empty when they came shuffling into the room.
“Is it time to get up now?” Luna asked hopefully, scratching her belly.
“Yes,” I said. “Get dressed and we can go for donuts on the way to Aunt Bree’s.”
“Mom doesn’t let us have donuts,” she said.
“Mom’s not fucking here,” replied Hallie.
“Hey!” I gave my older daughter a sharp stare. “No cursing.”
“But you do it all the time.”
“That’s because I’m a grouchy old man, and I earned the right.”
Hallie stuck her hands on her skinny little hips. “How come Mom says she’s still young and you say you’re old, but you’re both thirty-four?”
“Mom says she’s young?” Luna sounded surprised as she tugged off her nightgown.
“Yes,” Hallie answered, spying the mattresses I had propped against the wall. She began running at them full speed and bouncing off again. “Last week when she told us she and Bryce were getting married, I said I didn’t know brides could be as old as her, and she said brides could be any age as long as they believe in happily ever after.”
At the mention of Naomi’s boyfriend, a wealthy guy we’d gone to high school with I’d never much liked, I snorted. The thought of that asshole succeeding where I’d failed made me want to punch things.
And as for happily ever after, good fucking luck.
“What about you, Daddy?” Hallie asked, flinging herself at the mattress again.
“What about me?”
“Do you believe in happily ever after?”
“No.” I handed Luna her socks. That’s when I noticed she had gum in her hair. Frowning, I examined the remnants of the watermelon Hubba Bubba the girls had begged me for at the store yesterday.
Annoyed, I turned to face her. “Because most adults outgrow fairy tales once they stop thinking like children. I’m one of them.”
Hallie made a face. “That’s stupid. No one is too old to be happy.”
“Never mind.” I tossed Hallie’s shorts and shirt at her. “Get dressed while I find the scissors. If I can’t get that gum out of Luna’s hair, I have to cut it out.”
Luna gasped and covered her matted blond curls with her hands. “No! Last time, you made it uneven and Mom yelled at me because I’m not supposed to have gum. And you were supposed to know that.”
“Sorry.” I held up my hands. “I’ll do better this time.”
“You promise?” She eyed me warily, reluctant to let go of her head.
“Make him pinkie swear,” said Hallie as she yanked up her shorts.
I held out my pinkie, and Luna hooked her tiny finger over mine. “I swear to do a better job this time,” I told her. “Now you swear to stop trying to chew gum and eat your hair at the same time.”
She laughed. “I promise.”
* * *
Just after eight, I hustled the girls out the door, slightly behind schedule. As anxious as they were to move into the new place, they could dawdle like it was an Olympic sport.
But it had taken me a solid twenty minutes of working on the gum in Luna’s hair before I gave up and cut it out, and then Hallie hadn’t been able to find her lucky penny. After turning the apartment upside down and mopping her tears—“but you gave me that lucky penny on my first day of school last year and I need it for this year too or else I won’t be okay!”—I promised her I’d come back and look for it later, but we had to get going in order to pick up the truck on time. She was still sobbing as I hurried them out to the parking lot, where Luna tripped on a loose chunk of asphalt and skinned her knee.
Now both girls were crying.
I carried Luna back into the apartment as she howled in pain, Hallie following close behind, the lost penny momentarily forgotten in light of the bloody knee.
Setting Luna on the counter, I cleaned her off and dug through the box labeled BATHROOM until I found a bandage.
“Those are plain.” Luna sniffed tearfully at my beige Band-Aid. “Mom has pink ones with Hello Kitty on them.”
I clenched my teeth. “Do you want to go by Mom’s house to get one?”
“Would we still have time for donuts?”
The girls exchanged a look. “Then I’ll have the plain,” Luna said. “But kiss it first.”
I kissed the bandage and she giggled. “Not the Band-Aid, Daddy. My strawberry.”
Leaning over, I kissed the red abrasion on her knee, then gently covered it with a boring beige Band-Aid. “I’ll get some better ones at the store, okay?”
“Okay. Ask Mom where she gets the Hello Kitty ones,” she said as I lifted her down.
“I’ll think about it.”
Twenty minutes later, we were heading for my sister’s house, eating glazed donuts and banging our heads along to some hard rock, which the girls called “Dad music.” In the rearview mirror, I looked at my daughters, and as always, I was half-stunned to see them sitting back there—was I really a father?—and fully knocked out by how much I adored them. Sometimes I thought I might be having a heart attack when I looked at them. The feeling was that powerful.
Hallie had my dark hair and brown eyes as well as my stubborn streak and smart-ass mouth. She had Naomi’s lightly freckled nose and relentless need to ask questions. Physically, Luna was her mother through and through, from the blond curls to the dimpled smile, but she was much more easygoing, and she always laughed at my jokes.
I turned down the music. “So how did I do this morning?” This was another game they loved—giving me a score based on how well I’d handled the morning. I’d invented it to distract them from missing their mom in the early days of the split. “Ten, right?”
“I don’t know about ten,” Hallie said. “I think there should be a point off for cutting Luna’s hair.”
“But that was her gum,” I argued.
“Still. And then my lucky penny got lost.”
“You lost the penny!”
“And you didn’t have Hello Kitty Band-Aids,” Luna added, wiping her hands on the front of her shirt.
“That’s three things,” Hallie said. “And ten minus three is seven.”
“Seven out of ten?” I shook my head. “No fucking way. I need at least an eight.”
“You did let us sleep in your bed,” Hallie allowed. “I guess we could give you a point for that.”
“And we’ll give you another one for a ride in the truck!” Luna added.
“Hmmm.” I pretended to consider their offer. “So I’d get a nine out of ten?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Fine. But I’m playing Dad music the whole time.” I cranked up the volume on Aerosmith and rolled down the windows.
Nine out of ten wasn’t perfect, but I’d fucking take it.