Better Than You

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Chapter 4

Babysitting was a pain and it hurt even more when you weren’t being paid appropriately enough for it. Of course, I should’ve been glad that I wasn’t getting grounded after Mom overheard Haley and I talking about what happened in practice. Instead, I was paying in kind by staying home to watch over my three little cousins while the parents spent the night out.

Not that I wouldn’t have babysat for free anyway because I was a good niece, but why exactly was I getting punished for hitting Bryce on the head with a football? Bryce was a big boy. But no, ‘revenge is never the answer’.

Sure, Mom.

The thing about babysitting kids in groups: somehow they were rowdier in numbers. Where one kid would’ve been just fine with watching Netflix, the other kids wanted to watch a different show, or to play a game on the Xbox. Compromise was impossible. Turning on the TV equalled screaming. Lots of screaming. So I’d decided no TV and we’d play bingo instead.

The kids were not pleased.

Well, they seemed into it for the first few minutes. The three-year-old Evie insisted on sitting on my lap and being the one to call out the numbers even though she had to check with me on what to announce every time she picked out a ball.

Six-year-old Penelope and her seven-year-old brother Miles complained every minute, “Why can’t you just say the numbers, Maddie?”

“Don’t you want Evie to learn her letters and numbers faster?” I replied, tickling Penelope. She giggled and rolled onto her card, making the clear-coloured circles marking her bingo sheet spread away from her card.

“Oh, no!”

Oh, no.

“It’s alright,” I said quickly, handing her the markers. “You can just put them back on. We’ll wait for you.”

It was hard enough getting them all to gather around together, sit down and psych them up about playing bingo. I emphasised the words “the winner will get a prize” just to get their attention.

Was prize a magic word or an unlucky word with kids?

“Maddie, she’s cheating!”

“Pen! What did we say about cheating? Didn’t we pinky promise that we were going to play fair and square?”

Evie pointed a little finger at her older sister, face crunched up in a little frown that was almost identical to her brother’s. “No cheating, Pennie.”

“We don’t have to point fingers,” I told Evie, taking her arm and hugging her.

“I’m not cheating! I’m just decorating my card,” Penelope said.

“Don’t you want to decorate your cards after the game? That way we can have an art contest next. That’s fun, right?”

Penelope’s upper lip wobbled. “I just wanted to make it pretty.”

This was going to be a long night.

It was so much easier when they were younger. Now, these kids argued like my sister and I did when we were their age. It was the kind of arguments that entailed tantrums where adults had to intervene instead of just silent treatments.

No, tantrums were chaos especially when everyone wanted to be right.

Miles, intent on winning the game, took her card and flipped it over.

“Miles, no!”

And then there was crying, there was me, calmly talking to the eldest child, asking him why he felt like he had to flip over his sister’s card and there was the youngest one, shielding a part of my view as she hugged me, burying her head in the crook on my neck, whispering, “Pennie’s crying.”

“Don’t cry, Pen,” I said, stroking her hair. “We can restart the game. It’s okay.”

“I don’t want to play with him anymore.”

“But we’re a family,” I said. “We love to do things together.”

“No.”

I sighed. “Miles, can you apologise to your sister?”

“What’s apologise?” Evie whispered as if she was afraid to cause a bigger fuss. At least one of them was being mature.

“It means to say sorry.”

“Sorry, Pennie,” Evie said.

I laughed. “Not you, silly. But thank you.”

“I forgive you,” Penelope said before shooting a glare at Miles. “Not you.”

“Wait, what--”

I was cut off with the sound of the doorbell. The sound must’ve triggered the happy, all-is-forgotten button on these kids because everyone jumped up and yelled, “Pizza!”

Oh, thank God.

Picking Evie up, I walked over to the front door while grabbing my wallet on one of the counters on the way there. I searched for cash and said out loud, “How much is the pizza?”

“Eleven dollars!” Miles offered from the living room.

I’d pay twenty dollars for an extra large one if it’d make them stop fighting. With a normal sized pizza, I’d bet that they’d make a scene over the last slice, too.

“Wait, did I even order pizza?” I asked Evie as I reached the door. She shrugged. “Then who on earth is at the door?”

I stood on my toes to check the peep hole. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“Why?” Evie asked.

I swung the door open. “What do you want?” “Bryce!” Evie exclaimed, reaching for him. It might’ve hurt my feelings if my arms weren’t already hurting from carrying her and if my head wasn’t aching from all the mediation I spent the last hour doing.

“Hello to you, too,” he said to me blandly before taking Evie from me. “Hey, princess. I missed you.”

Princess? No wonder she liked him so much. I definitely wasn’t jealous. Evie loved me more and she was probably just blinded by Bryce’s boyish charms that seemed to keep working against my favour.

“What are you doing here, Bryce?”

“Mom asked me to go over here and help out with the kids,” he answered. “She’s out with your parents.”

“I don’t need help, thanks.”

And on cue, like the universe– and apparently my own family– wanted to make me look bad in front of Bryce for the rest of my life, Miles shouted, “Maddie, I didn’t do it!” and Penelope’s crying followed.

I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” Bryce raised an eyebrow.

“Bryce, we’re playing Bingo and I apologised,” Evie said proudly.

“For what?” he asked.

“I’ve done this babysitting job before many times,” I interrupted. “I can handle my cousins. I’m an expert at this, okay? I don’t understand why your mom or my mom thought I’d need your help, but I don’t. To be honest, you’ll only make things worse.”

“Your mom didn’t want me to tell you, but she’s paying me to babysit you, too,” he deadpanned.

“Funny.”

“Well it makes sense with you acting like a kid all of the sudden,” he said. “You know, hitting me on the head during practice, calling me names–”

“You hit him?” Evie said, jaw dropping.

“He’s kidding,” I said quickly, fighting the unattractive scowl that was fighting its way onto my face. “It’s wrong to hit other people.” What a hypocrite. “Does he look like I hit him?”

Evie studied his face. “No, you’re still handsome.”

I shouldn’t have asked. I might’ve been better off letting her believe that I did hit him and explaining to her that sometimes, you have to stand up for what you believe in because her answer did wonders for Bryce’s already swollen ego. He smirked and shot me a wink. Evie giggled.

“She’s crying for no reason again,” Miles said loud enough for the upstairs to hear. “She’s such a big baby. Is the pizza here yet? It doesn’t smell like pizza.”

A sigh escaped my lips like it was releasing the smallest bit of weight off my shoulders, though they hunched forward still. Maybe I could use a break. “You can stay,” I told Bryce, grabbing his forearm and pulling him into the house. “But you need to order pizza. A big box. Pepperoni and cheese.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Maddie!”

"Now, please.”

-

If Bryce and I were siblings, we’d have been just like Miles and Penelope, except with less crying on my part. But since we weren’t siblings and because my mom was always on close watch, our rivalry had never actually lead to any screaming matches or tumbling on the floor kind of fights.

No, I hated the guy silently. Silent enough for only him to hear it.

That was all I could think about as the two girls fussed over him while I helped Miles set up the Xbox. I hated how Penelope stopped crying to tell Bryce the story of what happened at school and how Miles asked him to play on the Xbox with him, the crying and the screaming and the fighting all forgotten.

I hated how Bryce’s presence eased my stress even just a little bit. But it did. To the point that when I knew that all three of my cousin’s were preoccupied with something, I leaned back onto the couch and closed my eyes.

After a minute, I felt the couch dip on my right side. “Hey.”

I opened an eye to look up at him before pushing myself up to see what the kids were up to. Miles was busy on the Xbox and the girls were watching him while playing with Penelope’s dolls. “Thank you,” I said.

“What was that?” Bryce grinned.

“I’m not saying it again.”

“You still think you don’t need the help?”

“I usually don’t,” I said. “They’re getting more opinionated everyday. Who knew there were so many things to fight about?”

“Well, we kind of have a good idea,” Bryce said, shooting me a knowing look.

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I guess it’s a good thing you came over after all. They really love you.”

“Don’t say it like that.”

“I’m not saying it like anything.”

“Don’t say it like you resent that they love me. Them liking me doesn’t make them like you any less.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“Weren’t you?” When I didn’t answer, watching Miles shoot down ten guys in one go instead, Bryce continued. “They love you. They’re just more comfortable with you. They’re kids. They’re going to be rowdy and that doesn’t mean they hate you.”

“I know,” I said. “I was just hoping to get them away from the TV for once.”

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, glancing at his handiwork– all kids focused on the TV monitor.

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I was going to do the same thing if they didn’t stop fighting anyway but they usually fight over the TV, too, by they way. I guess they’re just more shy to make a scene in front of you.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” he flashed a smile.

“They don’t do anything without a gadget anymore,” I said. “They’re like robots. Look at them, they’re mesmerised.”

Bryce laughed. “We weren’t like that as kids, were we?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. We did much funner things.”

Our eyes locked, our smiles grew knowingly like we were suddenly falling in sync.

-

Twenty minutes later, I took the remote and shut off the TV, waiting for Miles to reach the checkpoint where the game saved on it’s own so that he didn’t totally freak out.

“Hey!”

“You can play that game any other day,” I told him. “Don’t you want to do something fun while both Bryce and I are here?”

“My game was fun,” Miles mumbled.

“It’s not everyday that you get two pros like us in the same room,” Bryce said.

Penelope groaned. “Are you guys going on about soccer again?”

“What’s wrong with soccer?” I demanded.

“I’d rather watch Miles play Xbox.”

“But don’t you guys want to settle your differences with a friendly game of soccer? It’s going to be loads of fun,” I said.

“We’re not fighting anymore,” Miles pointed out, sneakily reaching for his game controller. Bryce caught his arm, before he could touch it and by the shoulders, dragged the kid back to face me. “Right, Pen?”

“Yeah, we’re friends again.”

“But he didn’t even apologise,” I said immaturely but Bryce and I had literally just spent the last half hour setting up the living room with makeshift goals. We moved the couch and tables around and they had barely noticed.

“I’m sorry, Pennie,” Evie piped up.

Bryce raised his eyebrows questioningly at me before saying, “Whatever it doesn’t matter. We’re playing.”

Miles dropped his arm at his sides and walked over to me. “Fine, whatever but I’m teammates with Maddie.”

“Why don’t you want to be teammates with me?” Bryce asked.

“Because Maddie said you’re not that good.”

I choked on my laugh.

“She said that, huh?” Bryce said, eyes surveying me slowly, challenged and ready.

“I don’t remember saying that,” I said.

“You said last week that–”

My hand raced to cover his mouth. Not that there was anything Miles could say that Bryce hadn’t already heard straight out of my own mouth but I would’ve liked to not sound like the bad guy. “Great, let’s play.”

“Your cousin’s all talk, kid,” Bryce said. “That’s okay, you’ll have a hard time believing her over your own eyes.” I rolled my eyes. Bryce held out his hand for Penelope to hi-five. “Let’s kick their ass.”

“Penelope can’t do sports.”

“Yes, I can!”

“No, you can’t! You’re just going to cry.”

“I’m telling Mom.”

“Remember what I said,” I said, raising my voice, grabbing Miles by the shirt while Bryce held on to Penelope’s shoulder to keep them at least a meter away from each other. “We can settle our differences through a friendly game of soccer.”

“And Penelope is going to cry because she’s going to lose,” Miles said.

Before Penelope could counter, I said, “Or maybe Bryce is going to cry.”

Penelope giggled while Bryce accepted every challenge laced in my tone. In this friendly game of soccer, maybe we were going to settle our differences too. I mean, we weren’t too bad at working together. Maybe we could settle our differences forever.

But where would the fun be in that?

“What about me?” Evie said, arms stretched upwards, gesturing for Bryce to pick her up. “Who’s team am I going to be on?”

“You’re going to have the most important part of it all,” Bryce said, carrying her over to the couch. “You’re going to be the cheerleader.” I rolled my eyes. Of course Bryce would find that part the most important. But when the toddler smiled up at him, I couldn’t help the smile that found it’s way onto my face too.

“Okay, you two,” I said to Penelope and Miles. “Shake hands. Remember, we’re going to be good sports about this, okay?”

As they shook hands, making faces at each other tauntingly, Bryce held out his hand for me. His hand was rough and calloused, large like they could everything in it. I was careful as I shook his hand and I was shocked when he grasped my fingers, pulling me to him so we were chest to chest and he was looking down at me, a smirk breaking through every one of his features that made normal girls melt. “Game on, Mads.”

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