Two Broken People

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8| Atlas: Heart

M a x i e


I successfully survived my first week back at school. Despite the broken nose- which was healing fantastically, if I may add— it wasn’t a bad first week. Maizie and I had fallen into an easy routine of waking up, going to school, work, and then bedtime— only to do it all over again the next day. I did have to say, I got lucky with her because she’s nothing short of an angel. She was the sweetest and most well behaved three year old that I have ever met. I may be biased, but who cares.


“Okay, bub. Are you almost ready?” I called over to Maizie as I finished curling the last few sections of my hair, trying my hardest not to singe my fingers in the process.


“Yes, sissy.” She finished shoving her feet into her faux Doc Martens before running over to me and wrapping herself around my legs.


I almost toppled over with her added weight, but caught myself just in time.


“Careful there, killer.” I rolled my eyes playfully and tried to wiggle her off, but failed miserably.


I let my curls cool down before quickly running my fingers through the strands to loosen them, my hair now falling in beach worthy waves down my back.


“Okay. Ready.” I bent down, scooping Maizie up into my arms.


Carl was outside— already waiting— when we walked out. As soon as he saw us, he gave us a warm smile and waved, promptly sliding out of the car and opening the back seat for me. A blush warmed my cheeks as I struggled to carry both Maizie and her car seat. I couldn’t wait till this kid was in a booster, better yet— no child seat at all.


“Good morning, Ladies.” Carl greeted us, taking the carseat from my hands and placing it into the back seat. He swiftly strapped it all in, double checking the seatbelt to make sure that it was secure.


“Good mownin’, Cawl.” Maizie chimed from my arms, beating me to the punch.


“Thank you for that.” I smiled at him, pointing to the car seat that he had successfully secured in the back seat.


“Of course.” He gave me another smile before slipping back into the driver’s side, leaving me to buckle in Maizie and slide into the passenger seat next to him.


——


I pulled open the door to the high school and looked over my shoulder, offering Carl one last wave. Out of all of the people I had met since moving to town, he had to be one of the kindest. Every day, he waited until I walked into the school building safely before pulling away. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of him being one of my first friends here.


The cool air washed over me as I walked into the foyer and made my way down the hall, towards my locker.


I spun the combination into the lock and pulled my backpack off of my shoulder, grabbing whatever books I needed for the first half of my day, shoving them into my bag before closing my locker door, the metallic clang ringing through the air.


The first half of the day went by in the blink of an eye. Before I knew it, my body was pulling me towards fourth period— the period right before lunch. My stomach growled at the mere thought of lunch, even if it was the nasty cafeteria food. I could eat a horse right now.


The warning bell rang just as I was walking through the door. I took a seat near the back and two hands rested on the top of my shoulders, startling me. I jolted forward in my seat before twisting around to see a familiar face smiling back at me.


“Jerk, you scared me half to death.” I placed a hand over my heart dramatically, to show the panic that Easton caused with his unannounced touch.


He rolled his eyes playfully, chuckling lightly. “I’m sorry, girl. The look on your face was priceless though.” He chuckled again.


I rolled my eyes in reply. “Thanks for the heart attack. I’m sure you’ve managed to cut a few years off of my life.” A grin played at the corners of my lips as I tried to glare at him.


He shrugged his shoulders, the both of us sitting in silence for a moment as the rest of our classmates continued to file in through the door.


“So, I heard about your ball to the face.” He cringed as soon as the words left his lips but I can’t help the string of giggles that seeped out of me.


A blush rose to his light brown complexion and a smile coaxed the corners of his lips to rise. I had to admit, Easton was a beautiful man and his smile was infectious. He definitely dressed differently than most of the boys in this school— hell, most of the boys I’ve ever met— but he was trendy. He looked like he should be walking a runway, not the halls of this ordinary high school.


Today he was wearing a pair of straight leg dress pants— that look like they probably cost more than my rent— cuffed at the bottom, and a black button down that had white polka dots littered across it. The first two buttons were undone revealing a small sliver of tanned skin. To tie the outfit together he was wearing a pair of white sneakers that looked brand new, not a speck of dirt or scuff on them. I instantly became self conscious of my own style choice.


This morning Maizie and I woke up late, I spent most of my morning making sure that she was dressed and fed. I threw some curls in my hair and splashed my face with a dusting of makeup before pulling on a pair of black leggings, a mustard colored sweater and my— half falling apart— black Vans sneakers.


Easton must be a mind reader because he leaned forward just slightly and whispered, “You look fine.” He offered me a genuine smile before shifting his eyes to the front of the room as the teacher walked in, closing the door behind himself.


With this, I twirled around in my seat, slinking down just slightly as I smiled like a fool thinking back to Easton’s compliment.


The teacher talked for the first half of the period, leaving us to work on our homework for the last twenty minutes.


“Psst!” I heard from behind me.


A grin slipped across my lips as I slowly turned around to meet a grinning Easton. “Wanna sit together at lunch?”


His invitation took me by surprise and so many emotions swirled around inside of me, mostly happiness and excitement. Other than Levi and Carl— my Uber driver— I hadn’t really met anyone else, or formed any kind of connections.


I nodded my head with a smile. “Of course.” I tucked a stray curl behind my ear before adding, “I’d love to. Outside, same place as last time?” I grinned.


“Hell yeah.” He chuckled. “I need some vitamin D.” He groaned dramatically.


Before long the bell rang, signaling the end of fourth period and the beginning of lunch.


“Ugh, finally.” Easton grumbled from behind me. “My belly has been loudly protesting for the past hour.”


I giggled and nodded my agreement. “Me too.”


With my books shoved back in my bag, I swung my backpack over my shoulder and walked out the door, Easton hot on my tail.


He followed me to my locker, afterwards I followed him to his and once our heavy bags were disposed of— locked away safely in our lockers— we headed to the cafeteria.


“What’re you thinking?” Easton asked me as we surveyed the choices in front of us.


I couldn’t help but to cringe at today’s selections. “Nothing even looks edible.” I said and just as I uttered the words, the cafeteria worker unloaded a fresh tray of French fries.


“Score.” Easton and I cried out in unison, causing us to both laugh.


We both grabbed two servings each and made our way to the courtyard.


It was absolutely gorgeous out today, the perfect fall day. It was probably an easy seventy degrees out but the autumn breeze was blowing through, making for ideal sweater weather.


I settled into the grass, pulling my tray into my lap before popping a steaming hot fry into my mouth. “Mm.” Is all I muttered as the salty, greasy goodness graced my tastebuds.


Easton settled beside me and chuckled. “Making love with a French fry. That’s new.”


A blush crept up my neck, reddening my face and Easton must have found it hilarious because he bursted into a fit of laughter. “How cute.” He grinned.


I shoved his shoulder playfully before sticking my tongue out at him, causing his laughter to boom even louder.


There was a moment of silence as we both enjoyed our food before either of us spoke again.


“So, call it too soon— but do you wanna come over today? Ever since moving here it hasn’t necessarily been easy to make friends— and Maxie you seem pretty damn cool.” Easton looked over at me, offering me a sheepish smile.


I couldn’t remember the last time I hung out with someone my age— other than Levi last week— I haven’t hung out with a friend of mine since before mom passed away. The thought instantly caused panic to rise in my chest.


Easton must have picked up on my unease, “If you don’t want to, it’s totally okay!” He offered me a reassuring smile but I could see the hurt hiding in his eyes.


“I-” I tried to speak but words failed me. I feel like crying, running away, hiding- but I’m planted firm in my spot.


“Okay.” I blurted and Easton instantly smiled.


I bit my bottom lip nervously. I didn’t know why I said yes.


Maxie, you’re so stupid.


It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with Easton, I just didn’t want to scare away one of the first friends I’ve made since starting over with Maizie. Levi was way cooler with the idea of Maizie than I ever would have expected, but I didn’t know how Easton would feel about the extra baggage that most teenagers thought children were.


“I just, um-” I sighed before continuing. “I’m going to have to bring my little sister, Maizie.” I could feel my cheeks start to heat up again as I stared intently at my half eaten tray of fries.


Easton didn’t bat an eyelash. “That’s totally fine! My siblings would love the playmate.” When I looked up he’s beaming at me.


My hesitation and panic instantly subsided. I choked back my emotion and finally forced out a reply. “Really?” I couldn’t help the smile that played on my lips.


He nodded as he dug into his own fries. “Of course! They’re four, six, and nine so I’m sure your sister will find someone her age to mesh with.” He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, popping another fry into his mouth.


The thought of Maizie having a playdate instantly warmed my heart. Other than daycare every day, she didn’t get much social interaction with other children.


“Awesome. She’ll be so excited. I just have to pick her up after school and then I’ll be over.” I shot him a smile.


“Do you need a ride or something?” He asked politely, not drawing too much attention to his question.


I thought about what to say for a moment. I wanted to say yes, but I also didn’t want to have to admit to not having a car and to the fact that I had to take an Uber everywhere I went.


I didn’t even have to say anything because Easton continued after a moment. “Just meet me in the parking lot after school.” He offered me a genuine smile.


A wide grin crept up on my lips as I nodded my head, the bell ringing— signaling the end of lunch.


“See you after school, Maxie.” Easton smiled at me as we parted ways.


“See ya.” I smiled, genuinely happy. I made a new friend and for the first time in a long time I was going over someone’s house. I was happy that Maizie got to meet some new friends and most of all, I was just happy that this new start was working out for us— so far.


——


The rest of the day definitely didn’t go by as fast as the first half of the day did. By the time sixth period rolled around, I was ready to fall asleep. Seventh period didn’t get any better. But finally when the bell rang for last period I started to feel a little more alive.


Eighth period was the only class I shared with Levi and since last week I hadn’t seen him much in school. He told me last week— after he missed school— that he was going through some stuff. I didn’t push the discussion any further, instead giving him his space all the while letting him know that I was there for him if he needed me.


We spent most days texting on and off from the time we woke up in the morning, until we fell asleep at night. We even spent a few nights watching movies together on FaceTime, each of us watching the same movie on our own tv’s, commenting on which parts were our favorites and which ones we hated.


To say me and Levi have grown closer in the last week would be an understatement— even without seeing each other. I learned that Levi loved a good rom-com but also loved some of the goriest horror movies ever made. I’ve also come to find how smart Levi was and how passionately he talked about the things he loved— like cars. I was clueless when it came to anything remotely automotive so his words sounded foreign to me, but I did catch myself googling some of the things he talked about, just to have some insight into what he enjoyed.


As much as I’ve learned about Levi, I’m sure he’s learned just as much about me. I haven’t told him anything yet about Maizie and I’s situation, but I have told him a lot about myself— which, believe it or not, was a very hard subject to talk about. And Levi always hung onto every single word I said, listening intently as if what I said truly mattered. It made me feel heard— special, even. Our phone calls at night quickly became the one thing I looked forward to the most, each day.


When I walked in I was disappointed to not see Levi in his normal seat. When he did show up he was either super early, or showed up ten to fifteen minutes late. I snapped a picture of his empty chair, sending it to him with a frowning emoji.


He texted back a few moments later.


I’m sorry. Had another rough night.


His reply made my heart swell and break all at once. It killed me to know that Levi was silently hurting, refusing to let anyone in to help— but part of me also knew what it felt like, not wanting to let anyone in ever again.


I’m sorry you had a rough night. Anything I can do? I’m bringing Maizie to a play date after school, but maybe you can come over tonight and we can watch a movie— in person this time?


I smiled at my reply. It was something that I had been wanting to ask for a few days now. Our night time FaceTime calls were great, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to be able to hear his laughter in person, catch the tears he always tried to hide.


I anxiously waited for him to reply while watching the swarm of students file in from the hallway. My phone vibrated in my pocket, startling me. Warmth flooded my system as I saw his name displayed across my screen. I immediately unlocked my phone and read the message.


Of course. I’d love that. I’ll bring over some dinner.


I couldn’t stop the smile that spread across my lips as I re-read his message. The butterflies instantly started to swarm the pit of my stomach, flapping their stupid little wings. Things were going really well for once and I couldn’t be happier.


——


After ditching whatever I didn’t need in my locker, I made my way out to the parking lot to meet Easton. By the time I finally emerged from the building, he was already waiting— leaning against a black Jeep that was no doubt lifted, something I learned about during one of my conversations with Levi. Some people felt the need to lift their vehicles even higher off the ground than they already were, and some people preferred them so low to the ground that they had to be careful about going over the smallest bump or pothole.


When he spotted me, he waved me over and offered me a warm smile. I jogged across the lot, dodging multiple classmates until I reached his car.


“Hey.” I gave him a wide smile and hiked my backpack further up my shoulder. “Maizie’s daycare is just downtown. I can give you directions.”


He chuckled. “Sounds good.” He tapped the hood of the Jeep before sliding into the driver’s seat.


I pulled my backpack off of my shoulders and slid into the passenger seat, admiring the freshly detailed interior of Easton’s car.


“Damn man, this car is beautiful.” There were cream leather seats, a control panel with far too many buttons— that I had the sudden urge to touch— equipped with an iPad size navigation screen and everything you’d imagine a fancy car to have. I’m instantly jealous, minus the higher size. It seriously took all my might to just hoist myself into this damn thing.


He beamed, a proud smile lighting up his face. “Thank you. I worked hard for this baby. Hundreds of hours slaving away at my dad’s law firm.”


“That’s amazing. You must be super proud.” I could see it written all across his face. I knew exactly how hard it was to focus on school with a demanding job on top of it.


I buckled my seatbelt and looked over at him. “How long have you been working at your dad’s law firm?”


He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. A look that I could only describe as sadness crossed his face. “Since I was fifteen. My dad wants me to be just like him. Take over his firm once he retires, the whole shebang.” He shrugged again.


“It’s just not something I see myself doing, but hey for now it helped me save up enough to get this baby.” He ran his hand across the dash with a laugh before turning the key in the ignition, the engine purring to life.


I offered him a reassuring smile. “I’m sure your dad just has your best interests in mind, and wants you to be as successful as him.”


Easton nodded. “He’s a good man. Sometimes he just forgets that I’m my own person. I can see the pride in his eyes when he talks about his business, and one day passing it down to me. I just can’t imagine myself being an attorney for the rest of my life. I see myself doing something... artistic. I love fashion. I hope that one day I can see my designs walking down the runway.” He shrugged his shoulders, his hands braced on the steering wheel, the car in reverse but we were still idling in the school parking lot.


I leaned a hand over and rested it gently on his shoulder. “I can definitely see that happening one day.” I gave him a genuine smile and when his eyes shifted to meet mine, I swear I saw the hazy film of tears glistening in the late afternoon sun. I leaned over, seatbelt and all, wrapping my arms around him and giving him a tight hug.


“I can already see your name in the lights!” I grinned as I pulled back.


——


I walked into Maizie’s daycare and she was already waiting by the door, her huge backpack on her back. I giggled at the sight, the bag was almost as big as her.


“Hey cute stuff.” I smiled at her as I knelt down to her level.


She ran over to me and wrapped her arms around me. “I missed you, sissy.” She cuddled her little face into my neck and I had to practically will my heart to slow down.


“I missed you too, cutie.” I gave her one last squeeze. “I’ve got a surprise for you!”


Her eyes went wide and she started jumping up and down enthusiastically. “Weally? What is it?” She begged.


“It’s a surprise. You’ll see soon.” She jumped into my arms for me to carry her out of the daycare facility. I grabbed her carseat and did my everyday struggle of carrying the both of them outside and to Easton’s Jeep.


Maizie looked at me hesitantly when I set her down on the ground. “Who’s caw is this?”


I smiled down at her as I pulled open the back door, only to realize that there was already a car seat hooked up to the back seat.


“You’re more than welcome to use it. They’re a pain in the a-” Easton called from the front seat, almost cursing but quickly changing his wording, “Butt.” He fixed his phrase which caused me to stifle a laugh.


“Thank you. You’re right.” I picked Maizie up from her spot next to me, on the curb and slid her into the seat, buckling her seatbelt. “Maizie, this is my friend Easton. He’s part of the surprise.” I smiled at her before giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.


Easton popped the trunk for me, and I dropped both the car seat and Maizie’s backpack in there before sliding into the passenger seat again.


Maizie and Easton were already having an animated conversation. She was telling him all about how much she loved Frozen and how she wanted to be like Elsa when she grew up. I couldn’t help the giggles that escape me as I listened in on their conversation. Normally I’d save anyone from one of Maizie’s rants but it looked like Easton was enjoying the conversation almost as much as Maizie was.


The drive to Easton’s house wasn’t very long but once we pulled into the driveway, I practically had to lift my jaw off of the floor. His house was huge— if you could even call it a house, to me it looked more like a castle.


Easton caught my gaze and looked almost uncomfortable.


“This is your house?” I gasped.


He nodded his head, looking even more uncomfortable, causing guilt to rise in the pit of my stomach.


“I’m sorry... It’s just-,” I fumbled over my words for a moment before continuing. “Your house is beautiful.”


He offered me a sheepish smile. “Thank you. My parents have worked hard for this.” He said and I could see the pride written all over his face, just like when he talked about his car.


Maizie started getting antsy in the back seat, so I took that as my que to get out and start unbuckling her.


“What’s my suwpwise?” Maizie asked impatiently as I set her down on the ground. She looked up at me expectantly and I just bit my bottom lip to suppress my grin.


“You’ll see.” I sang, grabbing her little hand as the three of us walked inside.


As soon as Easton pushed open the front door, the smell of fresh baked cookies wafted towards us, my tummy rumbling in response. Maizie giggled from beside me, looking up at me. “Awe you hungwy sissy?”


I rolled my eyes playfully. “Maybe just a little. We don’t get yummy food like you at school.” I joked before we walked in further, following Easton to the kitchen.


Maizie stuck by my side shyly and I slung a protective arm around her shoulders as my eyes wandered, taking in my surroundings.


“Hey honey.” A voice called from deeper within the kitchen. All of a sudden a petite brunette popped out from behind a door in the kitchen, her hands full of baking ingredients.


Her eyes shifted over to us, a warm smile crossing her lips. “And who are these two sweethearts?”


Easton’s eyes met mine for a moment before shifting to Maizie then back to his mother. “Ma, this is Maxie. She’s a friend from school.” With this revelation, his mom’s eyes grew wide and I swear I saw tears start to pool, but she blinked them back faster than I noticed them. “And this is Maizie. Maxie’s younger sister. I figured she could play with the kids while me and Maxie hang out for a little while.” He shrugged his shoulders, grabbing a fresh chocolate chip cookie off of the counter, offering one to Maizie and myself, which we both gladly accepted.


“Oh, lovely. They’ll be so excited.” She discarded the baking supplies onto the counter before walking over to a sliding glass door that led to the backyard.


“Lij, Kai, Ray. Come in here please.” She called out before walking back over to us. She enveloped me in a tight hug, before dropping down to Maizie’s level and doing the same. Maizie is a little shy at first, but after a second she finally wrapped her arms back around Easton’s mom, returning the hug.


“It’s very nice to meet you ladies.” She said to the both of us, turning her attention to me. “I’m so glad that Easton has made a friend.” There was so much pride in her eyes and the shadow of unshed tears were back. The sight tugged at my heart strings but a warm smile spread across my lips.


Just then three sets of running feet made their way into the kitchen. The youngest and only boy besides Easton looked like a spitting image of his big brother. The other two girls were just as naturally beautiful as their mother.


I offered the three of them a smile and a small wave before glancing down at Maizie who was staring intently at Easton’s younger brother. You could practically see heart beats pounding behind her eyes as she stared and I bit down hard on my lip to stifle my giggle, Easton’s mother noticing as well— shooting me a knowing glance.


“This is Elijah,” She pointed towards the small boy, offering a smile before pointing to the two girls in order, “And this is Kai and Raya.” She gave another warm smile. “Kids, this is Maxie,” She laid her arm over my shoulders before kneeling down next to Maizie. “And this is Maizie. She’s here to hang out with you guys today. Why don’t you show her to the backyard and make her feel at home.” Easton’s mom turned to me. “Do you mind if she has a juice box and some snacks?” She asked me politely.


Most adults would just assume the answer, and I appreciated the fact that Easton’s mom actually asked my permission. A grin slid across my lips as I nodded my head. “Of course.” I could see Maizie’s eyes widen in surprise as she started jumping in place. It’s not often that she was allowed juice boxes, mainly because of how expensive they were but also because any type of sugar sent this girl into a sugar induced frenzy.


Easton’s mother grabbed the four kids juice boxes out of the fridge and sent them off to the backyard with the promise of snacks in a few minutes, before busying herself with making Easton, her and I a cup of fresh iced tea.


She handed me my cup and I smiled in thanks, taking a small sip. “This is delicious, Ms. Thompson. Thank you so much.”


She tilted her own glass to her lips and gave me a warm smile. “Oh please, call me Theresa! And you’re very welcome, sweetheart. It’s Easton’s favorite. We always have to have a pitcher on standby.” She smiled proudly over at her son and I couldn’t help but smile at him too. His cheeks were flushing and I giggled at his embarrassment. I nudged Easton in the shoulder and gave him a genuine smile.


We all made our way to the backyard, seating ourselves around a table that was set up on their back patio, the pitcher of iced tea in the middle of us. After about fifteen minutes of small talk, Easton excused himself and went to play with the kids, chasing them around the yard as he pretended to be a big bad monster. My heart melted at the sight, watching Maizie laugh and have fun with her newfound friends.


“You look really happy.” Theresa leaned over and nudged my shoulder with a grin.


Her comment caught me off guard. It’s as if she knew what was going on, or had some inkling to the fact of how miserable I had been for the last few years— the internal battle I went through every day.


“I am.” Was the only answer that came to mind.


“Good.” And when I looked over at her again, it looked like she was lost in thought.


“You’re a natural with her, you know.” She said and her words instantly filled me with such a sense of pride that I had honestly never felt before.


“You think so?” The words flew out of me before I could stop them and when I finally met Theresa’s gaze again, she’s beaming. She nodded her head and I couldn’t help but to mirror her smile.


“Thank you.” I replied and bit my bottom lip as I felt a blush rise to my cheeks.


All of a sudden I had the urge to spill my guts to this woman, to tell her everything that had gone on in both Maizie and I’s life in the past few years. Theresa had this air to her— one of a mom that was silently coaxing me into lowering my walls and opening up about things that I’ve never told anyone before.


“We’re all that each other have.” I started and instantly cringed, but with one glance I could see that Theresa was sitting there, listening intently and waiting for me to continue- so I did.


“My mom passed away while giving birth to Maizie.” I sighed, watching my little sister run around, being chased by Easton as the rest of the kids trailed after her. They were all laughing hard and Maizie’s little cheeks were red with excitement.


“It was the best and worst day of my life. My mom gave us— me, this huge gift in the form of Maizie... But life also took my mother from me. It was the biggest win-lose situation of my life.” I bit my lip as it started to wobble with the threat of tears.


Theresa was still listening, sadness painted across her face. She crossed her legs and leaned in slightly closer, laying her chin into the palm of her hand. I turned my attention back to the kids playing in the backyard. They were now all gathered around the swing set, taking turns having Easton push them— two kids at a time, one in each of the swings. Poor Easton was going to be exhausted after this play date. I started to feel guilty that he had spent more time with Maizie than I have— I spent the whole time with his mother. But, then as I watched them playing, I could tell that Easton enjoyed it just as much as they did.


As if his mother was reading my mind she chuckled. “He loves the kids. They’re his pride and joy. Sometimes you have to drag all four of them inside. Mind you, only three of them are under the age of eighteen.” She laughed again and then silence spread between us again as she waited for me to continue my previous story.


I nodded my head in silent acknowledgement. “At first my dad kept things together. He was hurting and grieving, but he was still a functional father. But then somewhere down the line, a few months later— something changed. He wouldn’t get out of bed, he’d have night terrors. He started sleepwalking. He got so bad to the point that he stopped talking, couldn’t drive, couldn’t do even the most mundane everyday tasks.” I sucked in a deep breath and started picking at a loose string on the bottom of my sweater, trying to avoid eye contact.


“At that point I turned into the caregiver of a young toddler and a grown man. I was barely even seventeen yet when it started getting bad.” I raked a shaky hand through my hair but pushed on.


“At the beginning of this year, I found him—,” I’m silent for a moment. “Dead.” I forced down the tears as my throat burned in response.


“He took an entire bottle of his anxiety meds, and if that wasn’t enough...He slit his wrists.” The blunt words caused me to shudder and I could see Theresa’s body stiffen next to me and I hoped that I didn’t go too far. I looked over at her and there were tears flooding her eyes and flowing down her face.


“I’m sorry.” I whispered, looking down.


She sniffed and placed a comforting hand on my knee. “Sweetheart, you have nothing to be sorry for. I’m just heartbroken that you’ve had to go through all of this.”


Usually, when people heard what had happened to us, their eyes would fill with pity, but that wasn’t the case with Theresa. She looked as if she wanted to take life by the nuts and strangle it for taking away my parents and causing so much pain in Maizie and I’s short lives.


Her next words made my heart constrict, “Maxie, you are such a strong and radiant woman. I know both your mother and father are watching you from wherever they are right now and their hearts are so filled with pride over what their little girl has accomplished, and how well she takes care of her little sister.” Her eyes filled with something that I could only explain as motherly pride.


“I know I’m not your mom, and I may have just met you— but Maxie, I’m so incredibly proud of you.”


Her words took my breath away and I found myself struggling to find my breath as white hot tears rolled down my cheeks.


“Thank you.” Was all that I was able to get out, and with that Theresa wrapped her arms tightly around me, pulling me into the best hug that I’ve received in longer than forever. It reminded me of one of my mom’s hugs. Her hug sprouted so much hope in the pit of my stomach all the while making me feel stronger than I ever have.


“What did I miss?” Easton’s voice boomed over the silence, pulling his mother and I out of our embrace. We gave each other a knowing glance and giggled in response.


Easton shifted his gaze between his mother and I before shrugging his shoulders and taking a long sip of his iced tea.


“That sister of yours can run fast, man.” Easton chuckled before refilling his glass with tea.


I laughed in response, sniffling back the remainder of my tears. “Oh, I know she can. I’ve had to catch her multiple times, and trust me. It’s not easy.” I grinned, turning my attention back out to the backyard— to my little track star.


——


We finished the afternoon by watching a movie in the living room— all seven of us curled up on the couches. Maizie and the kids were all cuddled up on the love seat and Theresa, Easton and I stole the bigger of the two couches and rested our own bowl of popcorn between the three of us.


After my talk with Easton’s mom this afternoon, I had to admit that I was feeling a lot lighter— like a huge weight had been lifted from my tired shoulders. I found myself having a way easier time smiling, and feeling carefree.


I looked over at Maizie and could see her eyes growing heavy. She had a long day, between school and then a play date. She was going to sleep like the dead tonight— which was fine with me, since Levi was coming over and I definitely didn’t want her hogging all of his attention, as selfish as that may sound.


All of a sudden my phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled out the device, waking the screen only to see a text from Levi.


I’m home from work. Just let me know when you want me to head over. Your pick tonight :)


A wide smile graced my lips as I texted back my reply.


Awesome, the play date is wrapping up soon.


I snapped a picture of Maizie and sent it over to him along with another message.


She’s going to sleep so good tonight lol


Another vibrate.


Well make sure the both of you have a big appetite. If you guys liked the shitty Alfredo I made the other night, then you’ll love what I’m making tonight.


His text made my cheeks ache with the smile that spread across my lips.


I can’t wait!


I texted back and my smile continued to grow. Easton looked over at me with a quirked eyebrow. I shrugged my shoulders and offered him a smile in reply.


I watched as Maizie’s head dipped before she caught herself, her eyes blinking in shock. I couldn’t help the giggle that escaped. I pulled the blanket off of my legs and padded over to her, kneeling down next to her spot at the end of the couch. “You ready to head home shnookums?” She looked at me with sleepy eyes and shook her head, before rethinking her answer, accepting defeat and nodding.


I gathered our belongings as the movie came to an end. “Thank you so much for having us over, guys.” I shot Easton and Theresa a genuine, warm smile as I shoved Maizie’s feet into her shoes.


“No problem, sweetie. You guys are welcome anytime.” Theresa smiled wide as she enveloped me in a big hug, squeezing me tight. “If you need anything. I’m here.” She pulled back just slightly and grinned at me.


I nodded my head and offered her a smile. “Thank you.”


I moved on to Easton and wrapped my arms around him. “Thank you. You were great with her. And from earlier— You’re pretty cool too, Easton.” I grinned at him, bringing up his comment from lunch.


——


Easton pulled up in front of our apartment and when I looked in the back seat, Maizie was passed out cold. I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my lips as I watched her sleep for a moment.


Easton followed my gaze. “Want me to help you with the car seat?”


I smiled and nodded my head in reply. I opened the car door, climbed down and then opened up the back. I slowly and carefully unbuckled the harness of the car seat and picked her up. Maizie didn’t stir as I hoisted her higher in my arms, pulling my keys out of the side pocket of my back pack.


Easton gathered the car seat and Maizie’s backpack, slinging the bag over his shoulder. I giggled, watching him walk forward with the girly themed book bag. “Very stylish.” I whispered over to him as I climbed the front steps, shoving the key in and opening the door. He struck a pose and let out a playful chuckle, causing me to giggle in response.


“Do you want to come in for a sec?” I asked Easton as he set the car seat inside, next to the doorway.


He shook his head. “Not tonight, I have a crap ton of homework to do.” He groaned.


“Next time, though.” He offered me a smile before giving Maizie and I a gentle hug, retreating towards the door before turning back to me. “Have fun with Levi Watson tonight.” He winked at me with a warm smile before he turned and jogged back towards his Jeep, just as I saw Levi’s car pull up.


A blush radiated my body as I watched Easton climb into his car, offering him another wave.


My heart instantly started to race as I watched Levi pull up to the curb outside of our apartment. He quickly got out, taking one glance at Easton’s Jeep before jogging up the stairs to meet me.


“Hey.” He smiled at me, looking down at Maizie in my arms as his smile only grew.


Subconsciously, I placed a kiss on Maizie’s head and stepped back, letting Levi in.


He looked back outside before closing the door behind him.


“Know who that is?” He questioned.


I smiled at him. “It’s my friend Easton. He invited Maizie and I over for a play date with his siblings. It more or less turned into him hanging out with the kids and me hanging with his mom.” I shrugged my shoulders, seeing what I can only describe as jealousy flash over his features.

A grin tugged at my lips. Levi and I had just become friends, but I couldn’t deny the way he made me feel— like I was on top of the world and could accomplish anything. Maybe his jealousy meant that he felt the same way.


He nodded his head, still looking a little stiff.


I reached over and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “Jealous?” I teased.


All the color drained from his face as he unleashed a nervous chuckle. “What? Of course not.” A flawless grin stretched across his lips.


“Just wanted to make sure there wasn’t any trouble.” He smiled at me then looked down at the hand that was still resting on his arm, his lips tilting up even higher.


“Let me get her to bed. Make yourself at home.” I gave him a warm smile before retreating back to Maizie and I’s shared bedroom, laying her down.


When I walked back out, there were grocery bags lining the entire kitchen island and Levi was working on putting even more away.


I stood there in shock, unsure of how to react. “Levi.” He turned around, looking startled. He placed a hand over his heart dramatically.


“Jeeze, almost gave me a heart attack.” He chuckled.


I glared at him, folding my arms over my chest— trying to appear as menacing as possible but I couldn’t help the grin that tilted up the corner of my lips.


“Did you really buy me groceries?” I scolded him all the while trying to hold back a laugh.


He just offered me a sheepish shrug, looking at me through thick, dark eyelashes.


I walked towards him, looking at all the grocery bags that surrounded me and couldn’t help but feel guilty. This all must have cost at least a hundred dollars.


“Really. You didn’t have to do this. It must have cost a lot.” I sighed.


He looked over at me and shrugged his shoulders again.


“I don’t care.” He rolled his eyes playfully at me. “Anything to help my favorite ladies out.” His cheeks reddened just slightly but he turned away trying to hide it anyway..


He looked absolutely adorable with his rosy cheeks.


“Oh, we’re your favorites?” I beamed at him and walked even closer. I wrapped my arms tightly around him, pulling him in for a tight hug. “Thank you so much.” I whispered into his ear.


He hugged me back, burying his face into my hair as he breathed me in. I’m suddenly enveloped in his intoxicating scent and I couldn’t help but want to revel in it forever but I reluctantly pulled back, looking up at him. “So, what’s for dinner?” I grinned.


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