Formal Arrangement

By: Kylie Gilmore

Chapter One

Alex Campbell was cursed with a two-year-old demon from hell. He’d thought Viv’s first year had been difficult. No-o-o-o, that had been a cakewalk compared to this. Two-year molars were going to kill him. Three weeks with no end in sight. He’d taken her to the pediatrician, scoured the Internet, asked his very experienced dad, and THERE WAS NO CURE.

Her fresh wails threatened to rupture his eardrums. He set her down in the kitchen, pulled an ice cube from the freezer, and wrapped it in a washcloth. Then he scooped her up and pressed it to her lips. “This’ll make your gums feel better. Put it where it hurts.”

She sucked on the washcloth and dropped it, wailing again.

He stared at it on the kitchen floor. Five-second rule. He snagged it and offered it again. “Here. Put it in the back where your molars are coming in.”

Her gums were swollen, the tiniest bit of white showing in the upper gums. The lower molars had come in with no problem. He helped her get the ice in the right place on the side with the most swelling and she quieted. He relaxed a tiny bit, taking in her chubby cheeks now red from so much snot and tears, her light brown hair messy and probably tangled, another struggle he was not up to dealing with, her big brown eyes sleepy.

He sank to a kitchen chair with Viv on his lap and glanced at the time on the microwave. Only six p.m. He was not looking forward to another long sleepless night, up every two hours, trying to comfort a crying, cranky spawn of Satan. Wait, that would make him Satan. He was a damn saint in this scenario.

The doorbell rang. Yes! He’d asked his older brother Josh to stop by with takeout from the restaurant he managed, Garner’s Sports Bar & Grill. Alex didn’t have the energy to make dinner. He was running on fumes, so behind on work, hopeless and desperate for relief for both his little girl and him.

“Dinner’s here,” he told Viv, rushing to the front door with her in his arms. She had to be held constantly or she tantrumed. He’d never known a true tantrum until the two-year molars turned his little sunshine into baby Chuckie.

She dropped the washcloth on the way, her outraged cry so loud his ears rang for a moment. He opened the door where Josh stood, same height as Alex, six feet, similar build, but Josh’s dark brown hair was fashionably rumpled, no dark circles under his brown eyes, his jaw was clean-shaven, and his black T-shirt and faded jeans stain-free. Alex noticed these things now that he’d reached the hell zone where looking presentable was a luxury. Most important, Josh looked well rested and stable. A life jacket to a drowning man.

“Come in!” Alex exclaimed loud enough to be heard over the wailing. “Thank you so much for coming.”

Josh stepped inside, took in Viv, Alex, and the messy house and declared, “You party hard around here.”

Alex barked out a laugh and quickly explained the two-year molar situation.

“I brought your favorite, Viv,” Josh said, ruffling her hair and holding up the take-out bag.

She turned red-rimmed eyes to her uncle, quieting for a blessed moment of peace. “Worms?”

Josh chuckled. “Yeah, worms and dirt balls.” Spaghetti and meatballs. He gave her a high five and headed to their small square kitchen table.

A delirious spark of hope ignited. Maybe spaghetti and meatballs would work. He’d requested them in desperation, she hadn’t eaten his version of the meal, but this was Garner’s much better food. And this was Uncle Josh, who Viv adored. Probably because Josh was mellow and laid-back, like Alex used to be before he knew the immense responsibility of caring for another human being totally dependent on him for everything. Viv’s mom, Tammy, had died during the C-section having her. Alex was it for Viv, a parent with zero experience with babies, thrown into the deep end.

He put her in her high chair, added a bib, and served her a plate full of dinner along with a plastic fork. He hadn’t even finished filling his plate when the fork bounced on the table followed by a frustrated scream. Heart-wrenching sobs followed. His head throbbed and his chest ached for her. He understood. It wasn’t just the pain, it was that she couldn’t enjoy her favorite food. Her mouth was wide open, bits of noodle stuck to her lips and chin. He quickly cleaned her up with the bib, ready to cry right along with her. But he didn’t have time for a breakdown. Instead he stared at her, trying to think of what he could do to make it better.

Josh spoke up. “Did you give her the baby medicine?”

“She throws it up. I have this numbing gel, but the doctor said to use it sparingly. I save it for bedtime so she can try to get some sleep.”

Alex dug around in the cabinets. Maybe he had some old jars of baby food. That stuff tasted terrible, but she wouldn’t have to chew. Nope. He needed a blender. He added it to his mental to-do list, hoping he’d remember later. He turned to the refrigerator, got out the milk, and poured some in her favorite pink and green cup with the straw. She took it, slurped, and coughed a bunch.