“Nana got the cake.”
Alex glanced up from the glasses she was cleaning. “She did?”
“Yea. It’s in our fridge at the shop.” Riley checked the text on her phone. “But she says that one of the candles isn’t going to match, because the store only sold them in packs of twenty-five. She didn’t want you to pay five bucks for one candle, so she grabbed one from our house on the way back.”
“Oh. Tell her that I said thanks.” Alex went back to the glasses. “It’s not, like, painfully different, is it?”
“She says it’s about the same size, but it’s green instead of red.”
Riley smirked as she tucked her phone away. “Do you guys not have a dishwasher for those?”
“We do, but if we’re not busy, I prefer doing it by hand.” Alex shrugged. “Gives you something to do, and makes the day go by faster. Besides, the dishwasher takes a while, and this is five minutes.”
“True, I guess.” Riley took the dry glasses from Alex, setting them upside-down on the shelf below them. “Why are you here, anyway? Why aren’t you hanging out with Steph and her dad?”
“Steph still has ads to read, and her dad needed to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. We figured it would be easier to do what we need to, and just meet here for Steph’s birthday this afternoon.”
“Mm.” Riley nodded. “It’s really cool, by the way, that her dad doesn’t do that thing that some parents of December babies do where they combine Christmas and birthday gifts.”
Alex frowned as she wiped her damp hands on the apron around her waist. “Is that a thing?”
“Happened to my friend in high school. I felt terrible for her, and always made it a point to get a gift specifically for her birthday.”
“Nice of you.”
“I thought so. What’d you get Steph?”
Riley blinked. “… like, the three-hundred-dollar video game system?”
“It’s a joint gift, between me and her dad. We arranged it a few weeks ago.” Alex shrugged. “She’s been saving for one, so we got it for her. Plus a Pokémon game that she wanted.”
“Steph likes Pokémon?”
“Of course Steph likes- dude, have you MET my nerdy-ass girlfriend?”
Riley snorted, cracking a smirk. “Fair enough. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
Alex checked her phone. “I guess we’ll find out in five hours.”
“Is it really gonna be that long?” Riley glanced around the bar. “Man, this day is going to crawl.”
“Yea.” Alex sighed. “I’m gonna go get the birthday decorations. May as well bring them out now, so we don’t have to worry about it later.”
She headed towards the storage closet, rummaging around until she found the small box labeled ‘B-Day Decs’, pulling it off the shelf. There wasn’t much in it, other than a half-empty pack of balloons, some streamers, and a ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ sign. But she figured it was better than nothing, as she re-sealed the box.
“There she is,” Alex heard Riley say as she closed the door to the storage room.
She looked over and blinked in surprise at the visitor. “George?”
“Hey, Alex.” Steph’s father smiled as he leaned on the bar. “How goes it?”
“Pretty good.” She brought the box behind the bar, setting it on the floor and using her foot to tuck it away. “I thought you were out gift-shopping?”
“I was. I’m finished.” He nodded towards the door. “I just have to wrap them, but I figured I’d do that later.”
“Cool.” Alex leaned on the bar opposite him. “Well, let me text Steph then. She was coming by to grab lunch anyway, but we can do it a little early since-”
“Actually,” George interrupted. “I… was hoping I could talk to you. Without her.”
Alex blinked. “… really?”
“Not to threaten you about hurting her or anything,” he said quickly. “I was just hoping you could help me.”
“Ah.” She nodded slowly. “You want a beer?”
Alex walked over to the taps beside Riley, filling a glass with Blue Moon. “You, uh, want me to be someplace else?” the younger girl asked quietly.
“Sure. Maybe go keep an eye on the other customers?”
“You got it.”
Riley departed as Alex set the beer in front of George, who took a quick sip. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” She set her elbows down on the bar. “Is everything okay?”
George sighed heavily. “… I’d like to think so,” he admitted quietly. “But I’m not sure.”
“How do you mean?”
“Honestly, Alex… I feel like my daughter doesn’t like me.”
“Well, that’s definitely not true,” she said quickly. “Steph loves you, man. You know that.”
“I know she says that.” He scratched his neck. “But we almost never speak, and when we do, it’s the odd email that I usually end up initiating. Before she introduced me to you, I don’t think we’d seen each other’s faces in months. And the last time we saw each other in person was almost three years ago.”
George met her gaze. “I’m not mad at her,” he added quickly. “I don’t want to give that impression. I know she has her own life, and it keeps her busy. I just wish I could be more a part of it.”
Alex gave him a sympathetic look. “I know it feels otherwise, George, but she really does love you. She’s self-admittedly terrible at keeping in touch with people she cares about. Other than you and one other friend from school, I don’t think she keeps in touch with anyone from Arcadia Bay.”
“… is that really true?”
George shook his head sadly. “She used to have such a large social group,” he lamented. “My daughter had so many friends in high school, it was impossible to remember them all. But after the storm…”
He let the sentence hang, as his eyes grew distant.
“Her mom,” Alex stated.
“Did she tell you what happened?”
Alex nodded. “She doesn’t like talking about it.”
“Neither do I, honestly.” George rubbed his face. “Lita was incredible, and God only knows how a nerd like me landed her. Smart, beautiful, funny, an amazing mother, all the things you could ask for in a woman with none of the drawbacks. When I wake up and she’s not there, it’s like getting kicked in the chest, every day.”
“… I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you.” He took a slow breath. “And I know my daughter misses her even more than I do.”
Alex listened, unsure of how to respond.
“I used to be jealous of Lita, when Steph was growing up. They were always so close, and some days I felt like an outsider.” He took another drink of his beer. “When she died, I tried so hard to be there for Steph, but nothing I did felt good enough.”
“Yes, it was,” Alex assured him. “When she was telling me what happened to her mom, she told me that you were a great parent who basically carried her through the worst part of her life. The way she tells it, she’s the asshole for not calling you more often.”
“Does she really?”
“I wish I could tell her that I don’t blame her for that.” He shrugged morosely. “She’s not the only one, either. Lita and I had a large circle of friends back in Oregon, and I don’t believe that I’ve spoken to any of them since the storm.”
“Well…” Alex bit her lip. “If it makes you feel any better, I wish I had a father like you.”
George glanced up at her. “You do?”
“My dad…” Alex exhaled slowly. “It was complicated. But he abandoned my brother and I when I was ten, after he lost his job. You were there for Steph when you were hurting as much as she was, if not more.”
“I’m sorry.” George leaned forward. “Where is he now?”
“He died a little after he left us, in oh-eight.” Alex shook her head. “I missed him a lot when he first left. But sometimes I’m angry at him for making me grow up in foster care. Like I said, at least you stuck around.”
“And your brother?”
“He died earlier this year, saving a kid who was caught in a blast zone when the last mining company was trying to cover up my father’s death.”
“… wait, what?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll have to tell you later.” Alex took a deep breath. “George, Steph does love you. She blames herself for you guys not having a better relationship. And she was more excited than I’ve ever seen her for you to come visit.”
George absorbed her statement, mulling it over. “I’m not sure if she will love me for long,” he admitted quietly, taking another drink of his beer. “Not after I tell her what I’ve been putting off for months.”
Alex frowned. “What’s that?”
“That I’ve been seeing someone.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Really? Like, dating?”
He nodded hesitantly. “I… after Lita passed and I moved to Seattle, I started attending a support group for people who lost their loved ones,” he explained. “I go twice a week pretty consistently, and sometimes I even run the meetings. Last year I met a woman named Addison who lost her husband to cancer, and…”
“You hit it off,” Alex finished.
“Neither of us were trying to.” He shrugged. “It started with coffee, and then progressed to dinner, and… well, as they say, one thing leads to another.”
“No, I- that wasn’t disapproval,” Alex quickly clarified. “It’s your life, George. And it’s been years.”
“Nevertheless, both of us feel incredibly guilty about how it happened,” he admitted. “We both miss our spouses deeply and would give anything to have them back. But having each other has been… well, pretty nice.”
“It sounds like a good thing,” Alex acknowledged.
“I think so.”
“But… you’re worried about what Steph will think,” she deduced.
George nodded. “I hate keeping secrets from my daughter. I want to tell her. But I’m worried that she’s going to hate me for it.” He met Alex’s eyes. “Do you have any thoughts?”
Alex took a slow breath, considering her words carefully.
“Tell me what?”
Both of them whipped their heads around. Steph was standing behind George, staring at her father with a fixed expression.
Oh, fuck. I didn’t even hear her come in.
“Sweets.” George turned his barstool to face her. “… how long have you been there?”
“Ten seconds. Tell me what?”
“That he’s… uh… gotten a job offer out of the country,” Alex said quickly, trying to save George. “He might have to move to Canada.”
The brunette didn’t move her gaze, as she ignored Alex and continued to stare at her father.
After a few seconds, he took a deep breath. “… that I’ve been dating another woman for the past several months,” he admitted.
Steph blinked as she stared at her father. Alex watched her aura flash as several colors washed through it, predominantly red and blue. “Steph,” she started carefully. “Why don’t we just-”
Her girlfriend silently turned, walking towards the stairs.
Nothing. The brunette vanished up the stairs without a word.
George sighed, sagging his shoulders as he turned back towards the bar. “… I suppose that was expected,” he allowed as he took another drink, his aura turning a deep shade of blue.
Alex quickly undid her apron, dropping it on the counter behind her. “Wait here. I’ll go talk to her.”
He didn’t respond as she walked around the bar, stopping to grab Riley’s arm as she carried a tray of food. “Do not let him leave,” she ordered, jerking her head towards George. “I don’t care if you have to tackle him. He doesn’t go until I come back.”
Riley didn’t ask questions, she just nodded as Alex let go and headed up the stairs.