Chris moaned low in his throat and snuggled deeper into the soft warmth. He didn’t want to wake up. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so comfortable. Or so warm. He sighed and buried his face into the fluffy pillow at his head. It smelled faintly of soap. Clean.
Chris pulled the small body he was hugging closer to him, blindly reaching around to pull the blanket back up to their shoulders. When he had safely cocooned the two of them and was about to drift back off to sleep, his eyes shot open and he quickly sat up, frazzled and disorientated.
He quickly looked around the room. It was completely unfamiliar. He only breathed a brief sigh of relief when he saw that it was Thalia in his arms. After gently checking over her, a considerable amount of weight lifted from his shoulders when he saw she was unharmed and sleeping peacefully.
Having seen that Thalia was fine for the moment, Chris gave the room another look, this time taking in the details to try and figure out where they were. It was a big room to Chris’ eyes considering the largest room he had ever lived in was about the size of a small closet. There was the bed he and Thalia were laying in, big enough for two adults and dressed in simple white and green sheets. The walls were white and there were green curtains covering the windows, letting muffled light fill the room. A dark brown desk and chair were pushed into the wall to his left next to a wardrobe. Directly opposite the bed was a door and another door was located to his right. He had no idea where they were.
Chris rubbed his face as he tried to sort his thoughts. He remembered the convenience store, grabbing the food and water and dropping everything. He remembered running. He got caught. He remembered waking up in the police station. Brown eyes. Jared. Jared let him see Thalia again. McDonald’s. And then Thalia fell asleep. Chris was in Jared’s car. Jared said they weren’t going to the precinct. So where was Chris now?
Chris tensed when he heard footsteps approaching. His eyes locked onto the handle of the door directly across from him. It turned and he stopped breathing.
“Oh, you’re awake,” Jared said as he entered the room. He was wearing a pair of faded red sweatpants and a loose white tank top. He looked like a completely different person without his uniform. Still intimidating due to his physique and presence, but Chris felt like he could breathe a bit easier.
“Where,” Chris’ voice cracked, hoarse from lack of use. He cleared his throat and tried again, “Where are we?”
Jared leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, “My house.” His muscles flexed, the movement drawing Chris’ eyes that it took a moment for him to register that Jared had spoken.
“W-why?” he managed, frowning in confusion.
“It was either my house or back to the precinct and Thalia would have gone into foster care,” Jared replied. “There’re spare toothbrushes in the cabinet in the bathroom over there. There’s also a disposable razor, shaving cream, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Freshen up, I’ll leave some clean clothes for you while you shower, and then come to the kitchen. I’m making breakfast. Let her sleep a bit more, we’ve got to talk anyway.”
Chris simply nodded and Jared walked out of the room. It took a moment but Chris eventually got out of bed, careful to not wake Thalia, and padded over to the door Jared had said led to the bathroom. He flicked on the light and winced under the harsh fluorescent beams that bounced off the white tiles. The bathroom was clean and simple, Spartan; sink, shower, toilet, and a small cabinet. A towel rack was fixed to the wall next to the glass shower stall, two fluffy white towels hanging from it. Chris looked at himself in the mirror above the sink. He knew what he’d see but he still grimaced. He looked filthy. His hair was knotted and in dire need of a trim. His beard was a mess and his mustache made him look extremely creepy. He never had a face that suited whiskers of any kind. Thalia always complained about how his beard was scratchy and how gross he looked. Hair wasn’t the only issue he catalogued. He looked sickly. Pale skin and sunken in features, he could have been mistaken for a corpse. Lifting his shirt, one he had been wearing for lord knows how long as he had lost count after two weeks, he winced at the sight of his torso. He didn’t have to do anything to see each line of his ribs and added to the yellow-green bruises... He looked pathetic.
Chris tore his eyes from the mirror and dropped his shirt back down to cover himself. He opened up the small white cabinet and quickly found a toothbrush still in its packaging as well as a brand new tube of toothpaste. He brushed efficiently and with fervor. When he spat into the sink, he cringed as it came out colored. Chris brushed his teeth three times, not knowing when he’d be able to again. It was a miracle his teeth hadn’t fallen out yet. He put the brush and paste into the glass that sat on the corner of the sink and then opened up the pack of disposable razors. He grabbed the shaving cream and sprayed a liberal amount onto his hand, wiping it across his jaw and chin. He shaved as best as he could. He was a bit out of practice but somehow managed to avoid nicking himself, and soon, he no longer resembled a haggard, potential pedophile or serial killer.
Chris washed his face and already felt much better. He glanced at the shower and it didn’t take long for him to shed his clothes and step under the cold spray. He turned the temperature to the hottest he could stand. His skin turned pink quickly and he ignored the sting of the heat. He could have stood still under the spray for eons but he forced himself to grab the shampoo and rub it deep into his hair. Following the third rinse of his hair, Chris scrubbed his body down with the soap twice. A final rinse later, he stepped out of the stall and wiped down with one of the towels, wrapping it around his waist when he was dry enough not to drip all over the place and picking up his soiled clothes. He felt clean. It had been a long time.
When Chris stepped out of the bathroom, turning off the lights and closing the door behind him, he saw a pile of folded clothes sitting on the corner of the bed. Thalia was still fast asleep although she had shifted and was hugging the pillow Chris had used with her whole body, arms and legs squeezing it to the point that had it been Chris, he would have had a lot of trouble breathing.
Chris smiled but when his eyes caught the clothes again, he sobered instantly. Jared wanted to talk to him and there was no way it was anything that would bode well for Chris.
Chris folded up his clothes and set them on the desk before going to see what clothes Jared had left out for him. Upon unfolding them, Chris knew that they were Jared’s. The t-shirt was a pale blue and would easily swallow his body, and the boxers and pants were going to slide down to his ankles even if he stood still. Chris resignedly put the clothes on. The shirt fell to halfway down his thighs, one sleeve slipping off his shoulder no matter what he did. The boxers were loose, just barely staying on his hips, and he had to pull the drawstrings of the sweatpants as far as they would go so they didn’t slide down every second. He even had to fold the legs up a number of times. He guessed this was how kids felt when they put on their father’s clothes.
Chris tiptoed to Thalia and pushed her hair out of her face. She sighed softly, mumbling nonsense and nuzzling the pillow she was suffocating. Chris pressed a feather-soft kiss to her forehead and quietly slipped out of the room. He entered a short hallway where he could see another door on the other end. To his right was an opening into what Chris figured was the main room. It was simple, containing a coffee table, one L-shaped couch, an armchair, and a large TV. There was a door on the opposite side. To his right was another door, different than the ones he had seen so far – the main door, and a coat rack with shoes lined up against the wall. He spotted his ratty Converse and Thalia’s sneakers. To his left was a half wall and Chris could hear the sound of something sizzling coming from the corner, followed by the scent of mouthwatering food. Chris’ stomach rumbled.
He slowly walked towards the sound and peeked around the corner to see a nicely furnished kitchen. It was tiled, white with orange-red accents. A small square table surrounded by four chairs sat a little ways from the center, closer to Chris, and marble counters lined the three walls up front. Jared had his back to him, his attention on whatever he was working on at the stove. There was a screen door across from the threshold of the kitchen leading out to what Chris guessed was a backyard.
“Grab a seat,” Jared said without turning around, making Chris jump slightly in surprise. He thought he’d been quiet. “I’ll take just another minute.”
Chris stood at the edge of the kitchen for a second longer before forcing his feet to move to the small table. He pulled out a chair and slowly sat down, chewing on his lip while his fingers wrung out the bottom of Jared’s shirt.
Silence permeated the air between them. The sound of sizzling and Jared scraping a spatula around a frying pan being the only thing that kept Chris from going insane from anxiety. He needed something to concentrate on other than his own turbulent thoughts.
A plate clattered in front of him, bringing him out of his daze. He looked up and saw Jared grab cutlery from a drawer.
Chris glanced down at the meal. Scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon, and a slice of toast already buttered. His mouth watered.
“Dig in,” Jared said, holding out a fork for Chris.
Chris took the silverware with a soft, “Thank you,” and tentatively scooped up some of the egg. It was bright yellow and looked soft and creamy. He blew on the forkful gently before putting it in his mouth. He nearly moaned from the taste and his stomach roared to life. He was used to ignoring the growls and hunger pangs but whenever he did get some food, his stomach suddenly came to life and he could do nothing but shovel down the food as fast as it would go down his throat.
Chris finished his food in a matter of minutes, a satisfied sigh escaping as he set the fork down. When he opened his eyes, Jared was staring at him.
“S-sorry,” Chris mumbled, heat flooding his face.
“When was the last time you ate? Not including when I took you to McDonald’s.”
Chris bit his lip as he tried to think. “I…I don’t remember.” When Jared looked like he was about to say something, Chris rushed to add, “But I fed Thalia. Every day I made sure she had at least one meal. It was just this week. I couldn’t find anything and I had to steal from that store.”
Jared stayed silent before slowly saying, “So you disregarded your own needs for hers?”
Chris nodded. He was a grown man, he could go without food for a couple days or weeks. Thalia was a growing kid. Four years old. And he was already concerned with her mental development. If he could at least make sure she wasn’t too far behind physically, his own health didn’t matter.
“What would Thalia have done if you passed out?” Jared questioned. Chris swallowed, having no response, and Jared continued, “What would she have done if you got sick because you were ignoring your body’s basic, fundamental needs?”
Chris felt his eyes burn. He bit down on his lip harshly.
Jared sighed and rubbed his face, “Chris. I really don’t know what to do with you two. I should have you locked up for attempted theft. I should have called child services for Thalia.”
There was a but in there that Chris was too afraid to hope for.
“But,” Jared continued. “I can’t separate you two.”
Chris sagged in the chair in unbridled relief. He knew Jared had more to say, but hearing that felt like heaven.
“You’re not out of the woods yet, kid,” Jared said.
“I’ll do anything, I can’t lose her,” Chris said desperately. “She’s everything to me.”
Jared’s gaze softened, “I know. Which is why I’m going to offer you a deal.”
Chris bit his lip in apprehension but slowly nodded his head, “What kind of deal?”
“You will do everything in your power to get yourself back on track in order to support both you and Thalia. That means a job for starters. Do you have at least a high school degree?”
Chris hesitated before shaking his head, looking down at his clenched hands in shame, “I never finished the eighth grade.” Not to mention he probably couldn’t even prove that he’d gone to school at all.
Jared frowned for a moment. He opened his mouth to speak but shut it almost immediately. Seconds later, light footsteps grew louder and Chris turned around just in time to see a bleary eyed four year old enter the kitchen.
“Daddy? Where we?”
Chris opened his arms and Thalia went up to him, crawling into his lap. He stroked her hair as she looked around the kitchen. “This is Jared’s house,” he explained.
“How’d you sleep, sweetheart?” Jared asked.
“Good,” Thalia beamed. “Bed sho soft! And smell nice.” Thalia leaned into Chris and sniffed. She looked up and put her hands on Chris’ face and giggled, “Daddy soft! And smell nice! Like, like shistrus.”
“Citrus, princess,” Chris corrected.
“Shitrus,” Thalia echoed.
Chris chuckled, “Sitr-rus.”
Thalia frowned in concentration as she slowly repeated, “Sssiit. Rush. Sit. Rus. Sit. Rus. Sit-rus.”
“Very close. Good job, princess,” Chris praised, pecking her nose.
Thalia giggled and saw the two plates. Jared’s still had some food left on it. She turned to Chris and pouted, “Daddy? Can have food?”
Chris looked to Jared who answered, “Of course, sweetheart. But first you need to wash up. Brush your teeth and shower and your food will be ready for you. Chris, are you fine with water? The only other drink I have is coffee.”
“Water’s fine. I’ll go help, Thalia,” Chris said, practically jumping to his feet and running with his daughter back to the guest room.