"Hi sweetie!  Did you have a good day at school?"  Melanie asked as she walked in and tugged on Jenny's ponytail.  It was just after five and Chris and Jenny were playing Memory at the kitchen table.

            "Yeah."  Jenny threw her arms around her mothers' neck to give her a big hug.  "And then you know what?  After school daddy made me crackers and peanut butter and we went outside in the box."

            "You did?  That's cool."  Melanie smiled and set Jenny back down.  "Did daddy start dinner?"

            "Ummmm."  Jenny looked over her shoulder at Chris then back at Melanie.  "I don't think so."  She whispered.

            "Uh oh." Melanie laughed softly and continued into the kitchen.  "So we're eating out tonight?"  She asked Chris who was leaning on the table drinking a juice box.

            "I think so."  He nodded and tried not to yawn.

            "Where's Lauren?"  Mel asked, her eyes scanning the room and ground level.

            "She's sleeping and she's not even in her bed."  Jenny shook her head sadly, as if napping on the floor was such a bad thing.

            "She's asleep?"  Melanie looked up quickly,  "When did she go down?"

            "Down?"  Chris asked, he was too tired to try to pretend to comprehend what she was saying.  "You mean asleep?  She crashed out when we got back from picking up Jenny at school."

            "She's been asleep since two thirty?  Chris, it's after five.  She's never going to get to sleep tonight."  Melanie sighed and crossed into the living room where Lauren was still sound asleep in the middle of the floor.  She leaned over and picked the little girl up onto her shoulder,  "Oh baby girl, it's time to get up.  Come on sweetie.  Up up.  Are you ready for some dinner?"  She cooed at Lauren before she cast a dirty glance in Chris' direction.

            "Sorry."  Chris mumbled.

            "Yeah well, you've got your work cut out for you tonight…"  Melanie sighed and jiggled Lauren on her shoulder to help her wake up.  "Here, wake her up so we can grab some dinner.  I'm going to run upstairs and change."  She handed Lauren to Chris who clumsily held the toddler in his arms, then she waddled toward the stairs.

            "Okay kiddo, let's go.  Time to wake up."  Chris jiggled her the way he'd seen Melanie do, but instead of just laying there Lauren's face puckered up and turned red as she began to cry.

            "Uh oh daddy, I think she's tired."  Jenny said from the table.

            "Well she just had a nap so she can't be too tired."  Chris shrugged.  "What do you think I should do."

            "I don't know."  Jenny shrugged and covered her ears as Lauren continued to cry.

            "Oh come on kiddo, we've had a good day so far, don't blow it now."  Chris pleaded with the screaming baby in his arms.  Lauren's mouth was open wide enough for Chris to count all of her eleven tiny baby teeth.  "Shit, I don't know how to make her stop."  He grumbled.

            "Uh oh daddy you said a bad word."  Jenny said.

            "I thought you had your ears covered."  He looked down at Jenny as she giggled with her hands over her ears.

            "I heard you still."

            "Well just don't say anything to your mom, I think she's mad enough at me."  He fumbled with Lauren in his arms and tried to find a more comfortable position for her.  "Come on Jenny, give me a hint… what makes her stop?"

            "Talk to her maybe."  Jenny shrugged then skipped toward the stairs.

            "Talk to you?  Like talking makes girls stop crying, that's a joke."  Chris mumbled as she wailed and rubbed her eyes.  "Awww, you look like your still tired.  Yeah that's my fault; I let you sleep for too long.  So tonight when you can't get to sleep you can blame it all on me, okay?"  He sighed, but noticed that she was calming down a little bit.  "Ah ha, that works."  Chris smiled and stifled a yawn.  "All right… we can do this.  What would you like to talk about?  Do you like stories?  I don't know too many stories.  Hrmm, do you like jokes?  I have a joke for you."  Chris smiled as Lauren's sobbing turned into wet hiccups.  "A mushroom walks into a bar and orders a drink, and the bartender says 'hey, get out of here, we don't serve your kind here', so the mushroom says 'why not?  I'm a fungi'."  Chris laughed and made a surprised face at Lauren, then she laughed.

            "Dadada."

            "That's pretty sad kid, that's one of Joey's jokes.  Actually that's the only Joey joke I can tell you till you're a lot older."  His smile fell slightly at the mention of his old friend.

            "Hey, I called Liz.  She and Eddie and the girls are going to meet us at Scarcella's for pizza."  Melanie said as she and Jenny came back into the kitchen.  She had changed into stretchy pants and an oversized t-shirt.

            "Oh.  Uh… okay."

            "That way the girls can play and I won't go nuts."  She smiled over her shoulder as she grabbed her car keys and purse.  "Ready?"

            "Sure."  Chris nodded and carried Lauren out to the garage where Melanie was already getting Jenny into the back seat.  Melanie took Lauren and strapped her into her car seat as Chris went to the passenger side to open his door.

            "I'm driving?"  Melanie asked as she gave him an odd look.

            "Yeah."  Chris nodded.  "I'm not feeling great."  He half shrugged, it was the truth.

            "Okay."  She sighed and climbed in the driver's seat.  "I hope you're not coming down with anything.  The last thing we need is to have the flu go around here."

            "No, it's nothing like that."  Chris said softly as he looked out the window.

            "Good, because that would suck."  Melanie said softly as she backed out of the driveway and they headed for the pizza place.

 

            As soon as they walked into the restaurant Jenny took off running toward a table where another little girl sat.  They immediately grabbed each other's hands and ran over to the little arcade as Chris and Melanie walked up with Lauren riding happily on Melanie's hip.

            "Hi guys."  Melanie smiled at the couple at the table and leaned to put Lauren in the empty high chair beside the one in use.  "Hi Katie bug."  She ran her hand over the little girl's wild red curls.

            "The girls took off to play video games, I gave them each a quarter."  Liz smiled.

            "Great, thanks.  I'll foot the next round." Melanie laughed as she pulled the bench out and sat beside the end where Lauren was sitting.  She dropped a few raisins onto Lauren's tray then leaned across the table to talk with Liz.

            Chris nervously sat beside Melanie and looked across the table at the man who was supposedly his best friend.  He managed a small smile and said,  "Hey."

            "Hey."  Eddie smiled back and tried not to notice Chris' behavior.  "You feelin' any better?"  He asked, noticing Chris look over his shoulder for the tenth time since they walked in.

            "Hmm?"  Chris turned back to Eddie.  "What?"

            "You feelin' any better?"  He asked again.

            "Uh, yeah.  Yeah I guess."  Chris nodded and reached for the menu in the center of the table.  "So what's good here?"  He scanned the menu then looked up at three confused faces.

            "He's been having moments."  Melanie finally said as she cleared her throat and took his menu.  "We'll just get the usual."  She smiled and bumped Chris' shoulder.

            "You sure you're feelin' okay?"  Eddie laughed.

            "Yeah, I'm just kinda not here, you know?"  Chris knocked on his head and tried to play it off.  For the rest of the evening he figured he's just remain quiet and listen in on the other conversations.

            "Well then it's a good thing you're taking vacation huh?"  Eddie laughed.

            "Yeah, no kidding." Chris smiled and played with his napkin on his lap.  The two couples chatted as Lauren and Katie, Eddie and Liz's youngest daughter, sat in their high chairs on either end of the table.  Their oldest daughter Molly played Ms. Pac-man with Jenny in the mini arcade a few feet away.

            When the pizzas arrived Melanie and Liz called the girls back and went about dishing everyone up.  Chris ate the pizza and kept quiet about just how good it was.  They obviously spent a lot of time there, so he was sure they all knew how good it was.  When they were done eating the owner of the restaurant brought them the bill personally, along with a few cookies she'd baked that afternoon,  "We'll see you next week."  She laughed as she swaggered away, swaying her fifty-year-old hips.

            "She's insane."  Liz laughed.  "Man, I hope I can still wiggle when I walk when I'm her age."

   "I'm wiggling pretty good myself right now."  Melanie laughed.  "Well, I guess it's more of a waddle... but still."

    "Close enough."   The ladies laughed as Chris and Eddie reached for their wallets.

            Melanie and Liz collected Jenny and Molly, while Eddie and Chris grabbed the little ones and headed out to their cars.  They said goodbye and wrestled the kids into their separate cars.  "Hey Chris, gimme a call this weekend maybe we can grab Kurt and hit the golf course."  Eddie waved as he hopped in his car.

    Chris nodded and tried not to frown, golf was definitely not his sport.   He was silent on the ride home, listening to Jenny talk almost non-stop about how she learned how to jump rope and read "Go cat, go" at school.  When the finally got home Jenny ran into the house while Lauren giggled and kicked in Melanies arms as they walked into the house. 

            "Let's let them run around for a little bit, maybe Jenny can wear Lauren down so she'll go to bed at a decent hour."  Melanie placed Lauren on the floor and smiled as she toddled toward her big sister.

            "Hi Lauren!  Hi!"  Jenny danced around Lauren as they both laughed.

            "I just hope they wear each other out.  How can they have that much energy, they're so small."  Chris sighed as he collapsed onto the couch.  "I'm ready to hit the sack myself."

            "Me too babe."  Melanie smiled and sat beside him.  She cuddled up next to him and tried not to doze off on his shoulder.  It was barely after seven, but both adults were exhausted.  The children ran around the family room chasing each other and laughing, trying to get their parents involved in the chasing, but the most they could muster was grabbing each girl and holding them still so the other could tickle her.

            It was after eight when Lauren slowed down and started rubbing her eyes and Jenny sighed and collapsed on the couch beside Melanie.  "Are you ready for bed kiddo?"  Melanie asked as she gently tugged on Jenny's ponytail.

            "No."  Jenny protested as she yawned.

            "Let's go get changed and get Lauren ready for bed, I think she's tired."

            "Yeah, she's tired because she's only just a baby."  Jenny nodded and stood up.

            "Yep."  Melanie sighed and pushed herself up off the couch.  "Why don't you help me put Lauren down and then we can read a story or something."

            "Okay."  Jenny found a little more energy and bounced toward the stairs.

            Chris stayed by himself in the family room and listened to the three of them thump around upstairs as they got ready for bed.  He closed his eyes for a minute and thought back over the day.  So much had happened; he'd spent the day and bonded with two kids that were apparently his, he got himself kind of comfortable in the house that was apparently his, and he'd had dinner with friends that were also apparently his.

            When the noise upstairs stopped he sighed and decided it was safe to go up.  As he walked up the stairs he quietly mumbled to himself,  "Just please let me wake up in my real life tomorrow."

            He walked quietly down the hall but was drawn to Jenny's room.  He didn't know why, but he suddenly had the urge to check in on her.  She was lying on her side with her back to the door, but she rolled over when he pushed the door open.  "Good night daddy."

            Chris smiled slowly,  "Good night Jenny."

            She smiled again, then rolled back over and sighed deeply.  Chris peeked into Lauren's room as well and listened to her soft snoring for a minute before he went to the master bedroom and stripped on his side of the bed.  His clothes topped off the hamper so he pushed them down and hiked up his boxers.

            He slid under the covers silently and lay on his side watching carefully as Melanie stood in front of the dresser half dressed.  From behind he couldn't tell that she was pregnant at all, she was still slim through the hips with a firm little bottom; but as soon as she turned slightly to the side to reach across the top of the dresser he was faced with her taunt belly.

            "Chris, do you know where the monitor is?"  She asked without turning around.

            "Hmm?"   Chris' eyes darted up from her stomach and met her laughing eyes.

            "The baby monitor?"

            "Oh, yeah Jenny brought it downstairs for when Lauren was napping."  Chris nodded and sighed as he lay is head on the pillow.

            "Well can you maybe go get it?"  She raised her eyebrow at him and gave him a stern, motherly look.

            "Yeah, yeah sure."  Chris let his eyes linger on the pale blue lace of her bra before he threw back the covers and stepped out of bed.  He tip toed down the stairs in the darkness and retrieved the monitor from its position on top of the TV.

            When he entered his room again, Melanie had put a large t-shirt on and was standing at the sink wearing just her bikini underwear and the shirt.  She smiled when she caught him looking at her legs and said,  "You know, in another couple months I'll have to start wearing those maternity underwear again.  I know how much you love those."

            "Hrmph."  Chris scoffed with a smile.  He didn't know if he liked them or not, but from her tone he guessed that he probably didn't.

            "These still fit under the kid for now though."  Melanie slid her finger under the waistline as it disappeared under the curve of her belly.  "My doctors appointment is next Monday; are you going to be able to go?"

            "Um, yeah."  Chris nodded.

            "You're not going back to work?"  She cast him a worried glance then resumed flossing her teeth.

            "No I… Eddie and the other guy are filling in for me.  I've got a couple weeks of vacation."

            "A couple?  Chris how many are you taking?"

            "Five?"  He set the monitor on her side of the bed then crossed to his.

            Melanie dropped the floss in the trashcan and looked at him sharply as she stepped into the room,  "You're taking five weeks of vacation?"

            "Yeah."

            "All at once?"

            "Uh huh."

            "You're taking five whole weeks off, to do nothing?"  She asked incredulously.

            "I'm taking care of Lauren."  Chris shrugged.  "And Jenny."

            "Chris…"  She sighed and sat on the edge of the bed as she reached for the lotion on her nightstand.  "Are you sure everything's okay?  I mean, ever since your birthday you've been acting really strange and now you're taking five weeks of vacation?"

            "I had it saved up, I might as well use it."

            "This coming from a man who never takes vacations… at all?"

            "I guess this is just a sign that I need it, huh?"

            She paused to ponder that for a second,  "Yeah, I suppose so."  Melanie sighed and twisted the cap back on her lotion before she swung her feet up onto the bed and adjusted the blanket with a soft groan.  "It'll save us some money on the daycare, so that's good."

            "Lauren's pretty fun."

            "Hmm?"

            "We have fun."

            "Well… I'm glad to hear it."  She gave him an odd look, trying not to think about how weird he'd been acting.

            "Hey I ran into uh… Trent's mom today."

            "Shannon?"

            "Is that her name?"

            "Chris…" Melanie sighed.  "Come on, she's my sister."

            "Oh."  Chris thought for a second.  "That was Shannon?!"  He asked as it dawned on him.  He had of course met her before, but she'd changed a lot since then.  "Wow."

            "It's amazing how soon you forget what your family looks like Chris.  It's not like we didn't just see her and the kids last week."  Melanie rolled her eyes and shook her head as she sighed.

            "She wanted me to tell you hi and to have you call her."

            "Did it sound important?"  Melanie yawned and snuggled into the pillow.

            "Not really."

            "Then I'll call her tomorrow."

            "Are you going to work tomorrow?"  Chris asked with a hint of concern.

            "Are you on vacation tomorrow?"  She asked sarcastically.

            "Yeah."

            "Then yeah I'll be going in.  If you're going to be home all day you can watch the girls and save us money and I can go into the office and actually get some work done."  She rolled onto her other side to face Chris.  "Are you feeling better?"  Her eyes searched his for an answer.

            "Better?"

            "Than yesterday."  She whispered, feeling more concerned than ever.

            "I feel fine."

            "You're still acting strange."

            "I'm still getting used to all of this."  Chris sighed and bit his lip.  "I'm okay though.  Don't worry about me."  Chris reached for her and she scooted toward him, her pregnant stomach touching his gently.

            "Okay."  Melanie leaned forward and kissed him quickly.  "I love you pumpkin."  She smiled and waited for his response.

            Chris laughed softly, that was one thing he did remember.  "I love you hunny bunny."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

            Early the next morning Melanie woke Chris up to help get the girls ready again.  He took care of Jenny and made her breakfast, then Melanie brought Lauren down in her pajamas and strapped her in the high chair.  Chris didn't want to mess things up, so he just did exactly the same things he did the day before.  After breakfast and after Melanie left he loaded up Lauren in the stroller and they walked Jenny to school, then he went home and got Lauren out to let her walk into the house.  "So what's the plan today?  More rolly polly chasing?"  He laughed and walked slowly behind her as her bare feet slapped on the shiny tile floor of the laundry room.

            They spent the morning playing Sing-A-Long tapes in the VCR and playing with her toys.  Lauren's new game involved taking each toy out one at a time and bringing them to Chris.  He'd look surprised at the toy and play with it for a second, then he'd put it on the couch beside him and ask for more.  She would giggle, and walk back over to her toys and bring her a new one.

            At a quarter to twelve Chris' stomach growled and Lauren headed for the kitchen again in search of food.  He made sandwiches with supplies he found after a few minutes of looking, then pulled the high chair over to the table so they could eat together.  "For real Lauren, I don't know how stay at home moms do this.  I'd go nuts without some other adult here I think."  He sighed and looked at the little girl as she pulled her bread apart and picked up the piece of cheese.  "Man, you look like Melanie.  A lot."  He reached out and ran his hand over her baby fine hair and smiled.  He couldn't help but think,  "And she's mine…"

            A chill went through Chris' body, and he removed his hand from Lauren's hair.  He licked his lips quickly, then went back to eating his lunch in silence, replacing Lauren's food when she'd toss it off her tray.

 

            When lunch was over Lauren stumbled around rubbing her eyes, so Chris took her upstairs and put her in her crib.  He'd seen enough movies to know that that was when the kid usually started to cry, but Lauren's legs just collapsed and she lay down immediately.  Chris pulled the little blanket over her legs and watched her for a minute as she yawned once, then snuggled into the corner of her crib.

            "Well that was easy."  He whispered to himself as he tiptoed out of the room.  He went back downstairs and turned the TV on to channel surf, a past time that was hard to do with little kids running around.  Without anyone else around, Chris found his mind drifting back to just a few days ago when he was back in the life he knew.

            An AT&T commercial came on the TV just then and Chris watched with interest as a thought struck him, "I could call the guys."   Before he could change his mind he grabbed the phone off the charger then went in to check on Lauren.  Assured that she was sound asleep, he went back downstairs and sat on the deep couch by the window.  

            "Hi, yeah in Brooklyn?  The last name's Fatone.  F-A-T-O-N-E."  Chris said when the operator answered.

            "First name?"

            "Joe.  Joseph."

            "Do you have a street address?"  She asked.

            "Uh… no.  It's on 62nd, or 82nd or something like that I think."

            "I have an initial J on East 2nd, would you like to try that?"  She sounded annoyed.

            "Yeah, yes please."  Chris' palms began to sweat as he wrote the number down on a scratch piece of paper.  With a shaky hand Chris dialed the numbers and waited as it rang in his ear.  He had no idea what he'd say if someone actually answered, but after three rings he was greeted with an answering machine.

            A thick New York accent spoke slowly,  "Hi, you've reached Jack, Marilyn, Danny and Donny.  We're not here so leave a message and someone will call you back."  Chris hung up before the beep sounded, that wasn't the right number.

            He felt braver as he dialed the operator again to ask if there was another number for the last name.  There were three other numbers listed, a Benny, a Paul and an initial J with no address.  Chris wrote all of the numbers down, then dialed the one for the initial J with a little more courage than before.  After three rings a grandmotherly sounding lady answered the phone.

            "H-hi.  My name is Chris."  He licked his lips quickly.  "I'm actually looking for a friend of mine.  Joey Fatone?  Is this - do I have the right number?"

            "Joe?"  She asked.

            "Yeah, I uh… I went to school with him so I was just trying to track him down."  Chris explained, realizing he didn't have enough of an accent for her to buy that.  "He'd be twenty-four… do you know him?"

            "Oh no, no my Joey is thirty-nine now.  No wait, he had a birthday last month and I forgot."  She laughed softly as her voice crackled.  "He's forty now, we had a big party for him at my sisters house.  Of course he lives in Hartford now."

            "That sounds nice."  Chris nodded to be polite.  "So you don't know a Joe that’s younger?"

            "No, no dear I'm sorry I don't."

            "Okay, well thank you very much."  Chris sighed and crossed that number off the list.  When he hung up he rested his chin in his hand and looked at the phone in his hand.  Chris thought about trying to track down the other guys, but his mind drew a blank.  "You should have paid more attention."  He grumbled to himself.  He knew that Justin was from Tennessee, but he couldn't for the life of him remember where, or when they moved to Florida.  He knew that JC was from the DC area, but he wouldn't even know where to start with that one.  The only other option he had was Lance.  He'd heard enough stories about Jackson Mississippi he was sure that if one day he was dropped in the middle of the city he could find his way to Bob and Bobbette's Barber shop on the corner… or whatever that was.

            Without stopping to think he dialed the operator in Jackson and asked for a number for James Bass.  "I have a J. Lance Bass."

            "Yeah!  Y-yeah that's it."  Chris stuttered as he got his pen ready.  He scribbled the number then hung up and stared at it.  It had to be Lance.  It just had to.

            He dialed slowly and prayed that someone would answer.  Within two rings the phone was picked up, then dropped it sounded like.  "Hello?"  The deep voice Chris would recognize anywhere laughed.  "I'm sorry, I dropped the phone."

            "Lance?"  Chris asked as his mouth turned suddenly dry.

            "Yeah."  Lance laughed again and Chris' heart skipped a beat.

            "H-hey man, its Chris."

            "Chris?"

            "Yeah… do you uh… do you know who I am?"  Chris didn't care how retarded that would sound if Lance did, but he had to ask.

            "I uh, I'm sorry I don’t recognize your voice."  Lance shook his head, confused.

            "My name is Chris Kirkpatrick.  I'm from Florida.  I think we met there."  Chris grasped at straws.

            "Nah, I've never been to Florida."  Lance smiled and Chris noticed that his southern accent was much more pronounced than before.  "You sure you have the right number?"

            "I… I thought so."  Chris debated telling Lance everything he knew about him.  His parent's names, his sister, brother in law, his shoe size, the color of his hair and eyes… but he decided not to freak the poor guy out.  "But, I guess not."

            "Okay, sorry."

            "Wait."  Chris said quickly.  "Do you sing?"

            Lance paused for a minute and Chris thought he'd already hung up.  "I used to, yeah." He said softly.  "But that was a while ago."

            "You sing bass?"

            "Yeah…"

            Tears sprang up in Chris' eyes as he came to the realization that Lance didn't know him… and if he ever reached the others, they wouldn't know him either.  "Lance… its Chris."  He said softly.  "You have to remember me.  Come on Lance, you remember.  Justin and JC and Joey and me?"

            "I don't have any idea what you're talking about."  Lance said, and Chris could just imagine his silly, almost clueless grin.

            "Yeah you do."  Chris insisted as he wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.  "Nsync."

            "You've got the wrong number man."

            "No I don't.  You - you're the one I wanted to reach."  Chris pressed his hands over his eyes and willed himself to stop talking.

            "Nah, you've got the wrong number.  I don't know what you're talking about."  Lance said before he hung up the phone and left Chris listening to dead air.

            Without breathing, Chris clicked his phone off and set it on the cushion beside him.  He breathed in deeply but still felt like he was drowning… he gasped again.  "Stop."  He said to himself, as if words could stop the flood of panic he felt coming on.  "Stop, stop, stop."

            The phone rang beside him and startled him out of his mantra.  "Hello?"  His voice shook as he answered the phone.

            "Hi honey.  Mel told me you'd be home this week… is everything alright?"  His mom asked.

            "Mom?"  Chris' heart began to race again.  She was the first familiar voice he'd heard in days and it was hard to hide his relief.

            "Yeah?"  She laughed.  "Chris are you okay?"

            "Yeah."

            "Are the girls okay?"

            "Mom…"

            "Chris, what's wrong?"

            "I don't know."  Chris whispered as he dropped his head into his hands.  "I'm okay.  Really, I'm okay.  The girls are okay.  I just… I need to ask you some weird questions."

            "Do you want me to come over?  I can be there in twenty minutes."  She said.

            "No mom, I'm… I'm okay.  But I need to know a few things."

            "Okay…?"

            "This might sound really strange, but just… just be honest."

            "Sweetie, what is it?"

            "Is this a joke or something?"  Chris asked.  "This whole thing?"

            "Honey I don't know what you're talking about."

            "Do you know who Joey, Lance, JC and Justin are?"

            "Your cousin Joe?"

            "No… no mom."

            "I don't know anyone else like that.  Unless they're your friends, I'm sure I don't know all your friends."  She explained.

            "What about Nsync?"

            "What?"

            "Have you ever heard of a band called Nsync?"

            "Well… no…"

            "You're not lying?"

            "Chris… honey no I'm not lying.  What is this about?  Are you sure you're okay?"

            Chris fought back tears again as he took a deep breath.  This was all real and there was absolutely no denying it.  "Yeah."  He whispered finally.  "Yeah I'm okay."

            "Chris…"

            "No, really mom.  I'm okay.  I just… I had a weird dream the other night and it was kind of getting to me.  I'm okay now though."

            "Are you sure?"

            "Yeah, yeah I'm sure."  He nodded and swiped at his eyes.  This changed everything.

            "Okay… but if you need anything just tell me."

            "I will mom."  Chris exhaled loudly as he tried to regain his composure.  "So uh… so what were you calling about?"

            "Nothing really, Mel told me you were going to be home on vacation for the next couple weeks so I wanted to make sure you were okay."

            "I'm fine."  Chris tried to sound convincing.  "I guess it's just this whole 'turning 30' thing, maybe I'm having an early midlife crisis or something."  He laughed bitterly.  "Using up all of my vacation and stuff.  Next thing you know I'll be buying a candy apple red PT Cruiser."  He pictured his car back home in his old life, and wondered if he'd ever see it again.

            "You wouldn't live to see 31, Mel would have your head."  His mom laughed.

            "Yeah, no kidding."  He laughed softly and tried to focus on the call, his mind was racing at a million thoughts a second.  "Hey mom, I've gotta go, I think Lauren is getting up."  He lied to get off the phone so he could concentrate on what was going on.

            "Okay honey, well have a good week and call me if you need anything."

            "I will."

            "Maybe we can do something later this week?"

            "Sure.  You bet mom."

            "Alright babe, I'll see you later."

            "Bye mom, I love you."

            "I love you too."  She smiled and it showed in her voice.

            Chris hung up the phone then set it on the table in front of him.  "Shit, shit, shit."  He pressed his hands over his eyes and forced himself to keep his breath at a regular pace.  "In through my nose, out through my mouth, in through my nose, out through my mouth."  He repeated to himself as he followed his own directions.  Chris removed his hands from his eyes and got up to pace around the narrow kitchen.

            "Okay… I can do this.  This is cake.  This is nothing.  It'll all be over soon, just wade through this for now."  Chris whispered.  He needed to get his mind off of everything, so he walked to the video cabinet and opened it, scanning the familiar titles.

            "Holy shit."  Chris uttered under his breath.  He pulled the video from its place at the back of the cabinet and ran his finger over the title.  Jennifer Danielle: July 22, 1996 Hope Valley Hospital.  "Man…" He frowned down at the tape then looked at the VCR, debating whether or not he should watch it.  "She's my daughter, why not?  Apparently, I've already seen it."  He rationalized to himself.  He tucked the video under his arm then stopped and looked in the cabinet again.  Right where Jenny's tape had been there was another that said, Lauren Ashley: August 8th 2000 Hope Valley Hospital on it.

            His day was already a whirlwind of emotion, he may as well watch the videos to top it all off.  Chris sighed, then placed Jenny's video in the VCR and hit 'play'.  He heard his own voice first, and it sent chills up and down his spine.  The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he heard himself say,  "This is Mel… check her out.  Her due date is tomorrow but we're going today, aren't we babe?"  The camera swerved around to show Melanie in a sundress with her sweaty hair plastered to her forehead.

            "Uh huh."  Melanie tried to smile for the camera.

            "And what's today?"

            "It's my birthday.  I'm going to get the best birthday present ever."  She smiled and rubbed her perfectly round stomach.  "Okay Chris, can you put that down and help me here?"  The camera lurched then the screen went blank for a minute.  When the picture came back Melanie was in a hospital bed with her hair pulled back and machines hooked up over her belly.

            "July 22nd, 1996.  It's two in the afternoon and in another couple hours we're going to be parents."  Chris heard his own voice say from off camera.  "How are you feeling Mel?"

            "I'd feel a whole lot better if you'd put that thing down and call my mom already."  She grumbled as she squirmed on the bed.  "Here's another one.  Chris…"  Her face contorted as the camera was set down and he rushed to her side, leaving the camera rolling.

            "Whoa."  Chris watched himself on the screen, barely able to believe that it was him on the screen.  His hair was longer than he remembered and he was completely clean-.

            He watched himself get yelled at over and over on the screen for another half-hour of tape, then the image of Melanie in the bed with Chris at her side came on the screen and a steady hand held the camera.

            "You're doing good babe."  The Chris on TV helped Melanie sit up while another voice, the one holding the camera, encouraged them to keep going.

            Chris found himself holding his breath as the next twenty minutes of tape played.  He saw for the first time what it was like to watch your own child brought into the world with the help of the doctors and nurses standing by.  He could barely believe it when he watched himself cut the cord then minutes later cradle a screaming baby Jenny in his arms to show Melanie their daughter.

            "She's beautiful."  He said, as the 'him' on TV said the same thing.  Another chill ran down his spine and he paused the tape to wipe at his eyes and take a deep breath.  "Wow."  He sighed, then watched the rest of the tape.  It showed the new family hugging together on the bed, then it cut to the next day when all of the visitors came and passed the baby around.  Then it showed them pulling up at the house he was sitting in and carrying the new baby into the house and upstairs to her brand new room, the room that was still hers.

            "Man, I think that's enough for today."  Chris pressed 'stop' but still heard a baby crying.  "What…?  Oh shit!"  He jumped off the couch and bolted up the stairs to Lauren's room where she was standing in her crib crying.  "Oh man, I'm sorry about that kiddo."  He lifted her out of the crib and patted her back as she wrapped her tiny arms around his neck.

            "Dadadada."  Lauren cried into his neck.

            "Yeah, I know I suck again."  Chris sighed and tried to bounce her like he'd seen Melanie do to clam her down.  "I know, I know… I just hope you weren't crying for too long."  He looked at his watch and frowned, she'd been asleep for a little less than two hours and he wasn't sure if that was a good nap or not.  Either way, she had good timing because it was time for them to go get Jenny at school.

            "Okay kiddo, let's change your diaper and go get Jenny.  It's a good thing you woke up when you did or I would have forgotten and that would be bad."  He walked over to the changing table and laid Lauren down.  She grabbed her cardboard book and stuck it in her mouth while Chris went through the motions of changing her diaper.  "So when do you get potty trained huh?  That's something that would come in real handy if you know what I mean."  He made a face and dropped the wet diaper into the trashcan.  "Seriously."  He turned his head away and fastened the clean diaper into place, then stood her up and pulled her little pants back up.  "Okay… now we get to go for a walk.  Yay!"  Chris cheered as he put Lauren on his hip and carried her downstairs.

            "Yayaya daaadadada."  Lauren clapped her little hands and laughed.

            "That's right, yay!"  Chris tried to clap without dropping her.  "You're pretty cool."  He said softly as he grabbed his keys then headed for the garage where Lauren's stroller was waiting.  "I never thought any kid of mine would be cool.  You must get that from your mom or something."  He laughed and strapped her in, then opened the garage door and they headed out.

 

            Chris found his way back to the school without a problem and waited by the gate with some of the other parents.  The kids flooded out of the school a few minutes after he got there, and Jenny ran right up to him.  "Daddy!  Know what?"  She bounced around the stroller waving goodbye to all of her friends and giggling wildly.

            "What?"

            "We get to go to the zoo!  Miss Lennox said we get to go and all of us do and even some mommy and daddy's!"

            "Oh cool, you get to go on a field trip huh?"

            "Yeah!  We get to go to the zoo!"

            "Well hey, that's pretty cool."  Chris smiled.  He remembered the excitement of field trips when he was in school.  There was nothing better than spending a school day away from school.

            "Can you go too?  And Lauren?"

            "I don't know…"  Chris shrugged.  "I'll have to see when it is and everything."

            "It's in two weeks."  Jenny said matter-of-factly as they headed home.

            "Okay."  Chris nodded.

            "And I have a paper for you and mommy."

            "A permission slip."  Chris smiled.  "I'll take a look at is when we get home."

            "Okay."  Jenny skipped along beside him as they walked up the street.  "Can I have peanut butter and crackers again for snack?"

            "Sure."  Chris smiled,  "Those were pretty good huh?"

            "Yeah.  I like peanut butter."

            "Me too."

            "Will Lauren be asleep?  Maybe she can have one?"

            "No, she already had her nap."  He shook his head; he wasn't going to make that mistake again.  "I can make some for her too.  Maybe we can eat them outside or something."

            "Maybe we can eat them at the table."  Jenny frowned and looked over her shoulder as she walked in front of the stroller.

            "We can eat them wherever you want."  Chris smiled and slowed down so he wouldn't run into Jenny's feet.

            "I love peanut butter and crackers daddy."

            "Me too."  He laughed and for a split second he felt like he was in the right place.  For just that fleeting moment he really felt like "the daddy" and not so much like "Chris Kirkpatrick, Nsync".  Chris shrugged it off and tried to brush the feeling aside as they continued home to make their snack.  On the way he found himself thinking about the guys and forcing himself to mentally recite the words to their songs so he wouldn't forget that that was where he wanted to be, back in his old life.

 

            Chris, Jenny and Lauren ate their snack at the kitchen table just like Jenny wanted to, then they went out to the backyard to play for a little bit.  When the sun started to sink lower into the sky, Chris knew it as getting close to five and he should get something out for dinner.  Apparently that was expected of him and he'd goofed the day before.

            "So what do you guys want for dinner?"

            "Peanut butter sandwiches!"  Jenny shouted as she dropped a bucket of sand onto the little castle she'd built with rocks and leaves.

            "I don't think so."  Chris shook his head.  "Can you bring Lauren in and help me out here?"  He asked from the kitchen.  Chris opened and closed the cupboards looking for something that would qualify as dinner, then finally pulled the freezer open.  "Ah ha, this is what I was looking for." He pulled out a box of chicken nuggets and a thing of frozen fries.  "How about this?"

            "Okay."  Jenny shrugged as she walked through the door slowly.  Lauren held tight to Jenny's hand as she stepped carefully up the little step and into the house.

            "Okay… cool."  Chris followed the directions and turned the oven on, then found two cookie sheets and spread everything out.  Thirty-two chicken nuggets and a whole bag of fries.

            "That's a lot."

            "Well aren't you super hungry?"

            "I'm a little hungry."  Jenny eyed the cookie sheets.

            "I'm super hungry, and I'll bet your mom will be hungry too."

            "Maybe."  Jenny nodded, but she still didn’t look too sure.

            "It'll be fine."  Chris threw the empty box away and wadded up the empty french fries bag.  "What else should we have?"

            "Ice cream."

            "I mean for dinner."  Chris smiled, though ice cream sounded good too.

            "I don't know."

            "I guess we can wait and see what your mom thinks when she gets here, right?"  Chris placed his hands on his hips and looked down at Jenny and Lauren.

            "Right."  Jenny nodded.

            "Cool."  He sighed, then went about getting the dishes out so everything would be ready when Melanie got home.

 

            Just before five Melanie walked through the garage door and groaned,  "Is it Friday yet?"  She walked into the living room and kicked her shoes off as she dropped her purse and keys on the floor.  "Hi sweetie."  She sighed as she picked Lauren up and gave her a big hug.  "How's my baby girl?"

            "Mommy!  I get to go to the zoo!"  Jenny danced out to the living room to greet Melanie.

            "How fun!  Are you going with your class?"

            "Yeah, and daddy and Lauren might go too!"

            "Wow, that's pretty cool."  Melanie smiled and set Lauren back on the floor so she could rub her tired back.  "It smells like daddy actually made some dinner tonight."  Melanie smiled again and followed Jenny back to the kitchen.  "Smells good babe, what is it?"  She kissed Chris quickly then rested her head on his shoulder.

            "Chicken nuggets and fries."  Chris wrapped his arm around her waist and gave her a gentle squeeze, still unfamiliar with her round belly pressing into his side.

            "Yum."  She whispered and sighed.  "Thank you."

            "You're welcome.  Tough day at work?"

            "I remember why I like working from home."  She laughed lightly.  "Steve had about eighty feet of bills to do today and since I was so conveniently there, guess who got to do it all?"

            "Oh man…"

            "Yeah.  But… I don't know.  I like being there.  Being around grown ups all day kinda rules."  She smiled and kissed Chris' cheek.  "You'd better be careful, I just might end up liking this better then you'll have to quit your job and become Mr. Mom permanently."  She laughed, not realizing that Chris was thinking that might not be such a bad idea.  "How'd things go here?"

            "Good.  Fine."  Chris nodded and used a spatula to scoot some fries onto the plate on the counter.  There was no way he could explain the type of day he'd had without sounding like a lunatic.  "Yeah I called random people in New York and Mississippi trying to find people who don't really exist."  Chris sighed and looked down at the chicken nuggets, "I hope you're hungry."

            "I am."  Melanie yawned.  "I'm famished."  She ran her hand over her belly then took the plate and set it in front of Jenny.  "There you go Jenny girl, do you want some honey or bar-b-que sauce?"

            "Honey!"  Jenny bounced in her seat as Melanie set a few chicken nuggets on Lauren's tray.

            "Can you grab the honey, babe."  Melanie sat at the table and sighed.  "And the bar-b-que sauce too."

            "Sure."  Chris grabbed both and sat across from Melanie.  They talked about their day and Jenny's trip to the zoo in two weeks during the meal.  Chris had agreed to go as a parent chaperone as long as he could take Lauren as well.  He hoped he wouldn't be there in two weeks though.  He hoped that in two weeks he'd be back on stage with the guys, dodging fans, riding on the bus and partying at least twice a week.  Of course, he didn't let on that that was his big plan.  To Jenny and Melanie, Chris came across as the excited parent chaperone who couldn't wait to go to the zoo with twenty five-year-olds.

 

            When dinner was over Chris volunteered to clean up so that Melanie could go upstairs to bathe the kids and get them ready for bed.  He went up a short while later to see how things were going and was surprised to find all three of them in his bed curled up on top of the covers watching "Beauty and the beast" on the little TV on top of the dresser.

            "Is there room for me?"  Chris asked as he stood on his side of the bed.

            "Sure there is, scooch over Jenny girl."  Melanie pulled Lauren closer to her as Jenny scooted toward the bottom of the bed to make room for Chris.  He lay on his side as Jenny used his knee for a pillow and Lauren propped her foot against his chest as she stuck her thumb in her mouth and sighed.

            "No no baby."  Melanie reached around and popped the thumb out of her mouth.  She wrapped her arm around Lauren's middle and smiled up at Chris.

            Chris smiled in content then turned his attention toward the TV.  He hadn't see "Beauty and the beast" since his youngest sister had made him watch it a few years back, when she was still enthralled with princess's and magic spells.  He laughed slightly to himself, maybe that what all of this was, a magic spell.  Some fairy godmother waved her magic wand and the guys turned into his wife and kids, the bus turned into this house and his life turned into this.  Sooner or later the clock would strike twelve though, and he'd return to what he considered normal.  He just hoped it would wait until the movie was over, he kind of liked the feeling of having the bed full like that.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

            The first week went much the same as Chris began to settle into his position as 'daddy' in the household.  Every night for the first few days Chris said a silent prayer that he'd wake up in his old life, to get back to where he'd left off with the guys.  But by the end of the week he'd given up on that pipe dream and succumbed to the idea that this was not only real, but also permanent.

 

Next...

 

Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn