The rest of the week went well and Jenny grew more and more excited about her field trip to the zoo that Chris was going to get to go on.  By the time Friday morning arrived she was practically bouncing off the walls.  "Daddy!  We have to hurry!  If we're late we can't go!"  She shouted as she poked her head in his room, then ran back to her own room.

            "Calm down kiddo, we're not gonna be late."  Chris tucked his t-shirt in and sighed.

            "Are you sure you can handle this?"  Melanie asked with a slow smile.

            "It's the zoo."  He shrugged.

            "It's the zoo with a dozen five year olds."

            "And Lauren."

            "Right… and Lauren."  Melanie laughed.  "I just… you think you can do it?"

            "I can handle it."  Chris nodded.  It couldn't be that hard.  He would point out the monkeys, maybe imitate a gorilla, then move on to the tigers, eat some lunch and go home.

            "Okay."  Melanie gave him an amused look and shook her head with a soft laugh.  She knew him well enough to know that she'd be hearing about this trip to the zoo for months.

 

            Chris' idea of how the zoo was going to go could not have been further from the truth.  When they arrived at the zoo he was assigned his six kids to supervise; Jenny, Haley, Amber, Shelby, Paul and Tyler.  He also had Lauren in her stroller which he was sure wouldn't be a problem.  Lauren of course had other plans.  As soon as they got to the zoo she squirmed and complained until he got her out and carried her in one arm while pushing the stroller with the other, all the while trying to keep six wild five year olds within sight.

            Miss Howard handed out everyone's lunches and snacks which Chris stuck in his backpack for later, then they were sent on their way to see as many animals as they could.  After a short argument over where to go first, Chris led the group toward the elephants.  From there they would be able to walk down the back path and see the bears and wild cats.

            "I want to see the polar bears."  Tyler complained.

            "They don't have polar bears here."  Chris said without consulting a map.

            "Yeah they do, they have all the bears here."  Tyler stared up at Chris with his hands on his narrow little hips.

            "Polar bears live where it's cold."  Chris set Lauren back in the stroller then one by one hoisted each child up to see over the railing and shrubs into the brown bear enclosure.

            "It's cold here."  Tyler pouted.

            "You think this is cold?"  Chris asked as he lifted Paul up to see the bears.  "Can you see them?"  He asked.

            "Uh huh."  Paul mumbled.

            "Okay."  He set Paul down and reached for Shelby.

            "It gets cold here sometimes."  Tyler continued to argue.

            "Well the polar bears are only here when it's cold then."  Chris lifted Shelby up.  "Can you see them?"

            "Yeah, there are three of them!"  She squealed.

            "I only saw one."  Haley frowned as she tried to climb up on the railing.

            "Stay off of there; you don't want to fall in do you?"  Chris reached for the back of her shirt and lifted her up and away from the railing.  He looked into the enclosure and said, “There are only two bears in there, that other thing over there is a blanket or something for them to sleep on."

            "I wanna see!"  Five little voices chimed in.  Chris sighed, then one by one picked them all up again to see the bear bed.  They moved to the next animal and Chris again lifted everyone to see into the enclosure.

            "I'm gonna throw my back out if I have to do this all day."  Chris mumbled to himself as he picked Jenny up to see the sun bears.

            "No daddy, you're strong.  You're strong like an elephant!"  Jenny giggled.

            "Yeah.  Thanks."  Chris said as he sat her down.  His arms were already starting to feel like Jell-O and his stomach was growling.  "Okay, okay… who's ready for snacks?"  Chris asked as he pulled Paul off of the railing in front of an empty enclosure.

            "Me!"

            "Me!"

            "Me!"  Came a chorus of answers.  He should have known that food was one way to get all of the kids to sit down.

            "Rad, come on over here we can sit at the table in the shade."  He herded the small group to a little cluster of tables and sighed.  "No, Shelby this one.  In the shade so we don't die from the heat."

            "We're gonna die in the sun?"  Shelby asked with an insane laugh.  "No way."

            "Yes way."  Chris crinkled his nose.  "Okay, come on… everyone sit down."  He dropped his backpack on the table as the boys sat on one side and the girls sat on the other.  "Paul?  Here you go."  He took the snack bags out and checked the names as he handed them out.  "What do you have in there?  It feels like a baseball."

            "It's an orange."  Paul sighed with a frown.

            "You don't like oranges?"

            "I can't get the skin off."

            "Oh, well hang on a second, I'll get it."  Chris handed out the rest of the snacks as the kids started to chatter.  Each child opened up their snacks and started nibbling while Chris re-organized the lunches in the bag and moved Lauren's stroller into the shade.  He handed her a pretzel from his snack bag then went about peeling Paul's orange.

            "You know what?"  Chris asked as he set a chunk of peel on the table.

            "What?"  Jenny looked up from her snack of Ritz crackers.

            "I used to have this friend named JC, and you know what his favorite snack in the whole wide world was?"  Chris concentrated on the orange in his hand.

            "What?"

            "Ritz crackers like those, with cold pepperoni and cheese on them."

            "Like a pizza."  Jenny giggled.

            "Yeah, kinda."  Chris nodded, and suddenly craved the snack.  He pulled the orange into two pieces, then handed it to Paul.  "There you go buddy."

            "Thanks."  Paul said softly as he took his snack.

            "Did he like the crackers with just cheese?"  Jenny asked.

            "I don't know.  Probably."  Chris nodded.  "JC really liked crackers with stuff on them."

            "Me too."  She laughed and took a bite of her plain cracker.  "Where does he live?"

            "Um… he lives in Orlando I think."  Chris nodded.

            "Does he have kids to play with?"

            "I uh, I'm not sure."  He wished he hadn't said anything at all.

            "Maybe you can call him when we go home and see.  I like having kids to play with."

            "Yeah…" Chris nodded.  "Kids are pretty cool."  He smiled, then looked around the table at the half dozen other kids having their snacks.  "Haley, dude, Haley… don't do that.  Don't stick the fruit roll on the… table." He sighed as Haley did just that, then laughed and peeled it off.  "That's gross."

            "It's good!"  Haley squealed and took a bite as the two girls on either side of her laughed hysterically.

            "Daddy can we stay here until it gets dark?"  Jenny asked.

            Chris groaned and closed his eyes tightly, "Absolutely not."

            "Why not?"  Tyler asked.

            "Because your parents are going to pick you up at school."  Chris explained, with his eyes still closed.

            "They can pick me up here.  Do the animals stay awake at night?"  Amber asked softly as she chewed on a fruit snack.

            "They all go to sleep when it gets dark."

            "Nu uh."  Tyler shook his head.  "Some animals are only awake at night."

            "Not at this zoo."  Chris couldn't believe he was telling impressionable kids this.  "This zoo only has day animals."

            All of the kids around the table just looked at him for a second, then broke out laughing.  "No way."  Shelby shook her head and took a bite of her granola bar.

            "You're being silly.  They have all the animals here."  Haley swung her feet back and forth, kicking Paul's shin.

            "Ow Haley."  Paul frowned.

            "Keep your feet still Haley."  Chris crunched on a pretzel, then handed another one to Lauren who had demolished the first one he gave her.

            "I am."  She argued.

            "No you're not, I can see your feet."  Chris looked under the table and she stopped with a sigh.  "Let's just finish up here, then we can go see the zebra's and the giraffes and everything like that."

            "A zebra?"  Amber asked with a gasp.  "A real one?"

            "Of course a real one."  Chris smiled.

            "Oh wow, I love zebras."  She giggled and bounced on the bench as they finished up their snacks.  When they were done Chris hauled them all to the bathrooms again before they set off for the 'Hoof and Antler' path to see those animals.

 

            The small group toured the zoo and had a picnic style lunch by the elephant mesa.  At two o'clock they met up with Miss Howard and the other parent chaperones by the entrance.  Chris looked around at the other adults and shook his head.  He felt like a truck had hit him, and they all looked like it was just another day at the beach.  "Unnatural."  He uttered under his breath.

            Chris waited with the other adults until all of the children were picked up, then he loaded Jenny and Lauren into their car and drove them home.  He was surprised that neither of the girls fell asleep during the ride; they must have been exhausted.

            When they got inside, Chris found a note from Melanie stuck to the fridge.  He took it down then read it softly under his breath,  "Hey guys, I hope you had fun at the zoo.  I went to Shannon's to help her write invitations for Trent's birthday.  There's a frozen pizza in the freezer, go ahead and have that.  I'll be home around seven or eight.  Love, Mel"

            "Can we go see Trent?"  Jenny asked as she bounced around his feet.

            "Nope."  Chris placed Lauren on the floor and she immediately started to cry.  Having missed her nap, she was promising to be less than pleasant for the evening.

            "Please?"  Jenny whined.

            "No, we're going to stay here and relax.  I need a nap."

            "You can't nap you have to watch Lauren."

            "Lauren needs to nap."  He picked her up and tried to soothe her crying by rubbing her back.

            Jenny just sighed and put her hand on her hip,  "It's too late."

            "Why don't you get your homework out and start on that so it'll be done before dinner?  That way after dinner you can take a bath and go to bed."

            "I want to watch a movie after my bath."

            "Then you need to get your homework done."  Chris yawned and opened the fridge to get Lauren's sippy cup of juice out.  "Here you go sweetie, how about some juice?"  Lauren took the cup and sucked half of it down before handing it back to Chris.  "A little thirsty?"  He smiled and brushed her thin hair off of her forehead.  Chris swiped his thumb over the tear that had managed to escape and kissed her nose.  "You're one tired little girl."

            "Daddy."  Jenny sighed heavily.

            "What?" Chris matched her tone and looked down at her.

            "I need you to help me with my homework."  She raised her eyebrows at him like he was an idiot.

            Chris looked at the table behind her and took a smart mouthed tone for his reply,  "You need my help to open your backpack and take it out?"

            "No."

            "Then take it out and actually look at it first."  Chris sighed and put Lauren's juice back in the fridge.  "I'll help you, but you need to see what it is first, maybe you can do it on your own."

            "No, I know I can't do it because it's all the numbers."  Jenny put her hands on her hips and looked up at Chris with a deep-set frown.

            "Go get your backpack, get your homework out and do everything on there that you can.  Once you do that, then let me know and I'll come and help you."  He moved Lauren to his other side and rested her bottom on the counter to give his aching arms a rest.

            The back of the frozen pizza box said it would take forty minutes to cook in a conventional oven.  "Wonderful."  Chris set the over to 350 degrees and tossed the pizza on the counter.  "We're eating dinner early tonight."  He mumbled.

            "I don't want to."  Jenny whined.

            "My God Jenny.  You sound like you need a nap too."  He frowned.

            "No I don't."

            "Yeah you do, you're being Jenny the grouch today."

            "You're being daddy the grouch today."

            "Oh really?  You're right Jenny; I'm so mean.  I took you and your friends all over the zoo today and I bought everyone postcards and I picked everyone up to see every animal in the zoo.  You're right… I'm such a grouch.  I don't know how I ever got any friends with me being so mean."  His sarcasm alone proved to him that he was in fact, daddy the grouch.

            "You're mean right now."  She looked up at him with angry tears in her eyes.  It had been a long day for everyone, and they all needed a nap.

            Chris sighed and picked Lauren up to carry her to the table.  "I'm sorry."  He sighed and sat down to bounce the baby on his knee.  "I think we're all just grouchy today." Chris reached over and messed Jenny's hair.  "I'm gonna get the dinner started, then I'll help you with your work, okay?"  She just stared at her blank homework paper with her pencil in her hand.  "Jenny girl?"

            "What?"

            "Is that okay?"

            "Yes."  She grumbled.

            "I'm sorry, okay?"  Chris said softly as he wiped a tear off her cheek.  "Do you want some garlic bread with the pizza?"  She shook her head no.  "Is there anything you do want with it?"

            "I just want a corn dog."  She sighed.

            "Okay, when the pizza is done I'll nuke you a corn dog, okay?"

            "Yeah."  She sighed.

            "Okay."  Chris stood up and kissed the top of her head.  "I need to change this stinker."  He bounced Lauren to his other hip, then carried her upstairs to change her diaper and clean her up.

 

            As promised, Chris made a corn dog for Jenny before they all sat down for dinner.  Lauren's eyes drifted closed several times during the meal and she did the 'bobbing head' thing so many times Chris began to laugh at her, feeling her pain.  "Man, I think we're all tired today."

            "Not me."

            "Yeah, well you're a little ball of energy I think.  You're not really a little girl, you're an energizer bunny dressed up to look like a girl."

            "No I'm not."  She giggled and drew her corn dog stick through the glob of ketchup on her plate.

            "I think so."  Chris stood up to take the dishes to the sink.  He wrapped up the remaining half of the pizza and stuck it in the fridge for later.  "I think its bath time, how about you?"

            "Yeah."  Jenny slid off the chair and carried her plate to the sink where she dropped it in with the others.

            Chris grabbed Lauren and followed Jenny up the stairs to their bathroom.  He ran a bath and put both girls in to kill two birds with one stone.  Lauren cried almost the whole time in the shower and Jenny got more and more cranky as Lauren kept crying.  By the time they were done Chris was ready to call it quits and go to bed himself.

            "Okay Jenny, go get your pajamas on."

            "I don't want to go to bed."

            "You don't have to go to bed, but I want you to put them on please."  Chris sighed and held a wet and naked Lauren against his chest.

            "I'll put them on after I see a movie."

            "You'll put them on now or there won't be a movie."  Chris retorted with a raised eyebrow.  He didn't wait for her response before he carried Lauren into her room and placed her on the changing table while she fussed.  "Just a couple more minutes sweetie."  Chris cooed as he got her little cotton pajamas out of the drawer.  He put her in a fresh diaper then pulled the pajamas on and ran the towel over her damp hair again.  "There you go."

            "Buh buh."  Lauren whined as she reached for her crib.

            "Yep, it's time to go night night."  Chris peppered her cheek with tiny kisses, then set her gently in the crib.  The little pink blanket she couldn't sleep without was bunched up near her feet so he pulled it up to her shoulders and smiled.  "Good night sweet heart, well it's time to go…"  He sang softly with a smile.

            Lauren pulled her blanket up to her face and rolled onto her stomach.  She stuck her little diapered bottom up in the air and gave one final sigh before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.

            Chris stood and watched her for a few minutes before he yawned and left the room with the door left open a few inches.  He went down stairs where Jenny was laying on the floor with the TV on.  It was barely seven, but the couch was looking mighty inviting.

            "So what are we going to watch?"

            "Um, just 'Hey Arnold'."  Jenny shrugged.

            "Okay."  He slid the right tape into the VCR and pressed 'play'.  The little 45 minute tape started as Chris stretched out on the couch with 'People Magazine' in his hand to keep him entertained.

            By the time the movie ended, Jenny was sound asleep on the floor and Chris was yawning every three minutes.  He stood up and stretched, feeling every muscle in his body ache.  Grunting, he picked Jenny up off the floor and lugged her sleeping body up the stairs to her own room.  She didn't flinch or make a sound as he laid her on her bed and pulled the sheet up to cover her legs.  "G'night Jenny girl."  Chris whispered before he headed back downstairs.

            The TV was still on and an infomercial of InstantBronze self-tanner was on.  He crawled back onto the couch only to discover that the remote was on top of the TV.  "Oh well, maybe I need a tan."  He mumbled to himself as he dropped his arm over his eyes.

            Melanie came home a short while late and laughed as she walked into the family room.  "Where is everyone?"  She asked softly.

            "Asleep.  Upstairs.  I think… I don't remember."  Chris mumbled.

            "Aww."  She smiled and tried not to laugh as she dropped her keys on the kitchen counter.  "So… how was the zoo?"  Melanie asked with a smirk as she sat beside Chris' prone body on the couch.

            "Oh.  My.  God."  Chris groaned as he uncovered his eyes.  "I swear… I'm never having kids."

            "Too late."  She laughed.

            "Okay we'll keep the one's we've got, but no more."

            "Three is enough."  Melanie placed her hand on her tummy.

            "As long as we don't have seven, that's fine."

            Melanie laughed out loud and shook her head,  "I can promise that we won't have seven.  Is that how many you had today?"

            "Yeah.  I had Jenny, and five of her classmates, and Lauren.  And oh my God… I'm glad I'm not a teacher or something.  They drove me nuts.  Ask me how many times I went to the bathroom today?  Go ahead and ask."

            "How many times did you go to the bathroom today?"  She smiled with a light laugh.

            "I don’t know.  I lost count after like, a hundred.  Do kids do anything else besides pee all day?  Honestly.  Tyler would have to go… so we'd all go into the bathroom so I didn't lose anyone.  Then like, ten minutes later Paul would have to go… so we'd all go back in to the bathroom."

            "That's when you say 'anyone who has to go, go now' so you don't have to do that all day."

            "I did that, and no one ever had to.  Till like ten minutes later.  I know every freaking bathroom in that zoo."  Chris sighed.  "And then of course we've got diaper duty every hour."

            "Oh, poor you."  She laughed with mock sympathy.  "I tried to warn you, but you insisted."

            "I know, I know."  He smiled and pushed himself up on the couch.  "Other than seeing every bathroom in the park twice though, it was a lot of fun.  You'd think they'd never seen a zebra before."

            "Maybe they haven't."  Melanie shrugged.  "Not in real life anyway."

            "The zoo is like, twenty minutes away, their parents have never taken them to the zoo?"

            "Well how many times have we been to the zoo since we had kids?"

            "I don't know."  Chris answered honestly.

            "I think the last time we went I was pregnant with Lauren, barely pregnant.  So that's like, two years ago.  Jenny was still in a stroller and probably didn't even know what a zebra as."  She laughed.

            "Well shit, we need to go more often."

            "You're on vacation, go for it."  Melanie stood up and scratched the side of her belly.  "Come on, the coast is clear.  All the kids are in bed."

            "Promise?"

            "I promise.  You won't see anyone shorter than me."  She laughed and reached her hand out to pull him up.

            "You're the best."  Chris said when he was standing upright beside her.  He leaned over and kissed her quickly, then let her pull him up the stairs to their room.  "Can I sleep in tomorrow?"

            "That depends."

            "On what?"  Chris mumbled as he fell face first onto the bed and kicked his shoes off onto the floor.

            "On what time the girls get up."  Melanie laughed from the bathroom as she peeled her clothes off and changed into an oversized shirt that still managed to cling to her tummy.

            "I'll give you three thousand dollars if you keep them out of here till ten."  His words were slurred against the pillow, but he meant them.  In his previous life a deal like that was often made, and paid.

            "Honey, if you had three thousand dollars to back that up, I'd take it in a heartbeat.  I could use a three week vacation in Rome."

            "I can't get up at six."  Chris shook his head and shimmied out of his jeans.  "I will cease to exist if I have to get up at six."

            "No you won't."  Melanie walked behind him and slapped his boxer covered butt.  "When did you turn into such a wuss?"

            "I don't know."  Chris mumbled, and wondered the same thing himself.  He used to be able to do a two hour energized show after spending all day running around tackling the crew guys and beating up on Justin, and now he couldn't handle a day at the zoo?

            "Well at least you don't smell like a zoo."  Melanie climbed onto her side of the bed, then lay on her side to play with Chris' hair since his head was at her hips.  "Come on, at least get all the way into bed.  If you sleep like that your legs will go numb then you'll be useless if there's a fire."

            "That's what a fire department is for."  Chris reluctantly pulled himself all the way onto the bed and dropped his head on his pillow.  "I'm too old for this."

            "You're not old."  Melanie laughed and pulled the sheet up over his legs.  "You can't be old, because if you're old that means I am too."

            "You're not old."  Chris yawned.  "You're perfect."

            "You're trying to sweet talk me into letting you sleep in tomorrow."  She whispered as she turned her bedside light off.

            "No I'm not."  Chris smiled and paused for a second.  "Is it working?"

            "No."  She laughed again and reached for his arm to pull it around her middle as she rolled onto her side.  Chris kissed her neck with a content sigh and made a small circle with his palm on her tummy, letting his thumb just brush her breasts.

            The baby kicked and rolled, protesting Melanie's change in position, and Chris smiled.  "This is what it's all about."  He thought to himself.  For the first time he really understood those guys who said that family was the most important thing to them.  He'd spent so many years focused on his career, that he'd never given any of this a chance.  Chris loved his family back then, and he always said they came first.  But lying there with Melanie in his arms, the baby kicking under her skin and two precious angels down the hall, he really knew what it meant to put family first.  And he was more than willing to do it.

 

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

 

            Over the next few weeks of his vacation Chris became accustomed to playing the role of "daddy" and did his best not to think about the guys and the group.  He'd surprise himself at the end of the day when he realized he hadn't thought about them at all.  Every once in a while he'd hear a song on the radio that sounded like one of theirs, but it never was.  Occasionally when he and Lauren were home alone he'd hum or sing some old familiar songs to her while she napped or played.  "The two of us" was one of her favorites and Chris had the most fun dancing around the room with her to it.  He quizzed himself to see if he still knew the choreography, and shocked himself when he did.

            Once he'd even opened up and sang softly to Melanie's ever-growing tummy while they lay together in bed.  "Your love is like a river, peaceful and deep.  Your soul is like a secret that I never could keep.  When I look into your eyes I know that it's true.  God must have spent, a little more time on you."  He softly kissed the warm skin of Melanie's stomach, and passed the kiss along to baby Kathryn.

            "That's pretty, what song is that?"  She asked, catching him off guard.

            He blushed quickly and stopped singing,  "I don't know, I just heard it somewhere before.  On the radio I think."

            "Do you know the rest?"  Melanie asked, she'd love to hear how it went.

            Chris bit his lip and sighed.  "No."  He said softly as he rolled onto his back and tried to shut out the tune in his head.  Of course he knew the rest.  He knew every inflection, every note, and every element of the song.  But that was something he'd left behind, and it wasn't a part of his life any more.

            "Are you going back to work tomorrow?"  She asked softly a minute later.

            Chris stomach crept into his throat.  He'd dreaded that moment for the past five weeks but he could find no way to avoid it.  "Y-yeah… I have to."

            "It's going to be hard getting back into the work-mode, isn't it?"

            "Probably."  Chris nodded.

            "Well I'm sure Eddie and the guys will help you out.  Maybe you'll get lucky and only have four presentations to do instead of five."  She tried to make a joke, but it didn't make him feel any better.  "Aww, don't worry honey, you only have to work for three days then it'll be Thanksgiving."  She rolled onto her side and ran her hand down Chris' arm.  "You'll be fine."

            "I hope so."  Chris nodded and closed his eyes.  He really, really hoped so.

 

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

 

            When the alarm went off the next morning, Chris knew it was for him.  He felt his stomach sink and bile rise in his throat.  Maybe if he were sick he wouldn't have to go in.  The thought of throwing up was actually appealing to him when Melanie rolled over and gently poked his side.  "Hey babe, that's for you."

            "Yeah."  Chris whispered.  "Can you snooze it?"

            "It's on your side."  Melanie pulled the sheets tighter around her as she sighed.

            "Oh."  Chris rolled to face to side of the nightstand and silenced the alarm.

            "But you'd better not snooze it.  You don't want to be late on your first day back at work."  Melanie yawned and fluffed the pillow under her head.  She had another half-hour before the girls got up and she wasn't going to waste it arguing with her husband.

            "Okay."  Chris mumbled and sat up in the bed.  He yawned and stood up, then adjusted his pajama bottoms and walked into the bathroom.  Blindly, he turned the shower on and got a clean towel from the closet.

            Chris showered, then stood at the sink in his towel to brush his teeth and shave.  A thought struck Chris and scared him more than the thought of going back to work.  He had no idea where he worked.  "Mel?"

            "Yeah?"  She answered softly from the bed.

            "What uh… what if I forget how to get to work?"  He tried to sound funny, to get a sarcastic answer out of her that would tell him where he worked.

            "You've been there for years, you won't forget."

            "What if I do though?  You know, it's been like five weeks."  He tried to laugh.  "And I don't have the best memory in the world."  Chris leaned closer to the mirror to watch what he was doing as he shaved.

            Melanie gave a small chuckle and said,  "You go down Manchester till you see your building.  If you get to the McDonald's you've gone too far."  She pulled the blankets back and turned slightly to look at him in the bathroom.  "Just stop when you see Eddie’s big red mini van."

            "Whew… see?  I never would have found it."  Chris laughed nervously.  "I would have flown right by the McDonald's and never looked back."

            "You'd better not be thinking about getting breakfast there."

            "I'm not."  Chris shook his head and rinsed his razor out in the sink.  He was too nervous to think about eating anything, nevermind a greasy cheesy breakfast sandwich.  "What should I wear?"  He asked as he looked into his closet.  For some reason his current standard of jeans and a t-shirt didn't seem appropriate.

            "My God Chris, do I have to dress you?"  Melanie yawned and sat up on her side of the bed.  There was no way she was going to get to go back to sleep if Chris was going to keep talking to her.  "Wear your black pants and that sage green shirt.  That's my favorite."

            "Green?"  Chris made a face; it'd never been his favorite color.

            "I'll get it."  She sighed and pushed herself off the bed.  Melanie waddled into the closet with one hand on her back and pulled out Chris' pressed black slacks and a greenish gray dress shirt.  "Here, put these on with your plain black tie.  You know which one is plain black, right?"  She smiled sarcastically at him, then laughed.

            "Yes."  Chris patted her belly and took the clothes from her.  "Thank you sweetie.  I'm just kind of nervous about going back to work."  He kissed her quickly, then wiped a smudge of shaving cream off her cheek before wiping his own.  "How about you?  Are you going to do okay here?"

            "Yep."  Melanie stifled another yawn.  "Back to the old routine, no worries."  She leaned against the closet door as Chris pulled his underwear on and got himself dressed.  He tucked his shirt in, then sorted through his ties to find the right one.  A small miracle helped him remember how to tie a tie, and when he was done he looked at his reflection.  "There, now you're gorgeous."  Melanie smiled and handed him a bottle of aftershave.  "You only forgot this.  You've gotta smell good you know."

            "Ahh, yeah."  Chris shook a splash of the aftershave into his hands then slapped it on his cheeks, trying not to make a mess of his shirt.  "Better?"

            "Perfect."  Melanie laughed then frowned as she heard Jenny walking down the hall singing a song about a spider she'd learned at school.  "The troops are up."

            "Yay."  Chris ran his thumb over the wedding band on his finger and spun it around gently.  "Hey hey Jenny girl, are you ready for school?"  He asked as he walked into the bedroom where Jenny was standing in the doorway.

            "No."  She yawned and stumbled into the room.  "Can I have cereal for breakfast?"

            "Sure, why not?"  Chris picked her up and gave her a hug.  "But you'll have to ask mommy because I have to go to work today."

            "You're not taking me to school?"

            "Nope, mommy is.  We're back to that routine."  Chris said, as if he'd ever been in that routine.

            "Okay."  Jenny yawned and rested her head on Chris' shoulder.  "Will you pick me up after?"

            "Nope.  I won't be home from work until tonight.  I'll be here for dinner though, so you can help mommy make something really good."

            "Grilled cheese and soup?"

            "Sure, if that's what you want to make."  Chris laughed and set Jenny on the ground.  He took her hand and they walked down the stairs side by side.  "So how do I look?  Do I look okay for work?"

            "Yeah."  Jenny nodded as she looked up at Chris' outfit.  "You smell good."

            "Good, that was mommy's idea."

            "I like it."  She smiled, then hopped down the last three steps.  "Do you get to see Eddie today?"

            "Yep."  Chris tried to smile as his stomach did another cartwheel.

            "Do you get to play with all of his toys on his desk?"

            "I don't know."  He answered honestly.  "I'll probably be working a whole lot today since I've been gone for so long."

            "He has a slinky you know."  Jenny crawled up onto her chair at the table and ran her hands in circles on the tabletop in front of her.

            "Yeah?"

            "Yeah, and it's blue and yellow and green.  It's pretty neat daddy.  I wish I had one for my birthday."

            "Your birthday isn't until next year.  Maybe you can ask for one for Christmas."

            "Yeah!"  Jenny looked up, surprised.  "I could ask Santa!  When is Christmas?"

            "It's coming up really soon.  One more month."

            "Wow.  How many days?"

            "Um, about… 33 I think."

            "That's a long time daddy."  She sighed and lay her head down on her arms.

            "Yep."  Chris sighed and looked up toward the ceiling as he heard Melanie go into Lauren's room.   "Okay kiddo, I've gotta get going."  He checked his watch for show; he didn't know what time he was expected at work.

            "Okay."

            "Have a good day at school."  He leaned down and kissed the top of her head.  "Learn lots."

            "I will."  She giggled softly.

            "I love you Jenny girl."

            "I love you too daddy."  She reached up and held his face to kiss his cheek, then gave his a raspberry with another little giggle.

            "Oh!  You got me!"  Chris placed is hand over his cheek and smiled, inconspicuously wiping the five year olds spit off.  "I'll see you tonight."

            "Bye."  She laughed as Chris turned and headed for the garage.  Melanie met him in the hall at the foot of the stairs and smiled with Lauren in her arms.

            "You're leaving huh?"

            "Yep."  Chris nodded and gave her a quick kiss then ran his hand over Lauren's soft hair.

            "Did you get some breakfast?"

            "Nah, my stomach is kinda…"  He wobbled his hand back and forth.  "I don't think it'd be wise to eat anything right now."

            "It's just work.  Eddie and the guys."

            "Yeah but…"  He sighed.

            "Listen babe, everyone knows what was going on… they don't expect you to come back at full force."  Melanie shook her head and placed her free hand on his arm, giving him a reassuring squeeze.

            "They know what was going on?"  Chris gave her a look.  "Something was going on?"

            Melanie blushed quickly and shifted her weight on her feet.  "I just… Chris, everyone kind of goes through something like this at some point."

            "What?"

            "A breakdown or whatever.  That's the wrong word, I know… but that’s… well that's kind of what it was, wasn't it?"  Her look of concern warmed his heart and he nodded slightly.

            "Y-yeah… I guess so."

            "And uh, besides… five weeks away from work is a long time."  Melanie smiled and licked her lips.  "It's going to take you a little while to get back into the swing of things."

            "Yeah."  Chris nodded, feeling even more unsure about going back.  He didn't want to walk into an unfamiliar place and have everyone think he had had a mental breakdown or something.

            "You'll do fine sweetie."  Melanie moved Lauren to her other arm, then kissed Chris softly.  "You smell delicious."  She whispered with a flirtatious smile.  "Go get em."

            "Thanks Mel."  Chris gave her a half smile and brushed her hair behind her ear.  "I don't know what I'd do without you."

            Melanie shrugged,  "You'd go to work in jeans smelling like Irish Spring soap."

            "You're right."  Chris laughed and shook his head.  "I've gotta go."

            "I know, I know.  You don't want to be late on your first day back."

            "Nope, can't have that."

            "Okay, I love you.  I'll see you whenever you get home."

            "I love you too."  Chris kissed her again then patted her butt.  "Now get your barefooted self into the kitchen and make breakfast for my kids."  He laughed and rolled his eyes.

            "Keep it up."  She shook her finger at him, then laughed and exaggerated her waddle as she walked down the hall.

 

            Chris got into his car and started the engine as the garage door opened behind him.  He backed out and headed toward Manchester, grateful for the fact that he had taken the time to drive around the town to get familiar with the streets and where everything was over the past few weeks.

            He drove down Manchester at a snails pace, keeping his eyes open for the bright red mini-van that he had seen Eddie drive when they got together for dinner.  The golden arches of Mc Donald's came into view after a few miles, so Chris turned his radio down and leaned forward in his seat to examine the parking lots as he passed them.

            "Ah ha!"  Chris spotted Eddie's car and pulled into the lot on the right.  Just as he was passing behind Eddie's van, he saw a sign painted above the empty spot beside him.  "Reserved for C. Kirkpatrick" it read.  "Whoa."  Chris said under his breath as he backed up and pulled into his own space.

            He stopped in front of the door and read it to himself.  "Child and Teen Counseling  - E.J. Madsen, C.A. Kirkpatrick."  Chris quickly licked his lips and pulled the heavy glass door open to step into the little office entryway with a short receptionist's desk directly in front of him.  "Hi Chris, it's nice to have you back."  The young lady said from behind the desk.  She set the phone back on the cradle and leaned forward on the desk.  "Did you have a nice vacation?"

            "Y-yeah."  Chris smiled and nodded as he played with the keys in his hand.  "I uh, I got to hang out with the girls and Mel and everything."

            "How's she doing?  She must be just about ready to pop, huh?"  The lady asked with a broad smile.

            "Just about."  Chris nodded.  "Another month and a half."

            "Wow, are you excited?"

            "Absolutely."  Chris answered honestly.  He couldn't wait to see his daughter being born, to be in the room when she took her first breath.  Though he had apparently done it all before, he wanted an experience he would remember.  "Hey is uh... is Eddie in yet?"

            "He's been here since six."  She nodded with a half frown.  "I'll let him know you're here.  Did you want me to have him meet you in your office?"

            "Yeah, uh... sure that'd be great."  Chris' palms began to sweat as he looked down the hall to her right.  He was assuming his office was down there, but he didn't want to just start walking around.

            "Well, well… Mr. Kirkpatrick.  You've decided to grace us with your presence today."  Eddie laughed as he came out of a small break room off to the side.  "How are you feeling?"

            "Pretty good."  Chris nodded, secretly relieved to see a familiar face.  That wasn't entirely false.  He hadn't barfed yet that morning, so technically he was doing really good.

            "Hey man, it's good to have you back."  Eddie slapped him on the back as he led the way down the hall.  He stopped in front of the door with Chris' name on it and pushed it open.  Inside there was a cluster of mylar balloons and a bunch of cards on his desk,  "Happy birthday buddy.  You weren't here for us to embarrass, so you get it all today."  Eddie laughed.

            "Thanks."  Chris blushed quickly and looked around his little office with the desk in the middle of the floor and the two half-dead floor plants.  "Hey uh… I uh… I really need to talk to you."

            "Right now?"  Eddie asked.

            "Yes."  Chris nodded emphatically and took a deep breath.

            "Okay."  Eddie smiled and shut the door behind him, then sat heavily in one of the chairs in front of Chris' desk.

            Chris looked at the chair beside Eddie, then at the chair behind his desk and sighed.  He dropped himself beside Eddie and nervously clenched his hands.  "Listen… I've been gone for like, five weeks and I'm just not sure if I'm ready to just… just dive back into everything."

            "You'll be fine man, no problem."  Eddie smiled optimistically and Chris' heart plummeted.

            "No, I don't think so."

            "Sure you will, it's like riding a bike."

            "Something happened on my birthday Eddie.  I'm serious.  I know you think I was just hung over or whatever, but I'm not even joking… something really fucked up happened."

            "What?  What is it?"  Eddie leaned forward in his seat.

            "I don't know."

            "If it's gonna affect your work then you'd better know what it is."

            "This is gonna sound nuts."

            "Then you're in just the right place."  Eddie tried to smile while looking concerned.

            "Seriously.  I know I'm going to sound schizophrenic and you… well you're actually probably in a position to lock me up.  But just… just hear me out, okay?

            "Sure…"

            "Okay, when I woke up on my birthday I had no idea where I was.  I didn't know the woman in the bed beside me and I didn't know whose house I was in.  When Jenny came in to wish me happy birthday, I didn't know who she was."  Chris paused.  "But it's not because I had amnesia or anything fancy like that… before my birthday I had another life."  He looked over at Eddie to see if he was still paying attention.  "I was in a group, a vocal group with four other guys.  After I worked at Sea World with you and Melanie I went over to Disney and worked there for a while and that's where I met these other guys.  We're huge.  We've broken sales records and everything like that, seriously.  'Multi-platinum' doesn't even begin to describe it."

            "Chris…"

            "But listen.  Here's what happened.  I kind of wished on my birthday that I had never started the group, that I wanted to see what my life would have been like if I didn't do that.  So this is it.  This is what my life would have been like."  Chris raised his hands in submission, then dropped them onto the desk with a sigh.

            "I'm not following."

            "My birthday was my first day ever in this life."  Chris said softly.  "Before October 17th, I have no memory of the girls or the house or Melanie… except from when I knew her at Sea World."

            "Chris this is crazy."  Eddie tried to laugh but it caught in his throat.

            "I know."

            "I mean… this is crazy.  What are you talking about?  You don't know your own wife?"

            "I… I do now, yeah.  And I did before, when we worked at Sea World… but when I woke up like five weeks ago or whatever, I had no idea who she was."  Chris sighed as Eddie looked him over.  "From the time I left Sea World until five weeks ago, I have no idea what happened in this life.  All I know is the group."

            "You don't remember college?"

            "The years that you think I spent in college, I was probably touring with the group in Europe."

            "You don't remember getting married to Mel?"

            "June of 95 I think I was still working at Disney trying to get the group together."

            "The day before your birthday?"

            "I was at a club in a hotel somewhere in New York getting drunk with the guys.  There were Playboy Playmates and celebrities cruising the floor, a DJ in the corner… all that.  I vaguely remember doing the hand jive in front of the crowd."

            "You were out with Todd and Niles."  Eddie shook his head.

            Chris ran his hand through his hair;  "I couldn't have picked them out of a line up."

            "So you're telling me that you basically have amnesia before your birthday?  You don't remember anything that happened before then?"

            "I don't have amnesia, I remember exactly what happened before then, just not how you think."

            "But essentially, you have amnesia."  Eddie raised his voice slightly.

            "Yeah, I guess."  Chris shrugged, that was the simplest explanation.

            "You don't remember this office?"

            "I've never been here before."  He looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings.

            "You don't know what you do here?"

            "Nope."  Chris shook his head.  "You see how I'm totally and utterly screwed?  I have no memory of anything that happened before my birthday, all my education and everything is gone.  I know that I'm some kind of doctor or counselor or something because that's what Jenny told me, but I don't know."

            "Jesus."

            "Yeah, so I can't see patients or anything because… shit, because I could totally mess them up."

            "Are you shitting me?"

            "I wish I was man."

            "Professor McMartin means nothing to you?"

            "Nope."  Chris shook his head.

            "You don't know Jake and Jack?"

            "No."

            "Taking the kids to Disneyworld for Lauren and Katie's first birthdays in August?"

            "If it happened before my birthday, I don't have a clue."

            "But you remember this group?  Or whatever?"

            "Nsync, yeah."

            "And they've sold lots of albums?"  Eddie's brow creased with worry and concentration.

            "We broke the first week record sales with our second U.S. release, "No Strings Attached"… 2.4 million in the first week."  Chris nodded, reciting the stats from memory, mentally replaying the moment they heard about the sales in his mind.

            "Can you sing me one of your songs?"

            "I can sing you any of our songs."

            "H-how many albums did you have?"  Eddie licked his lips.

            "Well we had the European release, that was first.  Then our first U.S. release, a Christmas album, NSA and then we just released our Celebrity album this year."

            "What record company are you with?"

            "Jive."

            "Who's the president?"

            "Of Jive?"  Chris asked.

            "Of the United States."  Eddie let a small smile escape.

            "George W. Bush, same as now."  Chris shrugged.  "Apparently we didn't have that much bearing on the election, even though we're Floridians."  He tried to smile, but his heart was pounding too loudly in his chest.

            "Jesus…"  Eddie wanted to quiz him more, but he couldn't think of anything else.  "Okay… okay here's what we're going to do."  He took charge for lack of anything else to do.  "Okay…"  He sighed.  "You'll just… you can proof our consults and put everything into the system.  We're pretty backlogged on that stuff so that'd actually help.  There's no way I can let you see patients if you… if you're uh… you know… if you don't know stuff.  And giving speeches is probably out then too, right?"  He asked.  Chris nodded and kept his mouth shut, Eddie needed to finish his little freak out session before Chris could speak again.  "Okay, alright then.  Well then there you go, you can input all of the patient data in out database and work on billing, you can do that right?"  Chris nodded again, it sounded easy enough.  "You can do that until… whenever."

            "Okay."  Chris nodded.

            "Then we have those video presentations so maybe after a couple weeks you can start doing those."

            "Eddie, I don't - "

            "No no no, you'll be fine."  Eddie shook his head.  "When you get better or whatever we can talk about what to do then but for uh… for right uh, now… you can do that."

            Chris wanted to say that he didn't think he'd be getting better any time soon and that he was scared out of his mind, but instead he uttered, "Okay," and fell back in his chair.  He and Eddie would figure everything out later… after he had time to let it all sink in.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn