The sun had just slipped between the tall skyscrapers as Val pulled his battered pickup into his assigned parking space. The last light cast long, stark shadows across the two story apartment complex on the Eastern outskirts of the city. He killed the engine and the radio in the cab fell silent. A deep breath escaped his lips, and he took his calloused hands off the steering wheel before pulling down the sunvisor and tousling his helmet-flattened hair in the reflection of the small mirror.
“Gotta look presentable,” he muttered to himself, smiling.
The rough palms of his hands did an okay job of adding some volume and knocking a portion of the dust from his dark hair. He gave his face a quick glance in the mirror, just to be certain. There was more grey in the beard now than he would like to see in his early forties, but at least a small amount of it could be attributed to blowback off the table saw.
Even now, eighteen months after being promoted to foreman, the dark, year-round tan he had acquired over twenty years of physical labouring had no more faded than the rough ridges of dead skin on his hands, but, he supposed, he didn’t spend an awfully large amount of time behind his desk. Once the rostering and payroll approvals were done, a task he couldn’t work out how the previous foremen he’d worked under managed to stretch out for forty hours a week, he felt a lot more comfortable pitching in around the site.
Lugging wheelbarrows full of crushed concrete, and the like, was work that made sense to Val, and worth crediting with the impressive physique that strained the fibres of his grey, dust-stained t-shirt. He’d been a labourer for so long, he had to admit a part of him was terrified that the soft office chair in the air conditioned demountable that was the foreman's office, combined with his generally heroic calorie intake, would send his “dad-bod”, with it’s small pot belly offset by a massive chest, shoulders and arms, spiralling into full-blown, middle-aged obesity. No, better to skip the long, boozy lunches with tile vendors vying for his business and put in a few hours on the tools.
If he’d had the choice, he never would have taken the job, but -
As if on cue, the front door of the apartment below his own flew open, and the reason he had to take the promotion came sprinting out.
Theodora’s pitch-dark hair, still pulled into the tight ponytail her school dress code enforced, bounced and flicked as she ran toward his truck. His impression of Narcissus cut short, he flicked the sun visor up, opened the door and stepped out just in time to sweep her up into his arms.
“You heard daddy’s truck, huh?” Val laughed as he tucked his arm under the little girl and hoisted her up to eye level. She was small for her age, still able to fit into the school uniform she'd been bought before starting first grade, despite nearly two years passing since then.
“Uh huh!” she nodded vigorously in response, then scrunched her eyes shut and pursed her lips expectantly, humming a high note.
A deep, resonant note from Val’s throat harmonised with hers, and exploded into a ‘Mwah!’ as he planted a rough kiss on her, sending her into a fit of laughter. He slid her onto his hip, bumping the driver’s side door shut with his free hand, and walked towards the building.
His downstairs neighbour, Mrs Albrecht, leaned her bird-like frame against the doorframe with a bunched up apron in her hands. She looked at Val with a sort of wry amusement as he approached.
“Thanks, Grace,” Val exhaled, “You’re a lifesaver.”
“Please,” she waved away his words with a wrinkled, flour-dusted hand, “compared to what my boys were like, she’s no work whatsoever.”
“Oh, is that so?” Val turned to Theodora, “How was my little Teddy bear?”
“Good!” she shot back.
“So she’s done her homework?” he returned.
Val cast a surreptitious glance to Mrs Albrecht, who gave a barely perceptible nod.
“Good girl!” he exclaimed, and let Theodora slip to the ground before fishing around in his pocket for his house keys and holding them out to her, “Go on upstairs and pull out the rice cooker, okay Teddy bear?”
Theodora snarled playfully and snatched the keys out of his hand, then fled around the side of the building. Val stood up straight and listened to her stomp up the stairs, still growling.
“Don’t believe her if she says she hasn’t had any sweets today,” Mrs Albrecht offered, “we’ve been baking.”
“Appreciate the heads up, do I owe you anything for the -” he asked, reaching for his wallet.
He did, his hand hovering over his back pocket.
“Do we have to do this every time?” Mrs Albrecht asked him, in a tone that was both somehow sweet and mildly threatening.
“At least once more,” he conceded.
“Go on then.”
Just like that he was dismissed. Val nodded and watched her shut the apartment door.
“And wash your face,” came a last refrain through Mrs Albrecht’s door, “you look like Father Time.”
Val chuckled to himself and ruffled his beard, knocking loose some of the dust.
About an hour later, Val leant back from the coffee table and sank deeply into the couch. As he glanced at the empty bowls and containers on the coffee table, a satisfied sigh escaped him and he rubbed his stomach appreciatively. An echo came from beside him and he turned to see Theodora mimicking his sprawled out posture, her impression accurate down to the slightly pulled up pyjama top, allowing her hand to rest on her belly.
“You’re missing your show,” he said, nodding toward the heartwarming cartoon dogs on the TV screen.
By way of response, she sighed again, louder this time, and slid even lower in her seat. Val chuckled at the, frankly spot on, impression. She turned back toward the TV, and he watched her watching it, the screen reflected in her big, brown eyes.
The apartment was tiny, little more than a lounge room and a kitchenette, but at least he’d managed to find a place with two bedrooms. Even though it’d been nearly a year, even with the new job, after everything happened and the bills were paid, they were still reeling from -
Nope, he snapped himself out of it, focused his eyes and locked them on Theodora's cheeky smile.
“Now that expression concerns me,” Val raised an eyebrow, “What’s up?”
“Can we go get ice cream?” she enquired, entirely poker-faced.
Val narrowed his eyes and watched her intently, waiting for a tic or a tell, but she was flawless.
“I think that would be okay,” he offered, baiting the line, “as long as you haven’t had anything else sweet today.”
She didn’t break, not for a second. Didn’t hem or haw or pretend to think it over, she just held his gaze and innocently responded.
“Nope, not today.”
He waited. She waited.
He kept his face as placid and blank as hers, and she stayed with him the whole time. He absently wondered if he had taught her this particular trait, or if all kids her age were just as seasoned, mercenary fraudsters when it came to getting a second dessert.
“Theodora,” he said, simply, his low voice rumbling.
She held on a little longer, but the eye contact was proving too much for her. Val watched her glance flicker to the side, momentarily, but his own resolve was faring worse.
“Hmm,” he turned his head and looked at his watch, pretending not to notice Theodora’s physical relief, “yeah, I think I could go for some ice cream.”
“Really?!” Theodora nearly jumped up, tucking her legs underneath her, “Really really?!”
“Yeah, let’s do it,” he looked back at her, “go on, get your jacket.”
She sprang off the couch and ran to her bedroom. He watched her go, then sighed.
One day I'll learn to say no, he thought, but not today, I guess.