Friendly Fire: Chapter Two

~ JoJo ~

“What are you doing here?” Mike asks, jerking the door open. “Is everything okay?”

I take in his disheveled, just woke-up appearance and ask, “Why are you here? You didn’t answer your phone, and Karen doesn’t know where you were.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said gruffly, running his free hand through his thick head of hair — a gesture I have to come to recognize as one of annoyance.

You can never know what goes on between two people. Still, I have never understood Mike’s relationship with his wife, Karen. She has always seemed wholly uninterested in him. Not caring to get to know his friends or even spend time doing the things he enjoys. When I asked her this morning where he was, she seemed not to care. As she shut the door in my face, I wondered why they were together, not for the first time and discounting my own selfish longing.

Victor pushes his human out of the way, wagging his tail excitedly as he greets me, happily distracting me from going down that particular rabbit hole of thought.

“Yes, you’re a good boy,” I squat down as Victor presses his body into mine and waits for me to scratch him on his favorite spot, right behind his ears. When Mike had called me from Texas to tell me he was adopting a dog — I told him he was crazy. Dogs were dirty, smelly, and more trouble than they were worth. I was right Victor can be both those things, but he is also incredibly loving and gentle. He quickly wormed his way into my heart and that of my girls. I still don’t want a dog, another being I am responsible for, but Victor is just as welcome in my house as his human is.

Mike opens the door further and standing up, I step inside.

“Why are you here?” He asks, turning and waking further into the condo muttering to himself, “Where’s my phone?”

“We got into the car to go to school, and Sophie suddenly remembered she left her gym shoes in your car yesterday,” I explain loudly so he can hear me. With him gone, I take the opportunity to assess my surroundings.

Victor’s dog bowls are on the floor and his food bag on the counter, next to a cardboard moving box. A coffee mug I gifted him several weeks ago sits on the counter. Dirty dishes fill the sink. I know Mike has an aversion to loading the dishwasher. 

 “I drove by your house on the way to grab them, but you and your car weren’t there. Karen didn’t know where you were.” I continue peeking into the fridge to see if my conclusions are correct — that Mike is living here. There are several containers of berries, a gallon of milk, and some juice on the shelf. Everything for his preferred breakfast of cereal and fruit.

“You did call me,” Mike mutters, walking back into the kitchen, staring at the screen of his phone. “I left the damn thing on silent after my meeting yesterday.” 

Setting the phone onto the counter, he asks, “How did you know I was here?”

“I didn’t.” I reach down and pat Victor’s head as he sits beside me, leaning his body against my legs. “The girls said you stopped here to pick up Victor after you got them from school. So I figured I see if you were here or not.”

He nods his head, looking down at his feet and avoiding my eye. I push away the hopeful voices in my head as to why Mike is seemingly living in his parent’s condo and concentrate on the man himself. The emotions coming off of him are a mixture of embarrassment and frustration. Knowing that he’ll eventually confide in me, I let him have his silence. It doesn’t last long as movement is heard in the hallway, and Victor lets out a happy bark before there’s a knock on the door. 

“Who the hell is this?” Mike grumbles, walking over and opening the door.

“Pop!” I hear my youngest, Lee, chirp happily as she rushes in and hugs him tightly around the middle before darting over to greet Victor with just as much excitement. He turns an amused smile as he watches her.

My eldest, Sophie, had given him the moniker of “Pop” as a toddler. She and Mike had spent a good deal of time blowing and popping bubbles at Pride Security’s first company barbecue. The next time Sophie saw him, she cried out loudly, “Pop, Pop, Pop.” 

The name stuck.

“I told you two to wait in the car,” I snap at them.

There is no way Mike will confide in me with them in the room. And my spider-sense is telling me something is going on. This isn’t him taking care of his parent’s condo while they’re in Florida or wanting to be closer to the airport because of an early flight.

“I need to ask Pop something,” my oldest Sophie says, wrapping her arms around him. 

“What is it, darling?” Mike murmurs, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.

“I want to go to pizza after practice tomorrow, but Mama can’t pick me afterward, and I really want to go,” she rambles, smiling brightly up at him. “Will you come to get me? Please!”

“Sophie.” I admonish.

“You said you couldn’t pick me up, not that I couldn’t go.”

“Pop isn’t your personal chauffeur.”

“Please, Pop,” Sophie asks, bouncing on her toes.

Mike looks over the top of her head and raises his eyebrows questioningly. I shake my head imperceptibly, telling him I did not want her going.

I roll my eyes when he says, “I’m not sure. I’ll need to check my schedule.” The man dislikes saying no to either of the girls and will do just about anything to avoid it.

“Fine,” Sophie deflates, taking a step back from Mike and crossing her arms against her chest.

“Victor hasn’t gone out yet,” He continues, unconcerned about her sudden change in mood. My daughter is becoming a teenager, with unfortunately everything that goes with it. Walking over towards the hook by the door, grabbing the leash and his car keys. “Why don’t you girls take him for a walk, and Sophie, you can grab your shoes from my car.”

Mike clips Victor’s lease onto his color and hands it to Sophie before opening the door.

“Why is your mug collection here?” I look over to see Lee peering into the box on the counter.

“Lee,” I say sternly. “It’s rude to go through people’s things.”

“But it’s Pop,” she says, tilting her head. As far as my youngest is concerned, Pop belongs to her. It doesn’t matter how much my girls and I think of Mike, Pop, as ours — he isn’t.

“Go help your sister,” tell her. “You two are going to be late for school as it is.”

The door shuts behind the trio.

“I wouldn’t mind picking up Sophie,” Mike says, forestalling me from asking my own questions. “Why don’t you want her going?”

“Last time when I picked her up, there was a bunch of high school boys hanging out with them. I didn’t like the way they were acting or looking at some of the other players.”

“She’ll be a freshman next year.” He grins down at me.

Taking a step forward and raising a finger into his face, I tell him firmly, “Don’t remind me.”

Placing my hand onto his chest, I ask in a gentle voice, “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Closing his eyes, dropping his head, and covering my hand, he exhales, saying, “I’ve left Karen.”

A bubble of hope rises inside me at his words, and it takes every ounce of self-control not to smile or betray my happiness. For the past ten years, I’ve pushed aside my feelings for the man. Not only because he’s married, but having him as a best friend and in my girl’s life has meant everything to me. 

Their father walked out on us when I told him I was pregnant with Lee. Mike told me then, none too gently, that I didn’t need my asshole ex. He reminded me I had all the help I wanted, my friends, parents, even my half-an-ass brother, not to mention himself. That they would all be there for me. It hasn’t always been easy not having a partner to discuss things with and lean on. But I have a village around me helping raise my girls, and Mike has been a large part of our lives.

“And filed for divorce yesterday afternoon,” he continues, taking a step back and crossing his arms against his chest.

“Lee,” I whisper, unsure of what to say. Using his proper given name makes his head come up. Our eyes meet, and for the first time, I can’t decipher what’s in the hazel depths. “Are you okay?”

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