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Altruistic Intent (Chapter 7 added)

Idontwantthis Jul 3rd, 2018 (edited) 6,585 Never
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  1. Another restless night you spend staring out from your bedroom window, out into the dark shadows of your once safe neighborhood for her. Your hand strains as you tightly clench the window drapes, trying to see any form in the dark that stands out among the others. Some nights you swear you could see something out there, just for the briefest of moments. Rest has been a fleeting experience in your paranoia filled mind ever since she left them at your front door nearly a month ago. Though explaining it's nothing more than tricks of the light brings temporary relief to your cracking sanity, it reopens the wound the next day as you fear that perhaps it was her and that you had fooled yourself into believing otherwise. You close the drapes to hide what little light emitted from your room from the outside world to look back at your closet door for the umpteenth time that day. Your thoughts race on retrieving your last line of defense. As simple as a hunting rifle may be, it's better than what little you had that one night. You craved that sense of safety from that firearm resting in your arms, but you doubted your sleep deprived mind and twitching fingers from avoiding a possible accident. You tore yourself away from the thought of digging for that firearm, your reluctance eventually soothed as you look back out the window to see the slow passing of a police car down the street.
  2.  
  3. With a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth in a shaky exhale, you tug the drapes back over the window and rub at your eyes. It seems that even with your freedom, so much as the thought of her returning has you barely getting an hour of sleep in. On raining nights you dare not try to sleep, though you doubt your adrenaline-fueled body would allow you to as you lock yourself away in your room with your one weapon laying ready beside you. The few things that break you from your defending spot through the night were either an eventual collapse from exhaustion or a crying echoing through the house, much like the one you softly hear now at so late an hour. You quietly leave the sanctuary of your room to go towards their small room, where the four bun infants sleep in their makeshift bed of covers. In the dim light, you could see three sleeping forms and one moving its arms around as its cries slowly become louder.
  4.  
  5. You kneel down to the small bun and lift it- No, her, from the ground to hold and carry close. Her cries lessen slightly as you hold her and carry her out from the dark storage room turned bedroom towards your own bedroom. As you enter the slightly brighter room, you could begin to see her details. Her tiny, tear-stricken eyes look up to you, allowing you to see the color of blue. Her fur a slight color of dark auburn, perhaps from your father's side, though on her ears and top of her head it transitions to gray. You hold the child up to yourself, partly to help comfort her back to sleep and to avoid looking at her any further. A cold, intrusive feeling like a digging, icy worm crawling through your flesh came from your chest as you come to recall who your little daughter got her gray hair and blue eyes from. You try to distance yourself away from spiraling back into that train of thought.
  6.  
  7. Daughter. You still couldn't believe it, though the lack of belief came in hopes that this was all a long, drawn out nightmare that you would soon wake from. But the feeling of warm and cold tears staining your nightshirt and gentle heartbeat coming from her small, delicate form as you cradled her close declared to you that this was your reality now. You have a daughter. Four, as you soon discovered after calling the police that day. Your parents were the next to know, but your decision to keep them in your home seemed to shock them more than their initial appearance, especially so from your father. Your mother wasn't sure of what to do, though he was adamant in leaving them with anyone else. The authorities, an orphanage, and in his bewildered and angered state he even suggested the side of the road. He was quick to catch himself and apologize, but his intentions were clear. You felt shameful that you in part agreed with him. You, you father, and your mother wanting to wash your hands of that horrible experience, to which the four children were a constant, permanent reminder of your time spent with her. As you lie awake in bed most nights, you wonder if you should have done such and if you had made a horrific mistake in deciding to keep them.
  8.  
  9. In the brief lapse of further fearful recollection, you realize that your daughter's crying has softened to a gentle breathing, and a quick look confirmed that she fell asleep while your mind wandered. She was almost an opposite image of your tired, frightened, frayed form as she quietly slept in the comfort of her father's hold. A different feeling combated the unpleasant sensation in your chest as you thought of that: you as her father holding her close and safe from harm. This was why you had made the decision to keep your daughters. To keep them safe from whatever atrocities that may come towards them. As you brought her back to her sisters and laid her back down, you looked at the four small, sleeping bun daughters of yours. You may have every reason to never put yourself through raising and protecting them, but the thought of throwing them out brings you back to that decision you nearly made that one night while you were still trapped with her. You breathe in deeply through your nose and shakily exhale. You halfway close the door to their bedroom and return back to bed, hoping to find respite in sleep. Though, that is also to hope you would not dream of Anna returning, and what things she would do to you or worse, your children.
  10.  
  11. ---
  12.  
  13. Your eyes cracked open to the gentle, early morning glow peeking through the gaps of the blinds covering your window, bathing your bedroom in a soothing blue. Your eyelids struggle to keep themselves open and you can feel a slight burn from just waking up. Knowing that sleeping in won't do you any good, you try to reach your hand up to your eyes to rub the remnants of sleep from them. Try. But your arm refused to move. Not even your hand or fingers could budge as you try to move them up from under your covers. You attempt to move the other arm, only to find it similarly pinned. Not even your legs or body could make a single budge, as if your entire body was weighed down by boulders. You try to force your eyelids open wider, but they could just barely move. The cozy blue glow of your bedroom turns into an unforgiving, malicious cold as chills course through your body. Then you hear a noise. Soft, near unnoticeable, but in the dead silence of the early morning it rings through the air like a gunshot. The sound of a footstep on carpet. Someone was in the room with you. Your heartbeat picks up tempo as your body freezes and your mind swims in fear-induced adrenaline. You needed to run, you needed to move, but there wasn't a thing you could do. It was too late anyway.
  14.  
  15. She's here.
  16.  
  17. The footsteps on carpet turn into thundering stomps as the beast looms over your bed, entering your field of vision from the side. Your breathing picks up, but it feels wrong. You wanted to scream and cry out, but your mouth refused to move just like the rest of your body. You were a prisoner in your own body, forced to watch the creature at the end of your bed. Not a single detail of her was forgotten in your brief time of freedom. Her cold, dead blue eyes staring at you, mimicking the once-comforting color of your light-filled bedroom. Her fur as gray as ash covering over the muscular lagomorph, still clad in the clothes you first saw her in that terrible night. And her lips. What any man would see as one of the many allures of a woman is twisted into a gut-wrenching, sickening smile as she looks over your still form, giving a clear message to any who know nothing of her intentions as to what exactly she sees before her. Her property. Her promise was held to the end. The glove crafted from some poor soul adorns her hand as she reaches out towards you, the black claws glistening and dripping with fresh blood. She grabs your leg through the covers, the claws digging through the flesh and muscle like clay, sending your nerves afire as your mind writhes in its bounds, hoping to find some release in kicking your still leg or screaming out in pain. Her grip digging into your leg, she leans over the bed while still adorning her terrible smile. As her clawed weapon remains anchored in your flesh, the other snakes underneath the covers along your other leg, trailing up the skin towards your groin. The fingers dance around the smooth skin of your inner thigh before finally reaching your clothed package. She fondles your genitals through the fabric, loosely gripping your privates like a delicate toy, sending the terrible familiarity of burning acid in your throat as it tries to retch in your encumbered state. Her eyes focused down at your waist through the covers, before she slowly returns her attention to you. Her cold eyes leer into yours, threatening to freeze your blood solid. Then, she speaks.
  18.  
  19. "I've finally found you, my love."
  20.  
  21. Your body jolts up in bed, finally free of its paralysis, and you madly scream out into the now empty, quiet bedroom. You're drenched in sweat and your breath ragged. Even awake, you still feel that stabbing sensation in your leg and her horrible touch on your manhood. Your eyes burn from your lack of sleep and the fresh tears threatening to stream down your face. You look around the bedroom, now completely empty without a single sign of her to be seen. You draw your leg out from your covers and run your hand along the spot she stabbed, seeing no wounds other than smooth scars left behind long ago.
  22.  
  23. "David?!" cries a familiar, feminine voice through the walls.
  24.  
  25. As the adrenaline coursed out of your body, you looked around your bedroom in a daze while trying to catch your breath. You were in your old bedroom at your parent's home. You had brought your daughters there yesterday and decided to spend the night than drive back at so late an hour. Your bedroom door opens to reveal your concerned, capybara mother, her jade eyes wide in fear and long, brown hair disheveled after rushing to you from her own bedroom. Similarly disheveled was her fur with the visible hairs on her back stood on end and her normally calm, collected face showing unease at the possibility of harm coming to you.
  26.  
  27. "Dear? Are you OK?" she asks in an uncharacteristically alert tone.
  28.  
  29. You still struggle to catch your breath from your earlier experience, as well as worry about crying in front of your mother from the sheer panic you felt just moments ago. You want to tell her you're fine, but not even the blind would assume such just from your breathing alone.
  30.  
  31. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asks.
  32.  
  33. You shake your head no. You don't want to even think about it let alone speak of it. You see your mother quietly approach your bedside, then slowly bring you into a hug, her stature short enough as to see you almost eye to eye as you sit up i . You flinch at first from the touch, but allow her to hold you close as she tries whatever she can to help comfort you. She holds you close in her warm, soothing arms and silently waits for when you've had enough. After your escape, she had comforted you like this several times, allowing you to stay with her as long as it would take for you to calm down, be it through panic attacks or tearful sobs from painful recollections of what had happened. Sometimes all you need is a few minutes. Sometimes an hour. Through it all, she stays with you diligently until you're confident enough to continue on. In the few months you've been at home trying to resume your life, you've come to miss this feeling. You return the hug and thank her after taking a few minutes to catch your breath. She disengages from you and tries to give you a warm smile, though her eyes tell a different message. A mix of fear and concern, most likely at your well-being.
  34.  
  35. You see her small ear flick and she looks out of the bedroom door. "I think they're awake, dear," she says, running one hand over her fur and another down her hair. "You should go and get washed; I'll keep an eye on them, sweetie."
  36.  
  37. Without another word, your mother quietly excuses herself out of your bedroom to tend to your daughters. You still have yet to name any of them, which you mentioned to your mother last night. With the worst of your nightmare come to pass, you begin to recall more about the previous night, particularly one ominous thing said by your father before retiring to bed: "We need to talk about them tomorrow morning." You had come yesterday to speak of them. Or rather, the current arrangements you and your new daughters now live on. Though your father wanted the small rabbit babies to be removed from your life, through many hours of discussion and persuasion he had come to an arrangement to pay for your funds, essentially eliminating the need for a job. However, as wonderful as such may be, you would never want for it to come at the expense of your parents. You wanted to talk to him regarding his past connections before retiring in hopes of finding a job, rather than live off of them like a leech. It was late at night when you had brought this up to him and your mother, to which he kept his answer simple, wanting to hold it the next day. Not wanting to delay continuing your horrifying start of the day any further, you leave your old bed to fetch fresh clothes and wash off the new layer of sweat from your body. The walk to your old home's bathroom was brief and quiet, with the only sound being the muffled, quiet cooing of your mother as she tends to your children. Her initial disposition regarding them was the same as your father, though she wasn't as vocal regarding his pushing for you to leave them in the care of another. As time passed and you came infrequently back and forth to your old home, she began to slowly warm up to the little rabbits, and her unease from being near them or holding them melted away the longer she spent with your daughters.
  38.  
  39. You remove your underwear and start up the shower, continuing your thoughts as the warm water sheds off the cold. Your father's first viewing of them remains the same to this day: disdain. Despite them being your daughters just as much as they are his grandchildren, he sees them as nothing more than her children, not of your own. In the time you had spent in Hell, you had thought the same, nearly deciding to severely harm or kill their unborn forms to allow you to escape their mother. You haven't told a soul of that choice you nearly made in your long year of freedom. You doubt you ever would. Perhaps it was that decision that made you decide to keep your four children now, despite how insurmountable the chances of success may seem to both yourself and your parents. You couldn't bear the thought of killing them while trapped in that house and perhaps you still feel the same now that their lives are in your hands than in their mother's. You almost feel relieved knowing they are no longer in her care, but it's a small relief that's buried under an avalanche of stress and fear. You're not looking forward to your talk either. How long your father is willing to drag this agonizing wait out is anyone's guess, until he eventually continues his rage fueled rants of your torturer towards the closest associated thing: the four children. You still don't know if what you're doing is the right thing. If you're making the right choice in raising them or if it's out of some obligation you've forced upon yourself in the fearful thought of making their lives terrible. Perhaps they would be better off if you left them in the care of another. How well could you guarantee the four living good lives, being a single father who still suffers mild bouts of terror when seeing familiar qualities in them?
  40.  
  41. It wasn't until the warm water began to turn cold against your skin that you realized that the suds had long since been washed off your body. You push your thoughts aside for now and turn off the shower. With a quick dry off and clean clothes put onto your body, you leave the bathroom to find your mother. Entering the living room where you left the four small children to sleep in their carrycots, you see your mother holding one of the daughters in her arms as the other three remain asleep while she sits on the couch. The one daughter in her grasp has pure white fur, long, loose ears reaching down her head, and brown eyes much like your own. Your mother looks up at you and opens her mouth as if to say something, but stops halfway. She briefly looks to your other sleeping daughters before looking back at you.
  42.  
  43. "You OK with holding her?" she asks you, her hair still unkempt from recently waking up.
  44.  
  45. You nod and sit beside her, to which she slowly hands your daughter to you to hold. Her eyes now returning to the slight droopy look you've grown used to, she lightly smiles as she looks at your active, yet quiet daughter looking between you and her grandmother. With a slight huff as she lifts herself from the couch, she leaves to wash herself, leaving you alone with your quiet, curious child. This loneliness was short lived, as the second owner of the house emerged from the hallway in a similarly unkempt, freshly awoken state, though with far less brown hair than his wife to add to the messy look. Your human father looks at you with half closed eyes, almost mimicking the same look your mother gives daily. However, you see his eyebrows tighten ever so slightly as his eyes drift to the daughter in your hands and the others still asleep close by. Without a word of good morning or statement as to when he would fulfill his promise, he leaves as quickly as he had entered, leaving you alone once more. Even in the act of silence, his messages are clear. You try to distance yourself from those thoughts until he was ready to speak, wanting to rid yourself of the tight feeling in your chest. The daughter in your hand grabs at your thumb and other fingers, staying just as silent as your father before. For some reason or another, she requires less maintenance than her sisters. The other children cry and babble as you would expect babies to, but you've seen your white furred daughter tending to stay quiet more often than not.  Though you would expect it to bring even the smallest hint of relief to your wracked mind, it only brings more questions and doubts. A more subtle fear has since crept into your mind to blend with the other, far more severe terrors, as concerns of any problems that might come up with her or any one of her sisters once they grow past infancy dance about in your head.
  46.  
  47.  
  48. There you go again: thinking about how your four daughters will grow and develop, even though you still hold doubts on raising them and are still not yet sure whether or not you should take up your father's proposal. But each time you think of them as older, still little children, you picture them by your side. You look over the still sleeping forms of your three daughters, then back at the last one sitting in your lap, head swiveling as she looks around the room. You still wanted to keep and raise them despite who their mother is, but the thought of you making their lives miserable from not only your lack of experience and a life partner, but your still suffering mental state, fills you to the brim with anxiety and further self-doubt. Why should you force yourself through an undeniably painful road of parenthood that could not only bring suffering to you yourself, but to your daughters as well, when they could have happy lives in the care of those far more capable and willing than you are? With all of these questions burning in your mind, why is it that you still want to push through these hardships and raise them? You still feel ill at the thought of leaving them with another, even while every part of your mind continues to list every terrible thing that could, and maybe would, happen. Is it experiencing the "joys of parenthood"? Seeing your daughters grow and develop as people under your care? Seeing that despite everything you went through, there is still love and care to be found and given to your daughters? That after every second of hardship and adversity you face from raising them and fighting off every chance you have to run, that you still stuck by their side in end? You quietly stare down at the carpeted floor, your daughter busying herself with the fabric of your shirt. You breathe in deeply and slowly exhale, then look back down to your daughter and tighten your lip to give her a small smile, much like one your mother would give to you. You slowly come to a stand from the couch with her still in your arms and leave for the kitchen, though to your surprise you saw both your mother and father sitting at the table. Your mother was already dressed and ready for the day, but your father remained as you saw him earlier.
  49.  
  50. "Good," he grunts out, eyebrows twitching ever so slightly downward as his eyes look at your daughter. "Sit down, Dave." His voice was tired, though the near empty cup of coffee by his side shows that it isn't due to fatigue. You take a seat at the third and only remaining chair available, taking care to leave enough room as to give your daughter space to move. Silently, your father looks at you from across the table. In all the years you've been with him, you still struggle to discern what exactly he feels, especially now as he looks at you with an emotionally drained expression. Anything between sudden outbursts of rage to solemn, slow talks could happen, though you readily guess the former concerning the four little things that have been introduced into your life. The still steaming remnants of liquid coffee leave vapors traveling out from the plain white mug, but his hands refuse to move as to finish the last amounts of his morning drink. Your mother looks uneasily tense. As if she wants to say something, but she doesn't know what to say to begin this conversation. Her nose twitches and nostrils flare ever so slightly as her eyes shift from you, your father, and the quiet baby bunny studying her surroundings. The only sound in the tense atmosphere of the kitchen was the distant tick and tock of the clock on the wall, keeping you aware of each passing second at the silent table. Your chest feels heavy. Before you could decide to finally begin this conversation, your father sighs through his nose and speaks.
  51.  
  52. "It's been a long month, David." His deep voice digs into your burdened chest with those few short words. He breathes out through his nose again in a sigh as he breaks contact with your eyes and looks down at your daughter.
  53.  
  54. You gently shift your daughter closer to yourself with one arm as you continue to return your father's gaze in his eyes. "Yeah," you state plainly, still unsure as to where the conversation may go.
  55.  
  56. "You said you wanted time to think about your decision regarding them," he continues, hands resting atop one another on the table as he speaks. He stays silent, presumably waiting for your answer regarding your daughters.
  57.  
  58. Gently grabbing the small, delicate hand of the daughter in your lap, you look down at her inquisitive little face. Her eyes look up to you as if she awaits your response, much like your father and mother regarding the fate of her and her sisters, before eventually resuming her studying of the dimly lit kitchen. Even with a month's time, you still weren't certain. You had hoped that one way or another, you would have no doubts over which option to take. Words struggle to form as you desperately try to think of what to tell your parents. You weren't even certain it was you speaking when you finally said, "I will keep them."
  59.  
  60. Your father breathes deeply through his nose, moving one hand up to the bridge of his nose to pinch at the skin before resting his hand over his mouth.
  61.  
  62. "You're making a mistake, Dave," he speaks, his voice slightly muffled from behind his aged hand.
  63.  
  64. Your free hand clenches tightly as he wordlessly shifts his gaze to the middle of the table. "I don't want them to live terrible lives," you respond, a hint of agitation marking your tone as you continue to look at your father in the eyes.
  65.  
  66. He breathes in deeply and breathes out once more through his nose. "You shouldn't be putting yourself through this. You didn't deserve to have these sort of problems forced onto you so soon after...," he starts, trailing off near the end of his sentence. He tightens his hand on the table into a tight fist until his knuckles turn white and his face grimaces as he recalls what happened to you.
  67.  
  68. "They aren't problems. They are my daughters," you return at him, a fire blazing in your heart as an unexpected feeling of compassion towards your children makes itself known in your voice.
  69.  
  70. Your father scowls and moves his hand as he tries to respond, but he pauses and closes his eyes. His frown melts away to return to his tired expression, then rests his hand back onto the table. "You had no choice in their birth, Dave. They shouldn't even be your children."
  71.  
  72. No choice. You almost choked on your own spit as he says that. You did have a choice. One you nearly made. One if you had made, that it would have haunted you for the rest of your life. Almost mimicking your father now as you try and calm yourself, you answer, "But they are. It doesn't matter if they should or shouldn't be. They are."
  73.  
  74. The mask your father is holding up cracks once again, but as before he pulls himself back. It almost feels unreal seeing your father avoiding an outburst, opting to continue calmly speaking to you. It's almost as if he had given up entirely on having you sympathize with his rage towards the terrible circumstances of your situation. Another speechless minute passes as he breathes in and out. Your mother fearfully looks between you and your father, knowing someone will break soon. "And how do you know they won't become like their mother? What if they-" he begins, anger cracking through the calm tone he forces onto himself, until you cut him off.
  75.  
  76. "What if they what?!" you yell out, causing your mother and daughter to flinch back. "I won't let anything happen to them that would make them ANYTHING like her!" you spit out. "They WON'T grow to be like her and I will NEVER allow anything to turn them into that psychopath!"
  77.  
  78. Your yelling subsides, the silence only broken by the upset crying of your white furred daughter. Your expression of anger shifts to anxiety as your daughter's shrill cry picks up, breaking her calm expression into that of infantile fear. Your mother gently reaches for your child in your grasp, to which you allow. She holds the small infant close and tries to calm her down, whispering gentle words and claims that everything is fine. Your father tries to speak, but is interrupted once more, this time by your mother as she holds your daughter close.
  79.  
  80. "Evan," she gently says, her motherly charm slowly soothing your crying daughter. "They're just children. You don't know how they'll turn out to be."
  81.  
  82. Your father pinches at the skin at the bridge of his nose once more and now hangs his head down. "David... Please," he begins, all anger lost in his voice. "What if I could find a home that would take them in? Not an orphanage, but two adults who would take them in?"
  83.  
  84. "No," you calmly, but sternly answer after a moments pause. "They're my daughters and I'm their father."
  85.  
  86. Your father breathes out slowly. Your daughter has finally stopped crying, now only lightly whimpering as she rests her head against her grandmother's chest. "... OK," he mumbles, using one hand to brush a small amount of hair behind his ear. His lip tightens and his eyes glisten slightly in the dimly lit kitchen illuminated by the morning sun peeking through the windows. "OK." He exhales one final time. "You're an adult. It's your decision," he quietly says.
  87.  
  88. You feel your own eyes starting to sting as you listen to your father, the rage that burned inside of you now gone. "And Dad...," you start, deciding to ask now than bring it up another time. "I don't want you and Mom to deal with my payments."
  89.  
  90. Your mother's attention now turned to you as you say this, breaking away from quietly whispering to your daughter. "How are you going to pay for it then?" This you had not put much thought towards, all of your previous focus being on your father accepting that you would take in your daughters.
  91.  
  92. "I'll... contact Baker," your father speaks up, your mother's attention now shifting to him. "Maybe he'll find a job for him, maybe something that allows him to work at home."
  93.  
  94. You feel dumbfounded. "Thank you, sir," you quietly respond, the weight of the oppressing atmosphere finally lifting off of your mind.
  95.  
  96. "You'll have to work at it for a while to be able to work entirely from home," your father sniffs, running a hand over his eyes before continuing. "But it should help you there, son."
  97.  
  98. You weren't sure of what to say other than another thank you. You rest back into your chair, finally feeling a sense of elation and optimism regarding the uncertain future ahead of you. Your mother looks considerably more relaxed now and your father puts his focus back into his now cold coffee, finishing the remnants before leaving you and your mother at the table to place it in the sink.
  99.  
  100. "So...," your mother starts, "Have you decided on names for them yet, Dave?"
  101.  
  102. In the short time you've since mentioned your lack of ideas on names for your daughters, you still have yet to think of any for the four. You look to your young, white-furred daughter in your mother's arms, now finally calm and relaxing against her comforting body. As you look at her once again quiet form, you try to think of a name to forever call her by. Of the many that crossed your mind, only one stood out to you. "So far, just for her," you say, motioning your hand towards your snow white daughter. "I want to name her Sally."
  103.  
  104. ---
  105.  
  106. The shrill, repeating beeps of the alarm clock broke you from your brief slumber, forcing you to tiredly groan as you eye the red numbers piercing through the dark. Six A.M.; just barely four hours of sleep after you forced yourself to rest. Though, even now, you still feel distressed by that one noise you heard last night. You had just finished putting your young daughters to bed and wrapped up the last few assignments that were needed to be done when you heard a soft thump. Though your blood had turned cold, you tried to reason to yourself that it was either the house settling or one of your daughters. But, the noise came again, somewhere close to your wall. Somewhere outside. Five years and paranoia still wracks your body. It was already a mountainous task to convince yourself that the noises you hear inside the house during the night and even the day was nothing but your energetic children. You still vividly remember the fear you once felt as you started to hear them opening and closing doors throughout the house and how you constantly pondered what if, for that one moment, it wasn't them. But this noise, you knew it came from outside. Once again, you peer out into the dark neighborhood. The curtain slightly pulled aside for you to glimpse through, you scanned the roads for any sign of life for hours. Occasionally, you left your bedroom window to peer out from another view, but yet you still saw nothing. It was only until you saw how late it had gotten that you called off your feverish search, knowing that you had to wake up early to prep.
  107.  
  108. You fumble behind the alarm clock to flick its alarm off, some part of you still wishing you could go back to bed to make up for the hours lost. Regardless, you push onward to collect some clean clothes and go into the bathroom to shower. You briefly look into the mirror after turning the lights on, squinting as the harsh fluorescent burns your eyes. The reflection staring back at you was a mess. His eyes were tinted pink from last night's panic, the color of the skin underneath them dark from repeating many such nights in the past few years, and past the exhaustion, his expression exudes a feeling of permanent unease. You put the clothes aside, turn on the faucet, and use the cold water to try to wash away the tired shell of a man that stared back at you. While it helped soothe your burning eyes, the cold water didn't help ease away the pain you feel in your jaw and the numbness in your ribs. You take a deep breath in and out, then undress to shower. After quickly washing and drying off, you dress in your fresh clothes and leave to your daughters' bedroom. Slowly and quietly, you open the door. Dim, traces of light from the bathroom across the hall peek in to show the four, small beds at each corner of the room with each of your four daughters quietly sleeping under their colorful covers. You take another deep breath in and out, relax your shoulders, then bring a hand to your eyes to rub away any remnants of sleep. You needed to sound happy to your little girls, even if it meant faking it. You go to your closest daughter, the slight light revealing the fur around her peaceful, slumbering face to be brown. You get down on one knee and gently nudge her shoulder with your hand.
  109.  
  110. "Hey, Lisa," you gently whisper, spotting her ears twitch as you speak. "It's time to get up."
  111.  
  112. Her eyes scrunch up and her head shifts over to face you. She groans and opens her eyes ever so slightly.
  113.  
  114. "We have to get ready for school, remember?"
  115.  
  116. She lets out another slight groan and slowly sits up in bed, showing her raggedy bed hair that you'll no doubt have to fix with each child. Confident that she's able to get out of bed, you stand up and go to your next sleeping child. Her fur was gray, though it didn't always help you with knowing who she is, all because of her identical sister sleeping on the opposite side. You haven't yet found a single physical difference between the two; not one mark or hair out of place. Though thankfully, your mother was the one who suggested and bought colored clothing to help differentiate the two, deciding to pick her favorites and give Amanda blue clothing and Megan green. From the blue fabric of her pajamas, you can guess that it's Amanda. You guess only because you would never know if Amanda decided to switch clothing with Megan for one reason or another.
  117.  
  118. Repeating what you've done with Lisa, you gently shift her awake with your hand. Surprisingly, she reacts more quickly than Lisa, as she opens her eyes and sits up in bed with speed. Any signs of tiredness seem to disappear in a moment as she asks, "Is it time to go to school?"
  119.  
  120. "Yes, sweetheart," you respond, making her smile cheerfully as she gets out of bed. She goes across to Megan's bed and begins to do what you've done, though far less gently as she shoves against her sister and loudly whispers into her ear, "Hey! Hey! It's time for school!" You can see Megan grimace as her sister continues to push and shove until she grumbles out, "I'm awake! I'm awake!" She pushes Amanda away and gives her the most threatening glare a five-year-old girl could muster, though it does little to dampen her eagerness. With only one last daughter to wake up, you prepare to kneel down but stop in surprise as the white bun slowly rises up from her bed.
  121.  
  122. "Good morning, Sally," you greet.
  123.  
  124. She looks at you with sleepy eyes and lets out a big yawn, then slowly climbs out of her bed in silence.
  125.  
  126. Unnerved, you bring a hand down to smooth out her long, messy white hair and ask, "Hey, are you alright?" She doesn't return an answer.
  127.  
  128. "She didn't sleep good last night, Daddy," Amanda chimes in, prompting another glare from Megan.
  129.  
  130. "Maybe because you kept talking to me last night when I was trying to sleep," she grumbles.
  131.  
  132. You try to shake off the feeling you felt earlier to focus on the task at hand as your two daughters argue among themselves. You approach their drawers, take out some fresh clothes, and lay them out on each of their beds. Confident they can dress themselves, you then leave for the kitchen to prep breakfast. As you crack some eggs to cook and prep some bread in the toaster, you hear the loud thumping of footsteps coming close. Within moments, your heart jumps into your throat and your muscles tighten as the quick steps grew louder and louder, until Amanda bounded into the room.
  133.  
  134. "What are you making, Dad?" she cheerfully asks, innocently ignorant of your sudden anxiety. You take a moment to collect yourself, heart still thumping painfully in your chest.
  135.  
  136. "Are you OK?" another voice rings out.
  137.  
  138. You turn, seeing Lisa standing in the doorway rubbing her eyes with one hand with her favorite stuffed dog toy trailing along on the ground in the other.
  139.  
  140. "Yeah, yeah. Just... Just fine," you answer your brown furred daughter. Turning back to the counter, you see Amanda still at your side waiting for your answer as she studies how you have everything set up on the stove. "I'm cooking eggs."
  141.  
  142. “Can I help?”
  143.  
  144. You hesitate for a moment, though decide against whatever fears you have and answer, “Sure. Uh... Just help me crack some eggs on the pan.”
  145.  
  146. “OK!” she replies, leaving your side for a moment to drag a stool over. Now able to actually see the pan, Amanda eagerly awaits your instruction.
  147.  
  148. “Right... Just... Tap it gently on the side here and pull it apart,” you say, handing the first egg to your excited daughter. She takes the egg carefully and taps it slowly on the iron side, making no discernible progress on the egg. “Here,” you say, grabbing the top of her hand and the egg, “Let me show you.” You slowly raise her hand and bring it with the egg down at a quicker speed down on the side of the pan, all the while Amanda is studying what you do with interest. “Now just... Stick your fingers into the cracks and pull the shells apart.” You let go of Amanda’s hand and she slowly tries to do what you said, though you stop her before she tries to open it on the side of the pan and not above it, “No, there, sweetie.”
  149.  
  150. Now above the mark, Amanda digs her fingers into the shells and very slowly takes it apart, until finally the egg comes out and onto the warming pan beside the other two you have prepped. “I did it!” she cheers, looking up to beam at you in pride at her accomplishment.
  151.  
  152. Returning a slight smile, you ruffle the gray fur on top of her head and respond, “Yeah, thanks. Now go wash your hands and sit with your sister.” Turning your attention back to the pan and checking for any eggshells, you can hear Amanda step down from her stool and drag it away towards the sink, soon filling the silence of the early morning with running water. All that you have left to do is wait for the eggs to cook, as soon you can hear the sizzling of the eggs against the cast iron. You rest a hand against your forehead and groan slightly, as you feel the pain of the migraine from last night returning to you. With paranoia still haunting you time and time again in the dead of night and even in the middle of a bright day, painful headaches were soon to follow which was made all the worse by your four daughters. You can hear the soft footsteps of two more feet soon enter the room, with a side glance confirming that Sally and Megan came in to join their sisters at the dinner table. They were all quiet as they waited for their breakfast, thankfully keeping the light, painful thumping in your head at a minimum.
  153.  
  154. You love them all dearly, but some days it becomes too much for you to handle as they all clamor for your attention. You know they mean no ill will and that they’re still very young, but sometimes the stress gets the better of you. You still remember the first time you snapped at your young daughters. You were still taking care of them at your parents’ home and had just came home from work, with each of the four little rabbit girls swarming around you wanting to spend time with their father. Eventually, after hearing Lisa and Megan call out “Dad!” for the umpteenth time, you snapped out at them to just leave you alone as the pain in your head came to a peak. They both look horrified after you yelled, tears welling up in their eyes as they started to bawl at your aggression. You were regretful within moments as you felt pain within your chest from seeing their distress, uttering out apologies and quiet coos for nearly an hour while you held them close, trying your best to reassure them that they hadn't done anything wrong.
  155.  
  156. The absolute last thing you ever wanted was to make your little girls upset because of your own terrible decisions or actions, finding that even just looking anxious or mad makes them afraid. So since then, you've tried your best at keeping up happy appearances, even when at times it became tiring just keeping up a simple smile as the stress of work and watching for her builds up. As much as you greatly appreciate the opportunity to work at home as to better keep an eye on your daughters and home, it was still work. Deadlines to meet, many late hours to spend, and your daughters still needed to be cared for all the while. Time and time again you think about how easier it would all be if you had a partner to watch them all and to act as a mother, but each time the thought is struck down by the many dead ends you find yourself in while thinking about finding romance.
  157.  
  158. The very first was your daughters, as no doubt many women would rather not be with a man who was burdened with as many children as you were. Even then, you don’t feel well at the thought of finding a woman just for the sole purpose of being a mother to your little girls, but finding one that would be with you and couldn’t care for them makes you feel worse. Your options were greatly hindered, but even then you had another issue at hand: you still couldn’t get over your fear. Your mother once tried to push for you to try dating while the girls were still young infants, though to describe your first and only attempt as having gone poorly would be an understatement. You nearly raised a scene just from her touch alone, throwing yourself back and away from her just from her placing her hand on your shoulder, even after numbing yourself with more than several drinks at the bar. You never even caught her name as you excused yourself for your car, where you hid away to try and ease off the anxiety and alcohol in your system before returning home.
  159.  
  160. You’re stuck in a horrible situation with no way out, perhaps damned to be a single father forever. You can’t stop your migraine because of your job and kids, and you can’t find someone to help you with raising them because of the very fact you have them and your baggage from their mother, and even then you doubt-
  161.  
  162. “Uh, Dad?”
  163.  
  164. “What?” you snap, breaking out of your thoughts to look at your daughter Megan speaking. Her ears twitch and her eyes widen at your response, making you take a moment to breathe and calmly ask, “What is it, sweetie?”
  165.  
  166. Her nervous expression disappearing after you talk more gently, she looks at the stove in confusion and asks “Are eggs supposed to smell like that?”
  167.  
  168. You look back to your eggs, seeing that in the time you were distracted by your own thoughts that the sides of the eggs were brown and were steadily creeping in on the rest of the egg. You quickly scrape the overcooked eggs off of the pan and onto your plate, seeing that it was a bit too late for them. After groaning at disappointment, you mutter, “I’ll just have these three,” and crack a few more eggs to serve to your daughters. Three more eggs onto the pan, which you make sure to pay attention to as you try to shift your thoughts onto what you have to worry about today and tomorrow. At the moment, the first thing you have to do after feeding them is prep their school lunches, then drive them out to school. You know the buses pick up the neighborhood kids just a few minutes of a walk away, but you aren’t going to let them go off and wait someplace out of your sight. Not on your life. After dropping them off you... Actually, you don’t have anything you really need to do for work. The moment you drop the girls off, you have the rest of the day to do whatever. A strange feeling starts to course through you. Relief? Excitement? You’re not entirely sure.
  169.  
  170. Returning your attention to the pan, you take off the finished eggs and put each two onto a plate and one on another. Cracking three more eggs onto the pan, you give the plate with two to your closest daughter Megan. “I’ll get the rest to you all soon....” you say as you turn back to cook the eggs. Returning to your thoughts, you’re not sure what you even want to do. It’s been so long since you’ve been able to just relax. Your mind draws a blank on things you wanted to do or catch up on. You... just don’t know what you want to do. With the next three eggs finished, you put one more on the plate and two on the next, giving the two plates to Lisa and Sally. Two more cracked eggs and you’ll be done. You of course still need to worry about their doctor appointments, eventually the dentists, and whether or not you’ll do something with them for Halloween. Your mother seems more than happy to dress the girls up and get them excited to go trick-or-treating, though your father still resents them and prefers to keep his distance, but at the very least doesn’t antagonize them. If you do, you’ll need to be extra careful with chaperoning them around the neighborhood and preferably get them home before dark.
  171.  
  172. Breaking yourself from your thoughts, the last two eggs are done. Putting them on the final plate, you give them to Amanda and take your plate of warm, overcooked eggs to eat at the table, then retrieving a glass of water for yourself. You sit down at the table, seeing each of your daughters eating their breakfast and drinking their milk or orange juice, except Sally who just quietly looks at her untouched food with tired disinterest. "You OK, Sal?" you ask before putting another forkful of charred eggs in your mouth, nearly gagging as you try to force down the poor tasting meal with a swig of water. If she heard you, she chooses not to respond as she continues to look at her plate in silence. The only thing you note that’s been touched at all was her small, bright blue plastic cup of milk now being half empty. “You... Don’t need to eat it if you don’t want to.”
  173.  
  174. Sally looks up at you, then to her other sisters. Megan and Lisa were already finishing their food, though Megan seems to have stopped more than halfway through her meal while Lisa’s effectively cleaned her plate; meanwhile Amanda looked to be finished as she excitedly talks to her other two sisters about school, albeit with some of the scrambled eggs messily spread around the plate, her portion of the table, as well as the fur on her own cheeks. Sally looks back at you with her sleepy, brown eyes and gently speaks, “OK.” You force yourself to smile, hoping it would at least brighten her up, and return to trying to force the burnt meal down. After a few more hurried forkfuls and swigs of water, you leave the table to put the rest of the food in the trash and put the plate aside in the sink.
  175.  
  176. “Alright, girls... If you’re finished eating, go get your backpacks and shoes on,” you instruct, receiving an overly gleeful grin from Amanda as she bolts up from her chair and sprints down to her room. You yell out, “No running in the house, Amanda!” making the other daughters reel back slightly in surprise and fear from your voice.
  177.  
  178. “Sorry, Daddy!” she yells back from down the hall, the message thankfully received as the anxiety-causing thumps and stomps of her running have stopped.
  179.  
  180. The other three daughters soon follow after their eager sister and leave the table to get prepared, leaving you alone in the kitchen. You grab the four plates, scrape whatever food was left uneaten or untouched into the trash, and put it beside your own plate in the sink to be cleaned later. All you had left to do now was prepare their lunches. Set on the counter last night with the tags still not yet removed were the four colorful lunchboxes your daughters picked out alongside their backpacks earlier this month; one green, one blue, one pink, and one red. You made sure to go the extra mile to avoid confusing whose was whose by writing their names down on the handles in permanent marker. You pull open the drawer beside the fridge and take out the box of plastic bags, then open up the fridge to prepare some of their meals. Like their lunchboxes and backpacks, you also had them figure out what they would want to eat: PB&J, goldfish crackers, grapes, and caprisun. Relieved they were all in agreement over something simple, you start prepping the sandwiches and bags of snack food, filling each lunchbox one by one.
  181.  
  182. However, you pause as you reach Sally’s red lunchbox. You think about the breakfast she didn’t eat and how hungry she would most likely be by the time the teacher lets them have lunch. Concerned for her, you decide to fill the bag with several more grapes and make another PB&J before putting them into her lunchbox. Your mind wanders to what your mother used to do when she made your lunches, like adding in little notes wishing you a good day or how she loves you. Before you could decide as to whether or not to do it, you’re scared out of your train of thought by Megan, announcing her presence from the kitchen doorway with a question. “Dad, why does she get to have two butter and jellies?”
  183.  
  184. Taking a brief moment to reorient yourself, you answer, “Because... She didn’t eat her breakfast, honey.”
  185.  
  186. “Can I have two?”
  187.  
  188. As you’re about to answer her, you’re cut off in surprise by the loud, but distant shouting of Amanda far away from the kitchen and in her room. “I want two!” she yells out. “I want two, too!” you hear Lisa yell soon after, just as far away as her sister was.
  189.  
  190. You’re taken aback. You and Megan were speaking in very normal indoor voices, yet somehow the two were able to hear you and yell out what they wanted all the way from their own room. Their hearing seems to be just as good as- ... Your chest tightens as you force yourself to avoid that thought, focusing back on your patiently waiting daughter. “Yeah, I’ll give you all two,” you answer, hearing a distant cheer from Amanda after responding. Megan smiles and walks off to the living room, leaving you alone once again. As you prep three more sandwiches, a new fear presents itself in your mind as you consider their hearing: Just how much have they heard before from your quiet mumbling and muttering whenever you spent another night watching out for her- Your chest tightens painfully again. You focus back on just finishing the sandwiches and getting the four ready to go. Avoiding any further trailing thoughts, you quickly finish the three PB&Js and put them in your daughters' lunchboxes. You remember again the notes your mother used to give you. You sigh out and look for a notepad and pencil, then begin writing out messages for the four. You briefly explain why you put a bit more in Sally’s lunchbox and write that you wish she has a good day, writing other loving messages to the other three daughters, and ending it all with “Love, Dad.”
  191.  
  192. Zipping the four lunchboxes up, you carry the four out and bring them to the living room where you see the four sitting on the couch with their backpacks and untied shoes. Your mother told you that you should teach the four how to tie their shoes soon, using money or candy as an incentive for doing it on their own among other things, but you’ll have to make time for that some other day. After tying each shoe one by one, you put the girls’ lunchboxes into each of their backpacks and give a quick check through them all. Each of the supplies requested by the school seems to be in place and now all that’s left to be done is getting the four there.
  193.  
  194. “Alright, let’s go,” you say, causing the four to stand, or jump off from their seat like Amanda, and leave the front door for the car as you turn off the lights and lock the door behind them. The skin-biting chill of the morning air stung your throat and body as you took a breath in and slowly approached the car, eventually manually unlocking it for your daughters patiently waiting close by. The vehicle was bought a few years ago by your parents, though it pained you to see them having to spend more on you, even though it was ultimately for the better. Once just for getting you to your job, though now for carrying the four girls. It was either that or the bus stop, though the thought of leaving your four daughters alone where anybody could come up and... No. Bus stops weren’t an option and they never will be. One by one you help lift your daughters into the car and make sure each of their belts were buckled. You notice Lisa was still holding onto her stuffed dog toy as you buckle her in, but decide against saying anything. You’ll tell her to leave it with you later.
  195.  
  196. Pushing the key in the ignition, you’re greeted with the familiar hum of the vehicle as you start the car. You turn on the heater, though you make sure to leave the hot air only blasting yourself. If your mother was any example, then your daughters should be just fine in this cold weather in their normal clothes, and making them any hotter with their fur coats would just make them uncomfortable. You pull out of the driveway and begin the brief journey out towards their new school, the ambiance of the tires on gravel and the engine of the car only drowned out by Amanda still striking up conversation with her sisters. You focus ahead on the road, though your eyes still burn and are only agitated further from the cold air. The desire to get lost in thought and distract yourself from your eyes and the feeling of tightness in your ribs comes to mind, though the only thing that comes to mind is the question as to what you’ll have to do after dropping them off. Your mind draws a blank.
  197.  
  198. Through your efforts, you don’t have anything immediately due for work and with your daughters in school, you’ll be free to do anything; at least until 3 PM. You feel... relieved. You cannot remember the last time you had a moment to yourself just to breathe. If it wasn’t work, it was your daughters, and vice versa. Of course, you love your daughters to death and would give and have given everything to be there for them. But, the prospect of finally having some silence to yourself is invigorating. You can almost feel the oncoming signs of your near daily headache start to wear away as well. You snap back to reality as you realize you’re nearing the school, as noted by Amanda as she eagerly presses her hands against the window.
  199.  
  200. “We’re here!” she cheers out as you pull into the parking lot. After eventually finding a spot, you look back to see Amanda reaching down to unbuckle herself, meanwhile your other three daughters look disinterested, afraid, or a mix of the two with Sally, Lisa, and Megan.
  201.  
  202. “OK, girls,” you say as you step out of the car, “Let’s get you all to class.” One by one they come out of the car, though as Lisa comes out with her favorite toy in hand you recall what you wanted to tell her before. “Hey, sorry, sweetie. You’re going to have to leave it here with me.”
  203.  
  204. An immediate expression of fear overtook Lisa as she hugged the stuffed dog toy closer to herself. “No, I want Mr. Puppy to come with me!” she pleads, eyes already beginning to water.
  205.  
  206. “I’m sorry, Lisa, but... Mr. Puppy can’t go to school with you. I’ll have to watch i- Him... Until I come pick you all up.”
  207.  
  208. Hugging the toy ever tighter, her eyes still remain moist and her nose begins to twitch as she begins to sputter, signaling her being ready to cry.
  209.  
  210. “Hey, hey, look- Sweetie,” you comfort, bending down to be eye to eye with your daughter. “You’ll have your sisters here with you. And nothing will happen to Mr. Puppy. I’ll... Keep a good eye on him while you’re gone, OK?”
  211.  
  212. With a loud sniff, Lisa loosens her tight hold on the toy and uses a free hand to wipe at her eyes as she responds, “OK...”
  213.  
  214. “OK....” you sigh with relief, thankful you avoided having your daughter bawl and cry as you bring her and the others to their class. “Let’s put him back in the car and-”
  215.  
  216. “C-Can I bring him with me to see the school?” she asks, still reluctant to give up her toy just yet.
  217.  
  218. “Sure. But I have to take him with me when I go.”
  219.  
  220. “OK...”
  221.  
  222. Standing back up straight with another sigh, you close the doors and lock the car. Lisa reaches up to hold onto your finger, still showing fear at the building ahead. Your other fingers twitch slightly as you feel her soft fur against your finger, though you focus on the front door of the school than whatever horrible thought dare comes to mind. Regardless, it still makes your skin crawl and fingers begin to desperately twitch. Regardless, you force yourself to hold onto her tiny, furred hand as you approach the school building. After just a few steps, you see Megan approach your other side to hold onto your hand much like Lisa. You flinch involuntarily and again force yourself to accept her tiny hand in yours. Meanwhile, Amanda races on ahead to the front door and Sally follows you from behind.
  223.  
  224. Amanda pushes the door open and looks around the inside of the school, eyes wide with childlike wonder. “C’mon, Dad!” she yells excitedly. Slowly and with some gentle coaxing to Megan and Lisa to follow, you and your other three daughters catch up to Amanda.
  225.  
  226. “Alright. This way, girls,” you say, leading the four down towards their kindergarten classroom. Lisa and Megan still stubbornly held onto your hand, both still visibly timid of the school. Sally... You weren’t sure what to assume from her ever neutral expression as she continues to silently follow you and take in her surroundings. Why is it you look at her and always see-
  227.  
  228. “This is it!” Amanda cheers out, breaking your train of thought. Room 5. Hopefully, the email was right. You open the door and usher the kids inside before following yourself. It was a colorfully decorated room. Walls were lined with posters, shelves filled with children’s books and toys, and on the back wall windows viewing the playground outside. In the center were a few small tables, though only two other children were seated. You realize that you may be earlier than expected. Amanda immediately leaves your side to talk to the two other children, breaking the silence of the room to introduce herself and talk. Looking beside you, you see a chalkboard and the teacher’s desk, though a notable absence of said teacher. On the chalkboard you can see written in large and easy to read letters, “Ms. Ruby”.
  229.  
  230. Before you could wonder as to where she is, you hear the door open behind you.
  231.  
  232. “Hey, sorry, kids. Forgot the- Oh, pardon me, sir."
  233.  
  234. You move out of the way while turning around to look at your daughter's teacher. Though, you find yourself having to look quite a bit lower down. What met your sight was a small kangaroo woman with her hair in a bun, a gray wool jacket, and a similarly colored skirt. But as you both meet each other's eyes, a vague sense of familiarity comes to you. She looks beside you to your three daughters and glances her eyes to the center of the room where Amanda was.
  235.  
  236. "These are your daughters, sir? Are you a David Fa-" she asks, pausing as she looks up at your face in slight confusion. "Hey, have we, uh... Ever met before?" As you try to recall, Ruby's face lights up and she snaps her fingers. "No way. Were you at state university?"
  237.  
  238. State university. That almost seemed like a lifetime ago, even though it was just seven years or so since you dropped out. You wanted to stay, though your parents struggled to pay the bills in time and loans looked to be the worst option one could take. Memories come flooding back to you as you answer with a confused, "Yes?"
  239.  
  240. The kangaroo's smile widens. "Now I know why your name seemed so familiar to me, mate! Remember? We partnered up in the gym training or whatever class?"
  241.  
  242. The itch of the near forgotten memory dancing on the edges of your mind was finally relieved. You remember that you took a class on learning how to use gym equipment and exercise for extra hours, which is where you were partnered with Ruby by the teacher. Though you barely remember what the kangaroo looked like nearly half a decade ago, she certainly looks to be in very good shape.
  243.  
  244. “Was wondering where you went after the midterms,” she grins while rubbing the back of her neck. “Jeez... Four kids, mate. Crazy.”
  245.  
  246. You avoid responding to Ruby's remark on your daughters, though you doubt you could anyway due to the lump you feel wedged in your throat. Crazy would be a twisted understatement.
  247.  
  248. "Well, hey, we should talk sometime, y'know? Catch up on you and you havin' kids and all.”
  249.  
  250. “Yeah. That’d... That’d be nice,” you respond, unsure if talking to her about your past was something you would want to do.
  251.  
  252. She smiles at your response and looks back to your three daughters. “And so what are your names?”
  253.  
  254. “Megan,” your gray haired daughter first answers, still timidly holding onto your hand. Lisa, also still nervously holding onto your hand while clutching her Mr. Puppy close, answered next in a quiet voice, “I’m Lisa.” After a few seconds of silence, you were surprised to see that Sally was still behind you. Before you could say her name, Megan speaks for you. “And that’s Sally and that’s Amanda,” she says while pointing with her free hand.
  255.  
  256. “Nice to meet you all. You can call me Ms. Ruby, OK? Why don’t you say goodbye to your dad and go take a seat next to Amanda at the table?” Ruby asks.
  257.  
  258. Before your daughters could say goodbye, you remember the little doll in Lisa’s hands. “Alright, sweetie. I’m gonna have to take Mr. Puppy with me,” you ask in a gentle tone, getting down onto one knee to be face to face with your scared daughter. You grab the stuffed toy, though she’s reluctant to give it up just yet. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him while you’re here.” Thankfully, it seems to have calmed her down, as her timid expression slowly wears off.
  259.  
  260. “Mr. Puppy needs to eat dog food and... And... He needs water and playing, Dad," she says, still clinging onto her precious toy. You remember when she tried to give it water, having caught her when she was four years old in the bathroom and tried to bring its head into the toilet bowl to drink.
  261.  
  262. “I’ll... Make sure to do that,” you answer with a comforting smile, finally convincing her to let it go in your hands. Before you could stand back up, she came closer to you, rested her head against your chest, and brought her little arms as far around you as she could in a hug. Your muscles tighten and stomach churns as you feel her small furry arms and fingers touch your body, though you suppress the urge to squirm or throw yourself away from her. Just like you've had to do many times before.
  263.  
  264. “Bye-bye, Dad,” she says, her fear on your and her Mr. Puppy leaving still present in her voice. Though it feels as if there’s lead in your arms, you bring yourself to return the hug. After a few seconds, you bring your arms away and she backs off, though now you see Megan quickly taking her place. She hugs you much like her sister did while quietly saying, “Bye, Dad.” You hate yourself for how much you find yourself struggling to return the affection, but you manage to force yourself to hug her back anyway. After her hug, you see Amanda run from her seat towards you and launching herself at you to give you a hug as well. You grunt from her tackle and the continued feeling of your daughters’ touch, though she remains blissfully unaware as she chirps out, “Bye, Daddy!”
  265.  
  266. Her hug was the quickest, as she releases you just after saying goodbye to run back to her seat and bring her two sisters to theirs. All that was left was your final daughter Sally. Still ever so silent, she continues to quietly stand in her spot and is the one daughter that hadn’t come to you for a hug. The brief thought of being thankful that you wouldn’t have to worry about being touched any further comes to mind, though you find yourself disgusted by it. Once again, you force yourself to hug your daughter, this time initiating it and bringing Sally close to hug her. She remains still for a moment, though you soon find her little arms returning the hug and resting her head against you. “I hope you have a good day at school,” you say to her as you let her go. She looks at you as she backs off, a slight smile breaking her normally neutral expression.
  267.  
  268. "You too, Daddy,” she says, turning around to join her sisters at their seats.
  269.  
  270. With it all over, you come back to a stand. A violent shiver works its way down your spine, only adding to the feeling of how much you despise the way you feel handling your daughters.
  271.  
  272. "That was sweet," Ruby says. "Well, hey, it was good seeing an old friend again. If you didn't see on the email, class ends at 3 PM, so you can come by around that time to pick up your daughters. Will see you then, alright?"
  273.  
  274. “Yeah. Will, uh... See you then,” you respond, giving a small wave to your four daughters before leaving the room. You find yourself shivering once again, still feeling the spots their arms and hands on your body like they were like flaring bruises. You want to force yourself past it and continue to love and cherish them, but every time you walk away feeling anxious and physically ill. Even as you leave the building and get into your car you still feel their touch on your skin. Spots where their fingers were on your ribs, swathes of skin where the fur of their arms was, and even the spot on your chest where they laid their head. You take several moments to yourself to breathe while rubbing your hands over the spots to try and remove those intangible feelings. You mentally focus on the girls as you try to calm yourself, thinking of Amanda's excitement, all of them telling you goodbye, and hoping you'll come back to see the four enjoying themselves. After a few minutes the spots around your body begin to wear off until eventually disappearing altogether. You take a long breath in and out. Your head still hurts from the start of the morning but at least you no longer feel queasy. You put Lisa's Mr. Puppy in the back seat, already imagining her joy when you return it to her.
  275.  
  276. In the thought of returning it to her you remember that for the first time in ages you finally have time for yourself. Time to unwind, breathe, do whatever you want. But even now you still struggle to think of anything that could help with that. All aside from one thing: the bar. Alcohol became a bitter, distant friend through the years, helping you temporarily clear the lingering fears and memories. Though you found yourself once using it liberally before your daughters came into your life, you've distanced yourself as best you could for their sake. Of the many things you would want to never happen to your daughters, one is that they never see their one and only parent bringing himself to drink just to relieve himself of the horrible anxiety and stress he feels when raising them. Also, the fear of them ever finding alcohol in your home and drinking it or doing god knows what with it. Either way, you refuse to drink at home, even if now you have the chance to again. Maybe with a quick visit, you could inure yourself against the invading memories and anxiety once again. If only for a short while.
  277.  
  278. ---
  279.  
  280. It'd been a long time since you last considered drinking your worries away, so long that you even entertained the idea of just turning around, getting back into your car and heading home instead of actually going through with it. You've managed this far without needing to drink yourself into a stupor just to ease the stress of raising the girls; you could probably do just fine going to bed for a nap. Against the voice reasoning you to walk away, you open the door. The instant you step into the bar you realize the place is a far cry from the tidy, almost perfect looking sports bars you visited during your brief stint in college, the décor and and atmosphere of the place reminding you of the typical biker bar you'd always see in the movies. Though, you recall it not being too far of a cry from how the dingy place used to look when you first came in six years ago, before you settled for drowning your stress at home. You're not sure if it's because you hadn't had anything to drink since breakfast or if you just missed the bitter yet oddly refreshing taste of beer. You found it to be the most helpful during the terrible nights you struggled to sleep the first half year you were alone, but you've had to quickly abandon the drink once your daughters came into your life. However, with your day off and the four in school, there's no amount of disrepair or distractions that would stop you from enjoying at least one drink.
  281.  
  282. 'Yeah, just one drink,' you mentally reason to yourself as you look for a spot to sit. The state of the bar does have you slightly on edge though and you quickly scan your surroundings only to notice the place is damn near empty save for the burly, human barkeep and what looks to be a panda woman enjoying a beer on the far end of the bar counter. You take a seat at a stool near the opposite end of the bar. You're here just for drinks, not socializing. If anything, you notice that you've probably chosen the best time to come to a bar to drink alone. The previous times you've been to bar since your brief year of recuperating, you've come by during the nighttime, making drinking and keeping calm a struggle by the numerous people sitting around you. At the very least, you have a solution for such a problem as well as your daughters not seeing you drink. "What can I get for you?" the bartender asks, his voice booming through the quiet bar, undoubtedly meant for a loud ruckus.
  283.  
  284. "Whiskey, please," you answer tiredly, feeling a dull throb beginning to appear in your head.
  285.  
  286. "Jack Daniels or...?"
  287.  
  288. "Yeah, please."
  289.  
  290. As the man fetches your drink and pours you a glass, you briefly scan the room once more and quickly look at the only other patron in the bar. A panda woman in a red blouse and jeans sits at the near end of the bar opposite of you, nursing her own drink of what looks to be beer. Much to your dismay, however, she looks your way with a smile that ate away at your insides in fear of the worst. You break the brief moment of eye contact to look at the drink the bartender just put down for you, hoping that by keeping your attention on the brown liquid she would leave you well alone. You take a quick drink from the cool glass, wincing and clenching your jaw as your throat burns with the contact of the liquid. You hear a stool creak far off. You don't look, hoping that it's just signaling her departure.
  291.  
  292. "Hey. How're you doing?"
  293.  
  294. You nearly flinch as you hear a feminine voice speak and sit at the stool beside you. You can see her black and white fur out of the corner of your eye before you even turned your head to look at her, only further confirming your fear. You're unsure of how to respond. Desperation makes you want to demand her to leave you alone, but you know she doesn't deserve any response of the sort. You still feel wildly uncomfortable with her sitting so close to you, making you question if it outweighs the guilt you may feel. You don't want to be cold, though you really don't feel like making small talk with a stranger right now. You decide to respond with something simple and hope your tone is enough to dissuade the panda girl from further conversation.
  295.  
  296. "Hi," you say in the most neutral tone you can muster.
  297.  
  298. "Don't think I've ever seen you around before," she says, the enthusiasm in her voice telling you your plan a had failed spectacularly.
  299.  
  300. "Just stopping in for a drink, usually not much for drinking in bars," you say, opting to deepen your voice to see if it would have the intended effect in cutting the conversation short.
  301.  
  302. "Nice, same here. I come by every now and then before work," she continues, your attempts at subtly telling her to leave you proving ineffective. "Don't get too much of a buzz and it helps with the early rush, you know?"
  303.  
  304. You're starting to get nervous. She's getting closer and closer as she talks to you, making you feel like a knife is poking its tip into your ribs and is slowly inching its way inside with each second she sits close to you. "Mhm," you respond, not caring at this point about giving her the cold shoulder. You knew it probably wasn't very healthy to shut out people trying to make conversation with you, but right now it was the last thing you wanted to do.
  305.  
  306. "You close by, too?" she asks. You can hear the old stool creaking as she leans in slightly closer, making the urge to panic all the harder to suppress.
  307.  
  308. "Yeah," you quickly shoot back. as you try to come with a way to abandon the conversation, taking more sips from your drink in an effort to drain the glass.
  309.  
  310. You notice she's working on the last of her drink and are thankful for that, hoping she won't stick around for another. A few seconds pass and you can hear a ringtone go off, looking down at your pockets before realizing it isn't your phone that's ringing. From the corner of your eye you can see the girl pull out her smartphone and start typing something on it's keyboard. "Shit, I've gotta go, work calling in," she says to seemingly nobody in particular. "See you around Rob. Was nice seeing a new face around here, by the way." She stands up and walks towards the door, but stops with an exclaimed "Oh!" You flinch as she turns around to look at you and asks, "I'm Lily. What's your name?"
  311.  
  312. "David," you reluctantly answer. She smiles and gives a small wave while she backs up to the door.
  313.  
  314. "Alright, you have a good one, Dave," she says before opening the door and leaving. As the door closes, shutting out the cold autumn air, you let out a breath you didn't realize you were holding as you were left alone with the bartender. He looks preoccupied with a newspaper, leaving you be to enjoy your drink by yourself. However, as you look down into the small pool of brown liquid, you still feel increasingly anxious. You try to fight off the feeling in your muscles by downing the rest of your drink, though it serves to only mitigate the feeling ever so slightly. You ask for a refill, tearing the bartender away from his paper for a brief moment. You think quietly to yourself as he fills the glass back up and reassure yourself that you had nothing at all to get nervous about. 'She didn't even touch you, let alone show that much interest in you,' you think, taking a quick sip of the whiskey to help. 'She could be waiting outside. Maybe close to your car; it's the only one in the parking lot. She could be exactly like-'
  315.  
  316. You take a quick swig of your drink, clenching your eyes shut as the sting and burn of alcohol washes over your mouth and throat. You can still feel her hands on you. You take another swig, quickly realizing that you've reached the bottom of your glass. You raise your hand ever so slightly before stopping yourself. 'It was just supposed to be a few drinks,' you think as you rest your hand back against the bar counter. 'But what's one more to hurt?' You clench your jaw and fight the urge to ask for "just one more", knowing fully well that it will soon spin out of control and turn a drink into several drinks. You sit and stare quietly into the empty glass, mind torn between asking for a refill or leaving. A hollow feeling rings through your ribs and an ache in your head. You come to a slow stand and hesitantly fish out some money to pay for the drink. The bartender puts down the newspaper and gives you change without a word, then puts your glass aside as he returns to his newspaper.
  317.  
  318. You shove the money into your pocket and approach the door, your anxiety rising to a peak as you see the light peeking in through the small window. The sudden tightness in your chest leaves you wondering if it’s more than just your run of the mill anxiety attack. You take slow, deep breaths as you try to fight the feeling welling up within you, though your pace is thrown off by the thoughts flying through your mind. ‘The panda woman that had struck up a conversation seemed friendly enough... But what if-’ You try to banish the thought from your mind, but you continue to dream up worst case scenarios as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She could be waiting for you outside, ready to jump you, tie you and drag you away. The thought it it all happening again makes you sick to your stomach. What would your daughters do without you? The thought of them alone and afraid without you poisons your mind, and you quickly shake your head as a full body shudder courses through you.
  319.  
  320. You feel eyes burning into you and you quickly turn your head back to look at the bartender. His gaze was still quietly focused on the newspaper, and as before, not another soul occupied the quiet bar. Despite confirming that you're not being watched, you still can't dissuade the feeling of uneasiness settling in the pit of your stomach. Your mind wanders back to the idea of finding comfort in just one more drink. You fight against the idea and look back to the door. 'But what if he warned someone that you were coming out so they could....' you muse, though you stop with a quiet breath in and out. You feel your heart begin to slow as you try to remain rational and calm. You silently count down from ten and tap against the form of your keys outside your pants pocket, giving you momentary relief. As you hit zero, you pull out your keys, open the door, and step outside at a brisk pace. You quickly glance at your surroundings as you beeline for your car, eyes wary for anything and anyone out of place.
  321.  
  322. All you could see were the empty streets and parking lot in the early afternoon sun, but you hastened your pace to a near run regardless. What took just under a minute from the car to the door now feels like an agonizing hour as you continue looking all around for a sign of life. You consider running the last bit of distance. You remember how futile it was and how quickly she caught up to you. Even now, she could be sprinting towards you, and you wouldn't even know until it's too late. You struggle to breathe as you try to force more air down your dry throat with quick breaths in and out. You could be right about that panda woman; even she had a day job. Anyone could be just like her. Every single person you talked to in the past week could be just like her. Your daughters could be talking to a teacher that'd take them away from you.
  323.  
  324. You finally approach the car and jam your key into the lock. You quickly unlock it and hurry yourself inside in a scramble before finally slamming the door behind you. You lock the car and take a gasp for air. You look around you in the relative safety of the car; as before, the streets and parking lot are completely empty. A horrid thought pierces your mind, breaking the momentary calm. You turn around and look into the back seat, releasing the breath you were holding in a shaky, relieved sigh as you just see Lisa's stuffed toy staring back at you. You recline back into your seat and decide to take a moment to compose yourself, hoping to fight away the further onslaught of worst case scenarios at the thought of endangering yourself on the road. You can feel a stinging sensation in your eyes, taking a moment to blink it away before pressing your hands into your eyes. The deep breaths weren't helping very much, but something was better than nothing. You were starting to regret not taking that third drink, but there was no way in hell you were going to leave your car, much less go back into the bar that started this episode. Besides, you made a promise and you wanted to keep it. You weren't going to make yourself a drunkard; not with your daughters' lives in your hands.
  325.  
  326. You close your eyes and rest your head into the seat. 'Maybe just a few minutes to think. Help calm down.' You take efforts to slow your breathing, slowly but surely feeling the stress in your body beginning to wane. After some time, you open your eyes to look at the clock on the dash reading 1:38 PM. 'I have time to go home, but it'd only be about half an hour of time before I have to pick up the girls,' you think. You quietly look out of the car window, noticing several more cars now populating the once desolate parking lot. You scratch at the skin on the side of your index finger before finally coming to a decision. You put the keys into the ignition, start the car, then pull out of the parking lot and head towards the school.
  327.  
  328. The passing sights, cars and traffic lights were a blur of noise and color as you approach the school building. Your mind was too distracted to think about anything else, but you were thankful to at least have shifted your thoughts from the previous line of thinking outside the bar. Within moments, the school comes into sight. You park in the relatively empty parking lot and open the car door. Just as you’re about to lock and close it, you stop yourself and open the back door to grab Lisa’s Mr. Puppy. Plush toy in hand, you now lock the car and close the doors, then approach the front entrance of the school.  You try to open the door, though you quickly find that it's locked. You look around the doors before noticing a small intercom on the brick wall beside the doors. You push the button and quietly wait, eventually hearing the crackle of the speaker come to life.
  329.  
  330. "Front office speaking, may I please have your name?" a feminine voice calls out thru the speaker.
  331.  
  332. "David Fairfield," you answer, unsure if you needed to say more.
  333.  
  334. "One moment," she says, and the background noise on her end fades out. You hear the speaker crackle to life again moments later. "Just come by the front office and I'll print you out a visitor's pass.
  335.  
  336. For a moment you want to say that you're not visiting and are just here to pick up your daughters but she cuts off before you can respond.
  337.  
  338. You step through the front door and quickly make your way towards the front office, the bright decoration of the room assaulting your eyes. You take a few careful steps towards the fox woman manning the counter, keeping a respectable distance from her. You open your mouth to speak before she interrupts you.
  339.  
  340. "Hi, how can I help you?"
  341.  
  342. "I'm the guy you just spoke to over the, uh...." you say, snapping your fingers as you try to remember the word.
  343.  
  344. "Intercom?" she says and you quickly nod your head upon hearing the word. "David, I assume? Let me just write you out a visitors pass. Which classroom are you going to?"
  345.  
  346. "Yeah, do I still need one if I'm just here to pick up my daughters? They're in ru-" and you cut off, quickly correcting yourself.  "Ms. Ruby's classroom, I believe."
  347.  
  348. "Sorry, it's just district policy to make any visitors wear passes, even if they have students enrolled. Just a safety precaution though, I assure you."
  349.  
  350. "No worries, just wanted to make sure."
  351.  
  352. She hands you the sticker and you carefully place it on your shirt.
  353.  
  354. "I'll buzz her classroom and let her know you're coming," the fox woman says with a smile.
  355.  
  356. "Thank you," you reply before turning around and making your way towards the classroom. Though it’s a bit minimal, you feel a twinge of relief at the security at the school. You don’t know if people like- Well, you don’t know if anyone bad could get in without a problem, but at the very least it’s something.
  357.  
  358. After a minute of walking you find yourself standing outside of the classroom. The door is shut, though you can hear the ruckus of young children talking behind the door. You check your phone, discovering that you’re ten minutes early from the time their class lets out. You wonder if you should wait outside the remaining ten minutes or if it’s OK to pick them up now, though you do consider that it would look off for you to be quietly waiting outside of the classroom. However, breaking you from your pondering on what to do, past the noise of kids you could hear something else: the incredibly familiar sound of a young girl crying. You hesitate as you hold your fist in front of the door, though you quickly muster up the nerve to knock.
  359.  
  360. After a few seconds the door opens ever so slightly and you can see Ruby poke out her head and part of her upper body through the crack in the door. When she finally spots you, she looks up at you before flashing you a quick, small smile and opening the door fully. "Hey, wow. Talk about good timing, mate."
  361.  
  362. You peer past her into the classroom, the source of the crying sending a wave of worry upon your mind. Near Ruby's desk Lisa sits, the brown fur of her cheeks wet with tears and her eyes red as she continues to sob pitifully. Behind her you could see her sisters, with Amanda trying to comfort a similarly wet and softly crying Megan as Sally looks on close by.
  363.  
  364. "There was a small fight at the playground 'fore you showed up. No one got hurt, but it got lil' Lisa and Megan spooked real bad."
  365.  
  366. "What happened?" you ask, focusing your attention back on Ruby.
  367.  
  368. "Well, on the playground, Lisa pushed a kid down. Says she was saying something mean about her sister."
  369.  
  370. “Was she hurt?”
  371.  
  372. “No, not even the other kid. Started cryin’ real bad though when one of the teachers came up.”
  373.  
  374. You look back behind Ruby again, now noticing that your daughters see you behind the small kangaroo teacher. Lisa, in particular, almost looks to be crying harder now that she has seen you. "Did she apologize to her?"
  375.  
  376. "No, not yet. She's in a different class, so it might have to wait until tomorrow."
  377.  
  378. "Alright, I'll tell her to say sorry. Are... You about to finish up, class here?"
  379.  
  380. "Yeah, 'bout five more minutes or so. I already did the whole song 'n' dance about agendas and all that, right now it's just them playin' until the bell rings. Can prolly let you go with 'em early."
  381.  
  382. "Thank you," you answer. Ruby steps back into the room to let you in. You approach Lisa, now sputtering for breath as more tears wet her cheeks.
  383.  
  384. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she starts, her speech broken as she lets out another sob.
  385.  
  386. "Hey, hey... It's okay. Let's calm down, alright?" you gently speak, kneeling down to be eye to eye with her while holding up her stuffed toy. "Look: Mr. Puppy's here. He doesn't want you to be sad, alright?"
  387.  
  388. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to, I just... I wanted her to stop," she cries, your attempt at calming her down failing.
  389.  
  390. You offer the stuffed toy to Lisa, who quickly takes it from your hand to hold in a tight hug. "C'mon, we can talk about it in the car." You come to a stand and motion to Sally, Amanda, and Megan. "Let's go, girls." The three come to a stand, with Amanda hanging back to say goodbye to the other kids sitting beside her. You look to Ruby and give a quick, "Thank you."
  391.  
  392. "It's fine. Oh, I'm gonna need ya to sign their agendas before tomorrow. School policy, y'know?" She gives a quick wave to the four. "I'll see you all tomorrow, OK? Bye!" The four wave back, with Lisa and Megan doing so less enthusiastically. "Bye!" Megan cheerfully replies with a smile, a sharp contrast from her other sisters. You unlock the doors and usher the four in while buckling their seat belts. "I'm not mad at you, honey," you say as you buckle Lisa in. She loudly sniffs as she wipes at her eyes with the back of her arm. You give a small smile to your daughter as she looks at you, thankfully calming her down enough to stop her sobbing. After making sure the others are good, you get into the driver's seat and start the car. You pull out of the parking lot, a part of you thankful you came as early as you did as you notice the line of cars beginning to develop. As you drive down the road, you can still hear the sounds of Lisa's sniffing in the backseat. As you stop at a red light, you decide that’d be as good a time as ever to ask. "So what happened, Lisa?"
  393.  
  394. She sputters a bit, even visibly shaking as you look at her in the rear view mirror.
  395.  
  396. "I... I got into a fight," she finally mutters out.
  397.  
  398. "What did you do?”
  399.  
  400. “I pushed someone down at the playground.”
  401.  
  402. "Why?" you ask, wondering if you need to push each and every single time she answers your question.
  403.  
  404. Her breath hitches as she pauses for a brief moment while wiping her eyes again. "Someone... Someone said something really mean about Sally," she finally admits. Before you could ask more as she takes another moment to breathe, she continues. "She... She said Sally was weird and... and... creepy. I heard her and I went to her and s-said, 'Why did you say that about Sally?' She said she didn't say anything, but she did! I told her what she said, but she kept saying she didn't! And then I... then I...." With your eyes focused on the road, you can't tell what Lisa was doing, but you could hear her begin to sob again before being cut off with a loud sniff. "And... and then I pushed her and a teacher came to me and her."
  405.  
  406. You try to think of a decent response as you focus on traffic, your attention split between driving and consoling your daughter. "It's nice of you to... Try to stand up for your sister, Lisa. But you shouldn't push or hurt people to do so. It just... Makes things worse. You should get a teacher the next time something like that happens."
  407.  
  408. "Is Lisa going to be kicked out of school?" Megan meekly speaks up.
  409.  
  410. You hear Lisa's breath begin to sputter again, so you quickly respond, "No, no, no. That's not going to happen, girls. They'd never do that. It's just... A small mishap. Just don't do it again, and all will be fine. OK?"
  411.  
  412. Lisa loudly sniffs, her breath slowing down before she answers, "OK..."
  413.  
  414. "OK... Now, tomorrow, you got to go apologize to her for pushing her. You should ask Ru- Ms. Ruby about talking to her, OK?"
  415.  
  416. "OK."
  417.  
  418. You let out a sigh of relief as you put your full focus back on driving. The sound of sniffing slowly quiets down as you continue driving. However, Sally's voice breaks the moment of silence, surprising you slightly at her words:
  419.  
  420. "Thank you, Lisa."
  421.  
  422. ---
  423.  
  424. You feel your eyes open, though all you can see is pitch black darkness. You try to shift your arms and legs, though your movements feel restrained. You try to scream out as the cold realization of where you are strikes you, but even your shrieks were suppressed to such a fine point that you couldn't even hear your own fearful shouts begin before dying in your throat. You thrash around blindly in the small dark hole, feeling the familiar burn of rough carpet digging into your skin as you flail. Your mind and thoughts scramble in panic, your distress split between your own safety and the safety of your family and friends. Where were your daughters? Your parents?  Did she find them? Did she kill them? What about your friends? Would she go as far as to kill them too? Greg, Joseph, Ruby, Rob; did she-
  425.  
  426. You awake in a cold sweat, your face pressed down against the cold, moist spot on your pillow. You lift yourself up off of your stomach, arms shaking and lungs taking deep, shuddering breaths as you recollect yourself in reality. You flip onto your back and stare up at the ceiling, illuminated only ever so slightly by the cracks in the heavy curtains on the window. The dryness in your throat pairs terribly with the light sensation in both your lungs and sides, making you feel all the more faint as you lay in your cold bed. It's been a long while since you accidentally slept on your front, though like the last time, this nightmare will keep you adamant avoiding such a position. This one was worse than the last; you at least had the gift of being in your own home alone in your last nightmare. You hate imagining the thought of her finding your family, though friends was a new aspect of unexplored terrors for you. As much as you hate to recollect what happened in your dream, you can remember some of the people you had thought of. Greg, Joseph, Bob; you haven't even talked to them for the past seven years. You doubt they even remember you now, though you still hold them in fond memory for the brief time you knew them in college. If anything, the thought of them being friends nearly forgotten was what helped break you from your nightmare.
  427.  
  428. Ruby, however, was something different. You had only just recently talked to her again just a few days ago, all by a huge coincidence. She seemed intent on catching up with you earlier in the week, though you haven't yet decided to meet up with her. You wonder if it's even in your best interest to try and talk to her. You already very much aware of the near crippling wave of anxiety that washes and beats against you whenever you speak and get close to a woman, anthros making it all the worse, but the nightmare kindled a new fear in you. What if she were to find her? You immediately try to fight away the many "what if's" begging to dance through your tired mind, though the question still stands. You quietly lift yourself out of bed and walk towards the bathroom. You don't hear the ruckus and noise of your daughters awake and enjoying their Sunday as you walk down the hallway, most likely explaining the lack of her approach in your dream. As you near the bathroom, you see that the light is on and the door ajar, though you freeze in place as a strong acrid smell hits your nose. You feel your body tense up painfully, the long-gone sores across your body reappearing as phantom-like reminders at the familiar scent. Though it’s been years, you can still perfectly picture that bedroom and the state your wracked body was put into by her.
  429.  
  430. However, you force yourself forward towards the bathroom, fighting against the urges to back away to investigate. As you look into the bright bathroom, you dread melts into concern as you see your tired and miserable daughter Lisa hanging her head over a vomit stained toilet. Several spots of puke had missed the bowl, some staining the rim and floor, though at the very least she had gotten none on herself. “Lisa?” you softly speak, causing her to slowly shift her attention from the toilet to look up at you with tired, tearful eyes. She doesn’t respond, and you can see her labored breathing as she waits over the toilet for another surge. “Are you... OK now? Do you still feel like you’re going to throw up?” you ask.
  431.  
  432. After a few quiet, tense seconds, she gags for a brief second and responds in a hoarse voice, “I don’t know.” Every fiber of your being feels sorry for her just by looking at her face.
  433.  
  434. “OK, sweetie. I’m... going to go get you some water. When you feel like you’re... done, wash your hands and face and go back to bed.”
  435.  
  436. “OK....” she responds, turning back to look at the ick-filled toilet. You hesitantly leave the bathroom and head towards her bedroom. Thankfully, you don’t see any spots or trails down to their room, doubly so when you notice the same lack of bile around or on her bed. You quietly leave your three sleeping daughters be as you leave the bedroom to fetch a tall cup of water for Lisa, but not before making a short detour to the pantry to grab the long unused plastic bucket. After filling the cup up, you head back to the kids’ bedroom to see Lisa quietly shambling towards her bed. You set the cup of water and bucket beside her bed, then squat down to lift her up.
  437.  
  438. “Alright, honey,” you coo as you set her down on the bed. You hand the water to her and ask “Can you drink this cup?” She accepts it and begins to drink it in spaced out, small gulps. “I have a bucket here,” you whisper as you tap the side of the bucket with your finger, “Just in case you have to throw up again. OK?”
  439.  
  440. She quietly nods as she finishes the cup of water. You take the cup and put it aside to put the covers back over her, then you press the back of your hand against her forehead. You can feel a feverish heat begin to develop, though you don’t know for sure if it’s a virus or food poisoning. You can’t recall anything out of the ordinary with yesterday’s dinner and lunch, though you decide it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Get some rest. I’ll make sure to check on you, but tell me if you don’t feel good and... I’ll try to help.”
  441.  
  442. “OK....” she quietly answers.
  443.  
  444. As you grab the cup and get up, you hear another voice speak from the bed directly behind you.
  445.  
  446. “Dad?”
  447.  
  448. You turn around, the dim light revealing your pale-white furred daughter Sally sitting up in bed. Your mind comes to a blank as you try to think of what to say, all before your train of thought derails spectacularly as she suddenly begins to puke all over herself and her covers.
  449.  
  450. -
  451.  
  452. You drop one more pod beside the sheets and set the washing machine on its second run. You wonder if you should set it for one more run after this or if it would be too much; though it is always better to be safe than sorry. You close the door and look out into the living room, spotting Sally’s white ears poke out past the end of the couch. As you approach her, you feel a slight relief at seeing the empty trash can you set out for her a few hours ago. You reach down and rub at the top of her head, briefly breaking her concentration from the TV to look up in your direction. She rests her head back against her pillow as you withdraw your hand, her sleepy gaze focusing back on the barrage of colors and visual noise that your kids call a cartoon. You personally can’t stand the noise, especially on work days, but you can’t will yourself to have them change the channel; not on a weekend, especially with two of your daughters being sick.
  453.  
  454. You can see Amanda and Megan laying on the floor beside each other staring up at the TV, both a fair distance away from Sally at your discretion. You also gave warning to leave Lisa be, still sound asleep in her bed while holding her Mr. Puppy toy close. Hopefully, you can make it through this without anyone else catching the bug, though you’re more worried about how you’re going to feed the four and get Meg and Amy to school tomorrow. Guides online recommend plain foods like crackers, toast and the like, though you doubt you’re going to get any of the four to eat it for a second time later tonight. You eye the pantry door in the hallway, wondering if you have any chicken soup cans left to make for dinner. You give one more brief brush through Sally’s hair with your hand before checking the pantry, though you’re disappointed to find just a few cans decorating the otherwise empty shelves. You have just enough to feed Sally and Lisa, maybe yourself or another kid, but that still leaves some out. You grab the cans and give one last scan in the pantry for anything at all to use, though your lack of prep during grocery shopping has finally caught up to you.
  455.  
  456. You close the pantry door with a defeated sigh; you’re going to have to go shopping tomorrow, on a work day no less. You can’t go today without taking all of your daughters and you can’t risk anyone else getting sick. You briefly consider calling and asking your parents to help watch them, though you already feel like enough of a burden for all of the help they’ve given you with raising your daughters. Though you doubt they’d reject it, you don’t want this to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and you don’t want to look incompetent. Your eye wanders to your little work area in the living room where your phone and laptop sit charging.
  457.  
  458. ‘Could just order pizza for the two....’ you ponder, looking back to the three watching TV. You approach the desk and set aside the cans of soup, then you sit down and turn on your laptop to look for pizza places close by. After a few minutes of deciding and scanning through the website, you turn back to look at your daughters and say, “Hey, Amy? Meg?”
  459.  
  460. Their lop ears lift slightly as the two turn their heads to look at you. “Yeah?” Amanda asks, lifting herself up to a stand with her sister following suit. You quietly motion for them to come to you, not wanting to bother Sally and disappoint her with the news that she and Lisa will have to settle with eating chicken soup for tonight. Though, you suppose you will have to disappoint them anyway come time for dinner. ‘Maybe should make it up to them once they’re better,’ you quickly think. You break away from your train of thought as Megan and Amanda approach you.
  461.  
  462. “Alright, so....” you quietly begin, “We’re going to have pizza for dinner tonight, but-”
  463.  
  464. “YEAH!” Amanda whoops, causing both you and Megan to flinch at her sudden cry of glee.
  465.  
  466. “But... Lisa and Sally can’t have any.”
  467.  
  468. “Why?” Megan speaks up.
  469.  
  470. “Because they’re sick, honey. They need something easy to eat, so I’ll be making soup for them.”
  471.  
  472. “So they won’t have pizza?” she asks with a hint of sadness in her tone.
  473.  
  474. “They can have pizza when they’re feeling better. Otherwise, it could make them more sick.”
  475.  
  476. “Oh... OK.”
  477.  
  478. “Well... Um....” Amanda says, looking down at the floor as she trails off. She looks back up to you as she figures out what to say, “We can wait! Then we can all have peeza!”
  479.  
  480. “That’s... very sweet of you, but we can all go out for pizza once they’re better.”
  481.  
  482. “Can I save some peeza in the fridge for them?”
  483.  
  484. “... Sure, sweetie. Anyway, look: I want you and Megan to pick a pizza you both want.” You pick up Megan from under the arms and bring her to sit on your lap, then you do the same with Amanda so they both can look at the laptop without having to stand on their tiptoes.
  485.  
  486. “What’s that?” Megan asks as she touches the laptop screen with her finger. Your laptop was a hand-me-down from your father, another item on the lengthy list of things you feel guilty about. With another set of taps and added smudges on the touchscreen, you manage to close a few windows and work related programs. You open a new window to order pizza in, not wanting to lose countless tabs worth of GitHub pages and documentation you were skimming to try and make some headway on one of the numerous projects that occupy your workday.
  487.  
  488. "Just work things, sweetie," you mumble as you re-navigate to the pizza page. “Go ahead and figure out what you both would want.”
  489.  
  490. Your two daughters stare at the computer screen with wide eyes at the numerous pictures of pizza. “Pepperoni is good and... sausage and... pineapple?” Megan reads out.
  491.  
  492. “Eww!” Amanda giggles. “Fruit doesn’t go on peeza!”
  493.  
  494. “Maybe it’s good... I like fruits and-”
  495.  
  496. “Nooo! It’s gross and- Wait, Dad! Dad! What’s supreme?” Amanda asks as she points at the picture. “Is it good?”
  497.  
  498. You stop your slow scrolling to click on the pizza, causing the pizza picture to enlarge with a list of ingredients and cost. “It’s got olives, onions and peppers on it. You two haven’t had something like this before. Are you sure you’ll like it?”
  499.  
  500. “Yeah!” Amanda answers with Megan giving a brief nod.
  501.  
  502. You quietly sigh and look at the price. It isn’t that much more expensive than a sausage and pepperoni pizza, and the two can just pick off the toppings that they most likely won’t like. Plus at the very least, you would prefer it over plain meat and cheese pizza. “Alright,” you answer as you add it to the cart. Before you can begin to pay, Amanda bounces on your leg and asks, “And can we get pop, too?”
  503.  
  504. As cute as it is, you still aren’t sure why your mother told her to call soda that; it near always catches you off-guard whenever she asks for it. “No, we’re drinking water.”
  505.  
  506. “Aww....” she pouts, both her and Megan hopping off your leg to continue watching TV. Thankfully, they both left before either of them could see the desert advertisements and begin begging you for something else. The last thing you want to do is to give your daughters sugar, especially with Lisa and Sally as they are now. You plug in the payment info and confirm the order for delivery. You hate how pricey things get with delivery, but it’s either that or taking them all out to pick it up. Speaking of taking them all, you still need to figure out what to do about school tomorrow. You stand up with a groan, close your laptop, and grab your phone and the two cans of soup to bring into the kitchen.
  507.  
  508. “Might as well get started on it now....” you mutter under your breath. As you fetch the pot to start up the soup, your eye keeps wandering and resting on your phone at the counter. You still don’t want to come down to begging your parents for help, you don’t have any friends you can call and ask for help, and you don’t know your neighbors enough at all to ask them. However, as you pull the top off of the can, one person does come to mind: Ruby. You almost drop the idea immediately at the realization that you don’t have her number, though your mind is quick to remind you that you can very easily find her number in the girl’s agendas. Nervousness eats away at your insides as you try to mentally play out calling her and asking for this favor. She probably isn’t even close by; maybe she takes a long commute to get to the school. Besides, why would she say yes? Just because she knew you from your brief time in college doesn’t mean she’ll help you with this sort of thing. You grunt in dissatisfaction and redouble your focus on making dinner for Lisa and Sally; hopefully you can figure out something better by the time everything’s ready.
  509.  
  510. As you open the last can and pour it with the rest, your mind quickly wanders back to finding a solution. You really don’t know anybody at all that can help. By all means, she’s the only friend you have as far as you can remember. Everyone else you knew is long gone and living their own lives; they probably don’t even remember ever talking to you. It's a surreal feeling realizing that it's just been six years since you've seen them. You never expected anything like this when you left, and you certainly doubt any of your friends have either. You never thought you'd be a father. You never asked or wanted-
  511.  
  512. No. You're not going to think about this now. You're not ever going to think about this. You clench your jaw and turn on the stove top. You can't recall when exactly it will be fully prepped, but you suppose you'll be able to tell once steam starts rising or when it feels warm enough. You look at the back of the can again. The time isn't very helpful, what with however long the stove will take to warm up, so you don't think you can just leave it sitting there or put it on a timer. Though, you could just make things easier and just use the microwave, but you're pretty sure heating it up on the stove makes it taste better. Something about absorbing hydration from the food or whatever that microwaves do. You resume watching the cold pot of soup, releasing a long sigh that you didn't realize you were holding.
  513.  
  514. In your fervor to avoid any of the thoughts haunting your brain, if not just for a short while, you look around the kitchen to pass the time. The table is still decorated in a light mess, the bowls of leftover cereal from your daughters breakfast still there from this morning. While a part of you feels irritated to have to pick up more of your children's mess, you know better than to get onto them about it, especially now when two of them are as sick as they are. You dump the bits of sugary cereal and milk into the sink before putting the bowls inside the dish washer. You aren't sure if they're too young to do this now, but you begin to wonder when you should introduce chores and work for the daughters to do. Maybe it will help cut down on the daily monotony of picking up after whatever the four leave around the house. Toys gifted from your mother often times littering the floors of their bedroom and the living room, the occasional plastic cup or plate here and there, and the odd food wrapper left around wherever they decided to snack and play.
  515.  
  516. You need to be more assertive and have the four try to keep things more clean, but you often find yourself leaving them to their own devices. Usually you only ever start doing cleanup after they're put to bed or carried off to bed after collapsing somewhere to sleep. Maybe you need to stop being so tired and try to shape yourself and your daughters up before complacency sets. Maybe you're worrying too much about this and should wait until they're older before getting onto them about this. You aren't sure what's the better decision to take with most problems or questions of raising the four anymore. You look at the pot on the stove. No sign of change yet, though you can see the faint glow of red from beneath the pot. "It probably won't be too long now," you mutter under your breath. You fetch two bowls and fill two cups with water. As you get two spoons, you realize you aren't sure how to check if the soup is warm or not. While you always resorted to sticking your finger in a bowl of ramen to check the heat, you're pretty sure you can't do the same thing here. Besides, you'd hate to see any of your daughters follow after you and do things as stupid as that just because you did them yourself. You grab a spoon and get a small amount of soup. With a quick sip, you're glad to know that it's warm, but not hot. You turn the stove top off and start filling the bowls.
  517.  
  518. Afterwards, you get a bowl and cup and bring it to the living room. You set the two on the small end table set in front of Sally, who eyes it quietly from her spot on the couch. You ruffle her hair one more time in passing before getting Lisa's dinner. As with her sister, you set it aside on the dresser and replace the now empty cup you left there earlier. She's awake, though you aren't sure if she just now woke up with how sleepy her eyes look or if she's feeling that terrible. "Doing OK? You feeling better?" you ask.
  519.  
  520. She murmurs out a quiet agreement before slowly rising up. "A little bit..."
  521.  
  522. "OK... Well, I got some chicken soup for you and Sally. It should be warm, but don't eat it if you still don't feel good, alright?"
  523.  
  524. "OK...." she mumbles as she rubs at one eye with the palm of her hand.
  525.  
  526. You give her a small smile and leave for the living room, content on collapsing on the work-chair and waiting for the pizza to arrive.
  527.  
  528. As you enter the living room, you see Sally trying and failing to lift the spoon and bring it to her mouth. Her arm shakes, sending half of the liquid back into the bowl, where she then dips the spoon back into the bowl to try again. "Here, sweetie," you say as you stop her from her second failed attempt. You gently take the spoon from her and begin to slowly feed her the soup spoonful by spoonful. As you reach what you think to be half of the bowl, you're interrupted by the sound of the doorbell and Amanda's frenzied cheering.
  529.  
  530. "Peeza's here! Peeza's here! Peeza's here!"
  531.  
  532. You grunt in annoyance and put the spoon back into the bowl. "Sorry, I'll be back in a bit. Go ahead and lie down for now," you apologize as you rise up from your seat.
  533.  
  534. "I can't have pizza?" you hear Sally faintly ask as she slowly reclines onto her side.
  535.  
  536. You breathe out through your nose in a sigh as you adopt a soft tone of voice. "No, sweetie, you're too sick to eat it." She doesn't respond, but you can see her eyes trail from you down to the carpet, her silent disappointment obvious. "Look, we'll... get pizza once you and Lisa are better. I'll let you both choose something." Once again, she doesn't respond, but you can't tell if that made things better or not for her. You decide not to waste any more time guessing what would make her feel better and instead go answer the door. You preemptively pull out your wallet, but freeze before unlocking the deadbolt. While a small part of you knows that it could in no way happen, you still warily look through the peephole just to make absolutely certain.
  537.  
  538. You let out your breath in relief as you see a young human man standing outside with a black cap adorned with a pizza logo and a box in his hands. You unlock the door and open it. After briefly exchanging money and a tip, you thank him and bring the pizza inside. Amanda and Megan quickly run up to your size, both eager for their dinner. You put the box on top of the kitchen table and fetch your daughters two plates and cups of water. Amanda takes no time to wait and opens up the box to look at the pizza.
  539.  
  540. "What are those black things?" she asks as she pokes said topping with her finger.
  541.  
  542. "Black olives," you respond simply.
  543.  
  544. You give each daughter a slice and leave them to eat while you resume helping Sally with her dinner. As you take a seat back down beside her, she rises back up. You quietly resume feeding her, breaking the silence by saying "Hey... I can probably put some pizza in the fridge for you and Lisa. Would that make things better?"
  545.  
  546. "Uh huh," she answers before taking another spoonful of soup.
  547.  
  548. As you near emptying the bowl, you can faintly hear Amanda past the noise of the TV. "Euugh... I don't like it."
  549.  
  550. As you finish with the bowl, you put the spoon back and come back up to a stand. Sally takes a small drink of water and lays back down in the couch. "What does she not like?"
  551.  
  552. "Probably the black olives and peppers. You can just take them off if you don't like them either. But that's for when you're better."
  553.  
  554. She doesn't respond, though you think she's accepted your explanation. You hope. You leave her to drop off her bowl in the dish washer. You see that Amanda's plate is well decorated in picked off pieces and parts of the supreme pizza, with Megan's close to the same.
  555.  
  556. The two continue to eat their slices in silence, though you can tell that Amanda was really expecting something more as she slowly eats. You doubt the other two will like it any more than they do, but at least you're fine with it. You take two slices quietly eat at the table with Megan and Amanda. As you finish your second slice, both are done with their dinners and begin to bound off for the living room, only stopping for a moment as you remind them to wash their hands. They both head to the bathroom, no doubt just to quickly wet their hands and call it a done job, though you're too tired to really make sure at the moment. As you begin put the plates up, the problem of getting Megan and Amanda to school starts to creep back into your mind. You still don't know what to do; maybe Ruby is your only good option. You still feel on edge even thinking about the idea, but you hate the thought of leaving them on their own at a bus stop more. Maybe paying her gas money could make things OK, though you're unsure if that would be rude or not.
  557.  
  558. Again, you've only just met her again recently. You try to remember what she was like in college, though with what few details you recall it only makes you further unsure. You loosely remember that she helped you with some sort of assignment and was nice enough to talk to, but that was it. Besides, it's been six years since then. You run your hand through your hair and sigh. Worrying and not doing anything won't make things happen. You reluctantly take your phone and leave the kitchen to fetch one of your daughter's agendas. After finding it, you thumb through the pages until you find what you're looking for: Ruby's contact info. You plug the numbers in one by one, double checking to make sure you have it right. Your thumb hovers over the call button in hesitation for a brief moment, but you swallow your anxiety and press down. You bring the phone up to your ear.
  559.  
  560. "Hello?"
  561.  
  562. "Hi, it's, uh... Me, David."
  563.  
  564. "Oh, hey. Did you need to talk about something?"
  565.  
  566. "Yeah, I... I'm sorry, but I need to ask for help. I need someone to... come by and bring Megan and Amanda to school. Lisa and Sally are sick and I can't bring them all together and risk more getting sick. My, ah... friends and family are all busy. If I had someone else to ask, I would, because I really don't want to trouble you with this."
  567.  
  568. "Yeah, I can probably pick them up on the way to school. How far are you from there?"
  569.  
  570. "I'm... about ten minutes drive away. I'm at 7488 Northcrest Avenue."
  571.  
  572. "Shouldn't be a problem then, I'm usually have to get to school early to set up. So long as they don't mind getting up a bit earlier I should be able to swing by.”
  573.  
  574. "Yeah, I... can get them up early. What time do you think you'll arrive?"
  575.  
  576. "Around six o' clock, probably."
  577.  
  578. "OK, good, thank you," you answer as you run your hand through your hair in relief. "I can cover the gas money for picking them up."
  579.  
  580. “Ah, don't worry about it. They've been great to have in the classroom so I'm happy to pick them up."
  581.  
  582. "Are you sure? I really don't want you to have to go out of your way for this."
  583.  
  584. "Nah, nah, it's all fine. Wouldn't want them to miss out on anything. So, is one of 'em sick with something?"
  585.  
  586. You lean out the kitchen door to look at the backside of couch, seeing the faint hint of Sally's lop ears poking out of the side. "Yeah, Sally and Lisa came down with a stomach bug. I didn't want to have to bring everyone along in the car to drop Megan and Amanda off at school."
  587.  
  588. "Aw, sorry to hear. Tell them I hope they're feeling better soon and to not worry about homework."
  589.  
  590. "Yeah, I will," you smile, the uneasiness in your stomach finally beginning to leave you.
  591.  
  592. "Is it, uh... real bad?"
  593.  
  594. "I think so, poor girls started vomiting early this morning, though they haven't started again. Right now they're both not feeling good and trying to rest."
  595.  
  596. "My mum always used to give me and my siblings ginger ale when we weren't doing so hot, but make sure to give them small sips and not a whole glass."
  597.  
  598. "I... will try to keep that in mind. I have to go out tomorrow for groceries anyway." There’s a quiet pause. You’re unsure if you should say your goodbyes and hang up, before she asks you a question.
  599.  
  600. "So, do you work too?"
  601.  
  602. "What?"
  603.  
  604. "Do you work and watch them too?"
  605.  
  606. "Y-Yeah, I, uh... Work from home."
  607.  
  608. "Sounds nice not having to commute every day, traffic can be a bit of a pain. I imagine they're pretty happy having you around at home all the time too."
  609.  
  610. "Yeah, I guess. I, uh, don't really like having them out of my sight, y'know?"
  611.  
  612. "Aw, that's cute. Well, I'll swing by in the morning for them then, will probably ring you in the morning to let you know when I'm on my way."
  613.  
  614. "Great. Again, thank you so much. This really is a giant help. Would it be OK of this was for a few days? I don't know how soon they'll be good for school."
  615.  
  616. "It's not a problem, they're a pleasure to have in the classroom. I might have to check if I'll be able to Thursday, but every other day of the week should be fine."
  617.  
  618. "Thank you. This really is a big help. I... might be able to get someone else to drive them Thursday if you can't do it." Anxiety rushes back through you as realization strikes you. "Shhh- Crap, I forgot, I'm sorry, but can you drop them off too?"
  619.  
  620. "Might have to drop them off a bit later than normal, but if that's alright with you then I don't mind doing that."
  621.  
  622. "No, no, that's... that's fine. I trust that you'll bring them back safely. Again, I can give you gas money for doing this."
  623.  
  624. "Nah, it's all good. Tell Sally and Lisa I hope they get better, and I hope to see them back in class soon."
  625.  
  626. You smile slightly. "I will. Thank you. You have a good night."
  627.  
  628. "You too. I'll be there around at 6 or so."
  629.  
  630. "Great. Bye."
  631.  
  632. "Goodbye."
  633.  
  634. You end the call and place your phone down on the table. Your head feels significantly better now knowing that you have that one problem sorted out. You realize you still haven't finished feeding Sally and quickly turn to thankfully find her resting peacefully against the couch, head and lop ears still resting against the armrest. You walk around the ride of the couch and rub her ear slightly to get her attention. "You still feel like eating, sweetie?"
  635.  
  636. She responds with a slight nod and you can see her take a quick breath as she tries to sit up again. You lean down and help her get into a comfortable position before taking a seat on the couch yourself. You lean forward and pick up the bowl of soup, half wondering if you should throw it back on the stove again for fear it's gotten too cold for her to enjoy. "Tell me if this is too cold for you," you say as you offer her a spoon of the now lukewarm soup. Thankfully, she didn’t raise a fuss as she ate the rest of the soup, finally finishing it all with one last spoonful. As you put the spoon into the now empty bowl, she rests back into the couch and quietly mutters, “Thank you, Dad.” You rub the top of her head one last time while giving her a comforting smile, then you stand up to put the bowl and spoon away. Before you could enter the kitchen, Megan approaches you and pulls at the hem of your shirt to get your attention.
  637.  
  638. “Dad? When can Sally have pizza?” she asks.
  639.  
  640. “I already told you, sweetie. She can have pizza when she’s no longer sick. Lisa too.”
  641.  
  642. “When she gets better?”
  643.  
  644. “Yes, when she gets better,” you tiredly repeat as you try to enter the kitchen, making sure not to make your slight annoyance known and hurt her feelings.
  645.  
  646. “Lisa says she’s feeling better,” she responds as she follows behind you.
  647.  
  648. You chuckle briefly and softly. “She still can’t have pizza yet, Megan. She’s still sick.” However, you begin to feel a slight dread as you come to realize that she hasn’t answered back with a “Oh” or “OK”. You turn your head back to look at her, the anxiety amplifying as you see her wide eyed expression of shock and fear.
  649.  
  650. “What would happen if she ate some?”
  651.  
  652. You don’t answer as you quickly abandon the bowl and spoon into the sink. However, you could tell it was already too late before you could even leave the kitchen, just from the sound of poor Lisa sounding out from the bedroom. You quickly hurry to her, hoping that she at least made good use of the bucket.
  653.  
  654. -
  655.  
  656. With the unfortunately eventful night behind you, the following morning was a welcome, peaceful change with Lisa and Sally still asleep in bed. You almost feel energized knowing that all you have to handle at the moment are the non-sick daughters, and in a few moments for a good portion of the day, just the two in bed. Megan and Amanda kept quiet as they prepped early for school and ate toast for breakfast, leaving you with several moments to breathe and think without one of your daughters clamoring for your attention. As the two finish up their breakfast, you check the time on your phone and see it’s close to when Ruby promised to be here.
  657.  
  658. “Alright, so... I won’t be driving you both to school today because of Lisa and Sally, so-”
  659.  
  660. “We get to stay at home?!” Amanda asks ecstatically.
  661.  
  662. “No... No. Now, I can’t risk getting you both sick, so Ms. Ruby promised to come pick you both up and bring you to school. That’s why I wanted you both up earlier.” They both remain silent, though you could tell their disappointment was palpable. You quickly try to turn the mood in the room around. “Hey, I, uh... bet that Ms. Ruby will let you both play earlier when you both get to the classroom. Maybe even read a quick story, or let you both draw, or...”
  663.  
  664. “I wanna draw,” Megan speaks up, her ears perking up slightly at the mention.
  665.  
  666. “Well, I think she’ll let you. Maybe if you ask, she could draw with you?”
  667.  
  668. She smiles, though Amanda still looks disappointed. “And, uh... Maybe she’ll let you play more after class, Mandy.” Similarly to Megan, Amanda’s ears twitch as you mention her name, and thankfully your persuasion worked as a smile begins to grow. Just as soon as you were about to tell them to be ready, you hear a knock on the door. You leave the kitchen and approach the front door, taking a brief moment to unlock the deadbolt before opening it.
  669.  
  670. You leave the kitchen and approach the front door, taking a brief moment to unlock the deadbolt before opening it and revealing the short kangaroo woman. You’re a little surprised, as her usual teacher attire is replaced with a hoodie and sweatpants, her hair was let down, and you think she looks a bit tired, but not from a lack of sleep. "Good morning," she says, looking up with a small smile on her face. "The girls ready to get going?"
  671.  
  672. "Just about, I think," you reply, looking back to see no sign of your two daughters. "Amanda, Megan, Ms. Ruby is here!"
  673.  
  674. "If they're still getting ready I can wait. We'll probably be early anyways," she says, bringing one hand up to brush back a strand of hair.
  675.  
  676. "I... think they just wanted to say bye to their sisters first," you say, briefly smiling at the thought. "Thanks again for agreeing to do this, by the way."
  677.  
  678. "Don't worry about it, mate, I don't mind picking them up so they can make it to class. How are the sick little ones doing?"
  679.  
  680. "They're feeling a little better from what they've told me, though last night Lisa... Well, anyway, they’re sleeping right now."
  681.  
  682. "It's good that they're getting better, wouldn't want them to miss too much class. Oh, and don't worry about the homework or classwork, I'll do my best to catch them up when they're recovered."
  683.  
  684. “Thank you....” you respond, looking past her to see an old car with rough paint parked alone in the street, with what you think is a human in the drivers seat. You’d ask if he was a friend of hers, though you wouldn’t want to pry. Thankfully, before the silence could settle in fully, your daughters emerge from the hallway and approach you from behind.
  685.  
  686. “Hey there! You two ready to go?” Ruby asks, lowering herself ever so slightly as she adopts a small, reassuring smile.
  687.  
  688. “Yeah....” Megan shyly answers as she walks out from behind you. Amanda, surprisingly, stays quiet as she follows Megan outside.
  689.  
  690. "Can... Can we play before school starts?" Megan asks as she fumbles and tugs at her ear in her hand.
  691.  
  692. "So long as you don't tell the other kids," Ruby says, smiling as she takes each of them by the hand. Amanda quickly begins to mirror Ruby’s smile at the news with Megan soon to follow. Ruby looks back up to you and says, “I’ll bring them back around 3:30 or so and I’ll call if something happens.” Amanda waves her free hand despite being just a few feet away as she says goodbye, and Megan softly says goodbye not soon after. Ruby gives you a curt nod and a small smile, then begins to direct your two daughters to her or her friend’s car. You give one last wave to your daughters as they get into the car. After a few moments, the car starts up and soon drives out of sight.
  693.  
  694. You let out a long, relieved sigh as you go back inside the house. A part of you hopes that the two will have a good day despite being at school longer than usual, but you know it’s something they’ll just have to get used to until their sisters get better. On the thought of Lisa and Sally, you take a brief moment to look into their bedrooms, seeing that they were both still asleep. You decide to leave them be, the thought of turning into bed yourself coming to mind. You push it aside as you enter the kitchen and try to memorize what exactly you’ll need from the grocery store.  After several minutes of checking and logging things down into your phone to bring up later, you put your phone away and collapse into your working chair in the living room.
  695.  
  696. While you still feel a slight relief at only having to handle two daughters for a time, the thought of having to work still clouds your optimism. You still have a bit of time until you have to get started, but you aren’t sure how to spend that time. There isn’t anything on TV that you want to watch, with the only notable exception being the news. However, you’ve long since forced yourself to stop watching the news, as far back as when your girls couldn’t even walk on their feet yet. You used to watch it in the hopes of finally seeing some sort of news report or story about... her, being arrested; but it did little to calm your nerves when every report fails to mention such. There was also another thing that only further afflicted your nervous mind due to the constant slow build up of dread: news of children. Deaths, kidnappings, near fatal injuries, abuse, murders... It was all too much.
  697.  
  698. You try to distance yourself from the depressing thoughts by focusing on other options. You had nothing to keep your interest on the internet, and what few games you’ve allowed your daughters to install on your phone to play with won’t keep your attention either. With nothing else to do, you decide to do what you’ve briefly thought of before: sleep. You set an alarm on your phone and try to relax into the chair. You can already feel the sore spots along your body, but you know that if you were to relocate yourself to your bed that you’d no doubt oversleep. With one more slow sigh, you crane your head back and close your eyes, hoping to make use of what little time you have to rest.
  699.  
  700. -
  701.  
  702. “Dad? Can we have that?” Lisa asks quietly as she points a brown furred finger out at the shelves.
  703.  
  704. You try to follow her finger, the item she wants made clear to you by the large cookie decal on the plastic wrap. “Alright, sweetie,” you respond as you put a box of the junk food in with the rest of the groceries. You were typically more stern on allowing sweets, hoping to manage them to brief amounts, but you decided their illness would be an exception for now. You still want to avoid the sugar rushes they would get, much like the ones they have whenever your mother decides to spoil the four when they’re over. For now, you’re going to allow the two to pick out some sweets they want, as the 12 pack of soda and few other boxes of junk food show. Sally made a few choices of her own, though for the most part she’s been quiet. Like her sister, she sits staring out of her side of the plastic car at the front of the cart, idly taking in the products on the shelves with disinterest.
  705.  
  706. The two thankfully seem to be improving, though you had to ask Sally to tell; her quietness made it hard to discern if it was out of choice or in part of the illness tiring her. You look back up and push the cart onward, the time seeming to blur as you finish gathering what you need. Before you could realize it, you had already paid for your items and were about to leave the store. You see a small hand-wipe dispenser near the exit, a thought coming to you and making you decide to gather a few wipes for later. After a few moments of searching for the car, then getting the two in their seats and loading the car, you push the cart towards the corral. Before you could push it in fully, you kneel down at the front of the kart. You didn’t want to potentially spread what your daughters have to any other unfortunate kid, so you begin to wipe the seats and wheel of the plastic car. After going over wherever your daughters might have touched, you ball the wipes up to throw away at home and push the cart in.
  707.  
  708. Thankfully, nothing eventful happened as you returned home and took everything inside the kitchen. Your daughters took a seat on the couch and begin to watch TV together quietly as you bring the last few bags of groceries inside. With your task done, you check your phone and take notice of the time, signaling that it was near when you should begin your work. You turn on the monitor and give the mouse a shake to pull the computer out of sleep mode. The clack of the keys as you type your password out are unusually loud in the otherwise quiet room. You quickly open the window containing all the tabs you'd set aside when you were ordering pizza yesterday. After spending some time looking at some GitHub documentation for a project you're working on, you decide to open a new tab to check Slack and see if anyone's gotten work done on the project since the last time you sat down. A few clicks and a short wait for the website to load, you see you have two new messages from your boss. You click onto the blurb overlaid onto his profile picture and start to read the messages.
  709.  
  710. 'One of the employees over at Long-Wail was having some issues getting the payroll module to fetch from their database so I had them send in an issue on the GitHub for whenever you can get to it. If you need the details to remote in and take a look at the issue on their end let me know and I'll send it.'
  711.  
  712. 'Might also need you to come in this week to cover for James since he came down with something yesterday.'
  713.  
  714. You let out a sigh, as you weren't expecting to come into the office this week. Not that you could anyways, since you had to care for your two sick daughters. You're almost tempted to reply but you stop yourself when you realize it's probably better to explain your situation over the phone. At least you knew your boss to be fairly understanding when it comes to that kind of thing. You decide to leave the call until you get this problem with a client out of the way and you tab over to GitHub to check if they'd successfully managed to send an issue report. After giving it a quick glance over you determine that it's probably not something that should be fixed in the code but instead most likely a case of user error, probably due to the fact that the client had opted to go without the training package in what was presumably a bid to save money.
  715.  
  716. You tab back for the desktop and open Teamviewer before realizing you don't have the details, quickly shooting off a message to your boss. He swiftly replies and you plug in the unattended access codes and wait for your machine to connect. After a few seconds you're greeted by the mess of a desktop the client calls his work computer and scan for the unmistakable icon of your company's software. A double click later and you're greeted by the login screen for the software, and you quickly type out your admin login details. After reading the report again and some quick browsing through the program you locate the issue. The client had forgotten to link the database they were using with their previous software, likely assuming that they didn't have to do any set up with this new piece of software. After fixing the issue, you quickly shoot off a message to your boss saying you'd fixed their problem before disconnecting from the remote session, tabbing to close the GitHub issue after doing so.
  717.  
  718. More and more issues like the previous one kept coming in and out, though thankfully they were just as simple as the others. It was a chore to keep pressing on with the same procedure over and over again, though the downtime helped break the monotony. After a a few hours and several more issues were solved, you took a brief break to make yourself and your daughters some lunch. As you make a few sandwiches, a small realization came to you. You feel... oddly relaxed. The job was boring, yes, but you didn't feel immediately tired of it all or ready to clock out. Thinking on it, you also came to realize that several other days just last week were also more calming than others. As you try to think of why, you quickly came to realize the cause as you listen out to the noises of the house: there weren't any. The TV still played some colorful, cartoon mess of a show, though you can tune that out easily enough. Looking out at the couch, you can see the back of Lisa's head as she rests on the armrest, most likely asleep or just quietly watching TV. Sally, as per usual, is silent herself, and Megan and Amanda are both away at school being watched by Ruby for the next hour or so.
  719.  
  720. Everything's quiet. You don't have to worry about bringing the four home, or all of them running around, desperately wanting to talk to you, play with you, jump on your lap or tug at your arm. It's all just... quiet.
  721.  
  722. It feels nice.
  723.  
  724. You almost wish things could stay like this, though you begin to feel discomforted at the thought that for such to happen, it would mean for your daughters to either be sick or stay at school longer. You refocus on making lunch for your daughters in an attempt to ignore your selfish thoughts. After making one for yourself and two for them, you place the two sandwiches on separate plates and bring them to Sally and Lisa, then retire back to your workstation with your own meal in hand. You soon resume your on and off workflow, often times taking your downtime to check on Sally and Lisa before going back to your seat. Eventually, you hear the doorbell ring, breaking you out of your mild stupor caused by your wait in the downtime. You glance at the clock as you come to a stand, surprised that it’s already about time that Ruby would be here with the two as promised.
  725.  
  726. With a quick peek through the door to confirm, you open the door to see Ruby with your two daughters. "Hey, sorry I got ‘em back to you so late, lot of traffic on the way,” she apologizes.
  727.  
  728. “Oh, no, it’s no problem; thank you again for doing this. Do, uh, you still not want any gas money for this?”
  729.  
  730. "Nah, don't worry about it. More than happy to take these little angels to class.”
  731.  
  732. "Alright, thank you. So, they were all good, then?"
  733.  
  734. "Yep, not a single problem," she answers, though something feels... off to you in the following moment of silence. She has the same slight strain in her face as your mother would have when she wants to ask something, though you don't want to make a wrong assumption. "So, ah... Tomorrow, then?"
  735.  
  736. "Yeah, just to be safe."
  737.  
  738. "Alright...." she says, the slight strain still present on her face as she looks down to Megan and Amanda. "I'll see you both tomorrow, OK?"
  739.  
  740. "OK, Ms. Ruby!" Amanda responds, with Megan nodding in agreement. They both say bye and enter past you into home, though Ruby stops you before you could say your own goodbye.
  741.  
  742. "Hey, Dave? Can we... talk? Like, sometime soon? Sorry, just want to catch up on things, you know?"
  743.  
  744. "Yeah, uh... Well... Is Friday OK?"
  745.  
  746. "Yeah, fine by me. Anyway, sorry, I hope Sally and Lisa get better. I'll be back same time tomorrow," she smiles.
  747.  
  748. "Good, thank you again. I'll... try to stop by on Friday."
  749.  
  750. "Cool. You have a good one, alright?"
  751.  
  752. "Yeah, you too. Good bye."
  753.  
  754. She gives a small nod then turns back to approach the car, though you close the door before you could see her drive off. You feel confused and wonder why she would want to bring up the proposed "catching up" once again. The feeling stays with you as you sit back down at your computer, taking a brief moment to see that you'll still need  to wait some more before a task shows up. As you're about to continue pondering while skimming through the internet, you feel a tap on your arm. You look to the side, seeing Megan staring up at you, no doubt to ask something.
  755.  
  756. "Yes, honey?" you ask, expecting her to ask to have one of the sweets Lisa and Sally got.
  757.  
  758. "Dad? What does mom look like?"
  759.  
  760. ---
  761.  
  762. To say you feel sick would be downplaying how you feel. Like a wrench cracking your skull, it all comes in an instant: All of the heat leaving your body cold and stiff, a disorienting snap of pain that begins to root and fester in your head, and a queasy feeling settling in the pit of your stomach. You swallow some spit and take a breath in through your nose. Despite the raging storm of emotions coupled with confusion, you need to keep yourself calm, or at least appearing so to your young, questioning daughter. Perhaps she can already tell something is wrong, but is too young to pick up whatever signs you're making. You can feel yourself beginning to crack as you try to maintain a steady breathing, your mind racing to come up with an answer. The thought of your daughters asking about their missing mother has been the subject of your late night struggles to sleep ever since you've dedicated yourself to raising them. Where she is, what she looks like, how she was, who she is... Even after nearly five years, you still have yet to come up with an answer.
  763.  
  764. "Dad?" You're snapped from your frantic thinking and look down to your daughter. You can see a hint of worry tainting her expression as she looks up at you, still waiting for your answer. You desperately want to call it off; contrive any sort of reason to promise to tell her later, though you know that it wouldn't satisfy her for a question as simple as what... mom looks like. Already feeling your throat starting to tighten, you swallow once again before continuing.
  765.  
  766. "She... Your mother... was... a rabbit," you force yourself to answer. A quick look to the side revealed Lisa curiously looking to you from her rest against the arm of the couch. While you can't tell if Sally is listening or where Amanda might be, considering their hearing, it's beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can hear your conversation about their absent mother. Your thoughts race as you try to think of what you should say. Should you be truthful and describe exactly what that wretched woman looks like? Acid runs up your throat and threatens to enter your mouth as memories of her come back. You swallow again and clench your hand into a fist. "She... had green eyes and brown hair. She was just a bit taller than... than Ms. Ruby," you lie.
  767.  
  768. "Where is she?" you hear from behind you, your fear confirmed as you see Amanda in the hallway.
  769.  
  770. You want to say you don't know, but you suspect that it'll be near impossible to maintain any other lies built on that. Instead, you decide to go with the best response your frustrated, panicked mind can come up with. "She's... She's gone."
  771.  
  772. "Where did she go?" Lisa asks.
  773.  
  774. You're starting to choke on your words as you answer, "She's not coming back, sweetie. She's..." It's becoming harder and harder to say 'die', especially so with continuing this awful lie. You feel your eyes beginning to water as you try to find a softer alternative for your daughters. "She's in a better place."
  775.  
  776. "What better place?" she asks.
  777.  
  778. You take a slow, deep breath and wipe at your eyes with the back of your hand. You should've expected such a question, and you don't envy your future self for the explanation you'll have to give. "I'll... tell you all when you're all older. OK? Just know that... she's not here."
  779.  
  780. "How older?" Megan asks. Their young age continues to be hammered in as a hard detail as you realize just how many realities of life have yet to become evident to your young daughters. From the three you could see, their expressions were that of confusion. You shouldn't have been surprised, but you desperately wish that such a question could've come later than sooner.
  781.  
  782. "When... When you're all old enough to be in high school." They don't seem satisfied with your dodging of the question, but Megan answers with a quiet, "OK." Lisa shifts back to watch TV with Sally, and Megan slowly leaves your side to join Amanda going down to their bedroom. You do your best to take a deep breath in and out as quietly as you could. You entertain the idea of working as you briefly glance back to your monitor, but as you try and settle back into your chair, a feeling of unease begins to reoccupy your thoughts. Like an awful cold, it distracts you every working second through it all. Obvious problems take longer to solve as you mull over everything that happened in those short few minutes. You barely recognize that it was time to "clock off" as you push yourself through the last issue. You close the laptop and run your hand through your hair, feeling no better than when you got back to it a few hours ago.
  783.  
  784. You were planning to try out something new tonight; try making something for yourself and the girls, see what they might like and expand your pitiful cooking prowess. However, the only thing you could think to make competently is just sandwiches and leftovers for dinner, though from how you feel you doubt you could force a single bite down. After announcing your tired decision to the girls, you can hear Amanda voice her displeasure with a disappointed "Aww" from her bedroom. You make a few sandwiches for the girls, hoping that Lisa and Sally's lack of a reaction is in proper time for them to eat something less simple than soup, and then a few for yourself. You force yourself to eat your cold meal, knowing that you'll most likely feel terrible later starving than now.
  785.  
  786. Hours slowly pass as you retire to the kitchen chair to mindlessly browse the web, hoping to find anything at all to distract yourself for just a brief moment. Eventually, it comes time for your daughters to get ready for bed. You tell the four, each going off to brush their teeth and dress in their pajamas at their own speed. You tell them all goodnight as you retire to your bedroom, briefly making sure they're all in bed before you shamble to your own. You dim the lights, leaving it just dark enough to sleep and just bright enough to make out... whatever might be in the dark. You lay yourself down and close your eyes.
  787.  
  788.  
  789. You find yourself in front of a large door in the hallway. The doorknob is at eye level, and you see your hand reaching up to grab it and pull it open. You feel scared; like this doesn't belong. You don't remember this door being here before, but you continue to open it. The light of the hallway reveals an old, wooden staircase down into complete darkness. Looking up, you see a dangling light bulb connected to loose wires and string snaking itself up along the ceiling and wall to an old light switch far out of your reach. It all feels wrong; the stairs look old and shaky, the wall an older wood that doesn't match anything else in the house. You don't want to go in, but you can't resist taking a first step into this unfamiliar basement. You remember Amanda telling you to go here, though you can't remember what exactly she said or if she even said it at all.
  790.  
  791. The light of the hallway from the open door behind you only reveals two more steps down. Despite the unknown danger deep down, you notice something more scary as you stare down into the dark: There's no sound. You can't hear a single thing throughout the house. Nothing from Amanda, Lisa, or Megan; no sounds of TV or bugs outside... You can't even hear your Dad anywhere in the safety of home behind you. You want to cry and back away, but your dream-self continues forward, stepping down onto the next step before it snaps and sends you falling into the darkness like a bottomless pit.
  792.  
  793. You bolt up, nearly ready to cry as your body shivers from the dreamt chill of falling. You can barely make out your bedroom in the dark as you try to calm down, the sight of your sisters' ears poking out from their bed barely helping you. You slowly get out of bed and wander out of your bedroom, taking a careful peek down the hallway to where that door once was. Seeing that it isn't there, you shakily breathe out in slight relief, though you feel too afraid to try and go back to sleep in your bed. You look down to the other end of the hallway, spotting the comforting glow of your daddy's bedroom past the cracks of the door. Without a second thought, you slowly approach his bedroom and open the door. You can barely see him on top of his tall bed, though the light helps. You timidly approach the side of his bed and reach out to poke his arm. "Dad?"
  794.  
  795. He snorts and shakes slightly as his eyes snap open, scaring you slightly. He blinks his eyes and looks at you, then mumbles, "Huh? What, sweetie?"
  796.  
  797. "I had a nightmare...." you say, too uncomfortable to bring up what happened in your dream. "Can I sleep with you?"
  798.  
  799. He takes a breath in through his nose and rubs his eyes. A few seconds of silence pass before he says, "... Yeah, sure."
  800.  
  801. You grip the sheets, lift yourself up and take your spot beside him. He shifts away, though you think it's to give you more room. As you get under the covers, you remember a question you wanted to ask before you had to go to bed. Since he's awake, you suppose now will be fine to ask.
  802.  
  803. "Dad?"
  804.  
  805. "What? I- Sorry... Yes?"
  806.  
  807. "Do you have pictures of mom?"
  808.  
  809. His silence scares you, reminding you of the reason why you came to him to begin with. He isn't looking at you, and for a moment, you're afraid that you're still asleep and in a nightmare. The sudden quiet is broken by him clearing his throat and answering, "No. I... No, I don't have any photos of... mom."
  810.  
  811. "Oh... OK," you answer, too scared to want to ask more questions. You try to shift around to find a comfortable spot on his large bed, hoping to go back to sleep. You can see him slowly lay himself back down, soon followed by him mumbling a "Goodnight."
  812.  
  813. You lay your head down, though you quickly realize just how uncomfortable you are sleeping outside your bed. You twist and turn, trying and failing to find that one sweet spot that you can sleep comfortably in. As you flip one more time, you come to realize what might help you relax as you see your father's arm a small distance away. You shift yourself through the covers and close the distance, eventually coming close enough to rest your head on his arm like so many times before. Before you could relax fully and start to fall asleep, you're suddenly shoved away with a quick push as he comes to sit up on the edge of the bed.
  814.  
  815. You want to cry and you're near ready to start, but something stops you before you could get going: something your dad is whispering between his loud breathing.
  816.  
  817. "It's not her... It's not her..."
  818.  
  819. A few tears leave your eyes and are just as quickly absorbed by the fur of your cheeks as you watch his back. You want to ask what you did, but you're too scared to speak up, else you want him to be silent again. Eventually, you see him turn around. You don't know if he's mad. You don't want to ask.
  820.  
  821. "I'm... I'm sorry, Sally. I didn't- I didn't mean to do that," he says, pausing to breathe. "I... You can sleep here, just... Please... Can you sleep... by yourself? I... I don't... Just not tonight, OK?"
  822.  
  823. You sniff and rub the tears from your eyes with your hand. "OK...." you respond, shifting one last time to sleep on your side. As you feel and hear him move back into bed, you can feel a few more tears leave your eyes to fall on the bedsheet. You almost wish that you had stayed in your bed.
  824.  
  825. ---
  826.  
  827. A tired, sluggish mix of a groan and grumble escapes your lips as the early signs of light bleeding through the curtain greets your eyes. With a quick check at the alarm beside you, you mumble quietly and try to bring your hand to wipe at your eyes, but you find it weighed down and unable to move. As you wipe the gunk away from your tired and sore eyes with your other hand, you realize you're not alone in bed. For a moment, your heart beats frantically in your chest as you feel that familiar, yet disconcerting feeling of fur against your skin. You take quick breaths and fight against your fear to look down, breathing out a sigh of relief as you realize it's just your daughter nestled against your arm. Your nausea didn't seem to care whether it was your daughter's fur against your skin or not, the panic spreading regardless and refusing to wane despite all rational thinking. You quickly remember what you did to her last night and instantly begin to feel the sting of guilt stab your heart like several thousand needles.
  828.  
  829. While said guilt had eventually overwhelmed your initial response of fear, she was already asleep when you had forced yourself to bring her over to you. For all she would know, you still hold contempt to her just wanting to be with her dad and fight off her nightmares by sleeping with him. You almost want to gently nudge her awake to apologize, but you decide to let the sleeping bun lie and opt to tell her once she woke up on her own. Still, feeling disgusted at yourself feels like an understatement. You had no excuse for shoving her away as forcefully as you did and demanding that she slept by herself. You feel sick all over, leaving you hoping that you could help tithe things over with her and-
  830.  
  831. More bile begins to sting and burn your throat. You feel a rising pressure begin to strain your stomach and chest, leaving you with the startling realization of why you feel so awful. Ignoring any careful grace, you pull your arm away from Sally and leave the bed in a hurry. You throw open the bedroom door and quickly enter the bathroom, the vomit ready to spill out of your mouth as you frantically lift the toilet seat up.  You thankfully avoid any messes as you empty your innards into the bowl in excruciating pain, giving you the slightest of relief. After several minutes of mind-numbing agony, you hope that it's the last of what's left inside of you and sit down on the edge of the bathtub. You flush the ick down and groan again as you bring your hand to your eyes. At least you know now that it wasn't food poisoning, but you also hope it hadn't already spread to Megan and Amanda.
  832.  
  833. However, such hopes diminished in an instant as your two gray-coated daughters slowly stumble into the bathroom. With as much speed as you could muster, you order Megan to have the toilet and Amanda to use the tub, then sluggishly leave to fetch some water as you, unfortunately, hear the ensuing sounds of illness echo from the sickly smelling bathroom.
  834.  
  835. -
  836.  
  837. "Hey," you struggle to speak through the phone. "Don't... bother coming over today. We've all got it."
  838.  
  839. "Oh, damn, I- That's awful to hear," Ruby replies. "So every one of them's got the bug?"
  840.  
  841. "Yeah... Sally and Lisa probably will be better, but, I don't know," you say, pausing every so often to try and mitigate the burning in your throat. "I... want to say tomorrow, but I don't know. I don't want you or anyone else to get it though."
  842.  
  843. "Alright... Well, let me know if I should pick them up tomorrow later on. Hope you and the others get to feeling better."
  844.  
  845. "Thank you... You... have a good day."
  846.  
  847. "You too, Dave. Bye."
  848.  
  849. "Bye."
  850.  
  851. As she hangs up, you drop your phone into your lap and recline back into your chair. The pounding in your head pairs horribly with the aches throughout your body, making you wish that you could return to bed and sleep the day away. Remembering that your sick daughters are relying on you to care for them throughout their illness fills you with the energy you need to peel yourself away from your chair. The room begins to spin as you look around and you quickly grab hold of one of the chair's arms to steady yourself. Once you feel you've regained your balance, you slowly shuffle towards the bathroom. Though you've long since cleaned up the sick in the bathroom, that acrid smell still lingers in the air. You desperately need something to settle your stomach, especially if you want to have any hope of being able to cook or watch over your daughters. A quick rummage through your medicine cabinet proves to be a bust as you're out of anything that might've been able to quell the queasiness in your stomach.
  852.  
  853. You know that going out to the store and leaving your daughters unattended just isn't an option, and you dread the thought of asking your parents to watch them. While you know your mother wouldn't mind in the slightest, you can already imagine your father's judgemental gaze on you if he were to tag along or merely find out. You rack your brain as you try and figure out a way to get the medicine without leaving the house. Ruby and a few other friends briefly cross your mind but you don't want to inconvenience them more than you already have. A glance down at your watch tells you dinnertime is approaching quickly, and you don't even know what you should make for dinner. Soup comes to mind seeing as both you and your daughters can barely keep anything down, though even you feel tired at the thought of having canned soup to eat. You think about just ordering something to eat, though nothing "easy on the stomach" immediately comes to mind. Pizza, no good. Chicken tenders, absolutely not. Toast is still an option, albeit one you aren't interested in having yourself.
  854.  
  855. However, you do recall Chinese takeouts having soups. It would be simple enough and it hopefully wouldn't cause any complaints from the four. Egg drop or miso soup will work just fine, although that still leaves what to get in regards to medicine up. You suppose you could just weather through it, maybe your daughters too since Lisa and Sally look to be better and haven't shown any signs of a fever or need to vomit again. But with how miserable you're feeling now, you already feel tired just imagining yourself tomorrow... or the day after that. Regardless, you push through with the plan and order for a delivery of soups, do a quick check on the four resting in their bedroom as you wrap up the call, then collapse onto the couch to fumble through the TV for something to distract you from the aches while you wait.
  856.  
  857. Past the colorful array of children cartoons cluttering the suggestions, you attempt to look for something interesting. Very little catches your attention, and the movies that do you know for sure will have lengthy amounts of cursing that your daughters will inevitably hear and repeat. You give a dry chuckle at the thought of how your father showed very little care for what he used to watch when you were a kid. He would still warn you not to repeat anything you heard when watching movies or TV shows with him unless you wanted to "really find a reason to be cursing", and, admittedly, it did work. You highly doubt you can get similar results out of the four, or hell, even out of little quiet Sally, at least not until they're all older. Besides, you don't want to go to those lengths with any of them, though it does leave you worried about how you'll carry out punishments once they get older.
  858.  
  859. Sighing, you continue to click through the selection until you settle on a comedy you loosely remember your dad liking. The cover has a shirtless man holding two animals in his hand, and while you don't remember the movie yourself, you at least remember how often your dad quoted something from it. It probably still has a curse here and there, but maybe you'll get lucky and none of your girls will hear it. You rent the movie and grab a glass of water while you let it load. As you slowly return to the couch, you almost spill your drink out of surprise when you sit down and suddenly see one of your gray furred daughters on the other end buried under a cover. She lifts her head from the armrest to look at you, and she still looks as tired as she did earlier this morning.
  860.  
  861. "Hey, Meg. You feeling OK, sweetie?"
  862.  
  863. She pauses for a second, then quietly replies, "I'm not Megan, Daddy."
  864.  
  865. "Ah, uh, sorry, Amanda. You feel better from this morning?"
  866.  
  867. "A little. What are you watching?"
  868.  
  869. You look back at the screen, the loading bar being close to done. "Just... a comedy."
  870.  
  871. "What's a comedy?" she asks as she follows your eyes and looks at the TV.
  872.  
  873. "It's a funny movie."
  874.  
  875. "Oh... Can I watch?"
  876.  
  877. You consider saying no, but honestly, you feel too burnt out to say it, explaining why you said it, then look for something else to watch. "Sure, honey."
  878.  
  879. As she rests her head back into the armrest, you think back to last night with Sally. With a bit of guilt still fresh on your mind, you shift yourself closer to your sick daughter. You run your hands through the fur on top of her head and at your touch, she leans over to rest against your arm. As the movie begins, you warn, "Now, there may be some things said that you shouldn't say. I'll... let you know which. All right?"
  880.  
  881. "All right, Dad."
  882.  
  883. You doubt the five-year-old would understand or follow what you meant, but your tired mind takes this as a small victory regardless. You lean your head back into the seat cushion and let out a sigh as you try to relax, a small part of you thankful that for now, you don't feel uncomfortable sitting with one of your daughters as you wait for dinner to arrive. As you run your hand through the fur on top of her head again, you look at her long, droopy ears and figure you could probably cover them if a curse is said... somehow. Maybe you just need to cover where the holes are? You can't say you know for sure without trying. Raising your other hand, you quickly, yet gently cup your hands over her ears and say the first thing that comes to your mind. "Snow."
  884.  
  885.  
  886. She bends her head away from you as you lift your hands and asks a confused, "What?"
  887.  
  888.  
  889. "Did you hear what I just said?"
  890.  
  891.  
  892. "No?"
  893.  
  894.  
  895. "OK, good, good... Nevermind, was just... something my mom, uh, your grandmother used to do with me."
  896.  
  897. Seemingly content with the answer, she rests her head back against you. You're thankful for this bit of quiet as the movie begins to start, at least until she asks, "Who's that?"
  898.  
  899. "I... don't know, sweetie."
  900.  
  901. "Is he the bad guy?"
  902.  
  903. "Maybe."
  904.  
  905. "He has a mustache. Bad guys have mustaches."
  906.  
  907. You let out a tired sigh as you realize that unlike her sisters, she just loves to ask questions about everything and anything happening in the movie, and it's unlikely to ever stop.
  908.  
  909. "Why did that guy fall down?"
  910.  
  911. You take a long drink from your cup of water as she starts to ask another question.
  912.  
  913. -
  914.  
  915. After several days, the sickness finally cleared up, much to your and your daughters' relief. Lisa and Sally went to school the next day while you watched over the less quiet Amanda and Megan. Despite their illness, they remained almost as playful as they would otherwise, at times, making you question if they were sick at all. Amanda, thankfully, hadn't repeated any of the words you weren't quick enough to cover her ears from. However, a small part of you expects you'll soon be hearing from a teacher about her childish shouts, featuring one too many bad words, spouted in glee. For the most part, whatever time you spent not working or taking care of the girls was watching TV or movies. Amanda, and sometimes Megan, would join you on the couch, with the former always speaking her mind no matter the movie and no matter the scene.
  916.  
  917.  
  918. Sometimes, you'd break up the monotony of commercials and try talking to the two when your head wasn't pounding. From what you could garner, Amanda only seemed interested in going back to school to play during recess and see her friends, while Megan just wants to be with Lisa and Sally. Both seem to like their teacher; Megan seems excited to now know how to count and add, even boasting that she can count to a hundred despite getting stuck around the twenties. Amanda doesn't seem as caught up, though you do know she can read most words whereas Megan has trouble.  You congratulate the two where you can and wonder if you could step in to help them both keep up. You also begin to worry about the future, not giving much thought before as to how you'll manage four kids, each with their shortcomings in school.
  919.  
  920. It's probably way too early to be thinking about tutors, but it wouldn't hurt if you tried to help where you could. The cost of it would also be an issue, and hell, probably even time if it required a daughter to be somewhere to be tutored. Maybe you'll ask Ruby... It is close to the time she wanted to talk with you. You had already told her yesterday when you were picking up the girls that you were still available for today, though you still feel uncertain. You have a feeling she wanted to talk about something important, either back when you met her or until now, her insistence on pushing to earlier this week no doubt feeding your paranoia.
  921.  
  922. It's hard to deny the pit in your gut, but a promise is a promise, and there is only one way to see if you are right or wrong. After parking the car and paging the front desk, waiting for the door to unlock, you internally argue that it might just be how you feel about anthro women. You haven't had that strong of a reaction to her as you had to others in the past. Maybe it's because you haven't been alone with her? The door opens, and you make your way to her classroom after getting your visitor pass. You find her door and knock.
  923.  
  924. "Come in!" you hear spoken loudly behind the door. You take hold of the door handle, and for a moment, consider calling the whole thing off. You worry about this chat quickly becoming another mistake, one that you'll keep yourself awake at night over. While you do your best to shake it off, a few deep breaths are enough to steel your nerves and push you into the classroom. You see her sifting through some papers and organizing them into a neat pile as you enter. For some reason, this only further reinforces your worries.
  925.  
  926. "Sorry if I'm late, I... kind of lost track of time on the way here," you say with an apologetic smile. "I'm not interrupting anything important, am I?"
  927.  
  928. "Oh, nah, you're not interrupting anything, mate. I was just getting some stuff organized to take home with me later," she replies with a warm smile. "Kids won't be back from P.E. for another half hour or so, I think."
  929.  
  930. "You sure? I don't mind doing this another time if you've got work to do," you say, offering her a chance to back out of the conversation.
  931.  
  932. "Trust me, David, you're not imposing in the slightest," she says, finally putting down the stack of papers. "Been meaning to catch up with ya' for a while now. Always wondered where you got off to after you stopped showing to class."
  933.  
  934. "If you say so," you say, racking your brain for an answer to her question. You're not sure if you should speak honestly and describe how you dropped out of college shortly after first meeting her. She looks to you expectantly for an answer, and you reluctantly speak.
  935.  
  936. "I, uh, ended up dropping out, actually. Had a lot of stuff happen that year."
  937.  
  938. "Ah, I'm sorry. I'm guessing the little ones were part of that stuff, yeah?"
  939.  
  940. "Huh?"
  941.  
  942. "Oh sorry, I uh, meant your daughters. They've been nothing but a joy in the classroom."
  943.  
  944. You don't know how to answer. You could play along and say that they were, but that was about a year after you had dropped out before she- ...Before they were born. "N-No, that... they happened later. It was some other stuff I... had to deal with. It's all fine now."
  945.  
  946. "Ah, gotcha," she responds, taking a brief moment to glance at the clock on the wall. "So... four girls, huh? Guess that was a real surprise."
  947.  
  948. "Yeah," you say, swallowing some spit for your suddenly dry throat and mouth.
  949.  
  950. "I... guess I should go ahead and ask," she starts. Already you begin to feel an unnerving twitch in the muscles inside your neck. "You don't have to if you don't want to but... a few days ago we had a little family tree sheet for the kids to do. Gave it to Megan and Amanda, and... they both said they don't know who their mom is." You remain silent, but you wouldn't know what to say regardless other than a panicked stutter. "Lisa and Sally drew a rabbit when they got back to school, but... I'm sorry, I shouldn't be prying into this if it's something you don't want to talk about."
  951.  
  952. "I... I'm sorry, but I- I don't really talk about that with anyone," you manage to stutter. Your mouth begins to ache as you come to the realization you were clenching your jaw. An uncomfortably lengthy pause was shared between you and Ruby. You take a look at the clock before looking back at the papers on her desk, a part of you now afraid to look her in the eyes.
  953.  
  954. "I'm sorry for bringing it up," she eventually speaks, her tail fidgeting just barely out of sight beside the desk. "I, uh, just... figured it was something you might want to know about. Forget I even mentioned it."
  955.  
  956. You wished you could.
  957.  
  958. Another pause is shared before you croak out, "So they're fine?"
  959.  
  960. "Yeah, they're fine, I got them to work on the other parts of the worksheet instead. Sorry if that the wrong thing to do, I've never really had to deal with anything like this before."
  961.  
  962. "It's... It's fine. I had to tell them that their... Nevermind," you respond. You take another look at the clock. You try to keep your mind off of the painful headache and ask, "Um, so... I wanted to ask about... tutors or if I should be helping them because Amanda isn't... doing too good with adding I heard."
  963.  
  964. "It's a bit early for them to be tutored, but I can help out during class if you'd like me too. Let you know how they're all doing."
  965.  
  966. "Yeah, thank you. The, uh, others doing OK too?"
  967.  
  968. "Yeah, they've been trying out all the stuff in the classroom during free time," she smiles. "Sally's always looking forward to class storytime, and she's been reading a few of the books on her own time. Told her she could check some of them out to take home if she wants, and she seemed pretty excited about it. Lisa's been doodling and drawing a few things, was going to see about getting her started with some crayons during free time next week."
  969.  
  970. "Oh, I... didn't know. I'll, uh... See about getting some crayons and stuff to read." You want to take another look at the clock, but you stop yourself to avoid being rude. "Has... anything else happened at recess? I mean, with Lisa or any of the other girls?"
  971.  
  972. "Nothing that I or any of the other teachers on recess duty have noticed, no. I spoke to the other kid's parents about it already and they were surprised to hear that happened too. They reassured me they'd talk to their child about the behavior."
  973.  
  974. "That's... good," you respond. You try to steer your mind away from the blatant lie, but just the mention of parents has the truth of the matter ring maddingly in your head. You know exactly what happened to their mother. Just like before when with your daughters, you feel nauseous. Breathing is slowly becoming more of a chore and you haven't even said a word, let alone been asked a question.
  975.  
  976. "David? You all right?" Ruby asks in worry.
  977.  
  978. "I...." you mumble, uncertain if you should lie and say you're fine. "No, I'm... God, I... should just... talk about it." Fighting against your slowly panicking mind and stumbling mouth, you decide to try and make sure your story is straight. "My w-w-wi- Nnf...." you start, the disgusting word refusing to leave your dry mouth. "My... wife... She died. When they were born." Your jaw begins to hurt again as you clench it tightly, finding it hard to keep yourself emotionally stable as you lie through your teeth.
  979.  
  980. "I'm sorry to hear that," she softly speaks with a worried look. "I'm sure she was a wonderful woman."
  981.  
  982. You almost stopped breathing at the word wonderful. What she did to you... No, your daughters are wonderful. She is anything but. "Y-Yes... She- Oh, God," you reply, forced to stop as a twinge of stomach acid crawls up your throat and into your mouth. Your vision begins to blur as tears threaten to leave your eyes. You wipe at your eyes, already feeling pathetic on top of your anxiety attack.
  983.  
  984. "David?" you hear her say, your downward cast eyes seeing her shadow stand up from her desk and approach you. "You alright? Just... take some deep breaths, you'll be alright." You look up, only to flinch away out of your seat with a loud gasp as you see her hand near your shoulder. She too flinches back, pulling her hand away as her expression shows a mix of worry and uncertainty.
  985.  
  986. "I-I'm f- I'm fi- fine," you mutter through choked breaths. You want to get out. Find any sort of excuse to leave before you ruin this any more. Maybe it will prevent whatever incident might come from your panicked self. Come back when you've calmed down, apologize about it all, make amends-
  987.  
  988. "Hey just... keep taking deep breaths," she says, the concern in her eyes betraying the reassuring smile on her face. "Let's go to the teachers' lounge and we'll get you some water, alright? I'm so sorry about what happened to your wife, I... had no idea."
  989.  
  990. "... She's not my wife." Just one whisper was all it took. One whisper that left your subconscious and out your mouth to sap all energy out of the room. All it took to finally break you down into a disgusting sob. You take a deep breath and look up, Ruby's expression an unreadable mix dominated by sheer confusion. Her mouth moves, most likely to ask what you had said or what you meant, but you repeated yourself in a louder, broken voice. "Sh-She's not my w-wife. I... I... Oh, God..."
  991.  
  992. Your mind screams at you to stop, but past the violent gasps for air, you continue to break down to a stunned Ruby. "She... She... Oh, God... She's... she's not dead. I- I didn't... I didn't... I didn't know what else to say, I..." You gasp for air again, your message broken by a shuddering sob. You wipe the back of your hand against your eyes and take a deep breath in. "I couldn't... just... let them know. I couldn't tell my little girls about... F-Fuck..."
  993.  
  994. Past the point of no return, your mouth struggles to tell her the truth of it all. Your tongue stumbles over itself in the brief moments of breath you could retain before you could finally speak with clarity. "She... She r- r- ra- God... She rape- She raped- Fuck." With one final gasp for air and steeling of your stressed nerves, you say, "She raped me."
  995.  
  996. And then there was silence. All you could hear was your pained breathing in the quiet room. You slowly manage to steady your breathing, even if the deafening silence almost made you break into sobs once again. "She... she took me. B-broke into my... Fuck... I g-got away, but she came back. L-left four little babies at my house. I- I couldn't... I couldn't just...." you trail off, your moment of clarity having run out.
  997.  
  998. "David, it's going to be okay, just breathe," she says, a panicked look in her eyes as she briefly looks over to the window. You can hear the sound of kids starting to distantly echo through the halls. The feeling that a teacher other than Ruby will see you or god forbid, your daughters get a glimpse of the blubbering mess you've been reduced to sends even more waves of panic rocking through you. "Let's go to the teachers' lounge and get you some water. I'll buzz the front office and have them send someone to watch the kids for a little while, okay?"
  999.  
  1000. Despite your body's insistence to stay rooted in your seat, the thought of your daughters seeing you pushes you to your feet. You don't say a word to Ruby as you follow her to the lounge and focus on keeping your breathing steady. Thankfully, no one was inside the lounge. You take the nearest seat as Ruby fetches you a glass of water. "I... I'm sorry, but I need to go back to the class. Just... come in whenever you're ready." She approaches the door and looks back at you. You think she wants to say something, but whatever that might be won't be known to you as she exits into the hallway.
  1001.  
  1002. You remained in that lounge until you could see the white return to your eyes. Your nose still sniffed with each breath, but you would argue it to be an allergy if asked. It was around ten or so minutes after when you usually pick the four up that you finally entered the classroom, but none of them raised a fuss. You give a small smile to the four as they each come up to hug or talk over one another about their day. They soon each turn to Ruby and say their goodbyes, with Ruby returning the courtesy until you were the last one. For the briefest of moments, you could see her warm expression break. Her eyes conveyed a different message than her smile as she wished you goodbye. As you bring the four to the car, you feel cold apprehension well up inside of you as you realize that the look she gave you would most likely never change.
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