“Thanks for making time, I know it was hard to work this into your schedule,” Lucas said once their meals arrived.
“I’m glad I was able to,” she said. “Have you been here before? It’s nice.”
“It is nice,” he said, looking around. “I haven’t been here before. It’s a little out of my price range, to be honest.”
“Oh! Should we go someplace else?” Madison looked down at her plate then sheepishly back up at Lucas. “I guess it’s a little late for that.” She smiled.
“No, no, it’s fine. I don’t mind spending what little I have on my little girl,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “This is still super weird. Other than the resemblance, which still kind of freaks me out, you’re just like… some random guy I met. You know?”
He nodded. “Totally weird. I get it. I don’t even know where to begin.”
The two ate in silence awhile, as they rolled that question over in their minds.
“Hey, tell me what you know about CLP Holdings,” she said.
“Not much. The shipping labels to the warehouse say CLP, no holdings. But anyway, I never really hear anyone talk about the company at all. Sometimes people refer to HQ. I’m not sure where or who that is, but it’s clearly where the orders come from. Like, ‘HQ says we need to use these new key cards.’ Stuff like that.”
“Okay,” Madison said. “Has anyone there ever mentioned the Red Cross?”
He pursed his lips and shook his head.
“I’m not surprised. You’re no help at all, you know that?” she said with a little smile.
“Like I told you—I’m muscle. They don’t tell me anything except where to be and what to do. So, how’s school?”
“Meh.” Madison shrugged. “My class load is super heavy. But things aren’t so bad right now, with winter break coming up. I think the teachers need the break as much as us students.”
“How long is your break?”
“Two weeks,” she said.
“Maybe we could get together at some point? Have a little family Christmas at my house?”
Madison stopped chewing and stared at him. She had erected an emotional wall to help process meeting this man, who she had grown up hating, but couldn’t manage to hate now that she met him in person. She was keeping him at arm’s length. Just a stranger. But something about the words “family Christmas” shook her. She swallowed. She took a drink of water and it went down wrong and she started to cough.
“Bad idea,” he said when she had regained her composure. “I’m sorry. Never mind.”
“No, no. Please. I just… you caught me off guard.” She took another drink of water and then breathed deeply. “What are we doing here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Having lunch?”
“I mean, are we going to be a family now? Am I going to call you dad? Am I going to stay at your house every other weekend, like my friends do with their divorced dads?”
He held his hands out and put his palms up. “I don’t know,” he said. “Is that what you want?”
She looked down at her plate. She wasn’t hungry now, but she ate some French fries anyway, to kill time while she waited for the answer to come to her. It didn’t come. “I don’t know what I want.”
“I’d love it if you called me dad, but I totally don’t expect it. You could call me asshole, if you want. That’s what your mother used to call me.”
Madison laughed. “I’ll have to weigh those options before I come to a firm decision.”
“Does she know?” he asked.
“That I met you? That I’m having lunch with you? That you pretended to be a girl named Candice, so you could stalk my Insta? That you work for some shady organization that I’m investigating?” Madison paused for dramatic effect. “No, she doesn’t know any of that.”
“Shouldn’t you tell her?” he asked.
Madison shook her head. Then nodded her head. Then wobbled her head side to side. “I. Don’t. Know. I guess so? Eventually? I really don’t want to have that discussion.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t want to be a source of stress in your life. Maybe we should just quit this… whatever it is we’re doing.”
Madison took a deep breath. “Nah. It’s not stressful. It’s just mystifying. I need to process this some more.”
“Okay. No pressure on the Christmas thing. I just thought it’d be nice to show you my place. It’s not much, but it’s mine.” He took a drink of water. “So what do you do other than school and work?”
“Isn’t that enough?” she asked.
Madison laughed. “I’m just messing with you. I’m a reporter.”
“Like, for the school newspaper?” he asked.
“Not anymore. I’m freelancing, I guess.”
“That sounds like a grown-up job.”
“Well it’d be a job if I got paid,” she explained. “But right now it’s my avocation. I hope to someday make it my vocation. After college.”
“Avocation? Vocation?” he asked. “Huh?”
Madison smiled. “Avocation is like a hobby. It’s what you like to do. Vocation is a job. What you have to do.”
“You’re really, really smart, aren’t you? You must get that from your mom,” he said. “Definitely not from this,” he said and thumped the side of his head with the heel of his hand. “Nothing up there but bad ideas.”
“I’m sure it comes from both of you,” she said diplomatically. She glanced at her phone. “I gotta go. My shift is starting soon. I’ll think about the whole Christmas thing. Is it okay if I leave you here to deal with the check?”
He stood up and put out his hand. “Absolutely. It’s been great to see you again.”
Madison brushed his hand aside and gave him a hug. It felt a little bit less awkward this time.