Zach's stomach grumbled as he stopped in front of the apples in the produce section. He'd taken the test hungry, but the multiple choice questions had been a snap. He'd managed to only time out on one short answer question when Mae had made a real fuss and wouldn't be ignored for five minutes. Once he'd held her and hummed her favorite tune while bouncing her gently, though, she'd gone quiet, and that had been worth missing the ten points that short answer was worth. He'd made up for it on the persuasive essay portion.
B+, maybe a couple extra points for those references he was able to drop in his essay, though that score would take a little longer to get than the immediate grading of the mixed choice questions. Not that anyone he passed in the grocery section knew about it, but it still made him push the cart around with his back straighter, his head held just a little higher. Mae gurgled in the seat he'd rigged to the shopping cart, and he leaned forward with a grin. "We did well, didn't we?" he asked her in a playful voice, making faces and tickling her until she squealed happily and reached up for him. Her little fingers gripped weakly at his lips and nose, and he stopped walking, afraid he would ram into something and ruin Mae's good mood. "I'm gonna need those bits back, you know. We still need to hit aisles thirteen, ten, and two."
It was kind of pathetic that he knew the aisles that well, but after stocking them himself several times, they were easier to memorize than the rest of the damn store, which sometimes changed its layout twice in a single week. He offered Mae his finger as a consolation prize when he pulled back. "No fussing, now," he told her, smiling as she suckled at his fingertip. "The last part is your favorite. The freezer section!"
Shopping for his parents was easy enough, and he was glad to do it when it meant sneaking in a couple essentials for him and Mae. Food stamps only helped with food, and after gloating to his parents about his good grades, he knew they would let him get away with adding deodorant, razor heads, shampoo, and a new toothbrush to the cart. Once they hit the freezer section, he took the opportunity to entertain Mae. She never liked the noises of the Wal-Mart, so it was a challenge to keep her engaged enough to distract her from the bustle of things she couldn't see or understand yet. He held the door open as he put a giant bag of frozen chicken breasts into the cart. The door fogged up, and he played peek-a-boo with Mae, her little smile more than enough to chase the chill of the freezer from him.
He was just finishing writing 'Mae' backwards into the fog on the freezer door when another cart stopped next to them. The woman steering it looked to be in her late thirties, but Mae suddenly had eyes only for the other baby strapped into the cart. They stared at one another and started making the cutest noises Zach had ever heard.
"Hey," he chuckled softly to the woman, closing the freezer door and wiping his hand on his jeans. "They're a little young to start romancing one another, don't you think?"
The woman smiled at him. "Sorry. I thought I'd stop and let them say hello to one another. Could you pass a bag of chicken over?"
"Sure thing." Zach dipped into the bottom bin of the case and handed the woman one of the bags. Looked like he wasn't the only one shopping in bulk.
"Thank you. It's so nice of you to take care of your sister while you help your parents out. They're lucky to have a kid like you. I can't get my oldest away the computer for a few hours without it being like the next World War."
Zach stiffened, gripping the bar of his shopping cart a little tighter as his heart sank. It took all he had to let go of the bar and run a hand through his hair, make some kind of casual gesture instead of jumping into the freezer to hide for a good stint. "Actually..." He swallowed thickly, hating that his voice came out strained. "She's my daughter, not my sister."
The silence that followed was awkward, and he shifted on his feet, watching the woman do the same. Jeez, why did it always feel like he was making some sort of announcement to the world whenever he proclaimed himself Mae's father? It was like he was being placed under a huge microscope and found somehow lacking. The woman looked him up and down, and there was something in her eyes, some mixture of shock and disapproval that made his stomach churn with humiliation and anger all at once.
"Oh," came the eventual response, though the brightness in the woman's voice was gone. "Sorry. I just presumed..."
Zach shrugged, trying to play it cool. "It's all right. Happens all the time."
Another short silence made him want to hit something, or at least get up on a soapbox and start ranting like a lawyer in a courtroom making his case to the jury. Unfortunately, he didn't have the nerve or the bad manners for either. The woman spoke up again. "Well... I should get back to shopping. She's cute." Her attention went back to their giggling, smiling children. "Come on, Cynthia. Say bye-bye."
Both kids started fussing the instant the woman started carting Cynthia away, and he managed a quick, "Have a good one," before doing everything he could to soothe away the frown on Mae's face. He'd be unhappy, too, if his conversation were so rudely interrupted. "It's okay, Mae. You'll see plenty of other babies soon. You have all your friends over at the daycare to look forward to."
The Hillsborough Catholic Charities organization was their next stop. They helped him out with his own food, gave him rent assistance, and, best of all, watched Mae during his day shifts when his mom was too busy to look after her. He made quick work of the other frozen items his mom had on her shopping list and hurried to the one checkout line manned by some newbie worker he hadn't met yet. He didn't want to chat with coworkers right now, didn't want to fake a smile for anyone but Mae.
It wasn't just that some middle-aged woman had gone from praising him to making a hasty getaway; it was that it wasn't the first time this had happened, and he could only assume it wouldn't be the last. He was seventeen with a four-month-old baby girl. He was a single father. He was gay. Was there anything else fate wanted to slap him with for people to judge? It pissed him off almost as much as it depressed the fuck out of him.
If a mother like that could judge him so harshly, how the hell was he ever supposed to find a guy? He indulged himself by actually laughing at that as he paid with his mom's debit card. He pulled the hood of Mae's seat out so she wasn't blinded by the sunlight as they made their way out to the car. He wouldn't trade his daughter for anything, but sometimes, all he wanted to worry about was what clothes to wear or who he was going to date tonight.
Once they were settled in the car, Zach looked over his list. "Bank, check. Wal-Mart, check. Just need to stop by the church and the WIC offices, Mae, and then we can go to Grandma's. I hear she has an awesome casserole waiting for us."
It was his day off, but damn if it didn't feel like more work. At least he'd make a couple extra dollars for picking up his mother's groceries. He carefully pulled out of his parking place and headed out into traffic. He needed to go by the church with his power bill. It was a pain in the ass, but if he brought it with him, they'd issue a check to cover the bill so long as he mailed it from the church itself. While he was there, he could pick up some pantry goods and new clothes for Mae from their clothing donations. As he headed toward the church, he hoped they had a pretty dress or something for her. She looked sweet in lavender and ruffles.