“Once upon a time…” a plump ten-year-old Cindy with golden hair pulled into a bumpy ponytail and cheeks flush with warmth said quietly to herself as she waited on the front porch, her chin resting on her kneecap with a poop-emoji Band-Aid stretched across an especially nasty scab. “A girl waited for her Prince Charming carrying the most precious cargo, hoping that if he showed up late, it would at least be late enough that her pizza would be free thanks to Marco’s Speedy Delivery Guarantee.”
Cindy dreamed of many things, but at the top of that list was the hope that someday she would cash in on that guarantee and finally get a free pizza. She’d come close many times, but victory had always escaped her.
A white Toyota Yaris covered in bumper stickers that said things like JESUS IS COMING, LOOK BUSY, and MY OTHER CAR IS A TARDIS pulled up short, breaks wheezing to a halt, as a lean teenage boy in a faded Marco’s T-shirt stumbled out with a pizza in hand.
“It’s about time!” Cindy said as she hopped to her feet. “You were this close to owing me a free pizza, Blake!”
At the sound of his name, Blake tripped on the curb, the pizza box nearly flying into the air.
Cindy couldn’t help but cringe a little at the thought of her pizza landing facedown on the sidewalk.
“Did I make it?” Blake asked between panting breaths.
She checked her cell phone and then held it up for him to see the time. “Barely,” she said as she handed over her dad’s crisp twenty-dollar bill.
Blake shook his head. “You’ll get that free pizza one of these days, Cindy.”
Cindy’s cheeks flushed with heat. He remembered her name. The cute, much older teenage boy knew her name. And the free pizza? Well, that would happen eventually. It was fate, after all. Pizza was always fated.
She stood there with the warm box in her arms as he drove off down the street, and the moment his car disappeared into the hazy Burbank horizon, she ran back into her house. “Dad! Pizza’s here!”
Cindy and her father, whose only religion was Thursday Pizza Night, sat in the living room, where they ate directly from the box. Their thirteen-year-old Pomeranian, Mac, circled the coffee table, chuffing in the hopes of a loose pepperoni.
Mac was three years Cindy’s senior, and he’d miraculously outlived every possible medical complication to the extent that Cindy’s father, Simon, joked that the dog might outlive him. Mac had been a peace offering from Cindy’s father to her mother after a disagreement about wanting children. Cindy’s mother, Ilene, was ready and her father was not. A dog, it turned out, was not the best thing to offer your wife when her biological clock was ticking. Simon saw the error of his ways the next morning when he found that Mac had not only torn through his favorite loafers but would also need a pricey procedure to excavate chunks of the shoes from his intestines. At least a child was unlikely to eat his shoes.
It took two miscarriages and three years of trying, but eventually, they got their miracle. Cindy Eleanor Woods. Even King Mac welcomed her with open paws. It was meant to be, Simon swore as Ilene held Cindy for the first time. And despite the years of disappointment and pain, Ilene couldn’t help but agree.
Cindy loved hearing this story. She knew it was probably painful for her dad in many ways, but she adored hearing any memory about her mother that wasn’t her own—whether because she was too young to remember it or it was simply before her time. They were surprise gems for Cindy to unearth. It was as though her mother were still alive in some reality, creating new memories to be treasured.
“Cindy, baby,” her father said as he handed her a napkin. “I-I’ve got something important to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” she said with hesitation. Adults always said important when they meant sad.
“First, I need you to know that I love you very much.” He shook his head and laughed to himself. “If your mother were here, she’d say I sound like an after-school special.”
Cindy wriggled uncomfortably, a sad but encouraging smile begging him to get it over with already.
“I love us,” he said. “I love the life we’ve made together, even if it’s not how I’d always imagined it would be. And I don’t want you to think that this has anything to do