“Hey, Elijah,” Henry said. “Want to go for a ride?”
Elijah’s face lit up. He missed Noah, who was spending his spring break hours at the barn with Eliseo. “Where are we going?”
“All over. Are you ready to spend the morning with me?”
Elijah looked at Polly, who just smiled.
“Put your boots on. We’re going up to the construction site, too,” Henry said. “The ground is muddy.”
The weather hadn’t been conducive to sending the kids outside to play, though they did have the basement and tunnel. Henry heard tales of the games Lexi played down there with the kids. That young woman had more patience than he would have expected and she was everything Polly had needed to keep up with the house and this family.
“I’m ready, Dad,” Elijah said.
Elijah yanked his jacket off the hook and pulled it on. “What else are we going to do?”
“I need to run a set of plans over to Grandpa at the shop.”
“Can I say hi to Mr. Specek? Do you think Brandon will be there?”
Brandon Fortney and Haley Ferguson had come to work for Len Specek when he opened his piano repair shop as part of the Sturtz Cabinetry shop. Not only was Brandon a talented pianist, but his secondary passion was body-building. The young man was made of muscles and Elijah was enamored with him.
“I don’t know,” Henry replied, “but you can certainly ask.”
“Mr. Specek said they had another piano coming in. Do you think it will be there yet?”
Henry chuckled as he opened the door to his truck. He waited for Elijah to climb up and in, thankful that both of his older boys were finally big enough to sit up front with him. Noah was nearly as tall as Polly now and showed no signs of slowing his growth spurt. Elijah wasn’t growing nearly as rapidly. Thank goodness. Every time they turned around, they had to buy longer pants for Noah. “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet this week.”
“If Mr. Specek says I can, would you let me help after school?”
“Let’s wait and see.” Henry wasn’t about to agree to something without talking to Polly first. The kids had busy after-school schedules and he didn’t want to mess with those.
“But Noah gets to go to the barn whenever he wants to go.”
Henry smiled as he shot Elijah a quick glance. “I said, we’ll see.”
“Sorry.” Elijah wasted very little time being chagrined. He brightened back up right away. “Can we go to the coffee shop for a smoothie?”
“May we,” Henry said, laughing. The kid never gave up. “Shall we do that first?”
“Yes. Can I …” Elijah stopped. “May I have a cookie?”
“Didn’t you just eat breakfast?”
“But I’m hungry again.”
“Son, I do not know how you do it. You eat twice as much as Noah, and yet he’s the one growing like a weed. Where do you put it all?”
Elijah shook his left leg out in front of him. “Hollow leg. That’s what Grandpa calls it.”
“I think you have two of those. One cookie. Fair?”
“Yes!” Elijah put his hand out on the console, just as he’d seen Polly do a thousand times. Henry reached over to take it, choking back emotion. He had sons. Some pretty great sons, too. Elijah pushed against every boundary placed in front of him, but he tried hard to be a good kid. He loved as passionately as anyone Henry had ever known. It was also easy to wound the boy to his core. He wore his heart on his sleeve.
Noah was much quieter and thoughtful. The boys were as different as night and day in so many ways, but when they loved, they were devoted. And they loved each other. It had taken a while for the four youngest to care for each other, but every day, it became more and more obvious that they saw themselves as a family unit. He and Polly had brought such disparate personalities into the house and somehow they made it work.
He smiled at Elijah. It had all been Polly. Sure, he was part of everything they did, but she was the catalyst for this family. He saw himself more like the glue that held them together when life shook them up. How could he have gotten so lucky as to talk that woman into marrying him? And how was it that she’d managed to stay single until he finally found her?
“We’re pretty lucky, you know that, Elijah?”
Elijah nodded and pointed at a parking place in front of Sweet Beans. When Henry drove past and turned the corner, the boy looked at him in a panic.
“Don’t worry. When it’s busy, I like to leave prime parking spots open for people whose legs don’t work as well as mine and yours. I’m not going far.”
“I was worried you forgot,” Elijah said. “Why do you say we’re lucky?”
“We have Polly in our lives.” Henry pulled into a parking space in the alley behind the coffee shop. People didn’t often think about parking back here, so it was always open. “Sometimes we forget to tell her how special she is.” He took off his seat belt and waited for Elijah to do the same. “Sometimes we forget to tell each other the same thing.”
“You and Mom are always telling us,” Elijah said. He put his hand on the door handle. “I don’t say it back, though. Noah and I talk about it at night sometimes before we fall asleep. Do you remember when we came to visit you and there was that big celebration downtown? And we slept on the couches with the dogs because it was scary? I remember waking up in the middle of the night that first night when we were in Heath’s bedroom. Mom was right there sitting on a chair. She didn’t want us to be scared. I didn’t know what to think. Everything was so bad back then. Now, Noah says it’s like we’re living in a movie or something.”
“A good movie, though,” Henry said, taking Elijah’s hand. “Right? Not like one of those horror movies where everybody dies.”
Elijah rolled his eyes. “Well, people do die and Mom finds them. But it isn’t scary. Noah says we hit the jackpot and we can’t ever take it for granted. That’s usually when he’s mad at me for talking back or making you guys yell at me. I don’t mean it, Dad. I really don’t.”
“I know you don’t want us to yell at you,” Henry said. “But sometimes, a guy just has to get out what’s happening in his head. You and Noah are very different people. I’d like to tell you that you should be more like him and think through things before you say them. And sometimes you should. But your heart and your mouth are very connected. Noah keeps it inside. Both ways are good. Both have problems. And while you’re young, now’s the time to figure out how to interact with people.”
“Sometimes I say the dumbest things.” Elijah shook his head in frustration. “And then I have to clean a bathroom. I hate that job so much, you’d think I’d learn.”
“You’d think,” Henry said with a laugh.
Elijah rapped at his forehead. “My other grandma back in Chicago used to tell me I was thick headed. She said that I’d never learn anything because it would never penetrate this skull of mine.”
“You’re one of the smartest boys I’ve ever known. Let’s go inside. We can keep talking, though.”
As they walked down the sidewalk, Elijah stuck close to Henry. He obviously wanted to hold Henry’s hand, but how could a fifth-grader pull that off and still maintain a sense of cool? So, Henry put his arm around the boy’s shoulder.
They went in the side door and headed for the counter. Josie Riddle turned at the sound of the doorbell.
“Hello, Henry. Hi, Elijah. Just you two today?”
“I’m riding with Dad this morning,” Elijah said. “Everybody else has their own thing. It’s just us.”
“You want a large black coffee, right?” she asked Elijah. “With one sugar or two?”
“I don’t drink coffee,” he announced, then looked up at Henry. “Mom would kill me. She won’t even let Rebecca drink it and let me tell you, that girl needs coffee in the morning. She’s a hot mess. None of us want to talk to her.”
Josie laughed. “Some people are just not made for mornings.”
“Not Rebecca. I think God got lonely at night, so he made people like her.”
“That must be it.”
“I’ll have that black coffee,” Henry said. “Elijah wants a smoothie and a cookie.”
“A cookie at this hour?” Josie asked. “How did you pull that off, Elijah?”
“I eat all the time. I’m always hungry. Are we eating here, Dad?”
“Would you like to?”
“As long as you won’t be late.”
Henry rubbed Elijah’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine. You tell Mrs. Riddle what you want. I see Mr. Mikkels over there and want to say hello.” Henry put a twenty-dollar bill down. “Pick out a dozen cookies. We’ll take those to Grandpa at the shop.”
“Plus my cookie, too?”
“Extra one is on the house,” Josie said. She led Elijah to the display case. “What flavor smoothie would you like today?”
Nate Mikkels had waved when they came in and stood when Henry approached the table. “Running errands with your son today?”
Henry nodded. “What are you up to?”
“Waiting for Bruce and Kirk. We’re looking at a couple of things for the garage.”
“Any opportunity for coffee?”
Nate sat and pointed at a chair. “I guess.” He, Bruce McKenzie, a high school friend of Polly’s who had just moved to Bellingwood, and Kirk Waters were renovating an old garage at the other end of the downtown area.
“Gonna be ready by April first?” Henry remained standing. When Elijah was ready, the two of them were spending time together. That was what was important this morning.
“I don’t know,” Nate said. “We just keep plugging away. If I didn’t have to spend so much time at the pharmacy, I’d be in there every day, but I have to pay for the thing somehow.”
Nate was intently watching something behind Henry, who turned as Elijah gingerly walked toward them carrying Henry’s cup of hot coffee. He reached out and took it. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be right back with the cookies.”
“Your boys are getting so big,” Nate said.
“So are your kids. When are you and Joss going to adopt a few more?”
Nate’s eyebrows went up. “More? Did Joss say something to your wife? I was hoping six would be enough.”
“I know nothing,” Henry said. As eyes opened wide, he turned back to see Elijah balancing the box of cookies, his smoothie, and a single cookie wrapped in a napkin. “I’m going to rescue him before there’s a mess. Let me know if I can help.”
Nate nodded as Henry strode over to Elijah. He put his hand under the box to steady it. “Tell me what I can take from you.”
“Hold my glass, maybe?” Elijah asked.
“Got it. Now, where would you like to sit.”
Elijah looked at the doorway. “Can we sit in your truck? I like talking to you. Just us.”
Gulping back more emotion, Henry nodded. “Let’s go sit in the truck. We can turn the radio on if you want.”
“Country music?” Elijah asked, a smirk on his face. “Mom says that’s all you ever listen to in there.”
“Mom is learning to like it. You can, too.”
“Maybe. Or maybe we just talk.”
“Whatever you want, ‘Jah. It’s our morning together.”