He smiled at the little voice. At least it wasn’t his mom calling him out for hiding.
Gillian came around the corner into the library. “Read book?”
“I’ll read a book to you,” he said. “Which one?”
He knew better than to ask. The littles always had their favorite stories, but most of the time, what they really wanted was time and someone to pay attention to them. Today had to have been disruptive for Gillian, what with everything going on. She’d gone out to Grandma Marie’s house because the Bell House had been turned upside down for the eighth-grade graduation party. Polly was glad to host the party, but most all the parents stepped in to do the work.
His buddy, Graham Birdsong’s, dad had taken charge of most of the food, and other parents were in charge of decorating. Noah was surprised at how easy it had been. Yesterday, Polly and Lexi brought the tables in from the garage and set them up. He was sure that he’d end up doing it after school, but then it was done.
How weird was it that he was going to high school next year? He didn’t feel like a high-schooler. Rebecca was a high-schooler. That made sense. But now she was in college. That didn’t make sense. He hated to admit how much he missed having her around this last year. The funny thing was that she’d been so busy when she was in high school that he rarely got to see her anyway. But at least she was home sometimes.
She’d finished her semester a couple of weeks ago and now, everything felt normal again with her at home.
Gillian pulled a book off the shelf and brought it to him, then stood in front of the other leather chair in the room. Noah grinned. “Need some help?”
She tried to climb, but the seat was so smooth, she couldn’t get a grip on anything. He tucked the book beside him and stood, then lifted her up, and set her in the chair.
She beamed at him. He shouldn’t admit this either, but little kids were awesome. He loved babysitting Mrs. Ogden’s kids. They were so easy to get along with. They were ready to do anything fun and he didn’t mind talking to them. Since he spent so much time with the horses at Sycamore House, he was comfortable around the animals in the Ogden’s yard. The goats were a riot and now they had chickens. Theodore and Alexander loved to take him out to the pens. Last weekend, Alexander showed him how to collect eggs.
That was crazy. When he was a kid Alexander’s age, he never thought about where eggs came from. His grandmother bought them at the store. Real live chickens. Crazy.
The sound-level from the graduation party increased and decreased as a door opened and closed. Noah held his breath. Someone was going to find him and he would have to go back to the party. He knew he should be thankful that it was being held here at his house. He knew all the escape routes. It wasn’t like he was that far away. Anyway, Graham knew where he was.
He watched the door, dreading what might be coming his way, then smiled again when he realized it was only Delia.
She spotted him and ran toward him with her arms up. “Nah!”
Noah bent down and gathered her into his arms. For a little girl who had been through a lot, she was happy. “I’m going to read a story to Gillian. Do you want to sit beside her and listen?”
Delia looked down at Gillian and then back at Noah. “Sit,” she said.
He set her in the chair and then returned to his own seat, moving it so that he was facing the two girls.
Noah opened the book. “Voices or regular.”
Both girls said, “Voices!” Delia clapped her hands together.
He opened the book and read, “One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar was hatched out of a tiny egg. He was very hungry.”
Gillian’s eyes lit up and she leaned forward. She loved this book. Delia clapped her hands together again, Gillian’s excitement rubbing off on her.
He stopped when he heard footsteps coming their way and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Lexi.
“Mommy!” Gillian cried. She pointed at Noah. “Cattapilla.”
“You three are about as cute as they come,” Lexi said. “Noah, shouldn’t you be in the foyer?”
“I’m busy,” he said with a chuckle. “Can’t you tell?”
Lexi took out her phone and snapped a picture. She moved to capture a picture of the two girls seated together, and then shifted to photograph all three. “Keep reading,” she said. “Don’t mind me.”
“You’re taking pictures. How can I not mind you?” he asked, still grinning. Even Noah could see how adorable it was having the two girls share a chair while listening to him read.
He looked down at the book. “I have to start again, girls. I lost my place because someone is taking pictures.”
Gillian pointed at her mother. “Picher. Always pichers.”
“I can’t help it when you are so stinkin’ cute,” Lexi said. “Now, pay attention to Noah while he reads.”
The two little girls looked at him and he repeated the first line. “One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar was hatched out of a tiny egg. He was very hungry.”
Lexi ducked in front of him. “Ignore me,” she whispered.
“You’ll see.” She set the phone down and put Gillian’s hands together in her lap. Then she did the same with Delia. “Go ahead, Noah.”
“How about I just sit here and look cute while you pose the girls?” he asked.
She glared at him. “You giving me trouble?”
“I think so.”
“I thought so, too. Fine. I’ll be done in a minute.” After shooting pictures of the girls with their hands posed in their laps, she backed up and said, “Delia, would you hold Gillian’s hand for a picture?”
Delia looked at Gillian and then at Noah as if she was confused by the request.
“Lexi is taking your picture,” Noah said. “She wants you to try a few things. Do you mind?”
Delia was still confused, so he sat forward, leaned across the open space and took Gillian’s hand. Then, he took Delia’s hand and put them together on Delia’s lap. He glanced to the side as Lexi shot pictures while he was posing them.
“You’re a sick person,” he said.
“I can’t help it. I love the way you are so gentle with the girls. It’s wonderful that you treat them as well as you do. Now, sit back in the chair and open the book. You know, if you crossed one leg over the other, that would be great.”
“Do I need a pipe and a tweed jacket with patches on the sleeves?”
“Do you have those things?” she asked with a wink.
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping with the party?”
Lexi put her hand on a hip. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the party?”
“I’m in the same building as the party. That should be enough.”
“Only because they’re having it in your home.”
“Isn’t that great?” Noah laughed. “If I stay here with the girls, you can go socialize. Then we’re both happy.”
“You really don’t like these things, do you?”
He shrugged. “It’s not like I hate them. I don’t know how to do that small-talk thing. How many times do I have to smile and say, ‘Yes, I’m looking forward to high school. No, I don’t know what my life plans are. Yes, I liked all my teachers. No, that wasn’t me who puked under the bleachers.'”
Lexi had been taking pictures of the girls and stopped at his last sentence, then laughed. “Don’t tell me.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “Gross. I was checking to see if you were paying attention.”
“Yada, yada. You don’t like small talk.”
“Everyone asks all of us the same questions over and over. I want to paint a sign and hang it on my back. Then maybe they’d leave me alone.”
“But your grandparents are here.”
“I can see them any time.”
“And your friends.”
“Graham and Miles have to put up with their own inane questions,” Noah said. “Their family. Their friends. Things like this, it’s every man for himself.”
“You have a lot of these celebrations coming up. High school graduation, college graduation, a wedding, babies and baptisms …”
Noah held up a hand. “Stop it. That’s mean. You’re torturing me now just for the fun of it.”
“You’re funny. Isn’t he funny, girls?”
Delia pointed at the book. “Funny?”
“You’re right,” he said. “I should be reading to you instead of talking to Lexi. What do you think, Gillian?”
“Cattapilla,” Gillian said. “Read it.”
Noah started again. “One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar was hatched out of a tiny egg. He was very hungry.”
Lexi moved back into the doorway as more footsteps came down the hall. He didn’t want to look up, but he sensed Polly was watching. He heard the two whisper something, but he continued. He’d started this book and now he was going to finish it.
When he did, he looked up. He was only a little sheepish when he caught Polly’s eyes. “The girls found me.”
“Looks like it,” Polly said. “What are you doing in here?”
“Reading them a story.” He winked at her, knowing that wasn’t the question she was asking.
“There’s a party to celebrate your graduation happening in the foyer.”
“I was there. I had cake. I talked to people.”
“Did you talk to your grandparents?”
Noah looked away. “I was on the way out when they came in.” He knew it was all over. He was one of the guests of honor and his mother wasn’t going to let him get away with hiding through the entire thing.
She was generally pretty good about not forcing him to spend time at the big parties she hosted, so he couldn’t complain. Noah put the book down. It was time to face the people. Maybe it would be over soon.