She stopped in the kitchen doorway and spun back around, balancing Maura on her hip as she raised a defiant eyebrow at me. “Fine again. Sausage or pepperoni?”

Since Matthew and I had just eaten lunch an hour before, once he woke up from his short catnap, we passed the time until dinner building Legos together.

“Sit down with me.” He tugged on my shirt as I walked through the family room.

“Hey, look!” I pointed down at him. “You’re sitting criss cross applesauce. I will too.”

I heard Michelle chuckle from the kitchen as she loaded the dishwasher.

A huge bin of Legos, a million different shapes and sizes, sat next to Matthew. “What are we building?” I asked him.

“A fire station.” He was looking down at his project. The harder he concentrated, the bigger his frown grew.

“Do you want me to help?” I wasn’t sure what to do. Lego creations were sacred to some kids.

He sat up excitedly. “Can you make a fire truck to go in my fire house?”

I nodded. “Consider it done.”

We sat in silence, working diligently on our respective projects for what felt like hours without saying a word, just concentrating. After a while, I heard Michelle chuckling, so I looked up. She was standing behind the couch with her arms folded, smiling at us with her head tilted to the side.

I glanced down at Matthew and back up at her, lost as to what she’d laughed at. “What?”

“Have you ever seen the movie Forrest Gump?” she asked.

Random.

“Yeah, a long time ago.”

“There’s that scene at the very end of the movie where big Forrest goes in to watch TV with little Forrest and Jenny is watching them from behind. She smiles to herself because they look the same and sit the exact same way. You two just reminded me of that.”

I hadn’t even noticed that Matthew and I were sitting the exact same way with our legs out to the side and our pile of Legos in the middle between us.

“Wasn’t Jenny cooking those hard-working men dinner during that scene?” I teased, grinning up at her as I connected two tiny red Legos.

“I told you I don’t cook. I can make spaghetti and French toast. That’s about it.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “Scrambled eggs?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“Meatloaf?”

“Nope.”

“Chili?”

“Nope.”

“Burgers?”

“I don’t even know how to use the grill.” She laughed. “Why do you think I ordered pizza?”

Matthew, without looking up from his Legos, exclaimed, “I love pizza!”

“Thank God for that, buddy.” I reached over and messed up his hair.

“Oh, whatever. You’re telling me you can cook?” Michelle walked around to the front of the couch and sat down, pulling her legs up under her.

“Actually, yes,” I said matter-of-factly as I set the Legos down and turned toward her. “I really like cooking, but I never do it because it’s just me. Not worth the mess.”

She pulled her bottom lip in and nodded. “Impressive. What can you make?”

“Just about anything.” I shrugged. “My grandma taught me.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She was a cook for years. She didn’t go to school for it or anything, but she was better than most who did.” I stared down at the ground, smiling as I talked about Gam. “She worked at a seminary in the kitchen, so she would cook for the aspiring priests. Huge dinner parties every night. And she would bring home any leftovers for us. Pot roast, rosemary chicken, the most amazing mashed potatoes you ever had in your life. Real stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. She’s amazing.”

My mouth started to water thinking of all the food Gam used to have just sitting in her fridge.

“Anyway.” I shrugged. “I used to ask her how she made this dish and that dish and I paid attention. Even now when I try to make something new, I split it in half and take it over to her for her approval, holding my damn breath as she puts that first bite in her mouth.”

Realizing I was rambling on for too long about Gam, I looked up at Michelle, who had a tear running down her cheek.

I panicked. “What did I say? I’m sorry.”

“No, no.” She wiped the tear away. “It’s nothing you said… I’m just jealous. I never really had a family. I was adopted, the only child my parents ever had, and they divorced when I was young. We visited my grandparents once a year, if that, and eventually they died. My mom passed when I was in high school, and my dad remarried and moved out to the West Coast. We talk, but not often. So really, it’s just me.”

“I’m so sorry.” I felt terrible. Just when I thought that the guilt had run its course and I was better, something happened to bring it right back to the surface. Mike was her only person, and I took him away.

“It’s okay.” She smiled the most unconvincing smile I’d ever seen. “I’m used to it. It’s always kinda just been me and Mike. I don’t know if you know, but Taylor moved here shortly after he died to help me and see the kids more often. She does try, but about a week after she got settled in, she discovered that the young musician in the apartment next to hers was the love of her life, so she’s been… preoccupied.”

“You should go with me to meet Gam sometime,” I blurted out. The words were just out of my mouth and I instantly regretted them.

She flinched slightly and narrowed her eyes at me. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. Just someone to go visit. She only really has me, but I’m a horrible grandson and don’t get over there as often as I should.”

“Oh, have your parents passed too?”

All it took was one sentence for every muscle in my body to tense up.

“No, they’re alive,” I said sharply.

“You don’t see them?”

“No.”

“You don’t have to, but do you wanna tell me why?”

Fuck no.

I took a deep breath and looked up at her. I’d never noticed how blue her eyes were until that exact moment when they stared back at me, waiting for an answer to her question.

“Um…” I hesitated. “My parents aren’t great people. They suck, actually. So once I was old enough to decide who I did and didn’t want in my life, they didn’t make the cut.”

“Hmmm.” She looked down at her lap and pinched at the fabric of her pants. “So you’re kinda like me… alone?”

“Yep.” I nodded. “I prefer it that way, though. The closer people are to you, the more opportunities they have to hurt you.”

Just as she opened her mouth to say something, the doorbell rang.

“Pizza’s here!” Matthew sprang to life and jumped to his feet, hopping up and down excitedly.

“To be continued.” She winked at me as she got off the couch and headed up front.

Or not.

OUR HOME OPENER of the season also happened to be the five-month anniversary of Mike’s death. Since the Wild had never formally paid tribute to him in terms of a public memorial, they decided the home opener would be the perfect time to do that. Every member of the team stood out on the ice in a single line, shoulder to shoulder, as Mike’s jersey was raised to the roof of the stadium during a moment of silence. I watched as the spotlight slowly followed it all the way to the top.