“Well that’s the cutest sound I think I’ve ever heard.”

I whipped around to see Joel walking toward us with a smile on his face.

“Isn’t it?” I agreed, turning back to Maura.

“I haven’t had a little one in a long time, but wow, I sure do miss those laughs.” He walked up and leaned against the metal pole.

“I know. I swear they’re what keeps me going most days,” I said as I pushed her again. “Hey . . . aren’t you supposed to be working?”

“I’m done!”

“What? No way!”

“Yes way!” He nodded with a laugh. “It’s amazing how quickly you get things done when someone takes your crazy son to the park for an hour and a half.”

“Have we been here that long already?”

“Yup.” He nodded again, his bright, ice-blue eyes boring into mine. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“More like time flies when they’re not asking for something every five seconds.” I let out a quick laugh as I looked back at Maura. “We should probably head home and clean up for dinner soon. I’m hoping a long time at the park equals early to bed.”

“You have to let me pay you back for this afternoon. How about I spring for pizza for dinner?”

“Oh, no, that’s okay.” I stopped the swing and took Maura out.

“Come on, you have to let me do something,” he insisted.

I thought for a minute, staring down as I buckled Maura into the stroller. Dinner with a new friend was tempting, but I couldn’t do it. Even though Viper and I were going through . . . something . . . it just felt disrespectful.

“No, really. Thank you, but I’m wiped. I’m probably just going to make them something quick and crash early right along with them.”

“Okay.” He stood and nodded, tucking his hands into his hoodie pocket. “I get it, but if you change your mind, I’m right across the street now, neighbor.” He flashed me a big, playful grin that I couldn’t help but return.

“Thanks. We’ll be around all day tomorrow, too, if Gavin wants to come over again.” I started walking toward where the boys were playing.

He stepped in right beside me. “Sounds good. They can probably hang for a bit in the morning, but I’ll take Gavin back to his mom’s after dinner.”

“Matthew, Gavin, come on! Time to go home!” I hollered toward them before turning back to Joel. “Does she live around here?”

“Yeah, just a few miles away. I kinda followed her here, actually. We used to live in northern Iowa, but then she got remarried and moved here.” He lifted two fingers between his lips and whistled loudly for the boys, who were running around in the field past the park. “Anyway, I couldn’t stand to be that many hours away from Gavin, so I packed up and slept on a buddy’s couch while I looked for a job and eventually, this house.”

“Wow. That’s awesome that you moved here to be with him.”

“I don’t know if it’s that awesome.” He shrugged, staring at the ground as he walked. “He’s my buddy. The thought of missing out on the big stuff in his life was hard, but the thought of missing out on all the little everyday stuff was unacceptable.”

Joel’s feelings about being away from his son and needing to be part of his life overwhelmed me. I so desperately wanted Viper to feel that way about our baby, and I hoped that eventually he would. Though the longer we went without talking, the more nervous I became.

The boys hustled up next to us and whined for the next few minutes.

“It’s not even dark yet,” Matthew complained.

“Yeah,” Gavin added. “We weren’t done yet.”

“Well,”—Joel reached over and pulled Gavin into a playful headlock—“the good news is that we live in this house now and that park is less than a block away, so you can play there any time you want.”

Gavin squealed and flailed his arms. “Can we come back tomorrow?”

“Yes, probably for a little bit in the morning.” Joel let Gavin go and he sprinted down the sidewalk ahead of us with Matthew right behind him.

“Those two are gonna run the world one day,” I said with a quick laugh.

We said good-bye to Joel and Gavin when we got to their house and crossed back over to ours. “Did you guys have fun out there?” I asked Matthew.

He nodded excitedly. “He’s so fun, Mom. We like all the same stuff.”

My heart soared. He hadn’t sounded that excited in a long time. “That’s awesome, bud. I’m so happy for you.”

Matthew grabbed the keys from me to open the front door like he always did, and I bent down and pulled Maura from her stroller. I stood and glanced over toward Joel’s house, surprised to see him still standing out on his porch staring at us. He noticed me look that way and gave another small wave and a big grin that I could see clear across the street. I waved back quickly and turned toward the house, not at all comfortable with the pace my heart was beating.

 

 

“I’m comin’! I’m comin’!” I yelled as I slowly made my way to the front door after the doorbell rang for a third time. I didn’t need my crutches anymore, but I wasn’t moving very quickly either.

Brody stood on the other side of the door with a smile on his face. “What’s up, bud?” He held his hand out and gave me a quick hug.

“Hey! I didn’t know you were coming by,” I said as I shut the door.

He stuffed his hands in his front pockets and lifted his eyebrows. “I’ve texted you a few times, but you don’t respond these days.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sorry. Things have been a little crazy. Here, come with me.”

He followed me into the garage, where I’d been when he rang the doorbell. I sat down on the bucket and looked over, noticing that he was frozen in the doorway with his mouth hanging open.

“What?”

His eyes moved back and forth around the garage. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m cleaning my bike.” I motioned toward my motorcycle.

“Why?” He finally stepped down the wood steps into the garage.

I shrugged. “Why not? I haven’t ridden it in almost a year. I figure once my knee is healed enough, I’m gonna get back on it.”