They hadn’t been in the house for more than a year before the feeling of home settled in for good. There were no more crippled brick towers to shield the morning sun. No more drunk or drug-fueled fists were banging on the door to the wrong apartment. There was no more wishing for a way out.
While the home was big enough for five, three had rebuilt their lives behind brand new walls. With one year passing in the blink of an eye, the new homeowners were still strangers to the privilege granted to them by a rectangle. A shape pinched between a man’s fingers.
A business card transformed a forest of bricks into nature. Now, their view encompassed grass-lined homes with yards in the front and back sprinkled with aged cedar and fruit trees that decorated the air with great earthly scents. A piece of paper led them to space they could call their own and fill with things they loved like bookshelves, toys, and a piano.
So far this new life served the Georgias well. Mary Anne learned to embrace retirement after much convincing from her daughters. No more did the Georgia sisters want to witness their mother weaving around tables with sweaty drinks and steaming food. The cruelty of the labor was too much to endure. Patrons were never hesitant to verbally desecrate and belittle their mother with the mouths they stuffed with the food she served. Now that Mary Anne was free from coddling strangers, she spent more time keeping after her grandson. Buddy was still a spit-fire of energy with the addition of longer legs at four years old. When he wasn’t running around, he was building a Lego empire in a quiet corner of the house. Preschool was a new adventure for him. New friends in a new environment gave fuel to an already overactive imagination, and with more variations of crayons in his life, there was no treacherous pre-k hill that he couldn’t bury a flag on.
When the week ended, the family took advantage of the time they had to together on the weekend. On a typical Saturday afternoon, Buddy was enjoying the company of a full house. He was used to his grandmother’s watchful eye, but it was his mother who he enjoyed seeing in the early morning as well. Nellie’s copper brown eyes winced at the screen for several minutes. An awkward stall took place for the duration of the pause– all from a simple phrase that read “Confirm Payment”.
Disbelief was still an addiction. The ability to let go of the worries that plagued her for most of her life felt unfathomable. Yet, she had to do it for her family. Her finger tapped once on the trackpad, a confirmation page loaded, and the ping of a new email chimed on her phone.
Her eyes probed the bright screen; Nellie just paid for her first semester of college.
“This is surreal,” she whispered to herself. “I’m an undergraduate student.”
Her dank palms touched the sides of her face, still scanning the screen to absorb the reality of a future fall semester.
“Mommy?” Buddy called from across the round kitchen table.
She lowered the screen of her laptop and observed him adamantly coloring with a vast array of brand named wax. Buddy wasn’t afraid to be married to a twelve-pack of crayons when asked to engage in a more quiet activity. Though Nellie wasn’t surprised to see him dragging hues across large sheets of paper, it did strike her as odd that he appeared frustrated with his latest creation.
“Yes, baby?” Nellie returned, though he was too focused on roughly filling in his last shape.
He dropped the red crayon and recklessly slid down from his chair.
“I made this for you,” he confessed holding up his etchings of a bouquet of flowers.
Before Nellie could thank him for his thoughtful gift, she noted, “Sweetheart, why aren’t you smiling?”
“You’re not smiling,” he admitted.
Promptly, she gifted him with the familiar curl of her lips and magnified the gesture with her teeth. Buddy’s demeanor flashed of shy happiness before he took to his mother’s desire to put him in her lap.
Nellie pressed her cheek against his and asked, “You know you’re the most important little man in my life, right?”
Buddy didn’t answer, and his mother resumed, “You’ve made this hard life so much easier to bear.”
“Mommy, aren’t you lonely?” he sincerely asked.
Her brows pulled together from his astoundingly left-field question. “What do you mean, honey?”
Softly pressing his hand to her cheek, he clarified, “Don’t you want a big man too? Like Auntie Mary?”
“Uh...” She took a moment to chuckle in surprise and confusion. “Having a big man is not necessary for me to be happy. We’re happy now without one, right?”
He nodded, but Nellie drew back from him and examined his profile.
The gift was still in his grip as he sat still. Buddy’s vacant gaze on the image made it clear that she should prompt the next question. “Do you want to ask about your dad?”
He pouted, “No. It makes you frown.”
“It used to, but am I frowning now?” she asked before swallowing hard and smiling as big as she could.
He turned so Nellie could see the big brown eyes she gave to him. His lowered chin anchored an unhappy face as he truthfully answered, “No.”
“Are you sure–”
Buddy interrupted by shaking his head.
Defeated, she calmly pleaded, “But... if you want to, one day, just tell me, okay?”
After he nodded once, she concluded that he was going to remain in silence until he moved on to the next distraction. She let him slide from her lap, but he couldn’t get too far before she pulled him back and blew onto his cheek. She was no longer faint with hunger, as his laughter was a savory dish; the smile, he ran away with, the colorful zest.
Buddy turned four, six months ago, yet Nellie knew his perceptions were well beyond what most people wanted to assume for a small child. During his biggest birthday celebration, Buddy’s impromptu question was no surprise to his mother.
Now that Mary was with Nathan, Buddy was always exposed to their happiness as a unit. The Georgias inherited an extended family, and whenever she could, Mary had the rest of her little family at the mansion. Buddy latched onto Nathan whenever the man was in sight, and Nellie was glad that her future brother in law never grew weary of him. Of course, this made Nellie wonder if she was depriving her son of something more, but Mary and Mary Anne were quick to slap the hand that was reaching out for an excuse to blame herself for her son’s missing father.
But what scared Nellie was that Buddy was only four, and he already resented a man he didn’t know. Her guilt was effortless.
It was hard to think on Travis and all of the years he missed with his son. Nellie knew he was still around the city. She heard his name circle around the bar now and then. Though she wished she didn’t have to hear of him at all, she appreciated the caution the bar family took around the subject. Last time she heard, Travis was still working at the waterfront dock a year ago. The temptation to return where she last saw him was strong, but the pain of being rejected as she stood visibly pregnant with their unborn son still cut deep.
Nellie’s pulled her attention from the distant nightmare and looked out of the kitchen window. It was refreshing to witness the little joys of life up close and from afar. She smiled at the sight of her frightened mother who was urging her grandson to put down another turtle he found in the backyard. Mary Anne couldn’t keep up with him as the excited child ran back toward the house with his new find. Buddy was calling for his mom who already knew he would plead to keep it. Nellie was prepared to argue the responsibilities of a potential pet, not because he wouldn’t be able to care for it but to simply listen to him talk. His voice was a godsend, and she cherished every moment this new life allowed her to spend time hearing it.
Buddy was too good to be true. He was still the best gift given to her, and it saddened her heart to know that Travis did not want to be a part of his life.