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He extended his fingers and counted down. “But that’s at least three months.”
How could I explain to my little brothers why I needed to leave? How could I explain that for three years the only thing that kept my head above water was the thought of being a family with them again? I’d lost and I’d won. I’d lost the dreams I had, but won new dreams.
I needed time to rewire my brain, figure out how to be a responsible eighteen-year-old college student and carefree older brother. “I’ll call every day and I’ll send you presents and postcards from every place I visit.”
Jacob brightened at the word presents. “Promise?”
Echo and Tyler laughed as Isaiah flipped Tyler over his shoulder, grabbed Echo’s hand and ran across the yard to keep Beth from “finding” them. Beth slowly followed, pretending she had no idea where the three of them had gone. My throat swelled at the sight. I finally had a family.
“Tyler likes her,” Jacob said as he watched Tyler reach for Echo.
I cleared my throat and swallowed down the emotions overwhelming me. “What do you think of her?”
When I first introduced them a month back, my brothers had been shy around her. Then Echo drew a picture of Jacob and Tyler and the wall between them shattered. They thought it was cool that a grown-up loved crayons as much as they did. It took them longer to warm up to Beth and Isaiah, but eventually they’d been won over by Isaiah’s tattoos and by the gifts “Aunt Beth” bought them.
Jacob shrugged. “She’s cool for a girl.”
I laughed. “Yeah. She is.”
“Where are you going when you leave?”
“Everywhere, but mainly Colorado. There are a couple of art galleries Echo wants to visit there.”
He tackled me in a hug. “Colorado. They have mountains. Cool.”
Cool. We played a few more rounds of hide-and-seek until Tyler couldn’t keep his eyes open. Echo left with Isaiah and Beth to pick up the rest of the items she needed for our trip and to make her dad swear, yet again, that he’d take care of Aires’ car until she came back to town. Though she wouldn’t admit it, I think she also wanted another few minutes to rock Alexander.
Carrie let me read stories to my brothers, listen to their prayers and tuck them in for the night. Tonight, Tyler slept with Jacob in the bottom bunk.
“Love you, Noah.” Tyler yawned and closed his eyes. I touched the side of his head. It wasn’t the first time he’d said the words to me, but it was the first time since Carrie and Joe allowed me back in my brothers’ lives.
“Me, too. I love you,” Jacob added.
“I love you both. Take care of each other and listen to Carrie and Joe.”
Jacob flashed me Mom’s smile. “We will.”
I kissed them both on the forehead and forced myself out of the room. The house had that peaceful quiet. The refrigerator hummed. The dishwasher quietly swished. The smell of rich coffee drifted from the kitchen.
I followed the scent and poked my head into the room. Carrie and Joe sat at the breakfast bar, sipping from mugs. “I’m not kidding. I plan on calling every day.”
Joe gave me a genuine smile. “We wouldn’t expect anything less.”
“Noah.” Carrie slipped off the stool. “I have something for you and I didn’t want to give it to you in front of your friends.”
She handed me a manila envelope. “Open it later, okay? I promise you’ll love it.”
Joe extended his hand. “Have a safe trip and don’t buy the boys anything too big.”
I laughed. Like I could buy anything bigger than the stuff in that toy-store basement of theirs. “I will. Thanks again.”
The moment I stepped out onto the front porch, I opened the envelope. Inside were lots of drawings from Jacob and Tyler, a picture of me and my brothers, and then a copy of the picture of my parents. I remembered this picture. I’d taken it after Mom and Dad handed over the key to the first resident of the Habitat neighborhood. The memory made me smile. Carrie and Joe weren’t the devil. They were people who loved my brothers and had hearts big enough to possibly love me, too.
I pulled out my cell phone and texted Carrie: thanks.
Seconds later she texted back: welcome. b safe.
Across the street, Echo sat on the hood of her gray Honda Civic. Her red curls shone in the street light and her spaghetti-strapped tank top dipped just low enough that my mind already wondered how I could get her to deviate from the plan of driving at least six hours tonight before setting up the tent.
Her siren smile lit up my world. “Noah.”
“Echo. You look …” I let my eyes wander up and down as I approached the car. “Appetizing.”
Her laughter tickled my soul. “I think we’ve had this conversation before.”
I settled between her legs and cradled her face with my hands. “And I think at the end of that night something like this also happened.”
Her lips feathered against mine and she giggled. “You ready for a new normal?” she whispered.
I kissed her lips one more time and plucked the keys from her hand. “Yes, and I’m driving.”