Jessie St. James felt a grin growing as she watched Justin MacDowell toddle around the worn wood floors of Otherworld Books, the stubby felt feathers on his turkey outfit sashaying with each bit of progress he made. She looked at Brian and found him grinning, too, teeth a flash of white against terracotta skin, before he leaned over and redirected his adopted little brother. “It’s hard to believe how much he’s grown in just a month,” she said, and decided to plant her plump butt in the doorway of the stock room to corral him a little.
Brian chuckled and nodded, bending to collect Justin. “Yeah, it is.” Justin objected loudly, gaze fixated on the Christmas display Brian was in the middle of assembling, and he patted the little boy’s back around the turkey accessories on his diapered tush in an attempt to distract and sooth. He sank onto the floor with Jessie and her insulated bag of Thanksgiving leftovers, and his stomach gave an appreciative grumble. A sheepish smile tugged at his lips. “That smells good.”
“Good!” Justin made grabby hands for the bag, evidently as interested in the smell as his big brother.
Jessie grinned at the toddler. “Oh yeah. About as good as it did the first time,” Jessie said, and gave a definitive nod as she unzipped the large doggie bag that Winter had so graciously provided. “I missed Winter’s cooking, you know, before everything,” she added with a glance over her shoulder, looking out for Norah MacDowell. While Brian’s mom was a wonderful person and incredibly kind, she was human and just wasn’t privy to what had happened in the last month—or some of the things that had come before. Jessie dug into the bag and came up with a Tupperware container and an itty-bitty spoon, handing them to her friend with a wry smile. “Winter also sent Justin some pumpkin pudding. Have to get him started young on that addiction.”
The young Black man laughed. “What else is in your goodie bag?”
“Hmm.” Jessie dug out stacks of plastic dishes, spreading them out between them. “Looks like the whole kit-and-caboodle. Winter likes to set people up in style, you know. Want to help me eat some of it?” It was almost like a date… on the floor… with a baby brother squealing for his share. So yeah, almost. Almost sort of counted when you were seventeen, right?
Now if only Brian wasn’t too good for her.
“It would be a terrible, terrible crime to turn down a Mulcahy plate!” Brian said, playfully scandalized as he got Justin settled into his lap for his snack—the gateway drug into all things pumpkin spiced.
“Wouldn’t it?” While Justin happily nommed away, Jessie took a few slices of Winter’s homemade bread and added some turkey and cranberry sauce before passing it along, feeling deliciously domestic. Then, Jessie’s lips pulled into a thoughtful frown when Brian took the sandwich.
Her friend tilted his head, his long, pencil-thin dreads swinging. “What’s wrong?”
Just as quickly, that frown quirked into a smile. “Just thinking. Wondering how you’re doing now that you’re in the ‘in-crowd,’ so to speak… Do you want to talk about it?” It was at least putting it on the metaphorical table.
Brian adjusted Justin on his lap and set the sandwich on his knee, deliberating in his answer. “I can’t say I didn’t suspect something was going on with you at the Theatre, but…” Brian shrugged one shoulder, “it’s a lot to swallow. I won’t deny that it’s nice to know I’m going to do something worthwhile with my life, and make an impact for the better. There’s more certainty in that than I can say I’ve had before.”
The dark-skinned teen just shrugged, again. “Growing up out there,” he made a vague gesture to the streets with one hand, and gave his little brother another spoonful of pudding with the other, “sometimes you have to wonder.” Another sheepish smile immediately followed. “That’s not to discount what Norah’s done for me—and that’s been a lot. Being a Hero, though… that pays things forward in the best way, if you can believe in Destiny.”
“I do believe in Destiny.” Someday, that Destiny would take Brian from her, but she was determined to get the most of every day she had with him. Jessie found a smile for him and playfully nudged his knee with her sneaker. “But, you don’t have to be a Hero with emphasis on the capital H to be the everyday hero variety. Winter and I are ‘come as you are’ people. You know that. And Norah knows it without the rest of the picture,” she said, and scooted over to eat her lunch with him just in time to catch a flash of flush across his terracotta cheeks. Maybe…? Naw. “Now, after we go Jaws on this bountiful feast, what can I help you with here? Not really in the mood to go home yet.” She was never in the mood to go home, but that was another story.
He laughed, grateful for the excuse to move on. “If you need an excuse to be busy, you can help me with this display.”