James Arthur Flannigan, born on the coldest day of the year a mere six years ago, had determined that the worst thing that could happen in a person’s life was marriage.
This wasn’t a belief randomly sprung from the ether. No, he’d seen it happen.
Or more accurately, he’d heard from his friend Travis what happened when adults married.
“They move away,” Travis had whispered like he were imparting CIA secrets one afternoon on the Fair Haven Elementary playground.
Romping on what was termed The Boat, the two boys had been playing at steering the boat through the school’s grassy lawn. The Boat was, in fact, an old motorboat that someone had donated to the school when it’d breathed its last, and it now served as playground equipment for dozens of children to clamber on, jump on, and pretend to sail the oceans blue.
“Why do they move away?” James stopped manning the steering wheel to listen.
Travis took over steering. “I don’t know, but after my sister got married, she moved all the way to Portland. Have you been to Portland?”
James shook his head.
“It’s far. It takes forever to get there. Every time we have to go there, my mom is mad that she had to pay so much for gas.”
James didn’t really care how much Travis’s mom hated paying for gas (she really hated it), but more so why Travis’s sister had decided to move so far away from her parents.
“Did she want to move?” James asked.
Travis shrugged. “Dunno. But she’s married now, so she goes with Jason.”
“Her husband, dummy. Who else? Anyway, I asked Kevin and he said this his brother moved to New York City after he got married.” Travis steered the boat, making various zoom zoom sounds. “Everybody moves away and then they never come back.”
James sat in silence, contemplating this revelation, for the duration of afternoon recess.
James had mostly forgotten about Travis’s pronouncement until months later. His mom, Sara, was dating Harrison, James’s doctor, and he was the greatest guy James had ever met. He was great because he didn’t mind helping James find bugs in the grass, whereas his real dad hated bug collecting. His mom and grandma were only a little bit better in this particular department than his real dad. Thus, Harrison ranked above all of them in his estimation.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, James woke up right as dawn peaked through his windows. After going to the bathroom (he made sure to put the seat down to avoid his grandma’s lecture later), he went to the kitchen to make himself a bowl of cereal. He really hated the heavy gallons of milk, though, but he was in luck this morning: there was just enough milk in this gallon to fill his bowl, but not be so heavy that he was afraid he’d drop the jug in his bowl and make a mess. He’d done that once, splattering the kitchen in a wide arc with milk and cereal, and he’d been banned from pouring his own milk for a month until his mom had given in and allowed him to do it again.
He munched on cereal loudly, reading the back of the cereal box and working on the maze puzzle printed there. It took him all of thirty seconds to figure it out, and he sat back, wondering why cereal box puzzles were always so boring.
“I thought I heard you get up,” Sara said as she entered the kitchen. She ruffled his hair as she started to make her own breakfast.
James noticed that his mom seemed…different this morning. She’d been different ever since she’d met Harrison, and James knew it was because Harrison gave her really nice presents all the time. He’d even given James presents, which made his mom happy, too. So he understood how that worked. But as she made scrambled eggs and toast for herself, smiling the entire time—even when she cracked an egg too hard and got the yolk and egg white on the counter—he wondered where this new version of Sara had come from.
She sat down across from him, still smiling. She looked sunburned, he noticed.
“Mom, did you get sunburned?”
She blinked, and then touched her face. “No, I don’t think so—“ For some weird reason, her sunburn only got redder.
James crunched on his cereal.
“I wanted to tell you something, actually,” she said, her voice breathy, like she’d been running around on the playground. She held out her left hand to show him her fingers.
He stopped eating, and he saw that she had a ring on her finger. It was pretty: big and sparkly. Did she want him to see her new ring? “It’s nice,” he hedged.
She laughed. “James, Harrison and I got engaged last night.” At his blank look, she smiled wider. “We’re getting married. We’re going to be a family, all three of us.”
At the word married, James’s spoon froze in his hand. His heart clamored in his chest. Why did his mom look so happy? She was going to move away! That was what people did when they got married. Travis had told him so!
He felt the hot press of tears, just like a big baby, and because he didn’t want his mom to see, he got up from his chair, dumped his remaining cereal in the sink, and promptly ran to his room, leaving a perplexed Sara in the kitchen.
She followed him to his room, which he should have expected. His mom knew things.
“Jamesy? Honey? Are you okay?” She pushed open his door to find him studiously playing with his plastic bug collection on the floor.
He swallowed against the tears that still threatened. Maybe they won’t move away and leave me. Maybe this time it’ll be different.
“Are you sad that I’m getting married?”
He glanced up to see his mom’s face, which looked sad. Disappointed. His stomach turned, and he wished he hadn’t eaten so much cereal. He shook his head because words weren’t working right now.
“Then why did you run out like that? James, look at me.”
He looked up.
“What was that about?”
“I just wanted to play with my bugs,” he blurted. He made the giant ant attack the giant grasshopper. “Sorry,” he added in a mumble.
Sara frowned, but she finally left him alone. He let out a sigh of relief, hoping his mom wouldn’t talk about this whole marriage thing ever again.
“Did you tell him?” Harrison asked that evening over dinner.
Sara let out a sigh. “I did, and he ran from the kitchen and refused to talk to me all day.” She picked at her baked potato. “I thought he’d be happy. He likes you.”
Harrison frowned. They’d decided to go to dinner to celebrate their engagement that night, but Sara didn’t feel like celebrating when her son seemed so unhappy.
“Did he say anything to you?” she asked.
Harrison’s frown deepened. “Like what? That he forbids me from proposing?” At her annoyed look, he reached over to take her hand. “I know you’re worried, but he’s a kid. Sometimes they react oddly. He’ll be over it and talking a mile a minute by tomorrow. You’ll see.”
She wasn’t convinced, but she let the subject drop. She’d find out one way or another what was bothering James. She refused to enter her second marriage with anyone upset or unhappy.
“You know what we should do to get your mind off of things?”
She couldn’t stop from smiling. “What do you have in mind? Cheesecake after dinner? A long walk by the lake?”
“If by cheesecake you mean eating you for dessert, yes.”
“Oh, well done. Your ability to create innuendo is unparalleled.”
He just growled and got his revenge when he took her back to his place, showing her exactly what he meant by having her for dessert.
Sara had tried to talk to James again, but he dodged every question. He saw how his mom looked at that ring on her finger. He saw how she stared off into space dreamily. And he definitely saw how she lit up when Harrison came by. She was just as happy when he came without flowers, which just showed James that everything was truly doomed.
His mom and Harrison would get married, and they’d move, and he’d have to stay here in Fair Haven with his grandma. Ruth was nice, but she wasn’t his mom. He and his mom had had only each other since James was a baby. And James knew that his mom didn’t have a lot of money, so she probably couldn’t pay for gas to come to see him very often.
That weekend, James had become so despondent that Sara wouldn’t stop asking him what was wrong.
“Did something happen at school?” she asked for the millionth time.
Sitting outside on the front lawn, James just sighed. Collapsing into the grass, he muttered, “No.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Right then, Harrison drove up in his shiny black car. James couldn’t stop the ferocious frown that crossed his face. When Harrison walked up to them and noticed the glare James was giving him, he raised a dark eyebrow.
“Hey James,” he said as he leaned down to kiss Sara. “How’s it going?”
He just ignored him and instead focused on a particularly long blade of grass.
“James, Harrison asked you a question. What do you say?” Sara said in that voice James hated.
Why is she acting like nothing is happening? Why are moms so stupid? He plucked the blade of grass and began to tear it into tiny pieces.
“James,” Sara said again. “Look at me, young man.”
He rolled over and glared up at her.
“What’s gotten into you?”
Getting up, he tried to go to the front door, but Harrison put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. Tilting his chin up, he gave Harrison the scariest look he could manage.
“Sara, why don’t James and I have a talk? Man to man,” Harrison said.
Sara let out a breath. “Okay, but if you guys need me…”
“We’ll be fine. Right, James?”
James crossed his arms, feeling those annoying tears at the back of his eyes.
Harrison led James to the sidewalk, where they walked slowly through the neighborhood. The sun shone brightly, and it would prove to be a warm day come the afternoon. James kicked at twigs lying on the sidewalk, refusing to talk to the man who would take his mom far away from him. He wasn’t going to be nice to Harrison anymore. He refused.
“You aren’t happy about me and your mom getting married, I take it,” Harrison finally said. “Want to tell me why?”
“I won’t get mad, I promise. Sometimes we need to talk about things so we can understand why we feel a certain way.”
He almost let the words tumble out, but he remembered when his real dad Kyle had spanked him when he’d said things he shouldn’t. He bit the inside of his cheek.
“I know it’ll be a big change,” Harrison said into the silence. “It’ll be a big change for me, too. You want to know a secret?”
James looked up, and he saw that Harrison didn’t seem angry. His initial anxiety melted somewhat. “What secret?”
“That when I asked your mom to marry me, I was terrified of what she’d say.”
“I don’t know. I think it wasn’t so much that I thought she’d say no, but that when she said yes, everything would change. Does that make sense?”
James shook his head, but part of him did understand, in a way. “If you’re scared, why do it at all?”
“Good question.” Harrison laughed ruefully. “Sometimes in life you have to do things that scare you, because afterward, what you end up getting is worth being afraid.”
“Like when I went on the Ferris wheel,” James supplied.
“Yeah, just like that.”
James kicked at a pebble in his path. He liked that Harrison didn’t try to tell him how he should feel, or try to keep talking so it was like he didn’t exist anymore. Adults often did that: they thought they could supply thoughts for you just because you were a kid.
“I don’t want Mom to move away,” James said quietly, staring at his feet. The tears returned; his lower lip trembled. “Does she have to move away?”
Harrison crouched down in front of him. “Why do you think your mom’s moving away?”
“Because she’s marrying you! That’s what happens when you get married! You move away, and you’re going to leave me behind with Grandma.” The dam broke, and the tears fell. He wiped at his face, but he wasn’t fast enough to keep Harrison from seeing his tears.
“James,” Harrison said in a kind voice, “nobody’s moving away. And they’re definitely not leaving you behind. No matter what happens between me and your mom, she’ll never leave you. Understand?”
James didn’t believe it. Travis had told him. He cried so hard that his nose ran, and he hated it, because he looked just like a big baby when he cried.
“Your mom isn’t leaving you,” Harrison said again. “I would never make her do that. If we move, you’ll come with us. I promise.”
“But Travis said!” He couldn’t get the rest of the words out.
Harrison sighed and pulled him into a hug. James resisted for a second, but Harrison was warm and strong, and he had a good shoulder to hide your face in. He rubbed his back until finally the tears slowed down.
“We’re not leaving you behind. I promise you that. Do you believe me?” Harrison gazed into James’s eyes. “I wouldn’t lie to you, buddy.”
Finally, the words began to permeate James’s brain. Had Travis been wrong? His mom wasn’t going to leave him behind?
Harrison laughed a little. “Positive. But let’s go ask your mom to be sure.” He pulled him into another tight hug before they began to walk back to the house.
When they arrived home, Sara was waiting on the front porch. Seeing James’s tear-streaked face, she let out an exclamation. “What happened?”
“Mom, you’re not going to leave me when you get married, right? Harrison said you weren’t,” James said, trying to be brave as he stood in front of his mom.
“What in the world? No, of course we aren’t! Where did you get that idea?” When James let out a sob of relief, she hugged him tight, his face buried in her stomach. She looked up at Harrison, confused and dismayed.
“I think somebody needs to talk to Travis,” he said wryly.
After Sara had gotten James quieted down and reassured him that no one was moving anywhere without him, she felt so guilty that they all took a trip down to the Rise and Shine for the biggest piece of pie in the case.
To Sara’s immense gratitude, the pie was all that James needed to return to his normal, energetic self. Thank God for baked goods, she thought inwardly.
“James, go sit down and eat your pie. Harrison and I will be right there,” she said. She shrugged when Megan gave her a questioning look. “Don’t ask.”
“Eh, I’ll just get it out of you later. Hey, James, I want a bite!” She left the counter to sit next to her nephew, who promptly hogged the pie all to himself despite Megan’s best efforts.
“Thanks for talking to him,” Sara said quietly as she watched the pair. She leaned against Harrison, who put his arms around her. “I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out what was wrong.”
“Sometimes guys just need to talk to each other.”
“He’s only six!”
“He’s still a boy. I remember what I was like at that age.”
She bit back a smile. She could just imagine Harrison as a mischievous little boy like James. “You know what this means, right?”
He held her closer. “What?”
“You definitely can’t keep James from bringing some bugs to the wedding now.”
“Oh God, you’re right,” he said with a groan. “There will be grasshoppers getting stuck in people’s hair during the ceremony and everything.”
“Mmhmm, and it’ll be amazing anyway.”
“It’ll be amazing because I’m marrying you.”
She smiled as she turned in his arms to face him. “Keep that up and you’ll definitely get a reward later.”
“Good. Because I should get something for not taking you away to the farthest corners of the earth just to have you all to myself.”
She burst out laughing, which just made him kiss her right there in the bakery, despite both Megan and James’s outraged protests.