The one thing that pained him about Sadie was how expressive she was. Even without saying a word, Charles knew when his ten-year-old wasn’t enjoying the meal prep. It came across in the way she kept her head ducked and inspected her task with care before she actually started it.
“Why so glum?” he asked and she looked up from where she’d been carefully crimping a pie as instructed.
He laughed. “It means you’re unhappy. Something bothering you Sadie-bug?”
She considered it while she turned the pie one last time. “We’re making a lot of food,” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
“But it’s just you and me,” she said and looked at him. There was trouble in her earth-toned gaze. “Not even Uncle Marshall this year.”
It surprised him. She was a social butterfly, as evidenced by the fact that at ten, her list of phone numbers was more than double his and her weekends were rarely ‘free’.
“Well, it’s a holiday for family.”
“Uncle Marshall is family,” Sadie said.
“Yes, but he has other family.” He had to be careful about that. She was by no means an unintelligent child and if she started asking how closely related they were to her ‘uncle’ she was going to uncover a whole other set of problems.
“Family we don’t have?”
Time to head off that conversation. “Honey, what’s going on with you? Why are you so concerned with it?”
She shrugged a little as he came to sit in the chair next to her. “It’s just, this is supposed to be for families, right? So…where’s the rest of my family? I don’t have grandparents or…or aunts or anything. Just you and Uncle Marshall.”
Expressive as her body language could be, getting actual information out of her verbally sometimes felt like panning for gold. It was all in the tiny things.
“What’s that ‘or anything’ you’re so concerned with?” Charles questioned. Sadie didn’t look at him. She’d finished crimping the pie, and the fork she’d been using showed him only a warped reflection when she turned away. “I can’t fix a problem if you don’t tell me about it.”
Another moment of silence. “Where’s my mom?”
That was a blow and Charles had to inhale a little. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask, even while he knew eventually Sadie would. Explaining what had happened with her mother was an involved tale.
Even for a ten-year-old that could and did pick up on things she shouldn’t have.
Especially for a ten-year-old that had told him before which kids in her class weren’t getting enough lunch and which ones were being hurt at home.
He must have taken too long to respond because she sighed. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“Hold on, a minute,” he said. “You surprised me, that’s all. Come on, turn and face me.”
Sadie obliged but he could tell by her face she wasn’t happy about something.
“You’re smart enough and old enough to know that sometimes moms and dads don’t stay together,” he said. “And sometimes when that sort of thing happens, there’s a lot of nastiness involved.”
“They get divorced,” Sadie replied, almost matter-of-fact. There was an underlying question in her tone that indicated she wasn’t sure where this was going.
“That’s only when they get married,” Charles said. “I…I never married your mom. I asked her a couple of times, and we were going to, but we ended up not.”
“Then where is she now?”
“Well,” Charles said and had to pause before he exhaled slowly. This was the one thing he hadn’t ever wanted to tell Sadie. “The truth of it is honey, your mom fell in love with someone else, and she decided he was a little more important to her than you were,” Charles said.
He could tell she was processing it, but the look of shock on her face broke his heart. “She didn’t want me?”
“She…no. She decided she didn’t.”
Sadie was silent for a long moment. “I’m going go play in my room,” she said.
His heart squeezed, painted as she wandered towards her room and closed the door softly. He couldn’t do anything to alleviate the pain of knowing that at least one parent had abandoned her.
Reminded of the whole mess, Charles sighed and looked over the dishes still in the middle of prepping. He knew there were others in the fridge, waiting for tomorrow when they would start cooking. These were the ones he wanted prepped ahead of time—the cheesecake, and the pies, mostly, but also Sadie’s favorite cheesy potatoes.
He took time putting everything up. The pies were stacked on wire racks, repurposed from their usual cookie-cooling days so he could more on the shelf. The casserole sat on the shelf below that, covered in tinfoil already. The turkey and the ham were similarly ready, though both still packaged up and waiting to be prepped for tomorrow.
There was plenty of other items—fruits and veggies to be displayed as snacking foods, potatoes for more mashed. Eggs, cooling from this morning and waiting to be deviled or mashed into egg salad.
In fact, the only thing they seemed to be missing for tomorrow’s feast, was ice cream to top the pie.
Ice cream, he decided, and maybe something to cheer up Sadie. It wasn’t much, but maybe she’d perk up once she was able to look over the holiday decorations.
“Sadie?” He knocked on her door softly and it took her a moment to open it. He could tell she was still upset and smiled. “We forgot something when we did the shopping.”
“Can’t have apple pie without vanilla ice cream on top, now can we?”
It was such a tiny smile. “I need to get my shoes.”
The drive was a short one, and with a holiday station turned on, Charles was glad to see a little more cheer as it spread over Sadie.
Finding the ice cream wasn’t hard to do, and Sadie ranged down the aisle a little while Charles lingered near the ice cream bars. He knew they really did have enough food at home for the rest of the week, but an ice cream sandwich sounded like a perfect reward for all the work they’d put in to prepping today.
From the corner of one eye, he saw Sadie as she opened a freezer door to reach up for the ice cream. It must have been farther back on the shelf and he saw her step back, the door slapping shut in defeat.
Time to go rescue her from a too-high shelf, he decided.
Someone else had seen her plight though. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but grinned as he opened the door and fetched it down. “That the one you need?”
“Yes. Thank you!”
“Alec, I already told you no.”
He knew that voice and turned, startled to see someone he was certain wouldn’t have been in town: Marshall’s sister.
“Hi, Lila,” he said.
Lila blinked and looked at him before she laughed. “Hi! I didn’t even recognize you for a minute. I see I’m not the only one leaving the holiday shopping to the last minute.”
He laughed as Sadie came over, her prize in hand. “Yes and no. We got most of it done the last couple of days, but needed just a couple odds and ends.”
“Who’s this?” Sadie asked and Lila laughed.
“I’m Lila. I helped Charles with the landscaping for the restaurant.”
“You’re the one who put in the gardenias! Hi! I’m Sadie.”
Charles laughed as the boy sauntered over to half-glare at Charles. “This is my girl.”
Lila beamed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sadie. This is Alec.”
The boy responded with a faint nod. “’Sup?” It earned him a faint sigh from Lila and Charles laughed.
“Thank you for helping Sadie, Alec,” he said.
“No problem.” He said and half-smiled at Sadie. “She almost had it. Just needs another inch or so.”
She beamed and looked at Charles. “How long is going to take for me to grow an inch?”
“With my luck? You’ll grow an inch the week after we get you a new jacket for winter,” he said.
Lila laughed. “That’s how it always works,” she said. “We’ve got just a few things left to get, so we’ll get out of your hair.”
He noted the shopping list in the front of the cart, how short it was. A tight budget, perhaps? Or just a very small celebration. His gaze traveled to her hands, noting the lack of a wedding band.
“You know,” he said and glanced at Sadie. “Sadie and I are doing the holiday with just the two of us. You guys are welcome to join us.”
“Please do,” Sadie said. “Daddy made four pies and both turkey and ham.”
Lila laughed and glanced at Alec, who shrugged. “I like pie,” he said noncommittally.
“Then…I think we’d love to,” Lila said. “If you’re certain. It’s just Alec and I this year as well, but we don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not imposing. You’re invited,” Charles promised and glanced at Sadie. “Besides. Sadie’s right. I may have gone a little overboard on cooking.”
Lila laughed. “We can probably help with that.”
Maybe it wasn’t her mom, but Charles smiled as Sadie grinned, immediately launching into a detailed accounting of everything they already had and asking how Alec liked his turkey—what kind of gravy did he prefer? Did Lila like apple pie or cherry?
No, he couldn’t replace her mother. But maybe, just maybe, he could prove to Sadie that there were more people who wanted her around than the one who’d abandoned them both.