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“Okay—text me when you’re ready to be picked up.”
And just like that, plain old chaos becomes organized chaos.
This is my life now. And it’s pretty fucking great.
I crouch down and pull out the weeds around the white marble, then brush away the grass clippings clinging to the etched name.
“Hey, Judge!” Ronan’s baby-sweet voice chirps. He places a pot of forget-me-nots at the base of the headstone proudly. “We got these for you. They’re like the color the sky gets sometimes.”
His round eyes look up at me. “Can I go look at the statues?”
I nod, smiling. “Stay where I can see you. And don’t run on the graves—it’s disrespectful.”
“Got it!” He scampers away, toward the large old crypt in the center of the cemetery.
The Judge passed away six months ago, but it feels like he’s been gone a lot longer. His last year was rough. Advanced Alzheimer’s is a bitch. He stopped speaking, eating, walking. It was almost . . . a relief when he went. Because the real Atticus Faulkner—the man who saved me from prison and from myself—would’ve never wanted to live the way he was living then.
I used to visit him in the nursing home every week. These days I stop by once a month, to let him know I’m still thinking of him, still grateful for all the things he taught me. And . . . because I just miss him.
“Hey, old man. What’s new?”
No, I don’t actually expect an answer. Chelsea’s Catholic, and so are the kids, but I’m . . . nothing. Our wedding was held at sunset, in the garden outside our reception venue. I would’ve converted—for her—but Chelsea didn’t want to wait as long as we would’ve had to, to do the deed in a church. I don’t know if I even believe in God . . . but the Judge?
I believed in him.
“The scholarship has been running for the last month. We’re already getting submissions. Lots of smart kids who’ve done some stupid shit in their lives.”
The Judge didn’t have any family, so he left his entire estate to me, with a note: You’ll know what to do with it. I didn’t, at first, and I cursed the son of a bitch for not being more specific. I imagine he got a good laugh over that—he never liked making things too easy for me. But then I got it: The Atticus Faulkner Scholarship. It’s open to high school students with difficult backgrounds who can show they’re smart and willing to work hard. The scholarship will pay for their education.
“Lots of kids who remind me of me—you’d get a kick out of them.”
I hang out at the cemetery a little longer talking to the Judge and watching Ronan running around in circles, like our dog, Cousin It, chasing his tail. Before we head out, I tap the top of the headstone. “See you soon, Judge.”
Later that afternoon, I’m in the den watching the baseball game. Except for Riley and Raymond, the kids are scattered throughout the house, but it’s quiet, which is a rare commodity around here. Chelsea comes in and hands me an iced tea.
She sits beside me on the couch, facing me, her legs tucked, her pretty feet curled under her. Yes—Chelsea has pretty fucking feet, okay? I never knew feet could be pretty—until I saw hers.
“So . . . that talk I mentioned before? We should probably have that now, while we can.”
I take a sip of my drink and nod. “Yeah—I wasn’t at all hoping you’d forget about it or anything.”
Her face slides into a grin. “Funny.”
I look back at her, straight-faced. “I’m a funny guy.”
When she doesn’t say anything for a few moments, I ask, “What’s up?”
Because now I’m actually getting concerned. My stomach tightens as I brace for whatever’s worrying her—and before I even know what I’m up against, in my head I’m already planning all the ways I’ll take care of it. Because that’s what I do—and I’m good at it.
But what she tells me next blows my fucking mind.
Two words—ten thousand thoughts exploding in my head at once.
I’m a big guy, six-five, 225 pounds of muscle. Guys like me, our voices don’t squeak. But at this moment, mine comes damn close.
“Like . . . for an appointment?”
Chelsea’s beautiful face is tense and her crystal-blue eyes are iced over with worry. She takes the biggest breath and says, “No.”
I’m guessing couples usually talk about having kids before they get married—but Chelsea and I didn’t. Mostly because our plate was already fucking full.
“How . . .” I begin, then stop myself. Obviously I know how. “I mean, you’re still wearing the patch?”
Chelsea nods. “Yes. But it’s not one hundred percent effective and remember a few weeks ago it kept peeling off?”
I’m lucky I remember my own name right now.
My thoughts are still scrambled. Images of a tiny newborn mixed in with the six faces we already have. Ronan was only a few months old when Chelsea and I first met, so I know what’s coming. Midnight feedings, teething, crying for no reason at all. And the diapers—fuck—so many diapers. For years.