It's a proverb wherever there's corn grown by folks who pin their livelihood on the outcome of the growing season, borrowed by others who raise a bushel to shuck before August can steal a cob's sweetness. "Knee-high by the Fourth of July," – so says everyone – and John feels a certain satisfaction that the sweetcorn in his own patch of dirt brushes his shoulders when he walks the rows; that the fields around the farm are a vibrant green with tall stalks reaching for the sun. July's come gently, the nights cooler than he's used to, the thermometer tacked to the east wall of the barn barely touching 80 on the days that he stops to take a look. There's been rain – walls of it, enough to make him glad of the sump pump he set into the basement – and lightning to burn the sky violet more evenings than most. But he can't help but find the beauty in all of it, no matter that his strawberries have rotted in their straw-filled bed. Standing with his boots pressing into soft, clean earth, he feels as if he's breathing in time with something larger and older than himself – the plants, the wind, the scudding clouds.
It's the Wednesday after the fourth, and John almost has the musical stylings of Lee Greenwood worked out of his head, and Finn's store of candy thrown from the floats in the local parade is dwindling rapidly. Martha's resting in Jim Brenneman's barn, tired – John insists, as if she's flesh and blood – from the two dozen paying customers who celebrated independence in her care, and Rodney's almost calm after his annual festival of obstinate Canadianness in the face of America's celebration. There are five solid weeks before Finn goes to pre-school, and two houses waiting for John to paint, and between times there's the continuing need to re-master the art of sleep deprivation, helped along by Merrie's healthy lungs.
It's almost beyond the reaches of John's comprehension, the way his capacity to love has grown by exactly one-Merrie-worth, the way his life has expanded by the precise depth and breadth of his daughter's needs. That love isn't finite is an understanding he was edging toward in his own fashion long before Merrie was conceived, but there's nothing like cradling the vomit-stained, pee-soaked proof of it in his arms to make him wonder at the stunning facility of the human heart.
There's no picket fence around his yard, and his dog farts so hard at times he wakes himself up, and there's always laundry that needs doing, and his son's filthy a good 80% of the time. His daughter's been constipated for three days, going on four, and on an average morning there are legos underfoot, and it's six, nearly seven days since John had sex. The trash needs burning, and the truck needs an oil change, and if Rodney forgets the toilet paper they're in a fix. It's perfect, is what John would say if he could, for all that it doesn't measure up to the pages of some magazine at the doctor's office (not that he read one while he waited for Merrie to get her shots).
There comes the sound of a car working up the rise, and then Rodney turns into the driveway, kills the engine, gets out of the car. "I bought prune juice!" he yells, and John grins helplessly in response. Perfect, he thinks, for values of perfection that include Canadians and prune juice and corn.
When Merrie finally poops, it's a blow-out.
"It's your turn to change her," says Rodney with something not unlike glee.
"And hose her off," John says ruefully, holding his daughter at arms length while she wails with misery. He maneuvers from the living room to the kitchen, asks Rodney to at least turn on the faucet, and sets his daughter down on the floor to pull off her diaper and her shirt and toss both in the trash.
Rodney sets the infant bath in the sink, looks from it to John and back to the sink. "She's just going to be sitting in her own . . ."
"So, what, we actually run the garden hose over her?"
"No, no, just – I'll wipe up what I can before she gets in, I suppose," Rodney offers, wrinkling his nose, fishing in one of the several packets of baby wipes liberally distributed around the house. "God, oh god, how can one child even produce this much – "
John nods and pulls a face in agreement, tries to think of something he can say to his unhappy daughter, but figures if the tables were turned he'd want to punch someone for their platitudes. "Are we good?"
Rodney drops a handful of wipes in the trash and pulls another one to wipe his own hands. "Dunk her," he says.
John gently sets Merrie in the warm water, dunks a washcloth and begins the act of cleaning her up. "Okay, see? We're not completely hopeless," he tells his kid.
Merrie sniffs and stares at him, bottom lip protruding in deeply unhappy protest, but she gives up her wailing, submits to being wiped off and a second dunking in fresh water, and by the time John hands her to Rodney, who wraps her in a towel, she's sweet-smelling and sleepy, blinking at them as if she can't quite believe she's been gifted with hapless parents such as these.
"Much better," Rodney says, sitting down with her in his lap, drying her arms, her legs.
John swipes at the floor with paper towels, then baby wipes, and vows to come back with bleach once his daughter's safely swaddled again. "Clean diapers?" he asks.
"Bag by the door," Rodney replies, toweling the dark tufts of Merrie's hair.
John finds what he needs and picks Merrie up, sets her square on top of the Quad City Times and nimbly diapers her without smudging the story on flood insurance he was reading over breakfast. "There," he says, transferring her to his shoulder. "Now you need some clothes and – "
Merrie toots and looks well-pleased with herself.
"All that said," John offers, "you're not staying naked."
"Like sister, like brother," Rodney sighs.
John takes Merrie to her room, fishes around for a onesie, finds one that says "Quark Quark" on it, complete with an embroidered duck wearing glasses and reading a physics textbook. From outside comes the clatter of feet up the porch steps, the screech of Finn pulling open the screen door, then, "I found FROGS. Four of them!"
"Are they dead?" Rodney asks, with the tone of a man who has had similar conversations before.
"No!" Finn protests. "They're right here."
And from the yelp that follows, John can only presume Finn is emptying his pockets of frogs right into Rodney's lap.
"Dad?" Finn asks later, Merrie asleep, frogs duly ushered outside, sandwiches made, everyone who eats solid food gathered around the kitchen table. "What's space?"
Rodney splutters a little, face creasing in a look of bewilderment. "What do you mean, what's space?"
"What is it?" asks Finn. "There's stars in it and the sun and the moon and spaceships sometimes and Superman and Iron Man can fly up in it, I saw, but what is it?"
Rodney blinks – no doubt, John thinks, wondering how the hell to explain chemical processes and dark matter to his four-and-a-half-year-old son.
"Is it water?"
"No, no, not – well, yes, there's water in the earth's atmosphere, though I'm not sure if that's what you mean by space, and there's water on other planets, like Mars, and there are traces of water on other . . ."
"Ocean!" says Finn, arms raised, a sandwich dangling from his fingers. "Ocean in the sky!"
"No," says Rodney, looking pained. "No, no, not like the ocean, although, I'll grant you, certain elements are found in each place, but . . . "
"Spaceships," says Finn, grinning and nodding as if he's just unlocked the secret of life. "Boats in space."
Rodney makes a noise that John can only describe as a bleat. "No, not boats in space," he says, harried. "Space is made up of hydrogen and helium, but mostly dark matter, which is the substance of the universe, roughly eight-four percent of it, actually."
"What's dark matter?" Finn asks solemnly.
"Oh, dear god," Rodney mutters, looking at his sandwich as if it can save him.
"We don't know," says John cheerfully.
"We don't know," John says again. "It's a mystery, mostly."
"Like Scooby Doo?" asks Finn.
"Exactly like Scooby Doo," John says. "If Velma and Shaggy had time, I'm sure they'd figure out what dark matter was. But they're, you know, catching the bad guys."
"Which is important," Finn says, nodding. He turns his attention back to Rodney. "Do you try to find out the mysteries too, Daddy?"
Rodney pauses for a second, then nods. "I do. Sort of. Sometimes."
"Like Scooby Doo?"
Rodney swallows. "Yes. Exactly like Scooby Doo." He throws John an affronted look.
"Awesome," says Finn, and chomps down on his sandwich, clearly satisfied.
Rodney looks at Finn, and at John, then sighs deeply. "It's a wonder a man holds onto his senses around here," he mumbles, and eats his sandwich, too. He carries a vague air of injury around with him for the rest of the evening, through dishes and bedtime stories and the daily, futile attempt to wrangle the detritus of two kids into the toy chest and four wicker baskets.
"You realize that's about as high a compliment as he can make, right?" asks John as they're getting ready for bed that night.
At that Rodney brightens. "Scooby Doo is his favorite."
"It is." John climbs into bed, arranges his pillows to his liking. "You're at the apex of four-year-old cool."
Rodney gets into bed beside him. "I am so cool," he says cheerfully.
John rumbles a laugh and leans over to cup Rodney's face with one hand, to press a kiss to his temple. "The coolest," he agrees, and rolls in close, lets his hand rest on Rodney's chest to feel the steady beat of his heart.
"My dad solves mys'ries just like Scooby Doo!" says Finn as John drops him at Laura's the next morning.
"Just like Scooby Doo," Laura says in agreement. She throws an amused glance at John. "Do I want to know?"
John shakes his head. "Just steer clear of the subject when Rodney comes to pick 'em up tonight."
"Will do," she nods, and ushers Finn inside with a hand to his shoulder. "Go on, inside, get your books."
John follows Laura. Merrie's car seat settled in the crook of his arm. "I threw the prune juice in her bag, in case you need it again. Brought you more diapers."
"Ah, my glamorous life," Laura says, grinning at him. "Hey, did you hear about Mike? Selling his farm and heading to North Dakota, figures he can make more money working the oil fields than by staying here."
John grimaces, thinking about the juggling act almost everyone around him has to perform, balancing seed costs and fertilizer against yield and the vagaries of a summer's sun. "His mom and dad had that farm."
"His great-grandfather had that farm," Laura says, taking the car seat from John and bending to unsnap Merrie. "It's harder and harder to hold things together around here."
"But you're okay, right?" says John, suddenly, selfishly worried. The act of finding daycare again might finish him off.
"We're not tied to the land," Laura says simply, transferring Merrie to her shoulder and cooing gently.
Tied to the land, John thinks as he turns out of Laura's driveway in their new, sensible 4x4. By all reasonable markers, he and Rodney aren't tied to it either, protected as they are by other income, by savings accounts, by god only knows what retirement plan Rodney finagled (John admits he lost interest right around "interest-bearing accounts.") But John feels it in his bones, feels tied here by family and community and the life he's carved out with Rodney, borne up by rich dirt and bitter winters, by prairie grass and fence lines and the hear-and-there call of Colorado, reminding him of where he belongs. Tied to the land, he thinks, and remembers what it was to find his belonging in the sky, in escaping the confines of sand and rock, snow and ice, lifting into the air where he felt he could breathe. It's a wonder, the transformation their few acres have worked on him, nothing short of a gift if he's honest. Here he can cast himself into the sky on the wings of his grandfather's memory, and he can stand and feel rooted in the here and now. No place has ever given him both before.
He calls Rodney. "Hey."
"Just saying hi."
Rodney humphs, pleased, at the other end of the line. "Thank heavens for the gods of cellular traffic that they improved service along the back roads of scuttlebutt so that you could say hi," he says.
John doesn't miss the affection in his voice. "Yeah," he agrees, thinking back to Rodney's use of his landline the day they first met. If there'd been good cell phone coverage then, they'd never be where they are now. He shivers. "Want to have lunch?"
"I thought you were painting at Meg Barnable's today."
"Yeah, well, I can do that this afternoon," John says. "Spend my morning at the hardware store, come see you, scrape the paint off her shingles . . . "
"Sounds like a terrible euphemism."
". . . later."
"Lunch, then." Rodney sounds puffed up and pleased. "Indian?"
And when John hangs up he feels so suddenly happy that all he can do is slide in a CD of Johnny Cash and sing along, off-key, all the way into town.
When the storm begins that night they barely even notice it, lost as they are in the post-5pm shuffle of children and arguments and meals and toys. It rumbles in from the west, showy with lightning long before they can hear thunder, but there's mac'n'cheese on the stove and the properties of sky-to-earth electricity to explain to Finn, and Merrie to talk to encouragingly as she kicks at the toys at the foot of her vibrating baby seat. It's mid-summer, exactly the season for towering storms, so they sit and they eat and when the sky darkens ominously they flip on the lights, and Rodney tells a joke he learned in the labs that day, and Finn laughs uproariously, and Rodney grins. Rodney's cell beeps a text message a nanosecond before John's, but there's a rule of no phones at the dinner table, so neither pauses to check. Mere moments after that, the tornado sirens begin to howl.
There's nothing, John thinks, like the frisson of fear that jolts your heart at the sound of a siren. He's up from his stool in an instant, looks out the window, sees the sky isn't just dark but a sinister green, then he's yelling for everyone to get in the basement, shouting for the dog, bundling up Merrie in her blanket as Rodney grabs a flashlight from the top of the fridge and heads downstairs, Finn's hand in his. John pulls the door closed behind them, clatters downstairs and wishes they'd thought to do something to make the basement hospitable, but here it is, just stone and the boiler, ductwork and a chest freezer full of bargain frozen chuck, and they gather together in the middle of everything, as far away from the windows as they can get. Burp presses up against Rodney's leg.
"What's happening?" asks Finn in a wobbly voice, and Rodney stoops to scoop him up, settles him in his hip as if he's a much smaller child.
"Nothing, just being safe," he says, and smacks a kiss to Finn's blond hair.
The storm is impressive – lightning and thunder mere moments apart, wind tearing at their house, which creaks and groans under the onslaught. John sways with Merrie held against his shoulder, argues with himself about the chances of a tornado forming, much less a direct hit; tries not to see in his mind's eye the destruction he's seen on television when the wind turned its power on other places, did other damage. He stands facing Rodney, so close he's squishing Finn a little between them. No one says a word.
When it comes, the noise is awful, the sound of a freight train rumbling closer, and John closes his eyes, feels his heart sink to his boots. The sound is relentless, and Rodney grabs his elbow, flashlight digging into the soft flesh of John's upper arm, but John doesn't blame him – his own heart is banging inside his chest with unadulterated fear. He hears something bang against the house, a shriek of metal; his ears start to pop and Finn covers his own and starts to cry. "I don't like it," Finn says as the house shivers above them.
"Me either," says Rodney, and his voice is soft despite the noise.
The roar of the storm is like the echo of the whole world vibrating in pain, every rock, every tree, their home, the barn. Rain lashes at the windows – soundless beneath the larger noise of the wind that's tearing and clawing above them – and John itemizes every crash and thud, every scream of timber and nail, wonders when their home will be ripped from above them, or come crashing in. He bends his body around Finn and Merrie both, shivers in the sudden, storm-fueled cold.
Then it's gone – a freight train headed in another direction, growing softer as it moves away, and John lets out an unsteady breath, presses his forehead to Rodney's, says, "take her, let me go look."
The basement door opens to a kitchen untouched, littered with the everyday mess of their lives – dinner abandoned, mail on the counter, stray cheerios on the floor, Merrie's chair still buzzing contentedly by the sink. John pauses there, listens for the quality of the air to have changed to betray some damage he can't yet see, but there's nothing, and Burp nudges the back of his knees, licks at his jeans. He walks into the living room, makes a circle through Rodney's office and back again. Everything's as sound and certain as if nothing had happened at all.
"First floor looks good," he yells. "Stay down there until I can look upstairs."
The stairs are solid, the bedrooms too. There's nothing leaking, nothing shattered, and god knows what state the roof is in, but it's done it's job for now, kept out the wind and rain, made sure they're safe. John jogs down the stairs again, yells, "We're good, you can – " And then he sees it, through the kitchen door.
Half of his grandfather's barn is gone.
John pushes open the screen door, steps out onto the porch, barely notices that one of the pots of geraniums Ada had taught Finn how to plant is shattered into pieces, the other one standing completely untouched. He's drawn, instead, to the stunning destruction across the yard, the listing remnants of a building he loved, roof entirely gone, swept off to litter someone else's fields, siding ripped aside, his tools scattered in the grass. The tractor's still there, standing patiently amid the ruin of its shelter, and there's hay strewn up the hillside and across the road. John looks, and can see the hollow in the corn where the tornado ripped through Mike Hutchinson's last crop.
"Oh, god," says Rodney behind him, and then Finn's slamming into John's leg, holding on tight, hiccoughing his tears.
"Hey," says John, surprised to find his own voice. "Hey, it's okay." And he stoops to pick up Finn as Rodney had before, sets him on his hip and says, "we'll build a new one."
"Don't want a new one," says Finn. "Want the old one."
And John feels his heart break a little in utter agreement, feels his own eyes sting at the devastation brought to his farm.
They lose themselves for a time in soothing the kids, getting everyone in PJs and to bed, making sure that routines aren't broken. There's no electricity, and their cell phones don't work, but Finn falls asleep with Elephant clutched trustingly to his chest, and once Merrie's down too, John feels like he has the capacity to size up what needs fixing, inside and out.
He walks the farm, checking for other damage, but everything's remarkably unscathed. Some of his corn's been broken by the wind, but the rest of his garden looks good, and the fence line is clean. The chickens are safe in their coop, the house is dinged from whatever debris the storm kicked up against it, and the roof needs new shingles on two sides, but it's all so doable – no structural damage, no broken windows, no sagging porch.
Which makes the ruin of the barn that much harder to contemplate. John's glad – deep-down glad – that the tornado took the barn instead of the house; knows that had the wind run another 40ft north, they'd be talking about different damage, maybe injury (or worse) to someone he loves. But he feels love of a different kind for that grand old barn, for the weathered red of her siding and the sloping grace of her roof. There's a gash on the landscape with her mostly gone, and John feels it like a physical mark on his skin.
The screen door squeaks and Rodney steps out onto the porch, leaves the baby monitor hissing its watchfulness at the top of the porch steps. He walks over to where John's lost in contemplation, slips his arms around him from behind and hugs him tightly. "I'm sorry," he says.
"It's just a barn," John offers, throat strangely tight.
"It's more than that," Rodney chides softly, and John sags back against him, allowing him to take his weight.
They stand for a good long while just looking at the damage, breathing in tandem, the whole world limned in dying sunlight, a strange, shifting, beautiful thing in the wake of such devastation. Then a car comes up the lane, then a truck, and Brad has his head out of his window before he brings the car to a halt, and Ada parks without due deference to any traffic laws known to man, gets out and strides across the yard.
She whistles low. "That is a crying shame," she says, coming over to lay a hand on John's arm.
"You okay?" he asks. "No damage?"
"It all went north," she says, smiling at him sadly. "I hear Mike's fields are ripped clean in two, but it petered out the other side of his property, skipped over to the wooded line between his land and the Dickensons', then rolled back up altogether."
"How do you even know these things?" Rodney asks.
Ada touches the side of her nose. "Magic," she says, deadpan.
Brad joins them, shaking his head, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. "Heard about Mike," he says by way of his own explanation. "Figured the line must've cut through here first."
John squeezes Rodney's hand once, steps out of the circle of his arms, shakes Brad's hand, says, "Thanks for coming," to them both. "I got nothing to offer you," he says. "Electric's out. No well water for the time being."
Ada snorts. "I brought coffee in a flask, and drinking water."
"And I brought beer," Brad adds, predictably.
John smiles at them, the expression feeling crooked on his face, says, "Come in, then." And he rests his hand at the nape of Rodney's neck as they walk back across the yard.
The kids are barely up – Merrie's still squawking her morning request for formula – when the first of the trucks shows up next morning. John throws on a t-shirt, tugs on a pair of jeans, steps outside in bare feet with his hair as askew as it's ever been, sees Brad and Todd get out of their vehicles. "It's the ass-crack of dawn," he says as they amble over.
"Clean up's gonna take time," Todd says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the barn. "Figured we'd get an early start."
"You guys don't have to – "
Brad snorts unattractively. "Shut up, Sheppard. Your kid needs feeding." And John turns and sees Finn plastered against the screen door with a look on his face that would make the average human being suspect he was being starved.
"Toast, Baffa," he says. "Juice." Like his father, Finn's not the greatest communicator when he's just tumbled out of bed. Before John can say anything, another truck rumbles up the lane, then a ratty old sedan that John knows belongs to Bill Chadwick, then Ronon's truck at its rear.
"Seriously," says Brad. "We got this."
John nods once, steps back inside and looks at his son. "Toast," he says.
"Juice," Finn agrees, climbing onto a stool.
"What on earth is the commotion in our yard?" asks Rodney, hurrying into the room with Merrie in his arms. He peers out the screen door. "Did you do this?"
"Nope," says John, reaching for the grape juice in the pantry. "They just showed up."
"This early. Brad says they have a lot to do."
Rodney's expression softens as he sees half a dozen guys headed toward the debris in the pasture. "Well," he says at last. "I . . . that's . . . they're very neighborly, aren't they?"
Something about the lilt of the phrase catches John's funny bone, and he laughs softly as he fills Finn's cup. "I guess so."
"I guess so," Rodney echoes, followed swiftly by, "I should really put on pants."
"Like father, like son," John says, airily.
"Har har," Rodney says, and bustles back out of the room.
People keep arriving, and when the yard won't hold another vehicle, people start parking on the verge by the road. One by one, the truck beds are filled with splintered boards and industrial trash bags; one by one they're driven off to the dump. John makes seemingly limitless pots of coffee, lets Jerry down into the basement to look at the electrical, accepts a donut from Jenny Webster, who drops them off in the kitchen before she heads out to the barn same as anyone else. Rodney takes the kids to daycare – normalcy as far as they can stretch it, he says to John as he kisses him goodbye – and comes back bearing egg and bacon sandwiches for everyone, for which Brad throws up a spontaneous cheer. Ada comes by bringing pies; the Brennemans stop in bringing comfort and soda; each person who comes in from town brings an updated estimate of how soon the cell towers will be working again, how swiftly the landlines will be back in repair. John moves the tractor as soon as there's space for her to clear the debris, and he's relieved that she starts up as smooth as ever beneath his hands. He chugs east, setting her amid the prairie grasses beyond the yard, and he watches when, as if working by intuition alone, folks move their trucks just in time to let Dave Anderson move his bulldozer up the lane. John's heart catches in his throat to watch him maneuver into place, ready to knock down what's left of the barn. He figures no one will blame him if he doesn't watch.
He picks up the kids, thanks his stars for Laura when Finn tells him they studied the wind that day, learned new words, and talked about science, and by the time he gets home there are unfolded tables dotted like bright-colored mushrooms all over his yard. There are dishes of pasta salad, and plates of deviled eggs, chili in a crock pot that still holds its heat, sandwiches piled in precarious towers. He's welcomed back by more people than he can name, has Merrie whisked out of his hands by two women he only knows from the pancake breakfasts at the VFW hall, clasps hands with most of the firefighting crew, finds Rodney explaining solar storms amid a huddle of farmers pulled in from county-wide.
"You know what this is?" Rodney says as they help with the cleanup, Rodney holding a trash bag, John picking up paper plates and plastic forks.
John looks up at the tone of his voice – wonderment, a little uncertainty. "What is what?"
"This," says Rodney, jerking his chin at the people saying their goodbyes, catching up on grandchildren, making plans for the weekend after next.
"What about it?" John asks, licking his thumb clean of a stray gob of mustard.
"This is community," says Rodney. "I just . . . I never thought . . . "
John straightens up from where he's been sweeping cake crumbs into his hand. "Thought you'd have it?" he asks gently.
Rodney colors a little, the tips of his ears turning pink. "I knew I had a home," he says, "that this was someplace special, that this . . . this godforsaken corner of the universe is . . . is . . . "
"I get it," John says, ambling closer.
"But I didn't think about what was beyond it, not really, not like this. I mean, I knew Brad to snip at, and Todd to berate, and Jenny to wave at, and Ada to . . . " He shrugs helplessly. "But they're all here," he says. "Just because of a storm."
John leans in and kisses him softly, feels Rodney shiver against him. "Not just because of a storm," he says when they pull apart, thumbing the hinge of Rodney's jaw. "Because of us."
"Oh," says Rodney very softly. "Because . . . oh."
"They like you," says John, smiling a little.
"Well, that's . . . as they should," says Rodney, squaring his shoulders, chin lifting. "That's . . . very nice of them."
And John has to lean in and kiss him again.
It's three weeks before the lumber's ready, three weeks before the insurance comes through and John can arrange for cranes and Mitch Thomas's construction team to come on in and wrangle a new barn into shape.
"I thought the neighbors would do it," Rodney confesses over coffee that morning.
"You've watched Witness one too many times," John says, munching on toast.
It's the work of a day to get the framing in place, but several more to fit the shingles, put up the siding, a good two weeks before anyone paints. John takes Finn shopping for school supplies, consults the list he'd folded six times before he stuck it in his back pocket, navigates Target gingerly, throwing Kleenex and Ziploc bags into the cart, crayons and Elmer's glue, round-bladed scissors and a lunch box and a backpack. Finn bounces off the walls, thrilled to be going to school instead of daycare, lobbies for a soccer ball and a water gun, an iPad and three boxes of goldfish crackers. He wins out only where the crackers are concerned, but seems happy enough to watch John pay for juice boxes and band aids and tape, and sings a song the whole way home that he makes up about how big he is, and how old, and how great school's going to be. John knows it well enough by the fourth time around to be able to join in.
The morning the painters arrive, they take off as a family to drop Finn at school, Rodney having channeled his nerves into a stack of PB&J sandwiches, a baggie of carrot sticks, an apple, and a snack-sized Snickers bar, all of which are stowed inside Finn's Captain America lunchbox. "You'll have a great time," he tells Finn as John drives them all into town.
"I know, dad!" says Finn, kicking his feet in time with the pavement rolling beneath the car.
"I'm just reassuring you that nothing will go wrong and we'll be back to pick you up at the regular time, and – "
"Daddy, I knooooooow," Finn says again, and John reaches across the gearshift to lay a hand on Rodney's thigh.
"It'll be okay," he says, and Rodney sniffs at him haughtily.
"I know," he says, and sounds so similar to his son that John can't help smile broadly and suggest Finn sing his going-to-school song.
"He is, despite my barely remembering my life before he was in it, still quite young," Rodney says when they leave his classroom much later, Merrie in her car seat, swinging between them.
"He is," John agrees.
"And he would be perfectly within his rights to have a tantrum, or a meltdown, or to be homesick for us, or for Laura, and to act out because of it."
John raises a meaningful eyebrow. "Does someone else wish they had an excuse to act out?"
Rodney's mouth sets in a tight, unhappy line. "I just – they're both growing up so fast, it's exactly ten minutes since we brought this one home, and thirty seconds since Finn started using complete sentences, and – "
"And," John nods, tugging on Rodney's sleeve so that he stops his increasing frenetic pace. "It'll be fine."
Rodney sighs. "Can we go home and be distracting?" he asks.
"Soon as this one's in Laura's care," John promises, and gets a half-smile for his efforts.
It's more awkward than John would have believed, to make out with painters working 40ft across the yard on the east side of the barn. With every noise they make louder than a sigh, they freeze – once, fully dressed; once with their hands in each other's pants; once when they tumble into bed and the springs of the mattress groan and squeak.
"This is ridiculous," Rodney says in a whisper. "Can you hear what they're saying?"
John shifts his hips beneath Rodney's weight, earns a bitten-off moan. "Nope, nothing."
"So why do we imagine they can hear us?" Rodney asks. "And! So what if they do! We are married, we have a perfect right to – "
"Bump uglies?" suggests John.
"Have sex anytime we want to!" finishes Rodney with a flourish.
John studies him – his disheveled hair, his pink lips, the flush on his cheeks. "You want to?" he asks.
"Oh god, I want to," Rodney says, and kisses him desperately.
It's graceless, as these things go – they're too wound up to manage anything like finesse. But it's good, so good, to be so close, for John to lose himself in the slide of Rodney's body against his, to chase the taste of coffee into his mouth, to slide a palm the length of his spine and feel him shudder in return. They come within moments of each other, their limbs uncoordinated and jerky, and for all that John really hopes they can go again in a while, go slow where they've rushed, there's still something wonderful about the fog that lingers afterward, the way they kiss and touch on their way to resting in a tangled heap.
The painters are done by the beginning of September, and John takes a trip to town with the last of the insurance money, heads to the hardware store and has Bill Meacham help him pick out replacements for his tools. It's a long morning's work, palming each chisel, measuring the balance on each plane, but by lunchtime he has a heavy box to his name, and he throws it in the rear of his grandpa's truck, glad to be taking the old thing out for a while. He doesn't hurry home, waves others past him on the road when they tailgate him too aggressively, and he turns into the farm with a smile on his lips. The new barn stands proud where its predecessor had once been, and as John walks inside he runs his hands across the framing, feels relieved that the place still smells of hay and sawdust, despite the lingering scents of paint and pitch. He sets his box on his brand new workbench, turns around when he hears the skitter of tiny, animal feet – some critter finding home again, no doubt, he thinks, and even that feels right.
It's quiet as John picks up his tools and decides where to stow them, the only noise the chickens chatting happily as they peck at the dirt across the yard. In the quiet ideas can take shape – wood he'll cajole to become something new, the fixing he'll get done, the nails he'll hammer home. John pauses and feels the resonance of this place through the soles of his boots. "Good girl," he says, and, in acceptance and welcome, reaches out to lay a hand against the wood-warm side of the barn.