Emma was halfway down the stairs when she heard a noise coming from the kitchen. She went still for a moment, listening hard, instincts warring between caution and exasperation. It was either an intruder or a sneaky Snyder going for an unauthorized snack. The fridge opening and closing told her it was probably the latter, but her frown melted into confusion when she heard a pan hit the stove. What? Who in this family would be cooking at this hour? Or, she amended, at all?
She eased the stairway door open, intent on reprimanding whoever was using her kitchen without permission, but immediately froze at the bottom step, staring. Out of all those scenarios, this was not one she had been expecting. There was their newest house guest, young Noah Mayer. Making pancakes.
She watched him for a moment, one of the few times she could observe the boy completely alone. Usually when everyone was together he clung pretty tightly to Luke, almost always sitting or standing a half step behind him, obviously intimidated by the big crazy Snyder clan.
She had to admit, she’d never seen anyone over six feet tall make himself that inconspicuous around people. And he was so quiet. Emma was pretty sure she’d never had a real one-on-one conversation with him. In fact, the only people Noah really made himself available for were Luke and the girls. Everyone else, he seemed to avoid being alone with, but for her grandchildren…
She’d seen him telling jokes to Faith and Natalie, listening to all their stories with an infinite amount of patience, never complaining when they dragged him out to the barn. She’d seen him talking quietly with Luke, her grandson with that giddy grin on his face and Noah with that bashful smile she’d grown accustomed to seeing on him.
She’d seen them hold hands, walk together (because Luke could walk now, she’d never get over that), kiss each other. But she’d never seen Noah really interact with Holden or Lily. And not herself either.
That fact alone made Emma consider Noah with some caution even now. She was grateful and truly admired him for sticking by Luke during the paralysis, and she knew her grandchildren completely adored him- she had recently caught Faith and Natalie arguing about what to get him for Christmas- but a part of her still just wasn’t sure what to make of Noah. There was so much that she, they, maybe even Luke, didn’t know about him. That concerned her, made her a little wary of this boy who had unintentionally brought so much change to her family.
But as she watched him now, she couldn’t stop a small smile from appearing on her face. Noah was using the same amount of focus and determination to make these pancakes as she usually equated with doctors performing brain surgery. He was very deliberate and sure with his measurements and movements; it was probably the most confident she had ever seen him behave.
Emma realized then that he was frowning, looking around for something. Eyeing his progress, she guessed what it was. “It’s on the pegboard behind you,” she called out softly.
He nearly dropped the bowl he had been holding, managing to save it at the last second and set it on the counter, his head whipping up to look at her. “I… what?”
Well, the confidence was definitely gone now. Emma smiled a little wider at the stammer and three-alarm-fire-blush that now stained Noah’s cheeks. She finally moved from the last step fully into the kitchen, wrapping her robe tighter around herself. The winter morning was already seeping cold air into the house, and she frowned a little when she rounded the kitchen island and saw that Noah was barefoot. Did he want to get sick? Keeping quiet for now, she reached behind him and pulled the whisk free of the pegboard. “Here you go.”
She held it out to him, but he didn’t take it right away, still blushing fiercely. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
“Make pancakes?” she finished, teasing a little. “Then this was a happy accident, wasn’t it?” She nodded to the bowl of batter on the counter. “Miraculous, even.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean everything up, I promise. I’ll put everything back where I found-”
“Noah, dear, even I’m not this neat when I cook,” she tried to put him more at ease. Maybe if he relaxed a little around her, she could get to know him better. She eyed him now, standing ramrod straight, hands clasped together and head bowed just a little. Like he was standing at attention, she realized sadly, waiting to be reprimanded. “It’s okay. You just surprised me, that’s all.”
He did relax just a bit, but still wasn’t meeting her eyes. “I can replace what I used, if you…”
She shook her head with a maternal sigh. “I’m not angry, Noah,” she tried smiling to prove her point. “Just surprised. What are you doing up so early?”
He shrugged, finally taking the whisk from her so he could finish stirring the pancake batter. “I promised Luke I’d make them for him for breakfast.”
“That grandson of mine made you get up at five thirty just to make him breakfast?” she asked, ready to take that whisk upstairs and smack said grandson in the head.
Noah’s eyes went comically wide. “No, no, we had a deal. I told him I’d make him breakfast if he did all of his therapy exercises.” He shook his head. “I just woke up early, so I figured I’d start now. Luke said it would be okay to use the kitchen, but if you-”
She held up a hand, fighting back her smile again. Since walking again, Luke had been pretty against keeping up with his physical therapy, fighting everyone on his exercises, deciding he was all better. If Noah had managed to find a way to convince him, then it was just one more thing she would be grateful for. “Please, honey, keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll get the coffee ready.”
He nodded, not meeting her eyes again. He pointed to the other end of the counter. The bag of coffee beans was already sitting next to the grinder. “I, uh, got them from the basement for you,” he looked uncertain, wondering if he had overstepped his bounds.
Emma melted just a little, still smiling. She wanted to lean up and kiss his cheek but wasn’t sure if either of them were there yet. So instead she patted his arm warmly and set about making the coffee, keeping an eye on Noah as she did so. He quietly went back to his task, mixing in a few more ingredients as he stirred before turning to the stove, pouring little circles of batter with precision. “You really know what you’re doing there,” she commented, more a statement than a question.
“Yes ma’am,” he answered anyway. “My specialty.”
Was that a hint of pride in his voice? She leaned back against the counter. “Where’d you learn to cook?”
He blushed again. “I don’t know, different places. TV some. And I started working in the mess halls on bases when I was thirteen.” He shrugged, obviously a little uncomfortable. “I learned to make pancakes when I was six. My babysitter, Mrs. Widdowes, taught me. By the time we moved the next year I could make them on my own.”
While he poured more batter onto the skillet, Emma went back to the coffee grinder, trying to read between the lines of his answer. “Did you cook for yourself a lot?” she asked, purposefully keeping her focus on the coffee.
She saw him go still out of the corner of her eye, struggling to come up with a response. “Not a lot,” he finally said. “When I felt like it, or got sick of take out or the mess hall.” He paused, a small smile creeping onto his face. Emma marveled at the sight, it made him look years younger. “But Sundays, I made pancakes. From when I was seven until… well, until I came here. It was my thing, just for me. Like, like a treat to look forward to, you know?” He looked over to her, but then suddenly seemed to remember who he was talking to and blushed again, looking down.
“Well, if they taste as good as these smell, then they were definitely worth looking forward to,” she tried to rescue him, returning to his side with two mugs of fresh coffee. She sat one in front of him, smiling at his quiet ‘thank you’ and wrapped her hands around her own mug. “So who cooked for you during the week?”
He shrugged once again, flipping a few pancakes over. “I got really good at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” his smile was embarrassed now, pained, and it hurt Emma’s heart more than she thought it would.
She thought back on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, how much less he had eaten than Luke and the men at the table. At the time she had attributed it to nerves and overly-proper table manners, but now she had to wonder… Honestly, I’ve never seen so much food at one time before. Hadn’t he said that?
Emma cleared her throat, reminding herself that this wasn’t one of her grandchildren she could talk with about anything. Even if she was suddenly bursting with curiosity. “Happens to be my favorite sandwich,” she said cheerily, pulling some juice and jam out of the fridge.
Noah’s answering smile was polite but timid, as if he thought she was just humoring him. “It wasn’t like I was Oliver Twist,” he explained unnecessarily. “I just took care of myself, that’s all. I was old enough.”
She didn’t want to point out that the age of seven was not ‘old enough’ in her book, so she kept quiet. Emma couldn’t even picture her own grandchildren having to cook, to fend for themselves, at that age. A child shouldn’t have to. What kind of parent would-
Oh. Right. For a moment Emma had forgotten just whose son she was talking to. To cover up her own sadness, she decided to change the subject. “So how was your first Snyder Christmas?” she asked, getting the strips of bacon ready to fry. “Did you have fun?” She honestly didn’t know- he had smiled and laughed a lot during the holidays, but also seemed so lost and bewildered by it all at the same time.
“Yes ma’am, it was amazing,” he answered immediately.
She looked over at him again to see if the answer was for real, but he was busy loading up plates and a serving tray with the pancakes. “You sure we didn’t scare you too much?” she half-teased.
He laughed a little then, genuinely, and she smiled at the sound. “No ma’am, not too much. They’re all so great, really. I mean, I never really thought people celebrated holidays like this.”
“Like what?” she asked curiously, hip resting against the sink, watching him start up another batch of pancakes.
He bit his lower lip as he worked, embarrassed again. “Like it is in movies and TV. With lots of people and food and lots of presents. Toys everywhere. It’s a Wonderful Life and all that. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s… nice.”
She was distracted for a moment watching him pour batter. The three circles were smaller and closer together. She wanted to warn him that they’d end up touching by the time they were done, but she didn’t want to embarrass him further, not when she was finally getting him to talk one-on-one. Her mind on the food, she asked the next question without thinking. “What were holidays like for you before this?”
He flinched. Very quickly and lightly, but it was a flinch nonetheless. Emma busied herself getting biscuits and toast together, wishing she could reach out and snatch the question back out of the air.
Noah poured more batter. Again, the circles were too close together. Maybe he was distracted too. “It was just me and the Colonel,” he finally answered, very carefully. “So, not much fun. Not many toys or carols or anything.”
“You didn’t get presents?” she had to ask.
Another shrug. “I got them when I earned them,” it was almost like he was reciting a rule. “Usually clothes or a check once I got too old for toys.”
She had to wonder what age was ‘too old’ for toys, and decided the answer probably differed between the Mayer and Snyder households. She silently refilled her coffee, adding a cinnamon stick this time. She dropped another stick in Noah’s half-empty mug, and the appreciative smile he gave her for that warmed her more than the coffee ever could. “No other family ever came by?” she had the courage to ask then.
He shook his head, using the cinnamon stick to stir the coffee with one hand. His other hand carefully flipped over the pancakes. Like she had predicted, the three circles were now connected, though Noah didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it looked like he was being careful to make sure they stayed that way.
Wondering what that was all about almost caused her to miss his answer. “My dad was an only child, I think.” You think? Emma wanted to ask but didn’t. “His parents died before I was born. And my mom’s family…” He flipped over three more connected circles. “I’ve never met them. She has a sister, apparently. I don’t know if there’s more. Or if they have kids. Or if her parents are alive.” He shrugged stiffly, mechanically.
As a grandmother, Emma couldn’t believe that Cheri’s parents were alive. It just wasn’t possible. How could they be, if they hadn’t tried to contact their own grandchild? They had to know Noah was alive, was in Oakdale, if Cheri’s sister had been able to send that box here. So why hadn’t they come to see him? Their own grandchild… No, grandma logic told Emma that Cheri’s parents must be gone too.
But again, she said nothing. It wasn’t her place. And she probably wasn’t thinking anything Noah hadn’t gone over in his own head a hundred times already. No wonder he’s so quiet, she thought to herself then. Poor kid had too many thoughts going on up in that brain of his.
She wondered if he’d ever had a reason to celebrate the holidays before. A part of her was dying to know when he had learned there was no Santa Claus, but a larger part of her would probably die at knowing the answer. “Have you thought about contacting your aunt?” she asked, cracking open an egg into her own bowl.
Noah rinsed off the whisk he had been using before handing it over to her so she could begin scrambling the eggs. “I’ve thought about it, but…”
“But?” she prompted after he trailed off.
“But,” he repeated. “I don’t think I can. Or should.”
“Why on earth not?” Emma couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want a boy like this in their family- someone who got up at dawn just to make pancakes for her grandson, who made sure to get the coffee beans out of the basement for her, who thought to rinse off a whisk and give it to her without being asked.
Noah was standing off to the side, staring down into his coffee. “I’m not a reminder of anything good.” It was stated so matter-of-factly Emma almost flinched herself. “I can’t bring her back for them. I didn’t know her. I don’t look like her or sound like her. Pretty sure I don’t act like her. Why would they want me around? The only thing I’d remind them of is all the stuff my father did to their family, how he hurt them. I don’t understand-” he cut himself off, taking a step away from the counter and gripping his mug tightly.
And suddenly Emma had to wonder if they were talking about Cheri’s family anymore. There it was- why Noah was so nervous around the adults in this house. Why he hid behind Luke, took shelter in the corners of rooms. Why he had looked so shocked when he found out there were presents for him under the Christmas tree. “We don’t blame you, sweetie.”
His head shot up to stare at her, and the look on his face and in his eyes very nearly brought Emma to her knees. “But-”
“No, Noah. No one in this family blames you for your father. No one.” She dared to take a step closer, and Noah was too stunned to move away. “And you shouldn’t either.”
His eyes were even bluer when he was near tears, she learned. “I’m just so sorry,” he said quietly. “If I hadn’t-”
“No,” she cut in again, firm but just as quiet. She reached up and up to grip his chin. “That- none of that- was your fault. What happened was horrible and I can’t even begin to imagine what you and Luke had to go through. But believe me, the people in this family know that one can’t be judged by the actions of another. Even if they’re related.” After a pause, “Sometimes especially if they’re related.”
She waggled his chin a little when he attempted a smile. “Stop worrying about that, hon. You’ve done nothing to make us even consider hating you. In fact, I’d think the opposite, with all the help you’ve given Luke.” She smiled gently, confessing quieter, “I don’t know if he’d walking right now if it weren’t for you.”
Noah quickly backed out of her touch, shaking his head. Shaking his entire body, almost. And she knew what he was thinking- that Luke wouldn’t have been in the wheelchair at all if it weren’t for him. Emma wondered if or how she’d ever be able to convince Noah otherwise. But Noah continued to argue another point. “Yes he would. He’d walk. It’s Luke, he… he’s way too… he can’t not…”
Emma laughed then. “Yes, that’s how I describe him too.” She pulled Noah by the hand back to the counter so she could finish scrambling the eggs. “But this time, I think he fought for you. So I will too. You’re good and stuck with the Snyders now, Noah Mayer. Get used to it.” She shook the whisk at him.
He sort of laughed as he coughed, averting his eyes and staring down at his stack of freshly-made pancakes. “I, um… I don’t know how to thank you. For letting me stay here and for letting me…” he trailed off, gathering his courage. “For letting me be with Luke. Even if you don’t think I’m-”
“Oh, honey, don’t even finish that sentence, whatever it is.” She dropped the whisk into the bowl so she could plant one hand on her hip, giving him her best Grandma Glare. “I want to get something clear with you right now. I have never had any problem with you and Luke being together. You make each other happy, you make each other sane and safe, and that’s all I can ask for. That’s all the thanks I need.”
Noah shook his head a little, though it wasn’t in denial this time. “No, I just… you all mean so much to him, you know? You’re a family. And the fact that you don’t seem to- to disapprove of me makes him feel better, I think. And I need him to feel better,” he smiled, giving half a laugh that was tinged in sadness. “I need him. Without him I pretty much have nothing, so…”
Emma smiled into the scrambled eggs, setting them on the skillet just as the bacon finished frying. “Noah, you have so much more than that now. I hope you realize that someday soon.” She continued talking without looking up at him. “Before I met Harvey, Holden’s father, I thought I had nothing in my world. It was a year. A whole year between my parents dying and meeting Harvey.”
“Your parents?” Noah asked, hesitant again.
She nodded, slicing up the banana that would serve as Ethan’s breakfast. “A car accident when I was eighteen. And then for a whole year, I was absolutely nowhere. I had no idea where to go, what to do. Who I was going to be.” She could feel Noah’s gaze on her, but she continued preparing food for her family. “It was very scary, I remember. All my friends and everyone else my age getting ready for the future, and I had no one to show me what I was supposed to do.”
“And then you met Harvey?” came the soft question. Soft, but knowing.
Emma couldn’t help but smile at the thought of her departed husband. “Yes. Oh, I’d never met anyone like him before. I was so shy and could barely speak around him, but he just seemed to know.”
“Know what?” Noah handed her a towel to wipe her hands on.
“Thank you, dear.” She tossed the towel onto the side of the counter. “He knew we were going to be together. I could never figure out how he was so sure, but he was. And he was right, wasn’t he? We were together for a few years, then married, and then we had Seth- Holden’s oldest brother- not long after that.”
“But he died too,” Noah’s voice was still so quiet. He was gathering some things of his own out of the fridge for his pancakes.
“He did. But he gave me a whole host of beautiful children to carry on with. He gave me a family,” Emma’s smile seemed to startle Noah. “That’s enough for me.”
“You never thought about remarrying?”
She laughed a little. “Thought about, yes. Even came close once or twice. But,” she sighed airily. “It was never meant to be with me. I never found anyone else I felt as strongly about as I did Harvey.” Off the worried look he was giving her now, “Oh, I’m not sad about that. Look around here, Noah. I’ve got a wonderful family and a beautiful home I’m proud of. I’m so happy.” She looked at him pointedly now, commanding his attention. “I couldn’t see it then, but I ended up being who I was always supposed to be. And I was never alone again.”
His eyes were that bright blue again, but no tears ever fell. “I’m glad,” he whispered, nodding a little when she nodded.
Emma watched him as he put the two sets of connected pancakes on their own plates. And suddenly she recognized the shape. “Is that Mickey Mouse?” All serious thoughts fled from her mind.
She’d never seen anyone blush so quickly before. “Faith and Natalie,” he explained quickly, almost stuttering. “They helped me get Luke to do the exercises yesterday, so… I, um, wanted to thank them.”
The pancakes were in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Oh, sweet Lord. She grinned up at him, pinching his bright red cheek. “Like I said, good and stuck with us.”
Emma finally took pity on him them and let him finish up loading everything on the tray- four plates of pancakes (she was more than a little relieved that he did have a plate for himself), butter and syrup. Then he poured three glasses of orange juice and one glass of half-orange, half-apple juice. Emma blinked, surprised that he even knew how Natalie liked her juice, let alone would think to prepare it for her. No wonder those girls had a crush on him. No wonder Luke does too.
It wasn’t until he was taking the first step up to the second floor that Emma realized that he’d left some pancakes behind. “Noah, you forgot a plate,” she called out.
He stopped on that first step and turned, looking at her much like she had done to him when she first came down to the kitchen. Then he smiled, and it was such a sweet and unassuming smile that Emma suddenly had an urge to bake a hundred cookies for this boy. Noah shook his head. “I didn’t forget. Those are for you.” And then he was gone before Emma could respond.
She needed a moment to collect herself. Oh yes. He’s a keeper.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Holden hurried up the stairs as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb the house full of people probably still sleeping. Except his mother, of course. Though he was surprised he hadn’t run into her in the kitchen. Usually she was there with breakfast almost ready to be laid out when he was done with his morning barn work, and he’d help her with whatever was left after a quick shower and change of clothes. This morning the breakfast was all done, but there was no sign of Emma.
He turned the hallway corner, and suddenly there she was. Emma was standing very still and quiet right outside the door to Luke’s room, peaking in as carefully as possible. Holden’s first instinct was to shake his head, assuming that somehow Noah and Luke had tried to test the boundaries of his mother’s rules. He stepped forward, coming to a stop right behind Emma’s shoulder. And what he saw brought a surprised, wide smile to his face.
Luke and Noah were there together, on Luke’s bed. But Holden wasn’t concerned- and knew Emma wasn’t upset- because sitting with them were two very animated girls re-telling some story for probably the seventeenth time. Luke was leaning back against the headboard, rolling his eyes in exasperation as Faith spoke excitedly. She was sitting next to him, her elbow digging pointedly into his side.
Noah sat cross-legged across from them, his bare feet just barely grazing Luke’s, while Natalie was happily perched in his lap, bouncing up and down a little as she chimed in with Faith’s story. All four kids were eating pancakes.
“Mama?” he whispered, drawing her attention away. “You playing secret chaperone?”
She turned and shushed him frantically, pulling him down the hall so they could talk. “Noah made them breakfast,” she told him, eyes shining.
Holden was still smiling, but he was very puzzled. Was that supposed to explain everything? “Okay,” he drew the word out slowly, studying her face. Then he saw it. “You had the Moment, didn’t you?”
She frowned indignantly. “What moment?”
He was grinning now. “The Moment with a capital M. Noah passed your test, and now you want to adopt him.”
“Holden Snyder, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she was smiling too, though she tried to remain stern. “I certainly don’t have a ‘test’ or-”
Holden put his arm around his mother, leading her back down to the kitchen. “Sure, sure, Mama. Why don’t we get the table set and you can tell me all about it.” They paused in the doorway to Luke’s room again, just as Faith jumped on Luke in a vicious tickle attack, Noah and Nat cheering her on. Holden almost laughed out loud- Faith probably had no idea what Noah meant when he called out for her to ‘sweep the leg.’
The gleeful sounds followed Holden and Emma down the stairs. Holden fake-sighed as he entered the kitchen. “This house is going to get pretty full,” he warned his mother. Both of them were still smiling.
Emma just shook her head, putting down a plate of pancakes next to her place at the table. She looked down at the plate, her smile somehow both happy and sad. She thought back on everything she had thought about Noah before this morning, and everything she thought after.
She thought of the seven-year-old boy she’d never be able to rescue, and the eighteen-year-old she had a shot at helping now. Then she looked up at her son. “It’s okay if the house runs out of room, honey, just as long as the family never does.”