I peeked into the kitchen, where Mom was leaned against the counter, playing a game on her phone. “I’m home,” I greeted. Michael stepped out from behind me, resting one hand on my shoulder.
“Hi, Mrs. Young,” he said politely.
Mom looked up and smiled, then raised her eyebrows. “Hi, sweetie. Oh, hi, Michael,” she said, setting her phone down quickly. “Do you want to stay for dinner? I’ve got a chicken pot pie coming out in about ten minutes.”
“That sounds good, but I told my mom I would bring something home for her,” he said.
A flinch crossed her brow. “I can wrap some for her, too,” she said. Michael hesitated, and Mom stepped right into it. “It’s no trouble. Go sit, it won’t be long.”
Mom had warmed up to Michael quickly. As part of her letting me hang out with him so much, she’d insisted on meeting him properly. Never mind that we’d been partners in crime on solving the case of Natalie’s murder and had snuck out to find missing kids together, all before she even knew we were friends. It was actually nice for her to know about him, to feel like I wasn’t always hiding from her. And it was weirder still to have her approval.
“Sorry,” I murmured to him as we walked into the living room. It was bizarre to watch Colin’s animated expression as he lurched around the couch to the sound of Mom’s quiet music. As Michael sat on the couch next to Colin, my brother startled, then smiled. He shifted his headphones off his ears.
“You wanna play?”
“No, I suck at this game,” Michael said. “Go ahead.”
“Check this out,” Colin said. For the next ten minutes, Colin regaled Michael with a detailed description of every random gun in his collection and all his character’s special dances. I tuned out, my mind drifting to the evening ahead. Jerry Corcoran, one of the kindly spirits who’d helped me find two missing students, was supposed to stop by after nine to chat. I had to eat, shower, and get done with whatever else I wanted to do before then, because Jerry was a talker and demanded my full attention when he was around.
While Michael entertained Colin, I set the table, hesitating with a fourth plate. “Do you want to stay?” I asked him.
“I do, but I really should go home,” he said. “Thank you.”
A few minutes later, the oven buzzer sounded, and Mom bustled around the kitchen, rattling cabinets. “Michael, do you like lemon?”
“Uh…yes, ma’am,” he replied. He frowned at me, but I shrugged. He joined me in the kitchen, where Mom had a stack of Tupperware containers and an array of dishes strewn across the counter. “Oh, you don’t have to do all that.”
She ignored him. Welcome to my life. She held up a plate covered in tin foil. “This one is pot pie, should still be hot by the time you get home. This is baked spaghetti. It’ll be good until at least Sunday. Put a damp paper towel on it before you microwave it. And this is a nice lemon cake one of the ladies at church made.”
“I insist. We won’t eat it all before it goes bad,” she said, stacking the plastic containers in a shopping bag and tying it in a knot. She squeezed his shoulder. “You’re a growing boy. You need to be eating good meals. Are you sure you don’t want to stay? You’re always welcome.”
“I should go,” he said reluctantly. He gathered the bag and nodded to her again. “Thank you. I’m sure Mom will enjoy this.”
“Good,” she said. “Drive carefully.”
She managed to keep quiet while Michael walked out the door, then fixed me with a glare. “Are you two…”
“We are not dating.” We had this discussion at least once a week.
“Bridget, it’s fine if you want to date a boy, but I want to know,” she said.
“We’re just friends,” I said.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time together,” she said.
Yeah, because my quasi-angelic best friend kissed me and then ruined everything and I’ve been lonely. “Just friends,” I repeated.
She nodded. “All right. I do worry about him. What happened to Natalie was terrible.”
“I think that’s why we get along so well,” I said. “I understand what he lost.”
She flinched, but nodded. “Just be careful. I think it’s wonderful to be supportive, but don’t take his sadness for yourself.”
It took a great deal of effort not to laugh. Taking on others’ sadness was what I did every day. I carried the weight of so many forgotten sorrows, secrets that only I could tell. But I just nodded. “Okay. I will. Be careful, I mean.”