A light snowfall dusted the ground by the time Joel and Esther arrived at the farmhouse, the air crisp with a frosty breeze. Joel suspected they were in for a blizzard any day now. Emerging from the tree line, they spotted four Jackson horses already roaming the field in front of the house.
“Looks like we’re the last,” Esther said. “If we get in trouble, I’m blaming you.”
Joel guffawed, “I ain’t the one who dilly dallied at the clinic.”
“And, I’m not the one clumsy enough to wind up there at the end of my shift.”.
He let out a huff, his breath visible in the chilly air, but didn’t reply.
They dismounted their steeds and let them wander off to join the other horses. Joel’s boots made dull thuds on the porch steps. Energetic chatter emanated through the door. Before he could even knock, it was thrown open, and Joel was greeted to the sight of his brother wearing a red paper crown and a shit-eating grin.
“Look what the cat dragged in.”
“Don’t start,” Joel warned him.
“Hi, Tommy,” Esther said, wrapping him in an apologetic hug. “Hope we didn’t miss too much.”
“You’re actually jus’ in time. Ellie and Dina are finishin’ up the cake, while the rest of us entertain the man of the hour.”
Joel and Esther wiped their shoes on the doormat. Dina would kill them if they trailed dirt into the house. Inside, Joel was surprised by the drastic change in temperature, heat rolling off of the crackling fireplace. Immediately to his left, Maria and Shoshana were seated on the couch, and Jesse was lying stomach flat on the floor, as JJ walked around on shaky legs to play fetch with a rubber ball. They, too, wore paper crowns of varying colors. The three adults chorused a greeting, and JJ shouted a “Bah!”
“You finally decided to show up, huh?” Maria winked at them, compelling Tommy to chortle again as he sat on the couch arm beside his wife.
“Yeah, yeah,” Joel grumbled, shrugging off his backpack and removing his and Esther’s presents for JJ. “Where should I…?”
“Here,” Shoshana said, taking them from his hands. “I’ll put them with the rest.”
Joel’s gaze followed her to the far corner where a pile of wrapped packages rested next to the record player. An old ‘90s tune echoed throughout the room, and he could smell something sweet wafting from the kitchen.
Esther knelt down and took one of JJ’s hands. “Happy birthday, little man.”
The toddler giggled in return. It seemed Joel wasn’t the only one with a soft spot for Esther.
“Is that who I think it is?” Dina called from the kitchen. She poked her head (adorned with a purple crown) around the corner. “Joel, Esther, glad you could make it.”
“Thanks for inviting me,” Esther said.
Ellie squeezed next to Dina in the doorway. Her crown was green. “I mean, you’re Joel’s plus one now, sooo–”
“Ellie,” Joel groaned.
“Don’t deny it, old man.”
“Ellie, the cake!” Dina scurried out of sight, while the redhead muttered an “oops.”
Shoshana shook her head and stood to follow. “I better do damage control.”
Joel could hear Shoshana’s lecture about baking safety from there. He took her spot on the couch next to his sister-in-law. Esther remained on the carpet, gently rolling the ball back and forth to JJ’s fascination.
Jesse turned to him. “Y’all get here okay? Thought I saw some ice on the trails.”
“Eh, not too bad yet.”
“Yeah, certainly not enough to warrant their late arrival,” Tommy said.
Joel had a bad feeling he would become the subject of many a teasing for the foreseeable future. There was movement from the corner of his eye as Ellie dropped into the armchair across from them. Her crown was a little crooked.
“Thought you had a cake to bake.”
“I’ve been banished from the kitchen.”
“Might’ve saved the day then.”
She flipped him off, while ensuring JJ wouldn’t see the crude gesture. Her eyes wandered to the others before alighting. “Oh! You guys need crowns.”
“It’s all right. You don’t–” Joel tried to say, but she was up and sprinting upstairs before he could finish his sentence.
Ellie returned a second later with two more paper crowns and handed them out. Esther took the yellow one and proudly put it on. Joel studied the other in her hands.
“JJ’s birthday. His rules.” Ellie pointed to him. “And, he proclaims crowns for all.”
“He tell you that himself?” Joel asked, but he allowed her to place the blue crown on his head anyway.
“Of course, JJ always– hey, what’s this?” Ellie parted the back of his hair. “Joel, you’re injured!”
“Are you okay?”
He waved off the concerned exclamations from the others in the room. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I jus’ had a lil’ tumble.”
“You have fucking stitches!”
“Don’t curse,” Tommy, Maria, and Jesse said automatically.
“He slipped on a patch of ice,” Esther offered. “Stitched him up, and that’s what took us so long.”
Joel felt his face heat up. “It ain’t as bad as it looks.”
Tommy teased, “You gettin’ clumsy in your old age?”
“You wanna explain, or shall I?” Esther asked.
He fiddled with the paper atop his head. It’d been years since he had so many eyes on him. He wished he could go back to the simpler time of just him and Esther reading before bedtime. Jesus, this was going to be humiliating.
“I was, uh, runnin’ ‘cause I forgot JJ’s present and cut through the McCreadys’ yard.”
“Those grumps?” Jesse said incredulously. “They give anyone the stink eye if you walk by and talk too loudly.”
“Yeah, Curtis saw and chewed me out so suddenly it caught me off guard.”
“Uh oh,” Maria said.
“Then, well, my foot slips out from under me, and I’m seein’ stars.”
Esther scoffed, “Next thing I know, they’re bringing this guy in, and he requires three stitches on the back of his head.”
Ellie narrowed her eyes. “So, what you’re telling us is–” Joel knew this was going to suck. “–you split your head open because someone a decade younger than you yelled ‘Get off my lawn!’”
The room erupted into laughter. JJ didn’t understand what was happening and turned his head wildly to all the cackling people. Not wanting to be left out, he let out a joyous shirek. Traitor.
“When you put it like that…” he murmured.
Thankfully, Joel was saved from further embarrassment when Dina and Shoshana came out with a platter bearing a chocolate cake topped with strawberries and a single candle. Everyone oohed and aahed, and JJ applauded, pleased by the high-pitched sounds.
Dina ran over to stop the record player. “Okay, everyone has to sing.”
Ellie elbowed Joel when she saw his pained expression. “Birthday rules, Joel. Dust off those pipes of yours.” She left his side to scoop up JJ and returned to the armchair, seating him comfortably on her lap.
Esther squeezed onto the couch beside him and shot him a curious look. “I didn’t know you sang.”
“Ah, it’s nothin’ really,” he tried to say.
“Joel has a great voice!” Tommy cut in. “You still playin’ all that Crosby, Stills, and Nash?”
“Playin’,” Joel emphasized. “Not singin’.”
“Y’know, music is very good for developing babies,” Jesse added. He had been reading a lot of baby books recently. “You should sing to him.”
“C’mon, how can you say no to this face?” Ellie pouted and rested her chin atop JJ’s head, using her index fingers to poke his cheeks.
Damn, his one weakness. He raised his hands in defeat.
Shoshana lit the candle, and Dina brought the cake over to Ellie and JJ, kneeling before them. JJ shouted, “Bah!” and stared enchanted at the dancing flame. Dina counted down, and they performed one of the most chaotic renditions of “Happy Birthday” Joel had ever heard, despite Joel and Ellie actually singing on-key. Esther watched him through it all with a fond expression. Luckily, JJ didn’t seem to mind. Afterward, Ellie helped JJ blow out the candle to more applause, and Shoshana took the cake from Dina’s hands to cut into slices.
“You did it!” Dina said in her baby voice, tickling the bottom of her son’s feet to his delight. “Are you ready for your presents now?”
“I’ll get ‘em!” Jesse quickly rose from the floor and rushed over to the pile of gifts, trying to bring all of them in one trip. He looked more excited than JJ over the notion of shiny new playthings.
“Ooh, open mine first,” Shoshana said, pointing to a flat box from where she was cutting the cake at the dining table.
“It’s up to JJ.” Dina held up her mother’s gift next to what Joel assumed was her own. “Which do you want, birthday boy?”
JJ reached toward Shoshana’s.
“He’s a smart one.”
“Well, age before beauty I guess.”
“Okay, okay,” she relented, glaring when Ellie snickered.
Dina scooted closer to the armchair, resting the present on JJ’s lap. Of course, he wasn’t old enough to unwrap it himself, so he helpfully patted the box while Dina tore the paper for him.
“Oh, Mom, you didn’t.”
“Ha!” Ellie barked. “Perfect.”
Joel and the others leaned closer to see what it was. Dina held up a white cloth. Admittedly, Joel had to squint in order to see more clearly. It was a baby bib with “Little Sweet Potato” sewn above a cartoon potato.
“Made it myself,” Shoshana declared proudly.
“Do you know what you’ve unleashed?” Dina fake whispered.
“Let’s put this on you, Spud,” Ellie sounded way too happy about this, wrapping the bib around JJ’s neck. “Oh yeah, a real Potato Master right here.”
Dina gestured at them. “You see?”
Jesse said, “He looks cute.”
“Not you too,” Dina whined, but she was smiling at JJ, who was trying to see the new garment on his chest, giving himself an adorable double chin.
“And, just in time,” Shoshana said, walking over with plates of cake and handing them to Ellie and Dina.
There was a quick pause while she distributed slices to everyone else. Ellie fed her son a forkful, which he loudly chewed and smeared chocolate frosting around his mouth.
“This is great, you guys,” Maria complimented.
“Ellie almost burned it,” Dina said.
“Now, now,” Shoshana hushed. “Ellie was doing just fine beforehand.”
Dina gave her girlfriend a pointed look. “You almost used salt instead of sugar.”
“See? JJ agrees. Your mom only speaks lies, Spud.”
Dina shook her head. “Okay, moving on before you corrupt him any further…” She placed her present in JJ’s lap.
Dina had gotten him a collection of dinosaur toys. Thinking back to that old museum pamphlet, Joel remembered the figurines were a T-rex, triceratops, pterodactyl, stegosaurus, and brachiosaurus.
“JJ has his own Jurassic Park over there,” he said.
“Actually, T-rex and triceratops were after the Jurassic period during the late Cretaceous period,” Ellie corrected.
“Nerd.” Dina poked her thigh.
“No, it’s a movie… reference…” Joel trailed off, as he saw they were too distracted showing JJ the different dinosaurs.
Esther placed a comforting hand on his forearm and whispered, “It’s a lost cause.”
Ellie’s present was third. She had drawn a short comic of a masked vigilante named Spudster, who fought criminals with superspeed and a potato cannon. Joel swore he saw Dina tear up a bit, as she glanced through the colored pages. She leaned up and gave Ellie a kiss, causing her to turn bright red.
Joel watched a little nervously, as Dina opened his present next. Ellie gasped when Dina revealed a small guitar. It wasn’t functional; the strings were made from yarn, and the body was solid, lacking a sound hole, but it’d do for now. Joel would make a proper guitar once JJ was old enough. He said as much, and Ellie shot him a wide grin.
“I call dibs on teaching him.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ellie looked at JJ and waved his arms. “Can you say, ‘Thanks, Grandpa Joel’?”
“Meh, close enough.”
Jesse had gotten JJ a block puzzle. There were nine shapes of different colors that went in their respective cutouts – an educational toy. Dina called him a nerd too. Tommy and Maria had a joint present of a train set, tracks and all. There was a surprisingly large number of pieces to it. Esther’s present was last. Joel knew in advance, but he still enjoyed Ellie and Dina’s jubilant reactions to unwrapping the books Are You My Mother? and Where the Wild Things Are. He could see the relief across Esther’s face. She had fretted all week that they wouldn’t like it. He rested his arm around her shoulders, giving her a reassuring squeeze. She returned a thankful smile, sending a warmth through him that had nothing to do with the roaring fireplace.
For the next half hour, everyone chatted, ate their cake, bickered over which vinyl to play, and ate more cake. JJ had started squirming at some point, and Ellie had put him down, so he could walk around and play. Dina took his place on Ellie’s lap, much to the other girl’s feigned chagrin, wrapping her arms around Dina’s waist anyway. Jesse kept trying to swipe at the frosting on the leftover cake, and Shoshana had to bat his hands away multiple times. Tommy was recounting some drama that happened on patrol the other day, while Maria challenged his obvious embellishments.
Joel smiled to himself. This was his family. It wasn’t exactly how he imagined it would look like thirty years ago – hell, even five years ago, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
Esther nudged his side. “Where’d you go?” she asked, her voice soft.
He shrugged and answered just as softly, “I’m jus’ happy.”
She stared deep into his eyes for an extended second. She must’ve found whatever she was looking for because she nodded to herself and nestled closer into his side. He faced forward again at the gleeful noise JJ made. He was toddling around the area, picking up each present and showing them to his moms, who cheered him on. Enraptured, everyone watched the one-year-old go back and forth until he had accumulated a pile of his new toys and books. JJ turned his head about, scanning for more items to pick up.
Dina pretended to gasp, “Uh oh, you got them all! What now?”
JJ stared up at her, blinked, and then looked to the other faces, barely containing their amusement. His sights locked on Joel. A man on a mission, JJ waddled toward him. His head barely reaching the couch seat, JJ reached up and slammed both of his pudgy hands onto Joel’s knee.
He chuckled, “Hey, kiddo.”
“I think he’s claiming you,” Tommy supplied.
“Me? But, you got all your new things.” He pointed to the pile on the floor.
JJ followed his finger and looked in that direction before turning back and grasping said finger. “Bah!”
Maria and Shoshana cooed at the sight.
“Sorry, Joel,” Ellie said. “Looks like you’re his now.”
He huffed out a laugh. “Looks like I am.”
“Hang on,” Jesse suddenly spoke, crossing the room to rummage through his backpack. “This is perfect. I brought my camera.”
Joel drowned out the sounds of Ellie and Dina poking fun at Jesse’s poor photography skills by listening to JJ’s happy babbling. He was still holding onto his finger with surprising strength.
“Guess I have some competition, huh?” Esther joked, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.
He grunted, “You versus JJ? Clear winner there.”
“Fair, JJ wins everything.”
“Okay, everyone gather ‘round,” Jesse instructed.
Joel, Esther, and Maria were already on the couch, Tommy perched on the side. Ellie and Dina reluctantly moved from the armchair to pose on the floor in front of them. Dina convinced JJ to release Joel’s finger and sat him on her lap. Jesse knelt and angled the polaroid camera above him, facing all of them.
“Move your big head, Jesse.”
“Here, let me do it.”
“Like you’re any better.”
“You sure I’m in the frame?”
“Just don’t put your finger on the lens again.”
“Quit arguing, y’all.”
“What if someone else took it?”
“I got it. I got it.”
“How long do I have to hold this position?”
Esther stifled her laughter. She leaned closer to Joel and murmured, “Fine, I’ll settle for second place, but you have to promise me one thing.”
Trying not to move too much, he asked, “What is it?”
A smirk. “You have to sing for me later, country boy.”
Joel whipped his head around to face her, a retort on his lips, when there was a flash and subsequent click.
“Seriously, old man?”
“Nice one, big brother.”