She carefully hands it to the cashier, and I set the clothes down on the counter, but then Stella goes rushing to a display on the other side of the store.
“Can you just hold these for a second?” I ask, looking down to read her name tag: Sue.
“No rush, honey. You’re the only ones in here.”
I find Stella looking at a long picture frame with little slots for each month for the baby. I can tell she’s struggling to decide if we should get them, so I reach around her and grab two, taking them over to the counter for her.
“Jace, they’re kind of expensive, and we really didn’t come in for all that. We have two babies coming in five months. Maybe we shouldn’t buy all this.”
“Babe, it’s not like we do this on a daily basis. Plus, it’s been just me for a long time. We have plenty of money in savings, and with both our jobs, we do pretty good. Seriously, we can get them. I saw the look on your face when you spotted them. Besides, they’re cute.”
“Are you even a real person?” she quips, and I shrug.
“Pretty sure I am.”
“I just mean I didn’t think they made men like you. Only in romance novels.”
“Men like me?” My eyebrows rise in question.
“Yeah. Perfect men. You’re more than happy to follow me around and hold my purse, pick out baby clothes, buy me picture frames. You hold my hair when I puke every morning, you designed the girls’ nursery perfectly, and I’m just….” She breaks off in a huff, and I slowly walk us backward toward the little nook filled with stuffed animals.
“You’re what, Stell?”
“Fat and hormonal and tired. I fall asleep on you every night, we haven’t had sex in a week, and you’ve cooked dinner even when you worked all day. My feet are swollen, and I have cankles, and I—”
“Am carrying my two beautiful children,” I cut her off, framing her face with my hands. “You aren’t fat, you’re fucking exquisite, and I do all of those things, Stell, not because I’m perfect but because we’re in this together. You’re giving me something magical, baby. I’m in awe of you every single day. You aren’t just having one baby, you’re having two, and I love you so much because of it. And I don’t care that we haven’t had sex in a week. I’m not in love with you for your body. Although, I must admit, it doesn’t hurt.”
Her eyes well up with tears and I smile, brushing one away with the pad of my thumb.
“See, told you. Perfect,” she murmurs.
“Not even in the slightest. But do me a favor and tell my mom that, would you?”
We laugh together, and I drop my head to press a chaste kiss to her forehead, glad to see she’s not upset anymore.
“I swear, I’ve never cried so much in my entire life. I ripped a pair of leggings yesterday trying to get into them for work and I almost lost my mind. Thank the Lord I realized they weren’t maternity and that’s why, but still.”
“You could have just stayed home with me. No pants necessary.”
Stella slaps my chest and skirts around me to go over to the counter, both of us pleasantly surprised to see that Sue has already wrapped the ornament in a box, placing our other items in a large white bag with the store’s logo on it.
Stella grabs our stuff while I pay, and with a wave goodbye, we head out to my truck. She holds the bag up front with us, and I make my way back to our place to drop everything off before heading to Mason’s.
I’m carrying the last bag into the house when Stella goes rushing past me, yelling about one of the babies being on her bladder, and I shake my head at her with a laugh. She comes out a few minutes later, and I lock the door shut behind us before getting back into the truck.
We make the drive to Mason’s in silence, my hand clasped tightly on her thigh. When we pull in, we both laugh when we see Jules jumping up and down in front of the living room window. We haven’t even made it to the porch before she’s swinging the door open wide, wearing green-and-white striped leggings with a white shirt and a Christmas headband.
“I take it someone is ready for Santa, huh?” Stella asks, giving her a huge hug.
“Oh, you know it, Auntie Stella. Wait till you see what I made you at school today.”
“You’re still in school?” I ask, surprised she’s still going this close to the holiday. Christmas is in six days.
“Last day, Jace. She starts vacation Monday. Well, technically today,” Stella tells me, and I nod.
She’s dragged into the living room by Jules, who holds tight to her arm. Mason is sitting on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table, a beer in his hand. He offers me one, and I nod, following him into the kitchen.
He hands me one and I twist the top off, taking a pull. I go to ask him about the photo when he pokes his head into the living room. “Hey, Stell, I need to show Jace something downstairs. Can you sit with Jules for a sec?”
“Of course,” she yells back, and he motions toward the hallway.
I follow him, and he pulls a door open on the right, stairs leading down. He takes me into the basement, and off to the right is what looks like a storage area.
Mason sets his beer down on a tote and reaches for a small manila envelope. I don’t miss the way his hands shake as he pulls it open, extracting a 4x6 photo. Slightly charred on one side, it’s covered in soot and a sticky film. Taking a good look at it, I see the photo was taken outside, probably at a barbeque in the summer. Mason and Stella are standing with their parents, all of them holding on to each other.
Mason has his arm around their mom, and Stella is between him and their dad, her body turned slightly to the right, probably laughing at something Mason said. He’s the spitting image of their dad, and their mom was absolutely beautiful.
Just like her daughter.
Knowing I hold the only photo of their family, taken mere months before they died, my throat swells. When I look up to see Mason’s eyes filled with tears, I hand it back to him to put in the envelope.
“I hope they can fix it.”
“I’ll have a copy blown up for you too. Stella said the whole house went up. How’d this survive the fire?” I muse, taking a sip of my beer.
“I went in after the fact with a couple of investigators, trying to see if anything was salvageable. It had fallen off my mom’s bureau and was behind it. It was the only part of their bedroom that wasn’t completely destroyed. Everything else was gone. No baby pictures, school yearbooks, nothing. So that picture surviving was a miracle, and it being saved, I can’t even tell you what it’ll mean to my sister.”
“Does Stella even know about this photo?” I ask him.
Mason nods. “I showed it to her the day I found it and it just made her cry, knowing our only real memory was ruined. So this will blow her away.”
“I just hope I don’t kill her. You should have seen her reaction to the nursery.”
He smirks. “Oh yeah? How’d she like it?”
“She sobbed. Said it was perfect.”
“Yeah, that’s normal Stella. Just add in a couple babies and she’s extra weepy.”
I chuckle. “Yeah, but I wouldn’t change her for the world.”
Mason just smiles at me, and we head back upstairs, the manila folder in his hands. As we step back into the kitchen, I find Stella trying to do some latest dance craze with Jules, both of them watching some YouTube video on Stella’s phone. Mason motions to me, and I watch him slip out the back door, knowing he’s going to stick the envelope in my truck.
Leaning against the doorframe, I watch Stella and Jules dance around, their cheeks flushed as they try to perfect the move. It’s like looking into the future, but only with two sweet girls. They finish a minute later, just as Mason steps back into the kitchen.
“Glovebox,” he says, and I nod, lifting my beer to take a drink.
“What are you guys up to out here?” Stella asks.
I just shrug, holding my drink in the air.
“Boys and their beer,” Jules says with an overdramatic sigh, and we all laugh at her.
“You guys wanna stay for dinner?” Mason asks, but Stella shakes her head.
“I have plans with this one and Chinese food. Your nieces don’t want to miss out on beef and broccoli and kung pow chicken.”
“No worries, Stell. Are you two gonna come over on Christmas Eve?” he asks, and she turns to look at me.
“Santa Claus marathon and Christmas pj’s?” I ask, and she laughs.
“One of the very first things you told me about yourself. And yeah, we’re there, Mason.”
Jules starts telling me all about what we’re gonna do, and I get lost in her excitement, realizing this is definitely going to be the best Christmas in a long time.
At least until next year.