“What do you think she’ll like?” Michael asks, holding Alexander’s hand. Alexander swings their hands around, looking through all the store windows.
“Ummm…What about a hat?” he suggests, pausing outside a small boutique. “She likes hats.” He looks up at the oversized hat sitting on Michael’s head. “You both do!”
Michael laughs and runs his fingers over the brim. “Hey, kid. Don’t hate the hat. Hate the game.”
Alexander sticks out his tongue and tugs on Michael’s hand. “Let’s go in there. I think Grandma would like that one.” He points to a straw hat on the top shelf. There’s a purple ribbon wrapped around it.
Michael raises his eyebrow. “You’ve got a good eye, kid. Come on. After this we’ll go get something to eat.”
“We should get some flowers, too,” Alexander says. “For the grave.”
Michael misses a beat. Just one.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “Maybe after we get food, though. So they don’t dry out. What do you feel like eating?”
Alexander grins. “CUPCAKES.”
Michael chuckles. “You and cupcakes, I swear. You’re not going to have any teeth left if you keep eating all this sugar!”
Alexander bares his teeth. “I’m only missing one,” he mumbles, poking his finger into his mouth and pointing out his missing back tooth. “My other ones grew back!”
Michael smiles and ruffles his hair. “Yeah? Teeth tend to do that, kid.”
They leave the store with a new hat for Elizabeth and a new hat for Michael.
“Why did you get a present?” Alexander grumbles. “It’s not your birthday.”
“Shhh,” Michael says, laughing. “Otherwise I won’t buy you a present.”
“A birthday present?” Alexander asks brightly. Michael nods.
“Of course. How old are you turning? Twenty-seven??”
Alexander rolls his eyes. “Nine, Uncle Michael,” he says condescendingly. “I’m turning nine in fifteen days!”
“Which means I must be turning four hundred in twenty-two days,” James says, appearing behind them.
Alexander giggles and drops Michael’s hand, racing over to James and tackling him in a bear hug.
“Hey, buddy,” James says, picking him up. “Did you guys have fun shopping? You ready for me to join you or are you still doing super-secret-squirrel-business??”
Alexander looks over at Michael. “Hide that bag!” he says in an exaggerated whisper.
“Oh, right!” Michael says, tucking the bag behind his back.
James laughs. “Let me guess…New guitar strings and some crazy ass socks.”
Alexander crinkles his nose. “You peeked! And you said a bad word!”
“I did not peek,” James says defensively. “I’m just very clever. And I’m sorry…Crazy bottom socks.”
Alexander giggles. James puts him down and holds his hand.
“Do you want me to take those?” James asks Michael, nodding towards the bags. Michael nods gratefully and hands them over.
“Yeah, thanks man. Physio this morning was a b-i-t-c-h.”
“I can spell, you know,” Alexander says, pulling a face. James tugs him towards him, winding his arm around Alexander’s head and blocking his ears between his arm and his body.
“Shhh. No you can’t.”
Michael laughs and leans heavily on his walking stick.
“Come on,” James says, eyeing his brother. “Let’s go sit down and get something to eat. What do you feel like, Alexander?”
Alexander’s grin widens. James rolls his eyes and Michael sighs. The three of them say it at the same time.
‘Alright,” James says, laughing. “Let’s go get some cupcakes. You can choose one for Grandma,” he says to Alexander. “She’s coming over for dinner tonight.”
“After we go visit Jenna?”
James takes a tiny breath in. It still hurts him to think about how much loss Alexander has suffered. To think about everything he’s been through.
You still have me, buddy, he thinks. You’ll always have me. Jenna made sure of that.
“Yeah, buddy,” he says out loud. “After we visit Jenna. We’ll get her some pretty flowers too, okay?”
Alexander grins. “Hey! That’s what I said.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Does that mean I can have TWO cupcakes??” he asks, tugging James forward. “You know. One for now and one for dessert.”
“Can you believe this kid??” James asks Michael. But he can’t keep the smile off his face.
“Pleeeeease,” Alexander begs.
James takes a deep breath in. “Fine, buddy. You can have two. Just this once.”
James shakes his head. “What did the physio say?” he asks, turning to Michael.
Michael beams. “I should be back to running rings around you in no time, baby bro.” He raises his eyebrow and smirks.
“In your dreams,” James says. But he smiles.
They reach the bakery and go inside.
“Which one should I get?” Michael asks, staring into the glass cabinet. “Which one, oh grand cupcake connoisseur?”
“What’s a consore?” Alexander asks, looking up at James.
“Connoisseur,” James corrects. “It’s someone who knows a lot about something. So you know a lot about cupcakes.”
“Ohhh.” He turns to Michael with a look of determination on his face. “This one,” he says, pointing to a vanilla cupcake with sprinkles on top. “This one is the best.”
Michael laughs. “Okay, kid. I trust you know what you’re talking about.”
“You know, that one does look good,” James says. He looks up at the woman behind the counter. “Hi there! Can we get three vanilla cupcakes please, an expresso –”
“Double shot,” Michael interrupts.
“—Double shot espresso,” James continues, “a bottle of coconut water, and…What do you want to drink, Alexander?”
Alexander stares into the fridge. “Coconut water,” he says after a moment.
James chuckles. “Okay, make that two coconut waters.”
The woman behind the counter smiles. “Will that be all?” James nods. “That will be seventeen dollars and ninety-eight cents.”
James pays and they go sit down. When their cupcakes arrive, Michael dips his finger into the frosting.
“Hey I have a question,” he says, licking a sprinkle off his finger. “Why do all sprinkles taste the same? They’re all different colours…Shouldn’t they be different flavours?”
James laughs so hard that coconut water sprays out of his nose.
“What?” Michael asks, licking his finger again. “What’s so funny??”
James opens his mouth to tell him, but Alexander beats him to it.
“You ask such weird questions, Uncle Michael,” he says, licking a sprinkle off his own finger. “Just eat your cupcake.”
Sitting there, watching Michael and Alexander argue over whether or not sprinkles actually are different flavours when eaten individually, James can only think one thing:
Yes. This is what happiness feels like.