An inset that follows Chapter 10 of the main story.
“Can I take your order, sir?”
Elijah had been staring at the menu in his hands for at least ten minutes, and he was no closer to making a decision now than when he first opened it. Despite the mouth-watering and vegetarian-friendly selection, there was nothing that appealed to him; the truth was, he simply didn’t have any appetite. But the waiter was watching him expectantly, pen poised over his notepad, and so were Hannah and Lawrence, seated on the opposite side of the table with Jordan in a highchair between them.
“And for your main course?” the young man prompted.
“I’ll just have the salad, thanks.”
“Elijah!” Hannah exclaimed. “This is your birthday dinner. You’re not just having a salad.” She addressed the waiter. “My brother will have the Kung Pao Tofu for a main course,” she said in a brook-no-nonsense tone.
The waiter made a note on his pad without even bothering to double check with Elijah, gathered up the menus and left. Elijah met Lawrence’s amused sympathetic gaze across the table and grinned. When Hannah used that tone of voice, everyone jumped to obey.
But Elijah’s grin faded almost as quickly as it had appeared. Hannah had gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this 25th birthday dinner at The White Dog Café for her brother, but it was hard to work up much enthusiasm for even this restaurant’s fabulous food under the circumstances, not with two unused place settings on either side of him to remind him of exactly who was missing from his birthday celebration.
His mom and Zach, who were supposed to have arrived late that morning, were still in Iowa. A blizzard had shut down O’Hare Airport, where their flight from Cedar Rapids was scheduled to land before continuing on to Philly. They were hopeful of catching a flight out in the morning, but already an entire day of their all-too-short visit had been wasted. It sucked royally.
But that wasn’t the only reason to be depressed. Elijah’s thoughts turned inevitably to yet another person who wasn’t present, but for far different reasons: reasons that Elijah understood with his head but had so much difficulty accepting with his heart.
Suddenly Jordan, who had been happily occupied with chewing on a now-soggy dinner roll clutched in his small fist, fixed his enormous chocolate brown eyes on Elijah. “Lijah,” he said imperatively, holding out his arms. “Lijah!”
“Looks like somebody wants his uncle’s attention,” Lawrence laughed, lifting his squirming son effortlessly out of the highchair and passing him to Elijah.
“I don’t mind; I love holding him,” Elijah admitted, settling Jordan on his lap and wrapping his arms snugly around the toddler’s middle. He buried his nose in Jordan’s soft curls, and breathed deeply of his nephew’s sweet baby-shampoo-and-powder fragrance, underlain by that hint of the pines. Familiar feelings of protective love welled up inside him, and he prayed not for the first time that he would be able to prepare Jordan half so well for his future as his own father had prepared him.
“I’ll remember that next time he needs his diaper changed,” Hannah joked, but Elijah, glancing up, surprised a look in her eyes that dismayed him. In fact, she seemed almost on the verge of tears.
Hannah blinked hard and waved a hand. “Don’t mind me, Lij. You know how emotional I get at birthdays.” Clearly anxious for the awkward moment to pass, she took Jordan’s bottle from the highchair’s tray and unscrewed the top to refill it with apple juice that she removed from her large quilted carryall.
“Jordan is lucky to have you, Elijah,” Lawrence said softly in his slow, deep voice. “Hannah and I both know that.” His deep brown eyes, Jordan’s eyes, were filled with compassionate understanding.
“Thank you,” Elijah whispered, and blessed the day Lawrence had come into their lives. His Maori heritage and deeply spiritual nature made him uniquely qualified to become part of their family. How many men would have accepted their son’s destiny with such equanimity? Jordan was the lucky one, Elijah knew.
“Here, give Jordan this.” Hannah half-rose and handed the juice bottle to Elijah. “And don’t forget,” she reminded him with the familiar teasing grin firmly in place, “no matter what happens, you love holding him.”
Relieved that the shadow had passed, Elijah relaxed and laughed. He offered the juice bottle to Jordan, who wrapped the chubby fingers of his free hand around one of the handles and, kicking his legs contentedly, took a drink. But then he tilted his head back against Elijah’s chest and fixing his uncle once more with his large and expressive eyes, said very clearly, “You miss Sean.”
Having dropped this unexpected bombshell, Jordan turned his attention back to his bottle, while the three adults stared at the child in disbelief. It was as close to a full sentence as Jordan had yet uttered, but even more, Elijah hadn’t said one word in Jordan’s hearing about Sean’s absence at this dinner and what it meant to him.
Out of the mouths of babes, Elijah thought, stunned. Aloud he said, “Yeah, I do miss him, monkey. I miss him a lot.” There was no point in denying it. It was obviously written all over him. He missed Sean so much it was almost a physical pain.
Hannah and Lawrence exchanged concerned glances. “Oh, Lij,” his sister exclaimed. “Sweetie, I’m sure he’d be here if he could.”
It meant a lot to Elijah that Hannah was willing to give Sean the benefit of the doubt. Her fierce loyalty to her family, especially to Elijah, had made him worried that she would hold Sean’s absence against him.
Elijah sighed. “I know. I know he would. It’s just… we had so little time together before he had to go back to New York, and I don’t even know when I’m going to see him again.” He bit his lip. “God, I’m sorry, Hannah. I’m ruining this lovely dinner that you’ve planned.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Hannah said gently. “We’re all feeling a little down what with Mom and Zach stuck in Iowa.”
But despite his sister’s reassurance, Elijah felt ashamed of himself. The present situation wasn’t anyone’s fault, certainly not Sean’s, and god knew he’d done everything in his power to make the day special for Elijah, starting with a phone call at one minute after midnight to wish him a happy birthday.
They’d talked for a good two hours, even though Sean had a very hectic day ahead of him. Elijah had lain on his bed in the dark room with the phone cradled beneath his chin, pretending that it was in reality Sean’s strong, gentle hand, and that the man he loved was there in the bed beside him, not miles away in the city. But all too soon they’d had to say goodnight, and not even the familiar, comforting presence of Maggie at his side and Rocky on his shoulder could banish the loneliness he felt.
But in the morning, Sean’s first birthday gift had arrived: an enormous bouquet of red roses. Shortly thereafter a UPS truck pulled up, and a mound of boxes from Amazon and Apple were piled in the front hall. A sleek new Mac with a 30” flat panel monitor now sat on Elijah’s computer desk, and while he wasn’t 100% certain, Elijah was pretty sure that Sean had bought him every last book, CD and DVD on his Amazon wish list.
Even with the stress of an important meeting with his attorneys and moving more of his belongings out of the apartment on Central Park West and into a suite at Trump Tower, Sean had made time to call and wish him a happy birthday yet again, and listened with a sympathetic, patient ear to Elijah’s unhappy news that his mother and brother weren’t going to be arriving that day after all.
“God, I’m so sorry, Elijah,” he’d said. “But I promise things will be different next year, and every year after that.”
Elijah clung to that promise desperately, but at that moment he would have given almost anything for one glimpse of Sean’s face, one touch of his hand. Somehow Jordan voicing the truth aloud had made it all the harder to bear.
And then Elijah’s attention was distracted by a woman’s voice. “The Makoare party? They’re sitting right over here,” she was saying. It was the restaurant hostess, and she was threading her way through the tables in their direction. Elijah did a double take. For following close behind her were two very familiar figures. It was his mom and Zach.
Elijah sat up straight, staring over Jordan’s head in disbelief. “Oh my god. I don’t believe it. Hannah, look.”
Hannah swiveled around in her chair, let out a little shriek that gained the attention of every diner in the room, and leapt to her feet.
Then the world became a chaotic blur of motion and emotion as joyful hugs and kisses were exchanged, and a chortling, beaming Jordan was passed first to his grandmother and then to his uncle to be cooed over and admired.
“I don’t believe it,” Elijah said again several minutes later, when they were seated around the table, and Debbie and Zach had placed their orders. “How on earth did you get here? Did they re-open O’Hare?”
Zach, sitting on his brother’s right, was grinning like a fool. “Nope. But a magician stepped in and waved his magic wand, Lij, and voila! We were whisked away from Cedar Rapids on a flying carpet and set down here in Philadelphia.” On Elijah’s left, Debbie Wood laughed.
“What are you talking about, Zach?” Elijah asked in total bewilderment. “What magician?”
“Zach,” Hannah complained. “Stop being so mysterious and tell us what you mean.”
“It was Sean.” Debbie took pity on her baffled children. “He called me this morning at home, and said we should sit tight, that he was going to arrange to get Zach and me here in time for your birthday dinner, Elijah.”
“Sean?” Elijah exclaimed. “My Sean?”
“Yep, your Sean.” Zach picked up the story. “Next thing we knew, a limo was pulling up in front of the house and we were taken straight to the airport, where a private jet was waiting for us. I kid you not. A Gulfstream 200.” He shook his head at the memory. “It was friggin’ amazing. Talk about luxury-- I tell you what, Lij, I’ve been ruined for commercial air travel forever.”
“When we arrived at Philly International,” Debbie concluded, with a humorous glance at Zach, “there was another limo waiting to drive us to the restaurant. And here we are!” She reached out and hugged Elijah tightly. “Itwas a little bit like starring in an episode of ‘Lives of the Rich and Famous’, and I’m still kind of breathless, but oh, honey, I don’t know how we can ever thank Sean enough. You’ll have to tell us something we can do for him. Elijah, it must have cost him a fortune to arrange all that at such short notice.”
“Sean won’t care about what it cost, mom,” Elijah said positively, “and he won’t want to be thanked.”
“Of course he won’t want to be thanked. He went to all that trouble for you, after all, not for me or for Zach.” Debbie smiled at her son, a little crookedly. “He must love you very, very much, Elijah.”
Elijah searched his mother’s eyes, eyes that had so often looked at him with sorrow or farewell in their depths, but he could see only profound relief and gladness there now. “He does love me very much." He smiled back at her. "Mom, Sean's the one. He’s it for me.” He knows exactly what I am and what that means, and he doesn’t fear it. But he couldn’t say that aloud, not here. There would be time for that conversation later.
Debbie placed her hand over Elijah’s where it rested on the tablecloth; her eyes were bright. “Sweetheart, I can’t tell you how happy I am for you.”
Elijah turned his hand under hers and their fingers intertwined, the light from the candle on their table glinting on his silver ring. “Thanks, mom,” he whispered.
The arrival of the waiter with a fresh round of drinks put an end to the conversation, as did the sudden vibration of the cell phone in Elijah’s shirt pocket. He fished it out and saw that it was the private number that Sean had set up for Elijah’s sole use. He flipped the phone open at once, and said by way of greeting, “Sean, why didn’t you tell me?” He was aware that everyone, even Jordan, was watching him, but he didn’t care.
“I take it your mom and brother are there, then,” Sean said, amusement lacing his voice. “And I didn’t tell you because I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“It was, believe me.” Elijah glanced at his brother and smiled. “Zach says you’re a magician, and I think he’s right.”
“Nah, there’s only one magical person in this relationship and that’s you. All I did was make a few phone calls.”
But Elijah knew it had been much, much more than simply making a few phone calls. “On a day when you were already incredibly busy? Sean…”
“I know: you’re in a crowded restaurant and your mom is sitting right next to you, so you can’t tell me in thrilling detail all the ways you plan to thank me when we see each other again. But not to worry, Elijah, I have a great imagination.”
Elijah giggled. “You aren’t going to let me be serious, are you?”
“Nope,” Sean replied calmly.
“Well, I’m going to be, whether you like it or not.” Elijah lowered his voice, but he knew his family could still hear him, even though they were valiantly pretending not to be listening with avid interest. “You are totally awesome and amazing, Sean the Magician, and I love you.”
“The Amazing Sean, huh? I kind of like that. I can pull travel-delayed relatives out of my hat instead of rabbits,” Sean replied on a soft laugh that burned its way through Elijah’s body like a sip of Bill Jenkins’s applejack, and settled with a warm glow in his stomach. “Now listen, I don’t want to interrupt your birthday dinner. I only called to make sure your mom and brother arrived safely. Tell them I’m looking forward to meeting them in person very soon.”
“I’ll tell them, Sean. And I’ll call you after I get home, okay?”
“Okay. It’s a date. Elijah, I love you.”
“I love you, too.” And Elijah was able to say the words without an ache of grief for Sean’s absence. In every way that mattered, Sean was right there with him.
They disconnected, and Elijah slipped the phone back into his pocket, feeling absurdly happy. He looked around and saw that his mom and Zach and Hannah and Lawrence all had their glasses raised. Smiling, they toasted him, saying, “Happy Birthday, Lij,” while Jordan thumped his juice bottle on the highchair tray and chanted, “Lijah! Lijah!”
Sean was a magician, no doubt about it, Elijah thought as he clinked his beer mug in turn with each member of his family. After all, he had given him this.