Once in a while Molly Campbell wondered if other people saw it. When strangers passed her and Jack and little Joey, maybe they could actually see a golden hue, pixie dust on the tops of their heads or a light emanating from the air around them, telling all the world what the three of them inherently knew.
That life couldn’t possibly be more perfect.
Sometimes when Molly walked through the Palm Beach Mall, hand-in-hand with four-year-old Joey, her purse holding a couple hundred dollars cash, two debit cards and a Visa with five figures open to buy, she’d see a tired-looking, disheveled man or an aging woman with worn-out shoes, hollow-eyed and slack-jawed, and she’d wonder what had happened. How had life placed these people in their separate worlds, and how had she and Jack and Joey found their way to the right side?
The good side.
Molly felt that way now, sitting at the Cricket Preschool parents’ conference, listening to Joey’s teacher rave about his progress in math and spelling. She held the hand of her quick-witted, rugged husband and smiled at Joey. “That’s what we like to hear, buddy.”
“Thanks.” Joey grinned. His first loose tooth—the one in the middle, upper left —hung at a crazy angle. He swung his feet beneath the table as his eyes wandered around the room to the dinosaur poster and the T. rex. Joey loved the T. rex.
The teacher continued, “Your son is charming, a delight to everyone.” Mrs. Erickson was in her sixties, silver-haired with a gentle hand, a teacher who preferred to use colored marbles or M&Ms rather than a stern voice and repetition to teach the alphabet. “He’s reading at a first-grade level, and he won’t be five until fall. Amazing.” She raised her brow. “He’s computing beyond his years, as well. And he’s extremely social.”
Then the teacher shared an anecdote.
One day the week before, Joey came to class a few minutes early, and there sat Mark Allen, a child with learning disabilities. Mark Allen was staring at his empty lunch box, tears streaming down his face. Somehow his mother had sent him to school without any food for snack time.
“I was in the supply closet,” the teacher explained. “I didn’t see what was happening until I returned.”
By then, Joey had taken the seat next to Mark Allen, pulled his Batman lunchbox from his backpack and spread the contents out on the desk. As the teacher walked in, Joey was handing the boy his peanut butter crackers and banana, saying, “Don’t cry. You can have my snack.”
“I can only tell you,” the teacher concluded, her eyes shining at the memory, “Joey is the kindest, most well-adjusted four-year-old I’ve taught in a long time.”
Molly basked in the glow of the teacher’s praise. She let the story play over in her mind, and when the conference was over and they left the classroom, she grinned at her husband. “He gets it from me, you know.” She lifted her chin, all silliness and mock pride. “Sharing his snack with that little boy.”
“Right.” Jack’s eyes danced. “And the social part.” He gave her a look. “He gets that from you, no doubt.”
“But the smarts—” he tapped his temple, his voice full of laughter—“that’s my doing.”
“Wait a minute . . .” She gave him a shove, even if she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “I’m definitely the brains in this—”
“Let’s go, sport!” Jack took hold of Joey’s hand and the two of them skipped ahead as they reached the parking lot. It was a beautiful South Florida May afternoon, cooler than usual, all sunshine and endless blue skies and swaying palm trees, the kind of day that made a person forget the humidity and unbearable temperatures just a few weeks away. Molly could hear Jack and Joey giggling about recess and playground rules and tetherball. As they reached their blue Acura SUV, Jack gave Joey a few light pokes in his ribs. “So, sport . . . got a girlfriend?”
“No way.” Joey shook his head. “Us boys have a club. The Boys Are Best Club.” He put his hands on his waist. “No yucky girls.”
“Oh . . . good. Boys Are Best.” Jack gave a few thoughtful nods. He opened the driver’s door as he pulled Joey close and gently rubbed his knuckles against Joey’s pale blond hair. “You boys are right.” He winked at Molly. “Girls are yucky.”
Joey looked at her and his expression softened. “’Cept for Mommy.”
“Really?” They climbed into the car. From the driver’s seat, Jack looped his arm around Molly’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. “Well . . .” He grinned at her. “I guess Mommy’s not so bad. As long as she stays out of the kitchen.”
“Hey!” Molly laughed. “It’s been a month since I burned anything.”
Jack raised his eyebrow at Joey. “Today made up for it. Flaming cinnamon rolls—that’ll go down in the family record book.”
“They shouldn’t put ‘broil’ and ’bake’ so close together on the dial.”
Jack chuckled. “We shouldn’t put you in the kitchen. Period.”
“You might be right.” Molly didn’t mind her reputation for foul-ups at mealtime. Cooking bored her. As long as they ate healthy food, she had no interest in creating elaborate recipes. Simple meals worked just fine.
When they were buckled in, Joey bounced a few times on the seat. “Can we get pizza, huh? Please?”
“Great idea. That’ll keep Mom out of the kitchen. Besides—” Jack gave a pronounced slap on the steering wheel—“anyone who gets a perfect report in preschool should be allowed pizza.”
“Definitely pineapple pizza.”
As they drove to Nemo’s Deli a few blocks east of the school, a comfortable silence settled over the car. In the back seat, Joey found his library book, a pictorial on the Great White Shark. He hummed Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush as he turned the pages. Molly reached over and wove her fingers between Jack’s. “So . . . isn’t it amazing?” She kept her voice low, the conversation meant for just the two of them.
Jack grinned, keeping his eyes on the road. “Our little genius, you mean?”
“Not that.” Sunshine streamed through the windshield, sending warmth and well-being throughout her body. She smiled. “The kindness part. I mean . . .” There was laughter in her voice. “I know he’s a prodigy in the classroom and a natural on the playground. But how great that the teacher would call him ‘kind.’”
“The kindest boy she’s seen in a long time.”
“And well-adjusted.” Molly sat a little straighter.
They were half-teasing, bragging about Joey the way they could do only when no one else was around. Then the smile faded from Jack’s face. “Didn’t you think it’d be harder than this?”
“Harder?” Molly angled herself so she could see him better. “Preschool?”
“No.” Jack gripped the steering wheel with his left hand, more pensive than he’d been all afternoon. He glanced at the rear-view mirror and the fine lines at the corners of his eyes deepened. “Adopting. Didn’t you think it’d be harder? School trouble or social trouble? Something?”
Molly stared out the window. They were passing Fuller Park on their right, a place they’d taken Joey since he came into their lives. Home was only a block away. She squinted against the sunlight. “Maybe. It seems like a lifetime ago.”
“When we brought him home?” Jack kept his eyes on the road.
“No.” She drew a slow breath through her nose. “When we first talked about adoption, I guess.” She shot a quick look at Joey in the backseat, his blond hair and blue eyes, the intent way he sat there looking at shark pictures and humming. She met Jack’s gaze again. “As soon as they put him in my arms, every fear I ever had dissolved.” A smile started in her heart. “I knew he was special.”
Jack nodded slowly. “He is, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” She gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “As my sister would say, he’s a gift from God. Nothing less than a miracle.”
“Your sister . . .” Jack chuckled. “She and Bill are about as dry as they come.”
“Hey.” Molly felt her defenses come to life. “Give them time. They just moved here a week ago.”
“I know.” Jack frowned. “But can’t they talk about something besides God? ‘God’s will this’ and ‘God’s will that’?”
“Jack . . . come on.” Molly bristled. Beth was her best friend. The two were eighteen months apart, inseparable as kids: Beth, the younger but somehow more responsible sister, and Molly, the flighty one, always in need of Beth’s ability to keep her grounded. For the past three years Molly had worked on Beth, trying to get her and Bill and their four kids to move to West Palm Beach. “Be fair.” She was careful with her tone. “Give them a chance.”
The lines around Jack’s eyes relaxed. “I’m just saying . . .” He raised his brow at her. “They’re uptight, Molly. If that’s what churchgoing does to you--” he released her hand and brushed at the air--“count me out.”
“The move’s been hard on them.”
“Hey, Daddy, know what?” Joey tapped both their seats and bounced in his booster seat. “The Great White is as long as four daddies. That’s what the picture shows.”
The sparkle instantly returned to Jack’s expression. “Four daddies! Wow . . . how many little boys would that be?”
“Probly a million-jillion.”
They turned in to the restaurant parking lot. “Here we are!” Jack took the first space available. “Pineapple pizza coming up.”
“Jack . . .” Molly wasn’t finished. She winced a little. “I forgot to mention earlier--” She already knew the answer, but her sister made her promise to ask. “Beth and Bill want us to come to church with them Sunday. They’re trying out the one down the street from the school.”
Jack leaned over and kissed her cheek. He kept his face a few inches from hers. “When Bill says yes to one of my poker parties, I’ll say yes to church.”
“Okay.” She hid her disappointment. “So that’s a no?”
“That’s a no.” He patted the side of her face. The teasing left his eyes for a moment. “Unless you want me to. If it matters to you, I’ll go.”
Molly loved that about Jack. He had his opinions, but he was always willing to do things her way, always ready to compromise. “No.” She gave him a quick kiss. “We’re going out on the boat this Sunday. That’ll put us closer to God than a church service ever could.”
Joey was already out of the car and up on the sidewalk, waiting for them. Jack opened his car door and chuckled. “Well said, my dear. Well said.”
Not until they were inside the restaurant ordering their pizza did a strange ribbon of fear wrap itself around Molly’s throat. Their attitude toward church was okay, wasn’t it? They’d never been church people, even though Beth talked to her about it often.
“You need to take Joey,” Beth would say. “All children need to be in church.”
Molly looked at Joey now, golden-haired, his eyes adoringly on Jack as they considered the options at the pop machine. What they had was fine, wasn’t it? They believed in God, in a distant sort of way. What harm was there in finding Him at a lake instead of in a pew? Besides, they already had everything they needed.
Jack’s recent promotion had placed him in a dream job as vice president of sales for Reylco, one of the top three pharmaceutical companies in the world. He was making a healthy six-figure salary, overseeing top international accounts, and traveling half as often as before. They lived on a corner lot in Ashley Heights, one of West Palm Beach’s finer upscale neighborhoods. The three of them took trips to Disneyworld and Sanibel Island and the Bahamas, and they fished at Lake Okeechobee once a month.
Every now and then they spent a Saturday afternoon serving lunch at a homeless mission in Miami, and then they’d take in a play in the city’s art district. On weekdays, after dinner, they walked to Fuller Park with Joey and Gus, their friendly lab. There Jack and Molly stole kisses and laughter, watching sunsets while Gus ran circles around the playground and Joey raced to the top of the slide over and over and over again.
They kept an Air Nautique ski boat at Westmont Pier, and on most Sundays they drove to the white sandy seashore and cruised to the bay, where water was smooth and deep blue and warm. They’d take turns skiing, and Joey would sit in the back, watching, pumping his fists in the air when one of them cleared the wake. This spring, for the first time, they’d bought a pair of training skis for Joey. More sunshine and laughter, day after day, year after year.
These thoughts chased away Molly’s strange fear, and she found a window table where she could wait for her men. The uneasy feeling lifted. Why worry? The golden hue, the shining light, the pixie dust—all of it must be real. They were happy and healthy and they had everything they’d ever wanted. Most of all, they had Joey.
What more could God possibly give them?