Today's Reading

The old woman bent over in front of the little boy, and held out her hand like she was sprinkling invisible birdseed, trying to coax him to her. Unsurprisingly, he didn't move. If he hadn't got up on those stubby legs for his mummy and daddy, he was hardly going to do it for the lady next door.

Mrs. Morrison straightened, shaking her head. "Give him time. My Mark didn't walk 'til he was two. He's not even one yet, is he?"

"Nearly! It's tomorrow," Elise said. "That's why I'm here. If you're not busy, would you like to come over for cake in the afternoon? Maybe around three? Only if you're free, of course."

Mrs. Morrison smiled. She loved having a family next door, especially one that made an effort to include her. Until they moved in, she'd felt like the last of her kind—a stubborn reminder of the way things used to be. The smile faded as she remembered her own son. Mark had been a sweet boy too, and a lovely man, and it wasn't his fault how things ended up. It was those friends. And this neighborhood. Now, every time there was a knock on the door she was sure it was the police, delivering more bad news.

"You're still locking your doors at night, love?" she asked.

"Of course, Mrs. Morrison."

"I wish you could've seen it forty years ago," the old lady murmured, almost apologetically, and Elise needed no further explanation. Her neighbor had said this every time they'd spoken, and she knew what came next. She needed to change the subject before those faded gray eyes started to tear up.

"So three o'clock tomorrow. It'll just be you and the three of us. Leo's even calling in sick to work." This was a big deal and certainly wasn't in the original version of The Plan.

Mrs. Morrison came back to the present. "The cake," she said. "Is your oven still on the fritz? You can use mine if you want."

"It's alright, I've already made it," Elise told her. "It's just the thermostat that's busted. The edges are a bit burned, but there'll be plenty of icing. He won't notice."

The boy at her feet was playing with a doorstop as though it were a rocket ship. Elise scooped him up and he waved a fat little hand at the kindly lady next door. Mrs. Morrison waved back as they left, heart swelling with the pride of an adopted grandmother. She looked around the room, wondering what she could wrap up and give him for his birthday.

She needn't have bothered; Mrs. Morrison wouldn't be attending any afternoon tea. Nor would Leo or Elise Palmer, for that matter. Not that any of them knew it.

* * *

It was long after dark when Leo's return from work was announced by a key sliding into one lock, then another. He tiptoed inside and danced silently over the toys strewn in the entrance. He was sure kicking one—even the barest nudge with his toe—would mean waking the boy asleep in his cot against the living room wall. Leo looked in at his son, thumb tucked firmly in his mouth, a slight rise and fall of his chest as he dreamed. The metal bars of his cot gleamed dully in the light from the bedroom door beyond.

Elise lay on her side of the small double bed, propped up on pillows with a book in front of her. Of course she was reading; there was a mound of books on her bedside table.

"Sorry I'm late," Leo whispered. "Big day. Think I can feel a cold coming on. Don't reckon I'll make it in to work tomorrow." He winked, and his wife smiled. "I'll be back in a sec," he said. "Just want to check out the cake."

He tiptoed to the fridge. A beer bottle rattled as he pulled the door open, and he held his breath.

No noise came from the cot. A minor miracle.

Leo admired Elise's handiwork. Two plain butter cakes had been transformed into an impressive reproduction of Thomas the Tank Engine, the birthday boy's favorite TV show. The blue frosting looked thick and deliciously sweet, although Leo suspected it might be masking some burned edges beneath. He grinned. It'd be the thermostat's fault. It always was.

Next to a small vase on the living room table he spied the present he'd picked out. It had been carefully wrapped by Elise and now sat ready to be torn open by an excited child. He looked down into the cot, gazing fondly at his son's sandy-colored hair and soft, smooth skin.

"Night, buddy. See you when you're a one-year-old," he whispered, so quietly he could barely hear it himself. Then he crept back into the bedroom and Elise switched out the light.

* * *

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