I've just delivered the full manuscript of The Secret Keeper Fulfilled to beta readers, so it's only fair all readers of the series get a taste of what's to come in the sixth and final book in the series. Enjoy! And tell me what you think!
THE SECRET KEEPER FULFILLED
A granola cluster sails past my head. My arms full of baby, I can do nothing more than shoot an evil look over my shoulder toward the kitchen table and growl, “Cut it out, you guys.”
Four-year-old Max informs me at high volume and maximum whine that his nearly-three-year-old brother, Harris, is eating his cereal with his hands. In his righteous indignation, Max dips his elbow in his own cereal bowl, sending milk and granola bits flying. Aidan, almost two, giggles at the sight of more airborne food. Harris’s twin, Brooks, looks on disdainfully, like he can’t believe he’s a member of this herd.
It’s a typical Monday morning in the Northam house. Five kids under the age of five. You do the math. I’m living it. It’s messy. And loud.
Holding a hungry, increasingly-impatient eight-week-old Addison in one arm, I give the anti-Norman-Rockwell tableau barely more than a glance as I retrieve a pre-made baby bottle from the fridge.
Brice steps over the puddle of milk on his way into the kitchen and says dully, “Good morning. I’ll get that.” He plucks the roll of paper toweling from its holder and steps into the fray.
“Much obliged,” I drawl, then firmly instruct Max to put his behind in his booster seat and be quiet while his father deals with the mess.
Max complies with the first request but wails about being “wet and sticky,” before screeching at Aidan, “It’s not funny!”
“Lord, deliver me,” Brice mutters (and I’m pretty sure it’s not just a figure of speech for him), peeling Max’s milk-soaked pajamas away from the boy’s body.
“He will,” I point out to my husband. “In about fifteen minutes, when you get to leave for work.”
Crouching to mop the floor with Max’s castoff pajama bottoms, Brice grins up at me. “Lucky me. I’ll be taking the mouthiest one with me, though, so… lucky you. How thankful are you for Monday morning preschool?”
“Very.” I pour his coffee and set it on the narrow slab of counter next to the stove, out of reach of any spill-prone hands, then return to warming Addi’s bottle in a glass of warm water.
Before the formula’s even warm, Brice returns to the kitchen, having made short work of de-stickifying and dressing our oldest child. He snags the mug of coffee, draining half of it in three swallows. Reaching over me to pull down a box of cereal from the cabinet next to my head, he lightly kisses the back of my neck.
Testing the temperature of the baby formula against my wrist, I smile quietly and finally return his earlier “Good morning.” I turn to face him as I begin feeding the baby her long-awaited breakfast.
“Something like that,” he replies wryly. His hand rests on Addi’s blonde, fuzzy head. “And good morning to you, Ladybug! Someone could forget about such a well-behaved, quiet baby with these bozos around.” He jabs a thumb in the direction of the squirmy boys at the table.
She blinks up at him around her bottle but continues gulping.
“No, don’t stop on my account,” he insists. “Pretend I’m not even here. I do. Often.”
“It’s not that bad, is it?”
He shakes bran flakes and raisins into a bowl, then reaches into the fridge for the milk. As he’s nudging the appliance closed with his elbow, he answers less-than-convincingly, “I’m only kidding.”
That’s not exactly what I was fishing for. I need him to tell me, like he does most days, that this is temporary, and I need him to give me an encouraging estimate for life returning to some semblance of order, a figure smaller than “eighteen years.” He normally takes everything in stride. I chalk up his uncharacteristic ennui this morning to fatigue. Neither of us has had a full night of sleep in months (unless you count that six-day sleep I took back in June, which wasn’t as restful as it may sound).
Now he levels a scolding look at me. “I do have a bone to pick with you, though…”
I pull my chin back and widen my eyes. “Moi?”
“Yes! Mitzi is so desperate to get in touch with you to set up a play date with Sasha and the boys that she’s resorted to using Jared and me as the go-between. What the higgety-heck is the deal with that?”
“What the hack?” Harris echoes, then tips his bowl toward his face.
“Exactly,” Brice says, pointing to our son with his own spoon, before flattening his flakes farther into his own bowl of milk.
I focus on Addi’s face and answer sulkily, “I don’t know. I just…” Raising my head to meet my husband’s eyes, I whine, “Do I have to?” Immediately, I regret the unfiltered question that provokes his wrinkled forehead.
“Not if you’re too tired, but you should probably answer your friend’s calls and tell her that. Are you feeling okay?”
I sigh. That settles it. I have to go. Otherwise, he’ll think all this is too much for me, and we’ll have to have that conversation again, the one that makes me feel like I’m an eyelash away from being classified as “unstable” and observed for risky postpartum behavior. It doesn’t matter that he’ll couch it in the “Remember, you’re still recovering from a major medical ordeal?” conversation.
As if I would or could forget. People are constantly reminding me of it.
The response to my health crisis and recovery has been nearly as overwhelming and daunting as the recovery itself. Peace held a 24-hour prayer vigil while I was comatose, with people taking shifts to pray for me. Me! When I found that out, I had to go to bed for a couple of hours.
Of course, I’m grateful. That goes without saying. But the mere thought of such an event in my honor, while I slept, oblivious, just a few miles away in a hospital room, threatens to smother me more effectively than a pillow to the face. If I had been aware of it while it was happening, I probably would have been hesitant to ever wake up. Don’t try to make that make any sense to you. It hardly makes sense to me. But it’s true. Even while deeply unconscious, I want nothing to do with that level of attention.
When yet another sigh is the only answer his latest inquiry into my health receives, he suggests, “Why don’t you have Mom come over and sit with Addi and Aidan, so you only have to keep track of the older boys? And go somewhere they can wear themselves out… Like the pool or one of those bounce places. You and Mitzi can watch from the sidelines and catch up with each other; the kids can go nuts without either of you worrying about having a disaster area on your hands when it’s all done.”
I stretch a brave smile across my lips. “Good ideas. I’ll give her a call.”
He grins proudly around a mouthful of cereal, chews, and swallows. “Excellent. I want a full report when you come to pick up Max.” Before I can tell him where he can shove his “full report,” he winces. “Oooh… except I won’t see you today, actually. I’m supposed to call Dr. Glendenning at that time.”
“Who’s this Dr. Glendenning that he takes priority over me?” I pull the bottle from Addi’s mouth and hold it up to check her progress. Then I transfer the baby to my shoulder, not even bothering with a burp rag or towel. These pajamas are headed for the hamper as soon as I get a chance to get dressed (which, admittedly, may not be for several hours), so I’m not concerned about spit-up.
He chases a raisin around the bottom of the bowl with his spoon, finally capturing it and shaking it into the center of the utensil. Holding it to his lips, he answers, “You know, Dr. G. Vince and I talk about him all the time. He was our favorite professor at Sem.”
Although Vince and Brice didn’t attend Concordia Seminary in St. Louis at the same time—Vince was ordained a year before Brice enrolled—many of the same professors were still around by the time Brice came through. Dr. Glendenning was one of those professors. I know that much from the stories he and Vince love to trade late into the night while I doze nearby. But if Brice is going to quiz me about the particulars of those tales, I’m in trouble.
“Oh, yes. Dr. G. I remember now. Yes. And you have to call him precisely at 11:30? Isn’t he retired by now? Doesn’t he have all the time in the world to shoot the shi—breeze with you?”
My near-curse in the presence of the kids fetches a warning look over the rim of the cereal bowl as Brice drinks his milk like an overgrown kid. Finishing, he reaches behind himself and puts his dirty dishes in the sink, earning him an equally severe look from me. Which he ignores, in favor of continuing his explanation.
“He may have all the time in the world, but I don’t. I have a busy day. But he said it was important. He’s been helping me brainstorm for a while via email about how to get Peace behind the idea of hosting a vicar.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Do you remember Jared’s vicarage? Or have you blocked that out? Because I remember it. I was on vicar duty 24/7.”
“It’s not going to be like that this time, Hon,” Brice promises, digging at his teeth with his tongue.
“And you think that, because…?”
He chases rogue bran flake remnants with the last of his chilly coffee. “Well, I’m not the only pastor this guy would be shadowing, for one thing. Yeah, ultimately, I’ll be the supervisor, but Jared and Wes would probably be better mentors, anyway.”
Addi burps her opinion on the matter.
He smiles at the baby’s noises and taps his wedding ring against the side of the ceramic mug. “Really. You won’t have to be involved at all this time. I mean, other than making the guy feel welcome. Plus, nobody could be as high-maintenance as Jared was.”
I settle Addi in my arms for the second half of her bottle. “You’re a real glutton for punishment, you know that?”
Before he can respond to the charges, another skirmish breaks out at the table. Sighing, he sets his mug in the sink with the rest of his dishes. “And with that, I’m off. Good luck.” He plants a peck on my lips, then kisses the top of Addi’s head. “Although you don’t need luck with this one, because she’s an angel. Right, Ladybug?”
His daughter’s answer is an uncoordinated punch to his chin.
“Okay! I’ll leave you alone to eat.” He straightens and rubs his face, as if she really hurt him. Crossing to the table, he barks, “Max! Enough of the reign of terror in here. Let’s go to preschool, where you can boss around some people unrelated to you, for a change.” He pulls out Max’s chair and angles it to give his son room to hop down.
“I yanna go to school!” Brooks wails.
Harris blindly follows his twin brother’s lead in the chant.
“You guys get to stay home with Mommy and Aidan and Addi! How fun is that?” their dad gushes, struggling to speak loudly enough to be heard.
Aidan joins the chorus. Much square-mouth crying and gnashing of baby teeth ensues.
With Addi on my shoulder for another round of burping, I approach the table and shoo Brice and Max toward the garage. “Just go. Please. They’ll be fine as soon as you’re gone.”
Not helping matters, Max shoots his left-behind brothers a smug smile while his dad slides the straps of his backpack up his wiry arms. “See ya, suckas!” he tosses gleefully over his shoulder on the way out the door.
I try not to react to the four-year-old’s new favorite saying.
Brice, on the other hand, stands with his back against the open door and watches after his son, then turns his head and says to me, “I really hate that.”
“I know,” I acknowledge, doing a half-assed, one-handed job of cleaning the hands and faces of the sniffling younger boys before releasing them from their respective boosters. “But what’re you gonna do? It’s technically not a bad word, so…”
He snorts and shakes his head. “You and your technicalities. I guess I’ll have a little talk with him about it on our way to the church.”
“Yeah. I’m sure he loves those as much as I do,” I mutter. “Have a nice morning.”
He gives a final, limp wave before descending the stairs into the garage and pulling the door shut behind him.
Almost immediately, the three boys left with me stop their wailing. Brooks and Harris run to the dining room, where they jockey for position at the window, so they can watch Brice back from the driveway and give them his daily wave and short horn-honk (which I’m sure the neighbors love). Aidan follows slightly more uncertainly but eventually gets there, too, just in time to wave his dad and brother off.
I set Addi in her swing and clear the breakfast dishes. And another week commences.