Mark took a deep breath as he headed up the porch steps, trying his best to force a smile. Some days, it was easy to pretend.
But today was one of the hard ones.
Still, he always fought to put on a brave face for his grandson. He’d been spending a lot of time with Zayne lately… The whole family had. Visits to the park, trips to the movies, special dinners at his favorite restaurants – anything they could do to keep him distracted. Lift his spirits. Remind him how much he was loved.
Things had been especially difficult for Zayne lately, now that the guardianship details had been finalized at last. Jocelyne was still bouncing back and forth between Willow Creek and Windenburg as she tried to reach a compromise with Elliot about the move.
Mark did not want to get his hopes up that Jocelyne’s ex would be convinced to follow her back to Windenburg… But he couldn’t help wishing. He knew that she’d never make the move without her children’s father. And, selfishly, Mark was eager to have her back in his life again, even if it was as nothing more than Zayne’s guardian.
“Hi, Mark.” Tobi said as he opened the door. “Right on time… Zayne’s been just about bursting waiting for you to get here.” For a moment, he almost smiled.
Mark did manage a small smile of his own. “That’s our boy.” The older man replied.
Things had always been uncomfortable between him and Tobi, for obvious reasons. They’d managed to be civil to each other over the years, of course, but the two men had never really connected with one another… Until now. It had happened in the most terrible way imaginable, but there was a strange sort of bond between them now – The shared pain of knowing what it feels like to lose a child.
“Grandpa, grandpa!” Zayne’s cries of excitement reached both men’s ears, and called Mark back to the present.
His heart ached at the sight of Zayne’s bright red hair and chubby little cheeks. God, he looks so much like her. Mark still eagerly awaited the day he could look at his grandson’s face and not see his daughter staring back at him.
“Have fun at the movies, honey.” Colette bent down and gave Zayne a soft kiss. “Don’t drive grandpa too crazy, okay?”
“Don’t worry, Oma. I won’t.” Zayne giggled. “Bye!” He waved cheerily at her.
The little boy turned around, smiling at the pair of ornate urns that sat on the nearby table in the entryway. “Bye, Mama! Bye, Papa!”
Mark watched as the smiles instantly vanished from Tobi and Colette’s faces, and he felt his own heart sink at his grandson’s words.
“Bye, Opa!” Zayne smiled at Tobi, seemingly oblivious to the sudden change in his grandparents’ demeanor.
Tobi’s voice was thick. “See you soon, buddy.”
“Alright, who wants some ice cream before the movie?” Mark asked with a smile as Zayne hopped out of the backseat and onto the sidewalk.
“Me!” The little red-haired boy cried. “An’ Bruce too!’
His grandfather couldn’t help but chuckle at Zayne’s mention of his imaginary friend. “Okay.” He smiled warmly. “Bruce too.”
“Thanks for takin’ me to do fun stuff today, grandpa!” Zayne skipped down the sidewalk toward the front door of the ice cream parlor, Mark at his side.
“Of course!” His grandfather’s voice was warm. “Any time.”
His grandson appeared thoughtful for a moment. “Do you think Tante Joce likes to do fun stuff too?”
For a moment, Mark’s smile faltered at the mention of Jocelyne. “She does.” He promised his grandson. “I know she loves doing fun things with her little girls. And I’m sure all of them will love doing fun things with you too.”
Zayne just smiled. “I hope so!”
Once they got inside and found a seat, Mark headed to the counter to get their ice cream. “Don’t forget Bruce!” Zayne had reminded him. With a laugh, Mark asked for an empty bowl, which he spooned a bit of his own ice cream into.
“Here we go!” Mark smiled as he returned to the table where his grandson sat. “Vanilla for you, chocolate for me and Bruce.”
Zayne’s brow furrowed. “But… Bruce doesn’t like chocolate.” He said softly.
“Well, your friend Bruce and I had a little chat, and he told me he was willing to try it.” Mark assured him with a wink. “Just this once.”
The little boy shook his head. “No he didn’t. He never said that! He hates chocolate!” Zayne’s voice grew louder and louder with every word he spoke.
Mark felt his heart sink. He knew exactly where this was headed. Oh God, not again. “I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t –”
“You’re so STUPID!” Zayne threw his arm out, pushing all three bowls of ice cream to the floor with a trio of loud smashes. “Don’t preten’ you know Bruce! You don’t! He hates grown-ups!” The little boy’s shrieks echoed throughout the tiny ice cream parlor.
“You’re not his friend! Mama and Papa are the ONLY ones who can see him ‘cept for me! And they should be here ‘stead of you! They’d never give him chocolate! They wouldn’t mess it all up! They’d… They’d…” In an instant, Zayne’s big brown eyes were overflowing with tears. It sounded like he was trying to say more, but every word was drowned out by the boy’s gasping sobs.
Mark crouched down and pulled his grandson into a tight embrace. He could feel the gaze of every employee and customer in the entire restaurant, but he did not care. Zayne buried his head in his grandfather’s shoulder as his sobs continued to shake his entire body.
“It’s okay to be angry.” Mark whispered, blinking back the hot sting of his own tears. “I miss them too.”
Zayne simply cried harder in reply.
Mark continued to hold his grandson as he waited patiently for Zayne to come back to himself. These outbursts seemed to come more and more frequently lately, just as the grief counselor had warned them. But Mark knew it would pass just as quickly as it had come.
It was a few minutes before the little boy was able to calm back down again. But sure enough, his tears finally seemed to subside, and his breathing slowly returned to normal.
At last, Mark rose back to his feet, wiping his own tears away with the back of his hand. “Better?” He asked Zayne in a whisper.
The little boy nodded, his cheeks reddening. “I’m sorry, grandpa.” He said softly. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. And I didn’t mean to make a mess…” His lip trembled. “I just got so mad… And I ruined everything.”
“Hey, hey, don’t worry, kiddo. We can clean it up, no problem.” Mark said gently, glancing over his grandson’s shoulder at the spilled ice cream. “And you know what? I bet if we ask really nicely, Bruce will help too.” He added with a wink.
“O’course he will.” At last, Zayne’s lips curled into a smile. “Bruce is the bestest helper.”