Heidi came home from work and was greeted by her loving son as usual.
"Mommy!" Ned said when he saw his mother coming through the kitchen door. "I missed you!" The tike ran across the room to give his mother's leg a hug.
"I missed you too, Baby," Heidi said warmly, squatting down to give her boy a hug. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," Ned reported. "I had a good day."
"That's good news!" Heidi laughed.
"So, I was talking with Angela Phillips across the street earlier," Heidi's brother Julian said as he stepped to the stove to check on the cooking food.
"Oh?" Heidi replied, setting her bag on one of the kitchen chairs. "Everything okay?"
"She says her son is moving back in with her," Julian announced.
"I didn't even know she had a son," Heidi admitted, taking a seat in one of the chairs and watching Ned play with his toys in the corner. "I've met her daughters a few times."
"He's a recent widower with a kid around Ned's age," Julian reported. "Apparently, he's moving back so Angela can help with the kid."
"Wow, that's going to be a big change for Angela," Heidi remarked.
"Yeah," Julian agreed. "I was thinking we should invite them to Ned's birthday party. That way, the kids can meet and all that."
"Sure," Heidi said easily. "Sounds good."
A few days later as she was preparing to leave for work, Heidi noticed a U-Haul truck backing to Angela's driveway. She saw a couple of guys unloading furniture pieces – most notably, a child's bedroom set and accompanying toys. Heidi wondered which one of the men was Angela's son.
The next day, Julian mentioned to his sister that he had met the father and his young daughter.
"The kid's cute," Julian reported. "The father is in his thirties. Not sure what his story is."
"His wife died," Heidi remarked.
"Yes, but how?" Julian said. "And what does he do for a living? And where did they live before moving back?"
"It's really none of our business," Heidi determined.
"That's why I didn't ask," Julian agreed.
"That was polite of you," Heidi sarcastically told her brother.
"It'll be nice for Ned to have a new playmate close by though," Julian said. "This is an older neighborhood."
"Definitely," Heidi agreed.
Julian made sure Ned's birthday party was properly arranged and he did a good job organizing the event. Eight kids from Ned's pre-school class came, along with one or both parents. Heidi was busy with the various activities, socializing with the parents, and helping Julian and she didn't notice when Angela Phillips first appeared from across the street, along with her son and granddaughter, new to the neighborhood.
When Heidi finally took notice, she gave Angela a hearty hug. The older woman had always been kind to Heidi and Ned, a nice and helpful neighbor.
"This is my son, Yuly," Angela said when she and Heidi broke from their embrace. "And this is Elsie."
"Well, hello, Elsie," Heidi said, squatting down to take the little girl's hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to the neighborhood. My name is Heidi. I have a feeling that you and my son Ned are going to be best friends!"
"Come, Elsie, you can meet the birthday boy and his friends," Angela said, taking Elsie's hand and leading her toward the playing kids across the yard.
Heidi was standing straight now, giving Yuly the look over. He was older than she expected, his face full of exhausted tension and tired defeat. He wore his brown hair in a styled cut with a neatly trimmed beard. "Hello," she said.
"Hello," he replied. "Thanks for having us, although I'm sure it was my mother's idea."
Heidi laughed. "Oh, it's our pleasure," she assured him. "We're excited to have someone Ned's age right across the street."
"I met your husband before," Yuly said.
"My husband?" Heidi squinted at him with confusion.
Yuly gestured to Julian standing among a group of moms chatting away.
Heidi laughed. "Julian's my brother, not my husband!"
"Oh," Yuly said with awkward surprise. "I just assumed…"
"It's okay," Heidi giggled. "You're not the first one to make that assumption."
"It was still foolish of me to do so," Yuly said.
"So, did you grow up in that house across the street?" Heidi asked.
"Yeah," Yuly said. "Cindy Dapper used to live in yours," he recalled fondly as he glanced around the backyard and at the house. "The typical girl next door heartthrob for all of us poor sap boys who grew up around here."
"The quintessential good girl?" Heidi guessed.
"Pretty much," Yuly said.
"I was never like that," Heidi laughed. "I acquiesced to nobody! I was a temperamental rebel rouser who did things my way, never compromising my convictions, beliefs, or desires."
Yuly nodded with understanding.
"Which is probably why I had a kid out of wedlock and am now raising him as a single working mom," Heidi noted with disappointment in her voice.
"We're all adjusting to our lives," Yuly said with a shrug.
"I still answer to myself first though," Heidi told him.
"Mommy!" Ned called, coming toward them.
"You sure you don't answer to him?" Yuly smirked, gesturing toward her son.
"Touché!" Heidi laughed as she turned and squatted down to Ned's level. "What is it, honey?"
"Mama, I have to go potty," Ned announced.
"Okay, sweetheart, thanks for telling me," she said, taking the boy's hand and standing. "Make yourself at home," she told Yuly. "Mingle."
Yuly nodded and watched the mom and her son head for the sliding glass door off the back deck. She looked a little like Cindy Dapper in some ways but she definitely had a different personality. She was also about eight years younger than Cindy who was only a year behind Yuly growing up on Hillside Avenue.
Yuly crossed the yard and met up with his mother who was talking to Heidi's brother and some of the other adults.
"Whatever happened to Cindy Dapper anyway?" Yuly asked his mom.
"I believe she married Carlton Pecord," his mother answered. "Her parents sold the house about ten years ago. Downsized over to a Greenville condo."
"I bought it from the Megletons," Julian volunteered.
"Yes, they were only here a few years," Angela remarked. "Unexpected job transfer."
Yuly occupied himself at the snack table for a few minutes. He looked up to see Heidi and Ned returning from their pee break.
"He's gotten much better with his peeing," Heidi said upon her return. "He was pissing everywhere. In the car. In his bed. In his sandbox. At least now he tells me when he has to go."
"I think he was looking for attention," Julian theorized. "He never did that with me."
"The price I pay for living with Mr. Perfect," Heidi said sardonically.
Yuly was watching Elsie interact with the other kids at the party. Heidi took notice.
"She adjusting okay?" Heidi asked.
"Kids are surprisingly resilient," Yuly replied, semi-zoned out as he watched his daughter. "My mom's a life saver. I think she'll be okay."
"And what about you?" Heidi asked with interest.
Yuly looked at her blankly. "I have a responsibility to do my best for her," he said finally, gesturing toward Elsie. "My conscience demands that much."
"I'm sure you'll do fine," Heidi predicted. "And Elsie will have someone to play with in Ned, so that will be great too." Her tone was fake upbeat, hoping to make him feel better. "So, anyway, welcome home."
"Home?" Yuly asked, still apparently dazed.
"You grew up here, right?"
"Yeah," he realized. "But that seems like another life now."
"It will be okay," Heidi assured him. "For now, let's just enjoy Ned's party," she suggested.
"Sure," Yuly agreed bravely, looking incredibly sad all of a sudden.