Roman was aching by the time he left the meeting that evening. He’d tried to argue with himself that he wasn’t that much older than Noah. He could easily keep up. But judging from the way his legs and lower back were feeling, maybe he needed to check his ego a little next time. But it was fine. A hot shower and whatever Celine had put in the crockpot would make him feel better.
He got home and immediately smelled smoke as he walked in the door. Heart dropping, he tore through the living room and into the kitchen, looking for both the kids and the source of the smoke. It only took him a second until he saw Jamie standing in front of an open window, waving the smoke out.
“Jamie, what happened?”
Jamie turned and Roman was taken aback to see frustrated tears in his son’s eyes. “I wanted to surprise you with dinner,” Jamie said, his voice hoarse. “I’ve been learning different techniques in cooking class and I know you can’t go to any fancy restaurants because there’s none in town. So I wanted to make you one. But I messed up.”
Roman glanced around the kitchen, the mess telling him the story of what had happened. A tray of slightly frozen chicken breasts wrapped around chunks of mozzarella sat on the stove, along with a pot of rice that was smoking and burnt. An unripe avocado had clearly been hacked away at and the pieces were scattered across the counter, along with a squashed tomato and a sleeve of Oreos.
“Hey, bud,” Roman started, turning back to Jamie. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not,” Jamie argued. “I wanted it to be perfect and I couldn’t do any of it.”
He was clearly trying not to cry in front of his father, and Roman wasn’t entirely sure what to do. So he gave Jamie a little space and went over to inspect the chicken. It was still partially frozen, nearly broken in half in order to wrap it around the mozzarella. He spotted a couple more tomatoes off to the side and recognized the atrocity for the chicken caprese it was attempting to be.
“Jame, we can fix this,” Roman said. “It’s no big deal. Give me two seconds to check on the babies.”
He walked out of the kitchen and went over to the small bedroom, where Abby and Aidan were both asleep in their beds. Abby was probably going to be awake soon, but he had enough time. So he went back out into the kitchen, where Jamie was still standing silently in the corner.
Jamie turned and looked at him as Roman washed his hands, then pulled the chicken and mozzarella apart. He took a few minutes to rearrange it on the plate. “Look, just put the cheese on top,” he said. “You’re not going to want to put it in until near the end, anyway. So we’ll get some fresh ones set up. You made a sauce?”
Jamie nodded, wiping rapidly at his eye. “Let me see,” Roman said.
He picked up a small bowl and brought it over to Roman, who was rewashing his hands after touching the chicken. Roman dried off, then took the bowl. He got a spoon and took a small taste of the sauce. Despite Jamie’s insistence, it wasn’t bad. Bland, but fixed easily enough.
“Go grab the olive oil from the top shelf,” Roman said.
“I’m not allowed to touch that one.”
Good boy. That was the good stuff and Jamie knew it. “Go ahead,” Roman said. “Add a little more, then put some salt in there, alright?”
He got the chicken laid out as Jamie remixed the sauce. A chunk of chicken fell off of the rest of the breast, but he tucked it in and kept going. Jamie came back with the sauce and Roman tasted it.
“Perfect,” he said. “Alright, go cut up those tomatoes for me.”
This was how it went for a few minutes, Roman instructing Jamie as he fixed the meal. He hadn’t done nearly as bad of a job as he thought he had. The rice was doomed, but that was easily fixed. And after a few minutes, he noticed Jamie had calmed down and was actually smiling as he arranged the tomato slices on the chicken, then drizzled it with sauce.
“Perfect,” Roman said. “Alright, we’re going to give this, oh, twenty minutes in the oven.”
He glanced up and realized the oven was off. Jamie noticed at the same time. “I meant to, I-”
Roman waved him off. “It’s fine, bud,” he said, punching the buttons to preheat it. “Alright, go take a break for a few minutes, I’ll call you when it’s ready to go in.”
Jamie went to walk away, then bolted back and threw his arms around Roman’s stomach. He was nearly as tall as Roman now, somehow. But when he squeezed him, it felt like Jamie was a little kid again.
“Thank you, Dad,” Jamie said.
“Absolutely,” Roman said.
Jamie let go, then ran down the cellar stairs to his bedroom. The oven still had some time left until it was preheated, so Roman went over to the living room just off the kitchen and sat down on the couch.
Jamie had tried to do all of that just for him. He’d learned a few cooking techniques and his first thought had been how he could bring that home to give his dad something he otherwise couldn’t have. Roman was beyond touched by this.
He was about to take out his phone and tell Celine what had just happened when he heard the sound of small feet making contact with the carpet in the babies’ bedroom. A second later, Abby was shuffling out the door, eyes half-closed and light brown hair puffed up around her face. She didn’t say a word as she padded over to where Roman was sitting. Instead, she just climbed up next to him, curled into his side, and closed her eyes again.