“Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!” The chant grew louder and louder until Elijah finally yelled.
“Alright, if I hear it again, you guys are eating pb and j at home.”
Mike, riding shotgun in the Wilson’s van, turned to look at Cindy and her little brothers behind him. Drew sat next to Cindy in the captain’s seats while Gabe, Josh, and Benny had the last row.
He winked at Cindy, and she wrinkled her nose. Then she chanted, “Pizza! Pizza!” and the whole thing started anew, louder than before. Mike laughed and Elijah groaned, shaking his head.
“You put her up to that,” Elijah accused over the yelling.
“Yes. Yes, I did.” He slapped Elijah on the arm. “But it’s fun, right? That’s what your mom wanted for them.”
Elijah’s lips twitched. “Yeah, I guess so.”
They finally pulled into the parking lot and everyone piled out the sliding door.
“I want to play Skee Ball!” Drew yelled.
Josh hopped next to him. “Me, too.”
“No, let’s do the basketball game first.” Gabe mimicked shooting a jump shot and fell to the ground.
Cindy picked him up. “How about we sit down and order our food first, then we go play games?”
A chorus of groans answered her, and Mike laughed. He hugged her to his side. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Elijah snorted, propping Benny on his hip and carrying him through the parking lot.
“That’s because you worship my sister.”
Mike glanced at him. “Always agree with your woman, Elijah. That’s relationship 101.”
Cindy slapped them both. “Here’s another lesson. Don’t talk about the girl when she’s within striking distance.”
Opening the door, Mike said, “Lesson learned.”
“Good, but you can worship me all you want.” She danced out of reach when he tried to tickle her.
The hostess greeted them, her tired eyes moving from head to head. “Seven?”
Cindy shook her head. “No, we have two more coming.”
The girl stared blankly back.
“That makes nine,” Cindy said.
“Yeah, I got it.” The hostess grabbed a handful of menus. “Follow me please.”
Cindy widened her eyes at Mike, and he smothered a laugh. “Maybe she’s tired,” he whispered.
They followed the hostess past rows of games with flashing lights, beeps, and whistles.
Skee Ball machines, PacMan, Donkey Kong, Tetris, and other eye-catching technological wonders. Her little brothers gawked, trying to pull away and get to the games like a pack of starving raccoons after a trash truck.
The hostess stopped by a group of yellow topped tables with red, pleather covered metal chairs. She laid the menus on the table and walked away.
Cindy adopted her mom’s stance—hands on hips, eyebrows raised, chin tucked—and huffed. “It’s a good thing she doesn’t work for tips.
Mike grabbed her hands. “Can you blame her for being crabby? Look around, this place is nuts.”
He waved at the kids running everywhere, screaming, jumping, racing around with long streamers of tickets flowing behind them like paper tails. Their parents either followed with a sort of dazed look in their eye or were nowhere to be found.
“That’s why Mama and Daddy never bring them here. The noise makes Daddy’s head hurt.” Cindy smiled sadly at her brother’s excited faces.
“Then I’m glad we brought them,” Mike said. “Come on, let’s sit and order so they can go play.”
After a rowdy edition of who-got-to-sit-by-who, Molly and Hayden walked in. They played musical chairs again because Benny, Josh and Gabe all wanted to sit by Mike and Hayden.
Elijah threw his hands up. “Jeez guys, you’re only gonna sit while you eat. That’s five minutes then you’ll be playing games. Just sit already.”
Cindy patted his shoulder. “Jealous that they don’t want to sit by their big grumpy brother?”
He nudged her and grinned. “Shut up.”
Mike smiled along with them.
The waitress came to take their order and it was go time. Hayden nodded to Molly, and she pulled a huge bag of quarters from her purse. “Who needs some change?”
The kids yelled and ran to Molly. She gave each a handful and helped them to put it in their pockets.
“When you need more come find me.” She winked at Elijah. “Sorry, sometimes you have to buy their affection. We girls need that to compete with you cool older boys.”
“Molly, you didn’t have to do that.” Cindy frowned. “Mama gave me money for the boys.”
Hayden laughed. “I brought the quarters. Molly just confiscated them for bribery purposes.”
Laughing, Mike grabbed a handful. “Well I didn’t bring any. So thanks.”
Benny pulled Elijah away, heading for the Skee Ball machines. Mike waved to Cindy as Josh pulled on his hand. “You gonna play with us?”
She shook her head. “Not yet, I’ll find you in a minute. I need water before I play.”
Josh pulled harder and Mike went with him and Drew. He played Skee with Josh, Frogger with Gabe, and had an epic battle on Rampage with Josh and Drew where he lost spectacularly when his monster was defeated by the national guard. Wanting to play with Benny, Mike looked everywhere but couldn’t find him and Elijah.
He, Josh, and Gabe returned to the table where Cindy and Molly ate pizza.
“How’s the pizza?” He fell into the seat next to Cindy and grabbed her wrist, directing her pizza into his mouth as she held it.
She giggled and wiped sauce from his chin with her napkin. “It’s pretty bad, but I’m starving.”
Molly handed a slice to each of the boys and they ate quickly.
As they finished, Molly stood, pushing the bag of quarters near Cindy. “I’m going to look for Hayden and play some games. You can be the quarter keeper for a while.” She grabbed a handful.
“Wait for us!” Josh and Gabe ran after her, quickly shoving the last of their pizza into their mouths.
Mike chewed the rubbery crust and grimaced. “You’re right. This is bad.” He swallowed and Cindy handed him water. He took a sip and then kissed her. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You don’t kiss your mom like that, do you?” She snickered and put her arms around his neck.
“That is disgusting.” He squeezed her side, and she laughed. “Now you have to kiss me again and wipe that image from my mind.”
“If you insist.” She pressed her lips to his.
It didn’t take long until his heart raced, and his breath sped along with it. “Good thing we’re not at track.” She always heated him from the bottom up.
“Yep,” she said and kissed him once more. “Was this why you came back to the table?”
“No, but I’m glad I did.” He glanced around at the families eating at the tables near them.
“They might appreciate it if we saved this for later. Kids watching you know.”
Not to mention he would rather do this in private where it could last longer.
“True. So why did you come back?” She took a bite of pizza.
“I was looking for Elijah and Benny. Have you seen them?”
“No, did you try the bathroom? Benny always thinks he has to go. He likes to play with the hand dryers.”
Mike bit into his pizza and nodded. “I’ll try there. Be right back.”
When he didn’t find them in there, Mike’s stomach tightened. “Where the hell are they?”
He went back to the game room and Benny ran past with Gabe and Drew. They stopped by Hayden and Molly at the Skee Ball game. Mike followed them over.
“Have you seen Elijah?” he asked Hayden.
Hayden looked up from where he slid quarters into the machine. He pulled the release and the wooden balls rolled down the track, ready for rolling.
“You’re up Benny.” He shook his head. “No, Benny came out of the bathroom with Gabe and they’ve been with me.”
Mike frowned. He glanced around the room. “Watch the boys. I’ll go see if I can find him.”
“We got them,” Molly said. “Let us know when you find him.” She and Hayden exchanged a worried glance.
Mike walked around the busy room and back into the main dining area away from the games. No Elijah. He checked outside the front door.
Elijah stood with another guy who looked vaguely familiar. Mike observed for a minute, then remembered the other night when Elijah accused him of Jenny’s lie. This guy was there, too. Mike prepared to go back inside, until the other guy pushed Elijah in the chest.
Mike clenched his teeth and strode toward them.
“And I told you not to let her date that cracker.”
As Mike got closer, the guy glared at him, and backed away from Elijah.
“What’s the problem, Elijah?” Mike asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle. Go back inside with the boys.” He continued to stare at the punk.
“I don’t mind the fresh air. Smells like kids and bad pizza in there.” He studied Elijah’s visitor. “You’re Jamal, aren’t you?”
Devon had said his cousin knew Elijah, and this guy had the same cocky smile.
“That’s right. You got a problem with me?” He stepped toward Mike, moving his hands out to the sides.
Mike stood his ground. “Only if you don’t stay out of my business.”
“Aww, sorry ‘bout that, bro. But you made it my business when you started datin’ his sister.”
Mike moved closer, getting into Jamal’s space. “I don’t care what you think.”
“Come on, let’s go back in.” Elijah grabbed his arm, leading Mike back toward the door.
“Stay away from him, he’s fucking crazy.” They glanced back when Jamal called out.
“See ya later, Lil EZ. We gonna hang out real soon.” Jamal laughed and walked backwards. “Bring your cracker friend, too.”
Back inside the restaurant, Mike turned to Elijah. “What the hell was that all about? Who was that?”
He stared out the window for a moment. “A friend of mine.”
“Friend?” Mike cocked his eyebrow. “Time for a new one.”
“No shit. You shouldn’t have stayed out there. You’re the one he came to see.” Elijah frowned. “And Jamal’s always packin’.”
“Yeah, I noticed that day at the meet meal.” Mike rubbed his forehead. “Why can’t people just leave us alone? What’s the big deal that I’m with Cindy?”
“Well,” Elijah said with a smirk. “The blond hair and blue eyes have something to do with it.”
Mike shook his head. “Come on, let’s get back. I left Molly and Hayden with all the boys. They’re probably going crazy. I didn’t tell Cindy because I didn’t want to worry her.”
“Fine by me. She’d get pissed at me anyway.”
Back in the room, the kids were at the table eating pizza with Hayden, Cindy, and Molly.
When he walked in, Cindy glanced at Mike, worry plain on her face.
“Where were you guys?” Cindy asked.
Mike sat next to her and grabbed a slice of sausage. “We went outside to get away from the smell for a minute.”
Elijah bit into his pizza without answering. Guess he wanted Mike to do all the lying—
for now anyway.
Cindy touched his leg and leaned in. “Is everything okay?”
His stomach twisted. “Yeah, everything is great. We were just talking. We’re good.” It wasn’t a complete lie.
“Okay,” she said.
The tourniquet on his gut tightened, but she had enough to deal with. He promised himself it was better she didn’t know Elijah’s crazy friend wanted to meet Mike in a dark alley with no exit someday. He wished he didn’t either.
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