I put the knife on the counter, wipe my hands, and crouch down to her eye level. When those sweet blue eyes are on me, I give her the firm, irrefutable truth.

“You are mine. Mine and Aunt Chelsea’s. Never doubt that.”

The words sink in . . . and then, slowly, she smiles. And her grin is brighter than all the Christmas lights on this street put together.

I nod and stand up. “Now let’s get these pancakes made before your brothers start eating the tree.”

After a relatively quiet New Year’s, the kids head back to school. Being home with them over the break, I noticed Raymond was really quiet. Too quiet.

So, one day, when Chelsea’s boss calls her in early to the museum, and I’m in charge of getting them on the bus, I hold Rory back at the front door.

Rory follows my gaze toward his twin brother’s back. Then he shrugs. “Raymond worries.”

This isn’t news to me. Like many intelligent children, Raymond has anxieties: global warming, droughts, nuclear war—if there’s a possibility of worldwide catastrophe, Raymond’s shitting a brick about it.

“What’s he worried about these days? Specifically.”

Rory’s gaze turns cautious, reminding me of a witness on the stand. “I can’t tell you. It’s a brother-code kind of thing. But . . . Raymond doesn’t have a password on his laptop. If I was a smart guy—that’s where I’d look to find out what’s going on.”

Then he heads down the driveway. “Later, Jake.”

I wait in the front until they all get on the bus. Then I head straight to Rory and Raymond’s room. They’re twins, but from the looks of their room, you wouldn’t think they were even related. The top bunk—Raymond’s—is neatly made with hospital corners; the bottom is a ball of blankets, crushed pillows, and mangled sheets. One desk is a disaster area covered in papers, video-game controllers, empty soda cans. The other desk is just-dusted shiny and clean—save for the closed silver MacBook Pro laptop sitting dead center.

I’m sure some parents would feel guilty about invading their kid’s private space, but I’m not one of them. Kids can have privacy when they move out.

I fire up the laptop and open Raymond’s recent search history. What I read makes my stomach hit the floor.

That afternoon, I come home early so I can talk to Raymond before he slides any deeper into his black hole of anxiety. Chelsea is pleasantly surprised. I get a nice, wet kiss when I walk into the kitchen—with tongue. Her hands comb over my shoulders, and her eyes are shiny and teasing. “Wow, I almost don’t recognize you in the daylight.”

I place my palm on her protruding belly and rub it hello. “I’m the guy who knocked you up—in case you weren’t sure.”

She smiles against my lips when I pull her in for another kiss.

Ronan abandons his crayons on the kitchen table and runs into the living room, squealing, “Regan, give me my turn on the Wii or I’m gonna knock you up!”

Why do kids only hear the things you don’t want them to? Every fucking time.

Chelsea hides her face against my chest. “That phrase is going to go over well in kindergarten tomorrow.”

My hand glides down her back. “I’ll talk to him. But first I want to talk to Raymond—where is he?”

“He’s in the back, shooting hoops. Anything I should know about?”

Worries are contagious—they spread from one person to another like a virus. That’s the last thing she needs right now.

She pauses, reading my face—then shrugs. “Okay. Have fun with that.”

I head out the back French doors and walk down the path to join Raymond on the blacktop, where he dribbles a basketball.

“Hey.” I hold up my hands and he passes me the ball. I bounce it twice, then smoothly shoot it through the hoop.

“What’s up?” I ask him as he retrieves the ball.

Raymond shoots again, and I catch the ball after it falls through the net. “You know you can talk to me, right?”

“About anything. Nothing you say would ever change what I think of you. Understand?”

During my years as a pissed-off, defensive little punk, the Judge probably said those same words to me a dozen times. My mother—probably a hundred. But I never got it.

Because there really is nothing any of these kids could ever say or do—no outrage too great, no mistake too stupid—that would make me stop loving them with every fiber of my being.

Raymond answers cautiously, his blue eyes squinting behind his round, black-wire frames. “You’re being really weird, Jake.”

“I saw the search history on your computer, Raymond.”

I pass the ball to him quickly. He catches it with two hands and stares at me.

“Yeah.” I lift my chin toward the bench. “Sit down.”

Raymond sits down on the bench, the ball in his lap, watching me as I take up the rest of the bench beside him. “You looked on my computer?”

I nod. “Feel free to be indignant about that later, but right now, I want to talk about the things you’re looking up—why you’re so anxious, not sleeping.” I lean over, bracing my elbows on my spread knees. “What’s going on with you, buddy?”