Read This Month's Free Short Story

Hearts and Cannolis

Fred Trent took a deep breath before he knocked on Henrietta Burnside's door. He ticked off a mental checklist of items and proclaimed himself as ready as he could be. Three sharp raps of his knuckles against the painted door committed him to action.

He heard movement inside and stepped back one pace.

"Fred, dear boy, how nice to see you. Come in, come in." Henrietta barely had the door open before she began welcoming the young man. "Don't you look nice in your suit and tie! Although you look wonderful in your uniform, too."

"Thanks, Ms. Henrietta. Are they here yet?"

"Not yet, but Cheryl called to say she's on the way. What’s all the mystery? "

“You’ll see. I want you to be surprised, too.” He chuckled as he leaned over to kiss her cheek.

Fred entered the little apartment of the woman who had become a surrogate grandmother to him and to Cheryl Renfrew. Their meeting when Cheryl's toddler son Mattie had slipped away from church and Henrietta had discovered the boy in the parking lot of her apartment building. Had led to a special relationship. Since the day they came together, the elderly woman had adopted all of them.

"What on earth do you have in that enormous bag, Fred?" Henrietta laughed as he toted the oversized Franconi's bag to her table.

"I wanted this to be a special meal, but I didn't want to give you more work. So, I had Mr. Franconi put together a little feast for us. Cheryl loves his special rotini and meatballs, and Mattie says their pizza is his favorite food in the whole world. I know you like his cannoli, so I got lots of those." Fred spoke as he set out the dishes on the table.

"You haven't told me the occasion, Fred. Is it Cheryl's birthday?"

"No, ma'am, it's our anniversary. Eighteen months since our first date, although it hardly seems possible. Sometimes it seems like just yesterday when we were searching so desperately for Mattie. But then there are times when I can't remember when the two of them weren't a big part of my life. And you, too, of course," he hastened to add as a blush crept up his face.

"I'm delighted to have all of you in my life, as well," Henrietta assured him. "I love my found family with all my heart."

Fred crossed the room and wrapped the older woman in a hug. "And we love you, too." He planted a kiss on her gray-haired head and watched her flush at his gesture.

An enthusiastic knock pounded on the door, and the two of them jumped as though stung.

"Gw’amma Hen’wietta, let me in, let me in!" came the youthful voice from the other side. "Me and Mama is here!"

"I'm coming, Mattie, hold on, my little friend," said Henrietta. She stifled a laugh but couldn't restrain a grin at the young man's demand.

He leaped into the room with all the joy a six-year-old boy could muster and threw his arms around Henrietta's legs in an embrace which nearly knocked her off her feet.

"Whoa, tiger, slow down there," cautioned Cheryl as she entered behind him. "Let Gramma Henrietta breathe and don't bowl her over."

"Rowrrrr, I'm a tiger," the boy said. He took his mother’s words literally and proceeded to prowl the combination living room-dining room with fingers curled and teeth bared.

"My goodness, Mr. Tiger, please don't eat me up," pleaded Henrietta, in mock terror.

"Yeah, buddy, I've got a pizza for you. I hear Cypress Point tigers just love pizza," said Fred, as he swept the boy up into his arms. "Do you like pizza, Mr. Tiger?"

Mattie growled and nodded, and the adults yielded to the wave of merriment rolling through the room to laugh at his antics. Fred lost his grip on the wriggling boy, who ran to the table.

"Pizza sounds good," said Cheryl.

"Not for you, sweetheart. Mattie gets his favorite pizza. You get your favorite, rotini." Fred kept his voice solemn and held back a smile.

Her puzzled expression told him all he needed to know; his attempted surprise was a success.

"But you shouldn't have put Henrietta to that trouble, Fred." Cheryl still hadn't spotted the take-out containers on the table.

"No trouble at all, Cheryl. I only made the iced tea and lemonade. Fred took care of everything else." Henrietta patted Fred's arm as she explained.

"Happy eighteen-month anniversary, Cheryl," he said, and indicated she should take a seat at the table.

"Franconi's? You went to Franconi's? Oh, Fred, thank you, but you shouldn't have. I could have fixed dinner for us. You shouldn't spend so much on us." Cheryl eyes filled with tears as she surveyed the feast.

"Don't fuss at me. This day means a lot to me. It means for a year and a half, I've had the privilege of having you and Mattie in my life. We've become a family, with Ms. Henrietta as our matriarch. Such a day warrants a special celebration." Fred helped her into her chair, then turned to seat Henrietta.

"An efficiency apartment doesn't offer much in the way of space, so there isn’t room for a sit-down meal. Ms. Henrietta was kind enough to let me use her apartment. Let's enjoy the meal and the fellowship, okay?" Fred scooped Mattie into a chair, then took his own seat.

He reached out to take Mattie's hand on one side and Cheryl's on the other. On the other side of the table, Henrietta followed suit to complete the circle. With heads bowed, they listened as Mattie returned thanks.

"God is gweat, God is good. Let us t'ank Him fo-wa our food. By His hands, we aw’ah fed. T'ank you, God, fo-wa daily bwead. And bwess us weal good! Amen."

Little conversation came from Mattie as he dug into his favorite cheese and sausage pizza. Cheryl and Fred carried on a wordless dialogue with their eyes, as he served her rotini and sauce. Their hands touched as he presented the plate to her. She looked down and tried to hide her smile.

Henrietta observed them without comment. She had watched their relationship grow and deepen over time, and she rejoiced at how little Mattie had blossomed as a part of the extended family group. Did these two realize how fortunate they were, to find such a compatible heart in the other one? The memories of her own love warmed her as she remembered the days of bashful courting and joyous marriage. If they could know such happiness as she had, they would be truly blessed.

Fred insisted on clearing the table himself when the meal was completed. He brought back a small plate in each hand. The flourish he gave to serving the cannoli to Henrietta gave her sense of something special yet to come. To Mattie, Fred presented a giant chocolate chip cookie with a smiley face drawn in frosting.

He went back into the kitchen and returned with two more plates. He set one down at his place, leaving both Henrietta and Cheryl to wonder where he'd left his manners. His gaze met Cheryl's as he stepped around the able to her side.

"Cheryl, I've been given an amazing treasure in knowing you and Mattie. The joy I feel when I'm with you carries me through the hours when we're apart. But I wish we weren't apart so much. I wish we could share more of our lives, the ups and downs, the days, the nights, everything a family can share. So tonight, here in the presence of my whole world, I want to ask you a very important question. Will you accept my cannoli?"

He dropped to one knee beside her and held the plate at her eye level. At the middle of the cannoli's length sparkled a diamond. Cheryl looked from the plate to Fred and back again, then up to gaze at him again.

"Yes, Fred, I accept your cannoli," she said and smiled as she took the plate. "Our little family has meant the world to me. I'll be so honored to know it will go on and grow." She turned sparkling eyes to look at Henrietta. "Did you know this was his plan?"

"No, but I'm thrilled for all three of you. And for myself. God has blessed me more than I could have imagined. Having the three of you as my family gives joy I had not expected to find at my age. I heartily approve of his question and your answer.”

“How about you, buddy?” Fred turned to the strangely silent boy across the table.

“I’ms mad,” Mattie said. “How come Mama gets a pwesent and I don’t get a pwesent?”

Fred held up his hand to stop Cheryl when she began to speak. “Let me, please?” She nodded.

“Mama got a present because I just asked her to marry me, even if it was in sort of a strange way. That means you would have a mama and a papa, and I would have a precious little boy as my new son. You would have me as your new papa. That’s why I got you the giant cookie – to ask if you would like to be my son. Is a new papa a good enough present?”

Mattie looked down at the remains of the cookie. When he looked up again at Fred, he wore a puzzled expression.

“You would be my papa, fo’ev-ah and always? And you would love me? And my mama? And Gw’amma Hen’wietta?”

“That’s right, Mattie. We’ll be a really, truly family.”

“Yippee!” He jumped down from his chair and began running around the table, tapping each person as he passed. “A new papa, yippee! My mama, yippee! Gw’amma Hen’wietta, yippee!” As he rounded the corner of the table and headed back toward Fred, the young officer corralled him in a hug.

“Can I call you Papa F’wed?” the boy whispered into the man’s ear.

“You sure can, Mattie. That would be the best present you could give me.”

“Mama, Mama, I got me a Papa F’wed!” Pride shone from Mattie’s face as he made his announcement.

“Yes, you do, sweetie. Isn’t it wonderful?” Cheryl stood and made her way to the pair. She wrapped her arms around the two as best she could. “Isn’t God wonderful?”

“Amen, Mama!” said Mattie.

Henrietta and Fred echoed “Amen” as well. The newly engaged family sat down to finish their meal and begin making plans for their future.

© 2018 Mary Beth Magee