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Incalculable Worth

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Cleo and Mark are coming over for the weekend, and Ben’s not looking forward to it.

“It’ll go by fast,” May insists the Monday before, “It’s not even three full days. Besides, it’ll be good for them to see Peter again—it’s been years, he’s probably unrecognizable to them at this point.”

Ben knows she’s right, and it will be good to see Cleo and Mark again, the couple who served as the Maid of Honor and Best Man at their wedding. They were best friends with the pair before moving to New York, and staying in touch has been difficult ever since. So when Cleo and Mark announced they were planning a visit to the city, May enthusiastically offered to let them stay at the apartment.

But if Ben’s honest, he just doesn’t feel much of a connection with the couple anymore. When the two of them were in his and May’s wedding, they had so much in common. They all loved traveling, trying foods from various cultures, and seeking out new experiences on weekend trips. Then there was the shared life plans that truly brought them together in the first place—neither couple had a desire to be parents one day.

Ben knew it wasn’t fair to Cleo and Mark to resent them for doing what they’d always said they’d do—living a carefree, kid-less life—but the fact that they were living out their plan while May and Ben had Peter made it harder to relate to the couple.

“I just feel bad that we don’t even have a room for them,” Ben says. “That’s my main concern.”

“Yeah, well, it’s only for a few days.” May says. “And they knew they were signing up for a futon when they asked to visit.”

Ben glances at upcoming dates on the kitchen wall calendar.

“The science museum sleepover next Saturday—you get that worked out?”

“Oh, yes! Yes, they were so understanding.” May smiles. “They waived the deposit and said we could just bring it all at once when we go to drop Peter off.”

“Thank goodness.” Ben breathes. “I know how much he’s looking forward to it. He talked my ear off last night about how he and Ned already have a game plan to make sure they get to camp out in the astronomy exhibit.”

It had been a difficult month financially. May’s car had broken down, and the repairs depleted their emergency fund completely. Peter’s overnight field trip was momentarily forgotten as they paid other bills, so Ben's relieved the school made an exception to their rule that kids couldn’t sign up without paying the $50 deposit two weeks before. Peter didn’t deserve to miss out just because of a broken-down vehicle.

“I better go pick him up from Ned’s.” He leans over to give May a goodbye kiss. “Be back soon.”

---

Cleo and Mark arrive Friday after Peter’s bedtime and have breakfast with Ben and May Saturday morning. Peter’s taken to sleeping late on the weekends, and they decide to let him rest.

“So, how was your summer?” Cleo asks after finishing one of Ben’s famous waffles. “Did you guys go on a trip for your anniversary?”

“Not this year,” May answers, “It wasn’t in the budget. But we had a lovely dinner and Peter made us the sweetest card—it’s there, on the fridge.”

The couples turn to look at the masterpiece, and Ben’s heart still swells at the sight of it. Peter had obviously put so much time and effort into the card, writing “Happy Anniversary” in painstakingly careful cursive and drawing an adorable couple in a white dress and tux that bore a slight resemblance to May and Ben. It isn’t perfect—their kid’s a genius, but not an artistic one—but it isn’t a throwaway project that was patched together in the nick of time, either.

“So cute.” Cleo says, turning back to the table with a smile. “He must be so big now. What grade will he be going into?”

“Fourth,” Ben says proudly, “And he’s at the top of his class.”

“Good for him,” Mark nods. “And good for you guys for doing such a great job with him.”

“Thanks,” May replies brightly, “We do try. But he’s just always been such a wonderful kid, we can’t really take credit for him.”

Mark helps himself to another waffle. “So no anniversary trip this year—when’s the last time you guys traveled? Any good stories to share?”

Ben suppresses a grimace, not prepared to relay that their financial situation afforded no opportunity for such luxuries.

May takes on the question. “We haven’t been much of anywhere in recent years, actually. We’ve been busy here, with—” with Peter, Ben thinks “—with work, and school stuff, and everything. You know.”

“Yeah, of course. Totally understand that.” Mark grabs the maple syrup. “I mean, I guess we don’t really understand—not like you guys do, at least. Cause of the whole, ‘no kids’ thing.”

Cleo jumps in. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s hard to think about taking trips with a kid tagging along.” She’s speaking earnestly, not unkindly, but Ben’s still a little on edge. “Kids can tie you down.”

“It’s not that we can’t travel with Peter,” Ben says quickly, “that’s not it at all. He’d travel fine, it’s just…financial stuff. Can’t quite make it work.”

“I get that.” Mark nods. “My brother and his wife, they talk about it all the time. He wanted a boat, she wanted a trip to Italy, but now they have babies, and well—kids are expensive.” He catches himself as he sees Cleo’s mortified expression—it’s as if they’ve both noticed at once the insensitivity in their words.

“Oh, May, Ben,” Cleo says, “we didn’t mean to say you’re missing anything, or—or that you’re—”

“It’s fine, Cleo, don’t worry.” May smiles. “We totally understand. But the thing is, we’re just so happy. We haven’t been anywhere special in a while, and I miss it, sure, but Peter is worth it.” She looks at Ben, her eyes shining with sincerity. “Right, Ben?”

God, he loves her.

“Absolutely, May.”

“Speaking of Peter,” Cleo starts, clearly relieved to be moving forward from her gaffs, “where is that little guy? We need to see him before we go out into the city today!”

May looks at the time. “Oh wow, it is getting pretty late. I’m surprised he’s not up by now. Ben, do you want to wake him?”

“Yeah, I’ll go see if he’s up.”

Ben’s glad of an excuse to leave the table. The conversation had begun to sound too much like the ones he and May first had when Richard and Mary passed—could they take on Peter when they had so many other plans? Should they take on Peter when they’d never felt cut out to raise kids of their own?

It makes him feel incredibly guilty to look back on those uncertainties now that Peter is firmly a part of their family, and the central focus of their lives.

He knocks gently on the door of Peters’ room.

“Peter? Are you up?”

Hearing no response, he gently pushes his way inside. Peter’s lying face down on his bed, on top of the covers, with his pillow over his head.

Ben sits and pulls the pillow off.

“Hey, sleepyhead, wake up.”

Peter turns over, squinting almost a little too much, like he’s doing it for comedic effect.

“Morning, Uncle Ben.”

“Good morning, buddy. Why the pillow over the head? Could you even breathe under there?”

Peter sits up and rubs his eyes. “Yeah, I could. I just wanted to sleep more and the sirens were loud.”

Ben grins. “Ah, yes. I heard those.” He stands up. “Well we’ve got waffles for breakfast, and Cleo and Mark are here and would love to meet you, so get up and get dressed, okay?”

Peter nods, and Ben heads back out to sit with the company.

The truth is, Cleo and Mark were right. The unexpected nature of raising Peter has made finances tight. And Ben would be lying if he said he’d never thought about how their lives would be different if they hadn’t made the choice to adopt Peter after they lost Richard and Mary. Choosing Peter had meant sacrificing some of their previous life plans and goals, and it wasn’t always easy.

But waking up his kid with the ridiculously ruffled, messy hair and bright brown eyes solidified what he always knew—though they’d never planned to raise a kid, Peter was an absolute gift. Ben wouldn’t have it any other way.

---

A week later, Ben knocks on Peter’s door again.

“Peter? You finished packing for the museum sleepover yet, bud? We’re leaving in an hour.”

“Um, no. I’m not ready.”

“Need some help?”

“No.” Peter’s voice sounds tight. “I’m good.”

Ben frowns. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah.” He says after a pause.

Ben opens the door to find an empty overnight bag on the floor, an unrolled sleeping bag, and no other evidence to suggest Peter’s been packing.

“Peter, what’s up? You really should be ready by now, let’s get a move on.” He kneels down and starts to roll up the sleeping bag. “I’ll do this while you grab the clothes you want to bring, let’s go.”

“I don’t want to go anymore.”

Ben stops what he’s doing and looks up at Peter. He’s sitting on the edge of his bed, feet barely touching the floor, avoiding eye contact.

“Why not?”

Peter shrugs. “I just changed my mind. I don’t think it’ll be fun.”

Ben knows there’s no way Peter’s suddenly lost interest in science of all things, so he presses further.

“Are you feeling okay?” He lays the back of his hand against Peter’s forehead, and, feeling no heat, switches to his palm so he can brush his curls back. “Did something happen to make you nervous?”

“No.” Peter says, turning to look in Ben’s eyes for a brief moment. “I just don’t want to go, okay?”

Ben sighs and sits on the bed. “Peter, please. You were so excited about this, I know you wanted to sleep next to Jupiter. Talk to me, I want to help.”

His plea is met with silence, making him uneasy. It’s not like Peter to be so closed-off.

Ben’s about to speak again when Peter beats him to it.

“I’m expensive.” He says quietly, eyes glued to his lap.

Ben’s confused. “What do you mean, buddy?”

“Kids cost a lot of money, and then grownups can’t go on trips or have nice things or…or do what they want. Kids tie them down.”

The phraseology sounds all-too-familiar to Ben, but he asks for more context all the same.

“Who told you that?”

“Nobody,” Peter mumbles, “I just know.”

Ben brushes a hand across his mouth. Guilt sets in as he realizes why Peter’s sleeping stance had been so strange when he “woke him up” last Saturday. He hadn’t been asleep.  

“Did you…did you maybe overhear us talking with our friends last weekend?”

Peter shakes his head, but Ben can tell it’s a bluff. He waits, knowing his nephew’s inherent honesty will kick in any moment.

“Maybe—maybe I did,” Peter admits shortly, “But I already knew I cost money, I just didn’t think about how…how much.” His eyes remain focused downward, and Ben moves closer to put a careful arm around his shoulders.

“Peter, bud—”

Peter jumps up from Ben’s embrace and heads to his desk. Ben lets him go, watching with concern as Peter logs on to an old laptop they’d salvaged and repurposed together. He returns as soon as the screen has loaded, sitting back down, but noticeably further away from Ben.

He flips the screen around, revealing an Excel spreadsheet.

“I calculated the numbers. I know money is tight, and now I know why. It’s me. I cost more than $100,000 total to raise.”

Ben wishes momentarily that his kid wasn’t top of his class. No nine-year-old should know how to calculate their financial expenses on a spreadsheet.

“Peter, how did you come up with that number—”

“The internet.” He’s still not looking at Ben, just staring at the laptop as he points to the screen. “And that’s way more than you and May make in a year, so—”

“Whoa, whoa.” Ben interrupts. He sees a decent estimation of his and May’s salaries listed under an “income” column. Peter’s right, but he doesn’t know how. “Where did you get that information—”

“The internet.” Peter says impatiently. Ben’s stunned, unable to form a coherent reply to all of this, so Peter continues.

“May also lets me look at grocery receipts cause I like the math, so I know how much food costs us. And I looked everything else up and plugged it in here—”

“Peter, Peter stop, we don’t—”

“—and I know that it was really expensive when I went to the doctor so much last year, and I know special school trips are expensive,” his voice begins to waver, “and I just don’t want to go because you and May should get to go somewhere. You should get to go on a vacation like Ned’s mom and dad but you never have. And I know it’s because—it’s because of me.” He chokes out the last few words as tears come to his eyes. He quickly wipes at them with the back of his sleeve, and Ben’s heart breaks in two.

Slowly, gently, he takes the laptop from Peter’s hands and closes it. Peter doesn’t try to hold onto the device, his shoulders only slumping further. Ben moves off the bed and kneels in front of him.

“Peter, listen to me. I know how smart you are, so I’m not going to lie to you.” He sighs. “You’re right about a few things. Kids do cost money to raise. And maybe your spreadsheet math is right, buddy, I don’t know. You’re probably better at calculating all of that than I am.”

Peter’s still brushing away tears, and Ben wishes his kid would meet his eyes, but he isn’t going to force it.

“But here’s the most important thing, Peter. I need you to listen to me closely, okay?”

He’s still looking down, but nods with a sniffle.

“These numbers do not matter. Your worth, Peter?” He takes his thumb and softly wipes away some of the tears on Peter's cheek. “Your worth is incalculable.”

He exhales. “The thing is, buddy, it doesn’t matter how much it costs us to feed you, or to take you to the doctor, or to buy you new clothes, or let you go on a school trip. You’re worth all of it and more. We love you more than anything, and we are so lucky to have you. I’d trade every trip or fancy car or boat—every nice thing in the world—everything I own, all the time I have left, so you could be ours.”

Peter finally looks up at him, lip trembling.

“But I shouldn’t even be here. You and May didn’t want a kid. You didn’t choose me.”

The words catch Ben off-guard, but he’s not entirely surprised. He’s wondered if, or when, Peter would make that connection and bring it to light.

“But we did, Peter. We did.” He smiles, desperate to soften his boy’s broken expression. “You could have gone with Grandma Lorraine, or to another family. But we wanted you. We chose you, and we will keep choosing you, because you are worth it, Peter. We love you.”

“But you’re not sad you can’t go on trips?” Peter asks. “You don’t wish you had more money?”

Ben takes his hands. “I have you, and I have May. I never wanted anything else.”

Peter truly breaks at that moment, launching himself off the bed and into Ben’s waiting arms. He rubs Peter’s back as tears puddle onto his shoulder, and they trade “I love yous” unsparingly.

After they finally break away, Ben looks at the clock and startles a bit. He grabs for the sleeping bag.

“Come on, buddy, we don’t wanna be late! Grab your PJs, some clothes for tomorrow and your toothbrush, let’s move!”

Peter doesn’t hesitate for even a second, scrambling to do as he’s told and pack the overnight bag. Everything’s set in five minutes.

As they’re heading out the door, Peter grabs Ben’s arm.

“Wait—you’re sure we can afford this?” He asks earnestly.

“Yes, we absolutely can. But you don’t have to worry about that, okay? You’re worth it.” Ben kisses his forehead.

Peter relaxes. “Uncle Ben?”

“Yeah bud?”

“You’re worth all my money and all my time, too.”