Ben looked more excited than me. He kept vetoing my shirt choices.
"Not the jean shirt Matthew, that makes you look, like a dork." Ben sighed.
I shot him a warning look and grabbed my black button down shirt instead.
"Yeah wear that one, it makes you look like Bond...James Bond." Then he was a laughing fool.
I threw the shirt on and began buttoning it, "Can it Moore. I think you need to get out of here. I have to head to Sarah's in about ten minutes."
Ben snickered at me before pulling himself away from my bedroom doorway. "Whatever you say Mr. Bond."
I just ignored him and went around the other side of my bed for my shoes. Ben was making me nervous, and hell I was nervous enough without all his goofing around.
"Take Sarah some flowers." Ben's tone changed as he watched me tie my laces.
I looked up from my shoes, one eyebrow raised, "What for?"
"Trust me man, take Sarah some flowers today." Was all he would say.
Okay, so here I was at eleven in the morning standing on her doorstep with one long colorful box and a dozen yellow wildflowers. I didn't want to take anything fancy to Sarah but for some reason Ben's little comment struck a nerve with me and I went to the first open flower shop I could find.
When she answered the door she looked beautiful and happy, she stretched out her hands to help me with my items.
She didn't say anything directly to me, but the words that came out of her mouth made my day.
"Oh look Henry! Daddy's here!"
I already knew I was grinning. I wasn't even in the house yet and my heart was beating a mile a minute.
"These are for you." I held out the flowers to her.
"Oh! They are just beautiful. Thank you Matthew." Her smile was completely contagious and I entered the house not even remembering what had happened the night before.
Henry toddled happily over to me holding one of the noisemakers in his hand. He held it out in friendly offering.
"Hi Henry." I squatted down to his level holding out my hand, "Thank you."
He giggled at me and placed the wet noisemaker in my palm, "Da." he said.
"Thank you." I smiled at him again.
Sarah was moving around the kitchen putting her flowers in a vase. I noticed she already had a vase of pink roses o the counter which she pushed to the back. Clay flashed briefly in my mind but I was quickly distracted when Henry took my hand and led me out to the dining room.
"Boom." He said pointing to the table. "Boom."
"What's that?" I cocked my head to the side. "What's boom Henry?"
"Boom!" He looked madder now, clearly not happy with me.
"He wants a balloon." Sarah's voice came from behind me. She was standing at the entrance her arms crossed, she was smiling.
"Oh a balloon!" I immediately reached for a bright red balloon and began to blow it up. Henry clapped excitedly his eyes growing wide as the balloon grew. He took it from me once I tied it and paraded around the room with it. Sarah just laughed at him and then turned to me.
"Would you like something to drink? Some coffee, juice?" Her words came out very fast as if she just realized she said the work drink in front of me. I tried to put her at ease, let her know that it was perfectly okay for her to say things like that to me, that it was perfectly normal.
"Coffee sounds great thank you."
I guess I made her nervous because she began chatting a mile a minute, not letting me get a word in edgewise.
"You're mom is coming over in a bit with the cake, Jason is taking Henry out for a bit so we can decorate without him underfoot. It's hard to get anything done with a two year old. Cassie said not worry about the ice cream, her and Ben are stopping by the grocery store for a gallon, or ten, whatever possesses Cassie at the moment. I can never tell with her." She handed me a mug and a chuckle. "There are only about five other kids coming, we met some at the park and Henry's daycare friends."
I took a sip of the hot liquid and nodded. I actually didn't mind listening to Sarah, her voice sounded so happy.
"I think I baked a million cupcakes after you left last night. I couldn't sleep anyways, and Henry loves chocolate, with strawberries, just like you, uh, he loves strawberries."
I smiled at her, giving her another little nod. I was starting to feel a bit cocky, like my old self again, knowing I was the cause of all this nervousness. I mean all I was doing was sitting at the counter with my coffee watching her dance all around the kitchen. I even worked up the nerve to shoot her a crooked smile and compliment her.
"You look pretty today. I like you with your hair down." I did try to keep my voice neutral, but still, you could hear some of the cockiness.
She froze for a second and then smiled at me some more. I think just to tease me she shook her hair around her face just the tiniest bit. It almost make me choke on my coffee.
My mother chose that exact moment to breeze through the door her arms laden with gifts all wrapped for Henry. My dad was behind her holding this very enormous, very chocolatey cake.
"Sarah dear, where do you want Jason to put the cake? And where are we putting the gifts? Oh! Matthew!" suddenly my Mom was all smiles, "How are you darling? It's wonderful to see you here."
My Dad was struggling behind my Mom with the cake but she wouldn't move out of the way, it nearly made me chuckle.
"I'm great Mom, how are you? Dad? Do you need any help?"
My Mom gave a little jump and moved out of the way, letting my Dad by. Sarah was stifling a laugh. For being adults we were all pretty comical at the moment.
Henry of course stole the limelight when he let out this happy shout at the sight of my parents. They immediately scooped him up and wished him a happy birthday.
My Dad eyed both Sarah and me quickly before hitching Henry up on one arm and placing his free hand on my Mom's shoulder. "Lily honey, let's get Henry out from underfoot so Sarah and Matthew can decorate in peace. They have a lot to get done before the guests get here."
My Mom gave him a face clearly indicating that she didn't want to go anywhere but Dad wouldn't give in.
"Don't you think Sarah needs more..." she began, but my Dad cut her off.
"Sarah has Matthew, Lily, she has what she needs here." And he pulled her out the door.
It was dark and smoky when I entered the room. Even though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon you would never guess it from inside this place. It could have been midnight for all you know.
It was always the same. Same people, same sickly atmosphere. Everyone here was drowning their sorrows the only way they knew how. It was worse than a prison, and very very sad.
Still, I was driven to come here. Sometimes two or three nights in a row. I would slide in unnoticed and watch, then leave the same way. No one ever bothered me, except an occasional waitress or drunken idiot. I always brushed them away, never ordering anything or accepting any advances.
There was only one reason I came here. Him. To spy on him. At first it was the same, night after night he would sit all alone drinking glass after glass of liquor. He never gave the bartender a break, always asking for just one more refill. It tore at my insides watching what he was doing to himself, wondering why he couldn't just turn to me instead.
I had lost too. We all had lost, but somehow we channeled our grief in other ways, in comforting each other. Trying to move on the way we thought Joseph would want us to. All of us except for Matthew. He pushed us all away, wouldn't talk to any of us. So I found myself here at this bar night after night just watching him. Making sure he was still alive.
I couldn't give up on him just yet. He was still my entire world and I didn't want our child to grow up without a father.
I still remembered the night I gave up. Was forced to give up. Not so much because of what I saw, more because of what I felt that night. The memory was still so raw in my brain and heart and it was so painful to relive it. But I did relive it, almost every day I relieved it.
You see what happened that day was different from all the others. Not only was it the day my son nearly died, it was the day I saw Matthew and her, and what I saw was clearly not platonic. It didn't matter that both of them were falling over drunk, it didn't matter that I kept hearing him call her Sarah, it was just the way he was touching her, kissing her right there in the bar for all the world to see. Even the bartender told them to get a room and Matthew only laughed at him and told him to refill both their drinks.
She wasn't even pretty. Nothing special about her, and I knew it didn't matter to Matthew. Nothing mattered to him anymore. Ever since he lost his brother, he had decided that he lost everything.
No, I don't know who she was, or even her name. I don't really care either because that was the night I stopped going. I never stepped foot in there again.
It was right in the middle of the whole groping kissing scene when I got the call from the daycare. I still tried, one more time, right there in the bar, in front of everyone, the bartender, that awful girl, the snotty waitress. I ran up to Matthew and pulled on his sleeve.
"Henry's sick, come on Matthew." My voice was frantic, I was frantic. An ambulance was on the way to Henry's daycare and I needed to leave now.
Matthew just squinted his eyes at me and blinked, looking back forth from me to that girl sitting next to him. He had no idea what was going on.
"Please come with me Matthew! We have to go now." I kept pulling on him, trying to make him stand up. He frowned at me through his drunken stupor and yanked his arm away, turning to the bartender once more.
"Hey Frankie! Pour me another one!" He completely ignored me.
"Please." I begged, "I have to go Matthew. It's Henry! It's Henry!" I was already digging through my purse for my keys. Matthew wasn't going to come, just like Joseph, he was gone.
Matthew just let out a loud guffaw while the bartender rolled his eyes, "I don't know why you girls come here." He said pouring Matthew's drink in front of me, "This guy's a loser."
His words stung my ears and in a blur of tears I flew out of there and out the door trying to control my sobs and my panic. I made it to the hospital just as the ambulance was pulling in. My son was non responsive for two days, hooked up to machines that were three times bigger than him, monitoring his every breath. I don't think I ate, slept, or left Henry's bedside for one single minute.
But there was still something tugging at my heart, making me call Matthew's place over and over again. Begging him to meet me at the hospital. Knowing that if the worst happened I needed him to be here.
He never came.
And Henry got better. Slowly, but surely, Henry got better. The doctors educated me on food allergies and how to care properly for him at home. He would need a special diet and have a few delays in his speech and growth but they were all hopeful he would out grow that.
I didn't breathe easier until Henry was finally unhooked from all those machines and I could hold him in my arms again. He had to stay in the hospital a few more days just to be sure he was okay and that was fine by me. The day before he was going to be discharged started out like all the others. I was able to bathe him and feed him breakfast. He has one more blood test to take care of and then we would take our walk down the halls of the hospital, visiting some the nice nurses who had taken a liking to Henry.
Matthew's parents came that day. They brought Henry a stuffed bunny which he loved.
Sometime before lunch or maybe it was after, I can't really remember, we gone down to the lobby to visit one of the sweet hospital ladies that worked the flower shop.
What we saw there instead turned my stomach. Because there was Matthew sprawled on the floor of the lobby screaming at the top of his lungs about needing to see his son.
His clothes were in disarray, he reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke. His normal beautiful hair was all greasy, sticking up in every direction. His eyes flashed wildly around him. He couldn't even focus, throwing himself crazily at the guards who were trying to calm him down.
This was not the man I married. This was a stranger. A stranger I didn't know at all, someone else has taken over Matthew's body and left this behind.
I was frozen in shock at first. Even his parents who were by my side were stunned motionless at the sight. They knew Matthew had started drinking but they never saw him like this.
It was when Matthew said my name, Sarah, all slurred and slow. That got me angry. I hadn't gotten angry at him yet, all this time, all those days at the bar. I still hadn't gotten angry until then, until he said my name.
All the compassion I held for him left me. I knew I wasn't the one who was going to be able to help him. I wasn't going to be enough. It would have to come from him, if he was ever going to change, it would have to come from him.
So I made it easy for him. I told him to get out. To leave. Told him that Henry and I didn't need him, even though we did. I told him that we would be just fine without him. And then because that old Sarah just wouldn't let go, because she wanted to see if the old Matthew was still in there somewhere, I told him that I knew he didn't love me anymore, that he didn't love his son anymore, and all that drunk Matthew could do is stare at me, just stare at me.
"Cassie said she's buying him a bike. I told her he's still too small for a bike. But you know Cassie, she going to buy him whatever she wants, she spoils him too much."
Sarah was still talking, she hadn't ceased, not even for a minute. We were standing out under the patio hanging the streamers. We had less that fifteen minutes before the guests were scheduled to arrive. I wasn't quite sure what to make of all this talking, it was beginning to make me nervous.
I was standing on this step stool trying to hang the streamer with her below me holding up the other end. She just kept on going and going.
"I told her at least wait until next year when he turns three, but you know her, will she listen, no."
"Sarah could you," But Sarah wasn't even looking at me.
"And Ben is even worse. He wanted to get the hot rod bike for Henry but I put my foot down on that one."
"Sarah I need more," Now I was looking down at her, tugging a little on the streamer, trying to get her attention and make her let go at the same time. Still nothing.
"So I guessed we compromised. A normal blue bike for Henry with training wheels."
"Sarah," I didn't know how else to get her attention. "Baby I need more."
Her head jerked up to me immediately at my words, her hands clutching the streamer, crinkling it up.
"What?" She kept looking at me.
I didn't move my eyes off her face, "I need more Sarah, you're holding on too tight." I tugged at the streamer again.
"Oh," She looked down at her hands and released the blue paper, "Sorry."
"It's okay." I didn't move. "It's okay."
She ran her hand through her hair nervously, the sun made tiny streaks of brown shine back up at me. I wanted to reach down and touch her, reassure her that I was here to stay. My hand even moved down to her but she didn't let me keep going, she took a tiny step backwards.
"I better go open the front door, everyone will be here any minute. Your parents should be back by now."
"Okay." I just nodded still holding on to the blue streamer.
It started innocently enough. People mingling about. Cassie taking a billion pictures with her fancy camera. Ben was cool, hanging by my side keeping me company. Sarah looked more at ease with the crowd, bouncing around with Henry from guest to guest.
The atmosphere changed though when Owens finally arrived. He came only bearing one gift, but it was a big assed box that you could tell had been professionally wrapped.
He didn't see me at first. He made a beeline straight for Sarah and Henry. They were talking to a young girl with her small daughter. He waltzed right past me over to them placing his hand on the small of Sarah's back and extending his other hand to the girl.
"Easy," Was all that Ben said to me. I guess he noticed me gripping my plastic cup a little harder.
I kept watching them, not saying anything. Waiting for the moment when he would finally see me there. Once Sarah and the girl went their separate ways, Owens ushered her to the far corner of the patio where he began talking to her in a low voice.
"Wait." Ben was like my freaking subconscious, stopping me from taking my first step.
Sarah just shook her head at him, not mad or anything like that, but more like an innocent, I don't know what you're talking about look.
But then Owens frowned at her and placed his hand at her elbow, nothing threatening, but it clearly made me see red.
"Ok. Go. Now." He didn't have to tell me twice, I was already cutting my way through the crowd, coming up from behind Owens, holding back the urge to grab him by the shoulder and spin him around and then deck him.
"Sarah, Mom's asking me about the cake. Would you like to cut the cake now?" I completely ignored Owens, positioning my body in between them, totally cutting him off.
He was slightly behind me but I could still see his stunned expression, his mouth open in mid-sentence.
"Yes, thank you Matthew, please tell Lily that we will do the cake right now." She gave me a bright smile and then turned to Owens, "Clay, we'll talk about this later, right now it's time for cake." And she walked away from him.
I followed her back through the patio and Ben winked at me as we passed him. As silly as it sounds I wanted to give him a high five and do a little dance right then and there.
Clay was totally sulking now, it was easy to see, he didn't come near me at all, not even once. He sat in the corner of the dining room in his neat black suit and red tie just eyeing me. We all sang Happy Birthday to Henry who watched us with wide eyes from his mother's arms. He dived happily into his slice of cake though.
Ben slid up behind me and pressed a napkin into my hands, "Go help clean him up, Daddy." He whispered, giving me a little shove with his shoulder.
I placed my own plate down and walked over to Henry's high chair. "All right big guy, time to get cleaned up."
Henry looked up at me, his face a happy chocolate mess. "Da!" he yelled at me.
"Yes," I answered him, "Clean up."
"Da!" He yelled again, "Da da da!"
Sarah was trying to wipe up some of the dripping ice cream that had spilled onto the table but she stopped what she was doing to look at us.
"Here, you got chocolate here and here and here." I tried to dab at his nose and mouth.
"Uh!" Henry shook his head no, "Da" He frowned, "Dadda."
I think I froze then, it was clear that Henry was calling me Dadda, Sarah noticed it at the same time because her eyes met mine and they were just shining.
"Dadda!" Henry kept saying over and over again.
Even my Dad had to laugh. "Matthew, looks like you got a fan."
"What?" I turned my head away from Sarah, "Oh yeah." I smiled back at my Dad and then at Henry. "Come on son," I began extracting him from his high chair, "Let Daddy get you cleaned up."
I was thoroughly enjoying myself by the time we opened presents. Henry allowed me to carry him around from the kitchen to the living room where the presents were to be opened.
Sarah helped him open the first few while everyone ohhed and ahhed over all the toys he received.
"Here's one from Grandma and Grandpa. And look, one from Uncle Ben, one from your friend Susie, oh look at this big one from Clay. Do you want to open Clay's gift Henry?"
The big assed box had finally been moved to the center of the room and everyone was looking at it in awe.
I wasn't going to touch that thing so Cassie helped Sarah tear away at the paper. Henry seemed more fascinated with the colorful paper than the box.
"Oh!" Sarah raised both her eyebrows up, "My, that's a generous gift, say thank you Henry."
Everyone was staring at the Hot Wheels black Corvette Clay had just bought my son. It was so over the top it was nearly ridiculous.
Clay beamed at the attention his gift received, clearly the most expensive gift of the day.
"Is that all of them?" Cassie was looking around the room for more as Ben pushed the car out of the way over to the corner of the room.
No, there was one present left, mine. But at that second I didn't want anyone to see it, much less have it compared to Clay's gift, but Sarah saw it, sitting there all by itself.
"No, there's one more, come look Henry, there's one more present for you. Let's see who it's from. Oh, it's from Daddy." Her voice trailed off as her eyes met mine once again.
I just gave her a half shy smile trying to tell her that this was nowhere near as expensive as what Henry just received. She smiled back briefly and then looked down at the long cardboard box in her hands. Henry was already pounding on it, trying to get some of the paper off.
While the room didn't fall silent, or anyone gasp at my gift, the look in Sarah's eyes as she pulled out the guitar was worth more to me than I could ever imagine.
"It's so beautiful, isn't it Henry?" She turned the guitar over in her hands, her eyes were so bright and alive, "Look at all the pretty strings baby, listen."
And then with those beautiful fingers she strummed the guitar. The musical notes filled the room, capturing everyone's attention and sent a jolt up my back. Those tiny melodies filled in the missing pieces to the song that was still hanging over my head. I suddenly knew what my song been lacking, the notes she just played, those were the notes that were missing from my song, her notes.
Clay didn't want to leave. I could see it all over his face. The only people who were left were Ben and Cassie. Cassie was helping Sarah clean up the kitchen and Ben was sitting in the living room with me and Owens, playing referee.
I give him brownie points, Clay was trying to hold his ground, to put me in my place. I could hardly blame the guy, I totally walked into his life unannounced, but it sure helped a lot that Ben was there backing me up.
"How's life treating you Steele?" He was sitting straight up with his arms crossed, looking at me with those beady eyes. "I know you've had a rough stretch."
I wanted to ignore him, ignore what he was implying, but my pride got the better of me.
"It was rough. Still is, but getting better." I met his gaze steadily. I wanted him to be completely sure that I was not going to back down.
"Well that's good to hear. You missed out on quite a bit." His tone was blunt and to the point.
Ben shifted slightly in his seat, he was pretending to fiddle with one of the toys Henry got for his birthday but I know he was really just listening.
"I'm aware of what I've missed." I tried not to miss a beat, "And I'll be trying to make up for that."
Owens almost snorted, "That might take a while."
"Whoa, check out this robot Matt," Ben was shoving the toy robot in my face trying to diffuse the spark that already been lit.
I didn't even bother looking at it, "However long it takes, so be it. I'm not going anywhere."
Owens was ignoring Ben too, "Well damn Steele, looks like you're trying to be the grown up now ain't it? It might be a little too late for that now though."
I was really fucking pissed, I wanted to get up and just beat the shit out of him. I kept trying to remember what Dr. Whitewater told me to do in order to stay focused.
Ben was looking worriedly back and forth between us all while stealing glances to the kitchen at the girls.
I was trying to form the right words, the ones that didn't include fucking idiot, or dirt bag, to get my point across, when we all heard Henry's soft cries over the white baby monitor sitting on the coffee table.
Sarah came over to the living area, her hands wet, holding a dishrag. She didn't notice the tension in the air and quickly glanced from me to Clay and then back to me.
"Um, Matthew, would you mind checking on Henry for me, my hands are full right now."
I just shot Owens a smug look while Ben gave out this little victory snort. Sarah did raise one eyebrow at the display but she didn't say anything.
"No problem Sarah." I wouldn't use this to show off, I was above that right?
Sarah just nodded her head, using her pinkie finger to loop through the baby monitor and took it with her back to the kitchen.
Henry wasn't really awake, it was more like he was whining in his sleep. I sat there by his bed for a few minutes humming to him softly, singing a few words of the song in my head.
Once Henry's breathing leveled out and he was once again in slumber land, I emerged from his room only to find Sarah and Cassie huddled around something on the kitchen counter, their backs were to me so I couldn't see what it was. Both of them jumped when they heard me.
"Oh!" Sarah spun around, pressing her back to the counter. Cassie just stared at me quietly for a second and then she smiled at me, this great big smile.
"Come here." She ushered me over to her.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Just come here."
I walked over to her and she reached out, placing her hand on my arm, standing on her tiptoes to reach me. She placed a quick kiss on my cheek with a soft giggle.
"Welcome back." Was all she said.