Chapter 25: Liam
Pulling out the cardboard box from the top of my closet, I carry it to my bed with shaking hands. Once sitting down, I open the flaps and find the stack of photos I’d been aiming to find, taking them out and pushing the box to the side.
On the top of the stack is a picture of us - my family.
No, I correct myself. My old family.
Mom’s brunette hair was blowing in the wind, her blinding-white teeth reflecting the camera’s flash. It was winter, considering their wool coats wrapped snug around them as well as the snow their feet were trapped under. Dad’s light brown hair was in its same position as it was earlier that morning inside, as it was gelled back with some kind of smelly mousse. His smile was forced. I hadn’t noticed that all those years ago when it was stuck in a picture frame on the wall, but now I do, and I wish I had been a smarter kid back then.
So many mistakes... so many bad memories.
Flipping to the next photograph though, I come face-to-face with the one mistake that turned out to be the greatest thing life had ever brought me: Jeremiah Tucker Nottes. Her hair was a dangerous shade of brown, and those eyes - those damn eyes that showed you the sky and the old possibility of an infinity farther than the future - they killed me.
Her skin was a pale white, and her eyebrows were lost in a forest that fit her persona perfectly. The perfect complexion; the jaunty smirk that played on her lips. Everything was so... confusing about her. There was the girl with the never-ending energy, her constant insistence to do risky things, her timeless skills of showing me things I was centuries away from ever stumbling upon....
And then, there was the girl who was intimate and vulnerable; the girl everyone else was too busy and distracted to ever take the time to find behind that big facade of hers. And maybe that’s why she chose me - the one to recognize me as not just any other freshman in high school.
Sure, I could have a good time and laugh at her jokes and join in on her dangerous games she always loved to play, but I was also a good friend. Not in a vain way, but in a self-aware way. I would be there when no one else was; I would listen to her when no one else would. And maybe that’s why, when disaster struck, she ran away.
She was scared of something that she couldn’t understand - something that she couldn’t handle.
Her parents pressured the abortion option, but she hurriedly denied every time. She refused to take the baby in, though. She couldn’t have a baby, much less raise one. The only resort: me.
It’s when something hits the picture when I realize that I’m crying.
How could a person walk out on something - someone - so incredible? She never even gave him a chance - not even more than one glance before bawling and saying in a pained voice, “Get that thing away from me.”
Mom didn’t want Jere to be a part of the Nottes’ picture. She would lie to her friends about me being a fourteen-year-old father, always laughing and saying, “Kids these days, making up the strangest of tales,” while I hid in my room, rocking Jere to sleep to the sound of my erratic heartbeat.
And Dad... never acknowledged a thing that happened. Even when Jere was in his booster chair in the kitchen, bawling because he didn’t want mushed peas that morning, Dad wouldn’t look up from the news section of the newspaper.
The girl - Rose - never returned to our school after the birth of our child. She moved to Manhattan apparently, although I don’t know for sure. All contact with her was lost - not that I reached out at all. Despite me understanding why she would leave us, the morality of the situation is what makes me think at night.
But an image flashes in my mind, causing me to sniff and wipe the tears from my eyes. An image of a girl with cropped blonde hair and a small body, looking at me from across a crowded street.
Another image: her laughter when completing the cinnamon challenge with Jimmy and me. Her relaxed body next to mine, her eyes closed peacefully and a small smile to her lips with a hand resting in my hair.
A smile comes to shape my lips and the photo of Rose becomes two as I tear it down the middle. No more fears. No more past. No more worries.
Here’s to me.
Here’s to us.
“Where are we going?” Jere asks, trying to struggle his way out of his booster seat to see further out the window on both mine and Libby’s side.
Jimmy replies with only a sly smile, and then turns to face the driver. “No hints, alright?” he instructs the poor guy, and the driver mockingly salutes him.
“Sir, yes sir,” he says, and then stays silent for the rest of the drive.
I wiggle uncomfortably in my spot in the back bench of the cab, staring out the window while watching the sun drop. “Are you sure the apartment will be safe while we’re gone?”
I can almost hear the rolling of his eyes when he says, ”Yes, Liam, I’ve got everything covered. The doors are locked - the deadbolt, too - and the windows are all sealed.”
There’s a touch on my arm, and when I look to my side I find Libby giving me a timid smile. “Relax, I’m sure Jimmy knows what he’s talking about.”
I laugh. “That’ll be a first.”
Jimmy reaches to hit me from his spot in the passenger seat, but he misses and I cackle even louder. “I hope you shit on yourself,” he grumbles, and I only shake my head and reach over to take Libby’s hand in my own above Jere’s headrest.
“Words!” Jere screams, and I smirk at Jimmy’s foul mouth.
“If you say things are fine, then I believe you,” I finally say after a long period silence and racing thoughts. I take a deep breath in and try to personally guess where we’re headed. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been this far from home.
Glancing at the digital clock in the front of the cab, I find that we’ve been driving for almost thirty minutes now. At first, I had suspected Jimmy was taking us to some frat party that he always seemed to be invited to every weekend, but when he instructed me to bring a few blankets, pillows, and my lighter, I knew my theory was wrong.
I’ve been at a loss of ideas for where exactly we are going, but instead of worrying about anything and everything, I tried to concentrate on the radio’s top 40 station Jimmy had turned to.
To my surprise, Jere starts singing along with one of the songs. What is Jimmy doing to my child? “How do you know this song?” I ask, looking down at Jere in horror.
“Uncle Jimmy taught me the words. Except the bad words. Those he screams over so I don’t hear them,” he says nonchalantly, giggling at the last part and then continuing on with his performance.
I meet Libby’s eyes above Jere’s head and I can see the laughter in them. “This isn’t funny,” I state, but she only replies by the shake of her head and the small squeezing of my hand before looking out her window again.
Around that time is when I notice we’re in the middle of nowhere. “Where are we?” I ask to either of the front passengers, but Jimmy just claps the driver on the shoulder and says, “I think this oughta do. Go ahead and pull in here.”
The cab turns off the road and crawls into a grassy patch of land. It’s safe to say that it’s been a while since I’ve last seen this much land. I help Jere with his seatbelt before unbuckling, taking out his booster seat with me as I slide out of the bench. The breeze comes easily here - not as humid and heavy as it was in the city.
“Is this what it’s like in Texas?” I call out to Libby as she and Jere slide out of her side of the cab.
After closing the door behind Jere, she comes to stand next to me and sighs. “Not really.” I look down at her beside me and she grins. “I mean, it depends on which part of Texas. But yeah, I can guess that most of it is like this. But not my part of town.”
Before I can ask what her home is like, Jimmy calls out to us for help with the stuff we brought. Lugging out the load of crap we cramped into the trunk, I let Jere carry his pillow and baby blanket while I carried the portable stereo Jimmy insisted to bring with us and the bag of spare clothes for all of us. Apparently we’re spending the night out here.
Libby trails behind me as I follow Jere out into the open field, the cut-down grass tickling my ankles the further we go. “I think this is good,” I call out to him, and he stops, looks around for a second, and then nods in agreement as he drops his stuff to his feet.
I gently set the items I’d carried out here onto the ground, turning around to find Jimmy walking away from the cab that’s pulling out of the makeshift meadow. Jere waves to the driver and I can kind of see the driver smile behind his windshield.
“Nice spot, buddy,” Jimmy sighs, walking around in a circle as if to take a good look at the place, and then follows through to set his stuff on the ground as well. “It’s real cool out here.”
“Yeah,” Libby agrees next to me, looking up at the sky in awe. “The trees are taller than I expected. What made you think to do this?”
Jimmy looks down at the ground - almost sheepishly - and admits, “I took a look at your - or, your friend’s - bucket list. I wanted to help out a bit.”
I try to reach into the back of my memory for what part of the list this could have been on, but Libby seems to know exactly which one and runs up to him for a hug. “You’re so sweet, Jim.” He wraps his arms around her and rubs her back.
“I know,” is his reply, and we all laugh.
As they part I watch Libby quizzically, and she seems to know why exactly. “Have a bonfire,” she states. “Wish on a shooting star - I mean, if there will be one. Sleep under the stars. Go on a camping trip. And,” she says, as if this is the big one, “complete five things in one day.”
After counting on his fingers, Jere looks up at her in utter confusion. “What’s the fifth thing?”
"Tried to,” Libby corrects.
Rolling my eyes, I finish, “I tried to teach Libby guitar.”
“You’ve never taught me how!” Jere fusses, and smile.
“I’ll teach you how one day.”
“Do you need help with that?” Libby asks Jimmy, but he just waves her off as he walks off into the woods.
“C’mon Jere!” he calls behind him, and Jere hurriedly races to catch up with his uncle. “We got some kindle to collect!”
My thoughts fade when Jere asks him what kindle is, because at this time, I realize that I’m alone with Libby. “Hey,” I say, and all of a sudden I feel shy - like we haven’t already had millions of conversations before this; like we’ve never even had our first kiss.
Even in the twilight, I can see her small blush in her cheeks. “Hi,” she replies, and I calmly walk towards her. “Isn’t it beautiful here?”
I look around us and nod in agreement. “Jimmy did an amazing job.” The trees are indeed very tall, and the wind blows serenly by us as if it’s not the middle of summer at all, but rather the beginning of fall. “I wonder how he knows about this place.”
“We’ll have to ask him,” she agrees, and by now we’re only a foot apart.
“So,” I say, my voice small. “I’ve been wondering...”
She eyes narrow and she cocks her head to the side curiously. “What?”
I hesitantly take her hands in mine and take a step closer to her - to where we’re only inches apart. I bend my head down to where my mouth barely reaches her ear as I whisper, “That really wasn’t the fifth thing, was it?”
She giggles and I can feel her shake her head. “Number twenty.” I’m close to asking her which one that is when she saysever-so softly , “Watch the stars with someone I love.”
I take in a small breath when I realize what she’s saying. Slowly moving to where I can look at her, I watch her carefully as her brown eyes hesitantly meet mine. “That can definitely be arranged,” is what I stupidly come out with, and she just laughs and leans her head against my chest. And I think I understand why.
“I’m scared,” she whispers, and I lean down to kiss the top of her head. Her hair smells of lemons and wildlife. I wonder briefly if she can feel my erratic heartbeat, but just as suddenly as the thought comes, it passes because I realize then that I don’t really care.
“Me too.” My voice comes out strangled, but when I give her one last squeeze, I take her hand in mine and lead her to the blankets that splay out on the ground. She helps unfold them and together we lie next to each other on our backs, her head tucked under my chin and my hand absentmindedly combing through her hair.
The stars are barely out yet, but already it’s the most I’ve seen in a while. We don’t get much view of them in the city, with all of the lights surrounding us. But just being here with her, I’m once again glad that she had picked me out of everyone to be with. How, I don’t know. But somehow I am, and I don’t think there’s anything in the world that can take her away from me. Not now... and definitely not anytime soon.
“You’re pretty great, you know that?” I say without meaning to, but knowing fully well that I mean every word of it.
She laughs, her small body shaking against me. “No, I didn’t.” She props herself up with her elbows and looks down at me with a wicked smile.
“Well you should,” I state, and she sighs exasperatedly. “What?”
“When are you going to kiss me?”
My eyes widen and she giggles before leaning down and touching her lips with mine. When we part I mumble, “I guess now,” and she just rolls on her back and laughs a bit harder. “What’s wrong with you?” I chuckle, looking at her sideways as we lie on the ground.
She looks back at me and shrugs. “I guess I’m drunk.”
“That would explain it.”
“Shut up,” she smiles, punching me playfully on the arm. “I’m drunk on happiness, not alcohol.” When I don’t reply, she elaborates. “You and your family have shown me what real love is like. Y’all don’t have much, but y’all still have such a tight bond. It somehow seems to make you even closer - if that’s even possible.
“My family... we have a lot. I’m not bragging here, I’m just stating the facts. We have so much unneeded stuff, and even then, we’re not even that close to one another. You saw what happened to my parents when I told them about my life here - they completely dropped me without even giving me room to explain! And you...” she sighs, staring out into the sky. It’s almost nightfall. “I wish we were like that - my family and I.”
“Libby,” I almost laugh, but I stop myself because I know how sensitive she must be right now. “You’re already a part of our family. I know, you can’t forget your blood family - and I’m not saying you should. But I just want you to know that we’re here for you no matter what. We’re not going to disown you just because you run away to kiss some stranger on the street. Sure, I’ll be broken-hearted, but I’d understand because you’re growing up and finding what’s real in your life.”
She looks to her side and meets my eyes. “There’s no way we’ll ever go away that easily,” I murmur, and she smiles.
“Liam?” she says, and I stutter when I reply with a “yeah?”
“Thank you,” she whispers and I nod, knowing exactly what she means.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you for not leaving me.
Thank you for understanding.
Thank you for being you.
“Thank you,” I reply and she curls into me, nuzzling her face into the crook of my neck.