Chapter 27: Liam
Today is July 4th. This holiday has never been a normal one in this house because, of course, my birthday falls on it.
Twenty years old.
How has twenty years gone by so fast? So precariously? I shake my head at the fact. Twenty years. There’s nothing special about the age, rather than the fact that I’ve survived the brutal world for two decades and that I’m one year away to be able to drink and get away with it. Not that it matters. Drinking is too far out of my range - especially now, where Jeremiah is five-years-old and I’m the dad who needs to have his shit together.
Right now, I’m watching Libby sleep in my bed, her nose red from rubbing roughly with tissues and her mouth hanging open with exhaustion. Poor girl couldn’t even make it down the stairs without collapsing.
A tugging on the hem of my shirt makes me jump in my spot, whirling around and peering down at the little body who is looking up at me with worried eyes.
“Why’s Libby sick, Daddy?” Jere asks me, his voice barely above a whisper because the subject was sleeping less than a yard away.
I purse my lips to the side and sigh, shaking my head in reply. “I dunno, bud.” I hesitate from saying something else when Libby stirs in the bed, the sheets sliding off her legs and revealing the slender amazingness that exists there. Damn.
“Dad,” Jere tugs at my shirt again, snapping me out of my Libby-induced haze once more.
“What’s up little man?” I ask, looking down at his tiny figure. It’s two in the afternoon and we’re all still in our pajamas. Jere’s light brown hair is disheveled looking - the bedhead pretty intense - and his matching top and bottoms are wrinkly and had some recently added orange juice stains on them.
“I want food but we’re out of noodles,” he pouts, looking up at me with the most frustrating expression on his face. Take care of Libby, or provide food for everyone? My stomach chooses this second to grumble and remind me that the only thing I’ve had this morning is coffee and some saltines that Libby had shared with me earlier.
The answer is simple: Food.
Patting Jere on the head, I turn away from the room and head down the wooden staircase as silently as I can, only to find Jimmy still passed out on his couch. I walk up to him and lightly pat his cheek with the back of my hand, watching as he blinks himself awake. He cowers a bit further into the couch when he sees me peering down at him by his side, scowling at me because of this awakening.
“What do you want?” I roll my eyes at his crude behavior and turn away from him and his five-o’clock shadow, checking my jean’s pockets for my wallet and key.
“Going to the store, so the question is what do you want?” I reply, glancing back at the stairs as Jere came prancing down the stairs with Libby at his heels. “Libby,” I breathe, my eyes locked on her small figure as she makes her way slowly down the stairs. She’s gonna fall. But to everyone’s surprise she doesn’t, and she smiles triumphantly at herself as if proving herself wrong.
“Hey, I’m getting a better!” she says, although it comes out more as a wheeze.
Jimmy notches a brow at her. “Getting down the rest of the flight of stairs is not exactly an accomplishment, Lib. In fact, it’s a God-damn travesty.”
“Jimmy!” Libby and I scold at the same time, glancing at Jere who’s sitting in the recliner quite calmly as he witnesses this exchange.
But Jimmy just shrugs and nods towards my son when he says, “What? He’s use to it.” I don’t reply when Jere only nods solemnly. God damn you, Jimmy.
“You’re such a bad role-model,” Libby tisks, although it comes out as a playful tease.
Another shrug. “It’s what I do.” Then he turns his head - still splayed out on the couch - and looks pointedly at me. “I want some more Ramen, man.”
“I thought you were sick of those,” I remark, but he just waves me off.
“Shut up and go get us some Ramen.”
“Yeah!” Jere agrees quite enthusiastically.
Nodding my head, I glance at Libby and see that she’s having a silent conniption. “What’s up?” I ask, walking to her side. To say I’m concerned would be an understatement. “Do you need a bucket?”
She grins at my offer. “Nope. Just want you to leave already.”
I freeze. “I thought you wanted to be the perfect girlfriend today. This isn’t really helping your stance,” I retort, and she giggles and looks at me mischievously.
“Just leave. We can talk after you get back,” she assures me, although her promise concerns me even further. What is so important that needs to be talked about?
“Why not now?”
She smirks. “Because you’re leaving. Bye.”
I turn to Jimmy to see if he’s witnessing this exchange and he’s just smiling at Libby like a proud mother. Well, he’s definitely not worries. Lastly, I turn to Jere. He’s just grinning like he’s about to get away with something.
What the hell is happening?
“Bye!” the three of them chorus, and I take a dazed step back. Damn. I’ve never felt more unwanted.
I mentally roll my eyes at my poor joke and turn away from the traitors. It’s my God-damn birthday for Christ’s sake!
When I get through with the store and I’ve retrieved everything that I’ve been instructed to buy, I begin my walk home. To say the least, I’ve been dizzy with confusion ever since I closed the door behind me when I left the apartment. Why was everyone acting so... weird? It was like they were up to something - something that I was obviously not a part of.
I’m a quarter of the way there when I notice a familiar car slowing down beside me. Taking smaller steps, I change my direction and walk towards the silver corolla that’s stopped at the side of the street I’ve previously been on.
The passenger window rolls down and Debby appears from behind it. “Hello, birthday boy!”
A warm smile makes its way to my face and I shrink down to the tiny car’s height to peck her on the cheek. “Thank you,” I reply, not sure what else to say. “Where are y’all headed?”
I hear Bentley on the driver’s side of the car cackle. “‘Y’all?’ Did he really just say that?” More cackling and Debby and I can’t help but join in.
“Ah man, I can’t believe I said that,” I sigh, and Debby just chuckles and looks at me lovingly.
“I can.” I look down at her, probably with a confused expression on my face, but she just shakes her head at me with a smile playing on her lips. “You’re falling for her, aren’t you?” she teases, and my ears warm at the realization that we’re talking about my love life in the middle of the street - where Bentley can hear.
“Don’t pester the boy,” Bentley grumbles right on cue and I smile in relief.
“Thanks,” I sigh, swaying the paper bags full of food by my sides.
There’s a clearing of a throat when a small voice that could not possibly be Bentley’s say, “But aren’t you?”
I freeze in my spot. Am I? I think to myself. Am I falling?
But the answer is simple: I’ve already fallen.
With only a nod in reply, I change the subject. “Where are you guys headed?”
Debby looks like she’s trying to hide a smile when she says, “Ah, nowhere that concerns you.”
Bentley must’ve poked her in the ribs or something because she squeaks and laughs at the prod. “Don’t listen to her,” Bentley calls through the window, still hidden in his spot in the driver’s seat. “She’s always been crazy.”
I smile at their relationship, hoping that when I’m their age I’ll be as happy with Libby as they are with each other.
Did I just say Libby?
Clearing my throat, I change my thought’s direction and tell the two that I need to head home. “Sounds good!” Bentley says, while Debby comments, “Oh, the ice cream might be melting by now!” Another poke, another squeal of laughter.
“You didn’t hear that!” Bentley threatens, and then immediately pulls away from the side of the road, leaving me in the dust as I watch them drive away into what I suppose is the sunset.
By the time I make it to the apartment, I find their car parked in front of it. What the hell?
I hear a muffled, “He’s here!” from a tiny voice and wonder why Jere is so excited. Gulping, I take the three steps to my door and slowly open it, suddenly very afraid of what’s behind it.
I glance around the apartment, my body exhausted but my mind wide awake.
They had thrown a surprise party for me.
Jimmy, Jere, Debby, Bentley, and Libby.
The five people who really matter in my life; the five people who have always been there for me.
And they made me feel special.
I shake my head, amazed. I watch as she lays her head in her hands as she rests her elbows on the ancient wooden table, looking at Bentley and Debby as they share the story of the one time they made a roadtrip to Vegas, once upon a time, with the warmest smile and intrigued expression. I can really tell that she truly cares for what they had to say.
Jere is too enticed by the chocolate cake to make any noise, nor care for what the “grown-ups” are talking about. Everyone seems too caught up with what was going on that no one notices when Jimmy pulls me away from the table and takes me into the living room in a spot where we’re inaudible to their ears, but still visible.
“It was her idea, y’know,” Jimmy informs me while watching the other four eat the mess of a cake they had made for me. It was huge, despite it being only one layer, and very lopsided. They must’ve let Jere use the icing stick to write the words down on the cake, because the message was hardly legible.
“What was?” I ask, too busy watching my family smile and laugh at each others’ comments and stories.
“The party,” Jimmy says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Which I suppose it is; I was just too blind to see it. “Libby thought the whole thing up.”
So many thoughts come at me at once - mostly questions full of unattainable answers.
“How” is the main one.
How did this happen?
How is there a very beautiful girl in my house?
How is my entire family now complete with her in it?
How is my heart beating erratically just at the sight of her smiling?
How can I possibly be feeling such strong emotions for this girl who’d kissed me - a complete stranger - in Times Square?
How am I ever going to repay her for all of this happiness?
How am I ever going to cope with her leaving at the end of the summer?
“Damn,” is what I come out with, and Jimmy chuckles while patting me on the back.
“Good luck, man,” he says, as if he’s able to read my mind. “You’ve got a real winner - don’t lose her.”
My heart drops to my stomach at the mere thought. “Never.”