Chapter 45: Liam
Her hair is longer.
That was the first thing I noticed when I realized it was her that Jere was talking to. I saw the back of her head and the way her beautiful white dress she was wearing swayed in the wind. I saw how her hair went to barely above her shoulders, and how her ears are now pierced. I saw everything.
Now I see the nervous way she bites her lip as she stares down at the guitar caressed in her arms. The way the strings on the guitar are worn and ready to pop, but she’s as oblivious as can be about this fact. How when she messes up from time to time, she gives a short sigh in embarrassment and I try to suppress a smile. The entire time I’m trying to suppress a smile.
And all for him.
Her movements are practiced as she picks at the chords, as if she’s been practicing this entire time away from us. I sigh and my breath forms a ghost in front of me. It’s cold as can be, but the sun is shining and Libby is playing and Debby is smiling and I can’t help but think that it’s all for Bentley.
The last chords are plucked and the entire audience claps. I look around, taking my eyes off of Libby for once, and realize that no one is shivering as much anymore, nor complaining about the cold.
I turn back around and she’s already back in her seat, but this time sitting next to Debby as Jere must’ve insisted sitting in Libby’s lap. We are only apart by one person and Debby gives me a knowing sideways glance. I want to stick my tongue out at her childishly, embarrassed that she’s caught me staring, but Jimmy saves the day when he asks, “Liam, it’s your turn. Would you like to give a word?”
My heart is pounding and I’ve nearly convinced myself to say “no” when I realize that I do need to say one final goodbye. It feels like an eternity when I finally stand up and make my way up to the podium. I stand behind it, trying to avoid stepping on Libby’s guitarcase and from staring at the word “graham” carved into it.
When I look up at the crowd that stares back at me, I’m blinded by the sun. I squint and glance back down at the podium and see the stack of pictures Debby must’ve brought with her. I pick them up with a shaking hand, ignoring the small murmurs that sounded here and there around the audience.
I stop at one that I can’t seem to skip past. I’m caught breathless as Jimmy pats my shoulder, but I nod in acknowledgement and begin.
My voice is stronger than I thought it would be, as I’m not really sure what I’m talking about. I feel myself watching me from the audience, wondering what this man is going to say.
“Some way... somehow.” I swallow the rock that’s formed in my throat and suddenly I don’t know if I can continue. I stare at the picture in my tight hold and notice how I’m creasing it. I don’t loosen my grip. “Two people very important to me left when I was little without an explanation. I didn’t really know what to do, as I was only fourteen and still a freshman in high school. But... then I met a man one day.”
The photo in my hands comes to life.
“Gray, chalky eyes... wrinkles for days - even back then.” This brings a few scattered chuckles and I try to make this make me feel better. “I was on my way to Juke Box Hero’s to meet my son’s babysitter (Debby) to pick him up when I literally run into this old man with a Smith’s t-shirt on.” A small smile pulls at my lips at the memory. “He asked me if I knew where I was going - if I was even a part of that side of town - and I responded with a small ‘yes, sir.’
“He just looked at me for a while as if studying whether I was a liar or just some kid who was lost. But then he said, ‘You’re Nottes, aren’t you?’ and I realized then that maybe this man wasn’t as scary as I thought him out to be. And I ended up being right. After he took me in and Debby officially introduced me to her husband, Bentley took me in like one of his own.”
I skip through more photographs and land on one of the six of us - me, Jere, Jimmy, Libby, Debby, and Bentley - at my birthday this past summer. For an instant there is this warmth that collides within me as if I’m trying to go back to that time. Everything was so... so right.
“He introduced me to a lot of people as his son - he even called me that in passing. ‘You ready to go home, son?’ he’d ask after a long day at work. ’Oh, Nottes? That’s my son.’” Tears burn at my eyes and I know that I won’t be able to babble for much longer. “After six years of knowing that man and his beautiful wife, and experiencing the type of love they had to provide to just some lonely screw-up... I’m proud to be their son, and for my son to have them as grandparents.”
“Bentley,” I say, this time a bit quieter. “Thank you.”
I don’t remember telling myself to step away from the podium and set the pictures back down, but suddenly I’m back in my seat beside Debby and she’s crying and there are still unshed tears burning my eyes. My mind is turning and turning and I don’t think there’s a big chance of me getting out of the neverending trance.
After a small while, someone’s hand takes mine and I don’t look up to see who. I just let them lead me from my spot at the end of the bench and down the aisle. Most of everyone is already gone. I remember subconsciously that the burial is tomorrow and the funeral home is taking the casket back to... wherever. Today is done with. There is nothing more to do.
It’s when the person who’s holding my hand stops walking when I finally look up to see who it is.
“What are you doing?” Debby asks me, her gray eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I’m sorry?” I ask in reply, not having any clue as to what she means. Did I miss a social cue?
She rolls her eyes and squeezes my hand that’s still in hers. “Look behind me but don’t make it obvious,” she murmurs, and for the first time in a while I try to hold in a laugh. She sounds like a teenager. But I do as she says, and I see Libby clear as day. “You see that pretty girl?”
And I do. Her natural, dirty blonde hair is tucked behind her ears and one of her hands is suddenly grasped firmly by Jere. She looks down in surprise and a loud laugh bubbles out of her. This action makes me smile as Debby continues.
“Don’t let her go.” The seriousness of her tone catches me off guard and I look down to see that she’s staring at me quite sternly - like a mother would, telling her son to do the chores.
I nod once, trying to understand how much this really means to her, when she finally gives me one sly wink and turns away.
“I’m hitching a ride with Jimmy and his new boy toy, by the way!” Debby calls behind her shoulder. This stuns me and I look from her to Libby, who’s also heard this turn of event, as she stands with her face ghostly. Does she really not want to ride with me? “I’ll see you at the burial.”
And with that, there are only the three of us.
I’m not sure what to do from this standpoint. There’s her, Jere, and me standing in his elementary school’s courtyard, watching everyone else drive away. Well, almost everyone.
Someone touches my elbow and I nearly jump in surprise, and Jenny’s giggle sounds from behind me. A small smile touches my lips and she engulfs me in her small arms. “I’m so sorry, Liam,” she whispers, and I just pat her back in condolence.
“I’m sorry, too,” I say, and I mean it. Bentley was a great friend to her, no doubt.
When she steps away she locks gazes with someone behind me. A kind smile twists her lips and she whispers to me, “That’s her, isn’t it? I recognize her.”
I check over my shoulder and sure enough, Libby stands there shivering with Jere in her arms. I shake my head at the way Jere must’ve schmoozed her to hold him. “Yeah, that’s her.”
My head whips around at the hurt in her voice when she says, “I see why you love her. She’s stunning.”
Her voice is choked but the smile’s still there. My stomach twists and I can’t bear to see her of all people getting emotional. She’s Jenny - happy-go-lucky, always smiling Jenny with her goddamn coffee cozies.
“Don’t cut yourself short, Jen,” I say, nipping her chin with my finger but quickly take back my hand. I can’t lead her on, even accidentally. “You’re amazing, as well.”
A sad, half-smile. “Minus the love?”
A frown. “Plus the like.”
“That’s not enough. But... I can live with it.” The crackle in her voice chokes her enough to where I can hardly hear the last words, and I crush her to me. She’s been my friend throughout all this shit, listening to my emotional monologues and endless sighs. She helped me get into college - just as Bentley wished.
“Thank you,” I whisper, and I hear her sniffle.
She pulls away from my embrace and looks up at me. “No, thank you.... I love you.”
I can’t. The words are stuck in my throat but my heart doesn’t let me speak them. She understands, because she backs away.
“See you tomorrow,” she calls, and then turns around and leaves.
I watch as she gets in her run-down car and drives off, until I know I have to face this reality. Bentley’s gone, and Libby’s here.
I feel a hand tug on my shirt’s sleeve and I look down to see Jere with a ghostly face. “I’m cold, Daddy. I wanna go home.”
I don’t know how, but I give him a smile and nod and I look up to see Libby with her arms crossed firmly against her chest - probably cold, as well.
“Where are you staying?” I somehow get out, my first words to her since before the ceremony.
Her eyes advert from the grass to me and her shoulders sag. “A motel by JFK,” she says, her voice light.
Disappointment fills me and I don’t know how to tell her no, no she can’t leave me. Not now. But Jere beats me to it. “No!”
Mine and Libby’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise at his demanding tone. “I’m sorry?” she stumbles with her words and I want to laugh for once.
“You’re staying with us. Right Daddy?”
I smirk and look back up to Libby, a mischievous glint in my eye. “Right.”
She cocks her eyebrow and purses her lips. After a brief pause, she nods somewhat reluctantly. “Alright,” she responds and relief floods through me... and fear.
“Alright,” I smile. “Let’s do this.”