If you don't like stories involving gay male characters, this story isn't for you. If you're a minor or if it's illegal for you to read these stories, you are not encouraged to read them and the author takes no responsibility if you do. Also, the story, and all characters in it are FICTIONAL any resemblance to real life or someone you know is a coincidence. The characters and story are the property of the author, and while I don't care if you print chapters out for your own enjoyment, please don't sell or post elsewhere without permission. This includes "borrowing characters" for your own story. If you want to do it, ask first. Any comments, questions, please send to Dluka1983@hotmail.comor post them in the forum at the website here: http://domluka.gayauthors.org/
Chapter twenty-eight: Mom in a box
AN: Thanks to Jim for editing!
I stared at the five items spread out over the coffee table, which Luke had removed from the box for me. I felt too afraid to touch them, which I understood was ridiculous, but true nonetheless. I hadn't had any idea what to expect when I opened my birthday present, but I could honestly say that I hadn't imagined what I did get. I guess in part, I'd thought it would be another letter, and maybe an item that had meant a lot to my mother. But, there was no letter.
In that wrapped shoebox, my mother had neatly placed a dark, leather binder that had been a tight fit. The second, and easiest item to miss, had been a long, bluebird feather. Then, there was another book. It was smaller, and about the size of my hand with a hard cover and a faded picture of a unicorn on the front. The fourth item was a small, square CD case. I'd almost laughed out loud when I saw it because I recognized it to be mine. I wondered if she'd finally returned all the explicit music she'd confiscated from me over the years. And the fifth item was a cardboard jewelry box, scotch tape sealing it closed.
"Do you wanna be alone?" Luke asked quietly, and I turned my attention towards him, shaking my head.
"No, that's okay; I said I'd open it with you, remember?"
"It's okay, Luke," I insisted. "I just didn't know what to expect, that's all."
"Alright--so do you wanna look through some of this stuff?" he asked, and I nodded, before gesturing towards the binder.
"What about that?" I asked. Luke looked at me, probably waiting for me to reach for the binder, but when I just sat there staring at it expectantly, he picked it up and inspected it. I frowned at the confused expression that came over his features.
"It's locked," he announced, holding it out for me.
I hesitated for another moment before I reached out and took it from him, my hands exploring the smooth texture of the color, and suddenly I felt a little resentment about the fact that Luke had taken them out of the box, even if I'd asked him to. The last person who had touched these items had been my mother, and for a moment it almost felt as if I'd missed out on a chance of getting a little closer to her by having Luke touch the items first. That was ridiculous, too. I made the thought go away and focused on the lock, which was preventing me from seeing the contents of the book.
"Why is it locked?" I asked blankly, as if Luke was actually supposed to have the answer.
"I don't know; maybe there's a key or something we missed."
Luke lifted the shoebox from the floor to check, but I was already placing the binder back on the table so I could lift up the feather, wondering what it was all about. It had hardly tickled the tips of my fingers before I was placing it back on the table and reaching for the second book.
"No key in here," Luke announced, sounding disappointed as he leaned towards me, watching as I flipped open the second book to a random page, tilting my head when I set eyes on a sloppy drawing that looked sort of like a dog, and noticed the handwriting that I'd expect a second grader to have on the opposite page. `I'm going to ask Mom if I can have a dog for my birthday. I like Sara Linki's dog. Sara's dog hates her.'
Luke must have read it, because he softly chuckled beside me, and even I found myself smiling as I continued to flip through the pages, each one marked with messy artwork and handwriting, all expressing wishes.
"Was this her diary?" Luke asked. I shook my head.
"Her wish list," I said quietly. "She used to make me keep these." I ruefully laughed to myself. "Every year before Christmas it would go missing."
Luke smiled at me and I sniffed, wondering when my nose had started running. I looked back down at the book and flipped through some more pages, looking at just pictures for now. It seemed her coloring skills improved as I neared the end of the book. I had no idea where my own little wish lists were now, so the fact that my mom had saved hers for me.... I was just really happy that she'd saved it for me. It was like having all of the wishes she'd made on paper, things I never would have known about her otherwise, like the fact that she wanted to play the piano. I found that one incredibly comical, mostly because my mother had always claimed to be bored out of her mind each time we had to just listen to someone play a piano--or maybe that was just the organ at Grandma Alice's church.
I missed my mom.
The last page I turned to placed knots in my stomach. It was towards the end of the book, where her drawings and her handwriting had improved, and the drawing was the only thing it could be--a girl with yellow hair in a wedding dress, veil and all. On the other side, the same words were written over and over again. Mrs. Edward Soarda. I swallowed hard, a lot of the resentment I'd had for Eddie when I'd first arrived coming back to haunt me; those feelings I'd had when I believed that he'd run out on me and my mom. I, of all people, knew that it would be completely unfair to ask him to be someone who he wasn't, but the feeling was still there, especially looking at that picture. It was one of my mom's dreams, one that would never come true. It was one that couldn't have come true, and I found myself wondering just how deep her feelings for my biological father had gone. She'd never married. She'd hardly ever dated. It hadn't really occurred to me before that Eddie could have been the reason for that. It was a difficult concept for me to process. I'd spent a lifetime away from him. My mother had spent half of her life with him. That was a lot, and again, I found myself distraught over the fact that she hadn't told me.
"Are you okay?" Luke asked me, and I sniffed again, realizing that my face felt wet. But, if I'd been crying, I hadn't realized it, even as I wiped the moisture away, deciding that I wasn't crying at the present moment. I nodded to his question, closing the book. I didn't place it back on the coffee table, though. I wanted to keep it close, and it was small enough to fit into my pocket, which is exactly where it went for the time being as I sat back on the couch, and stared at the remaining items on the table. "Maybe you should take a break... or tell Eddie you opened it," Luke suggested. He looked worried. I imagined that was because I looked terrible. But I forced a smile in his direction.
"What's in the box?" I asked, surprised to find that my voice sounded raspy.
Luke looked at me for a second, and then reached for the jewelry box. But, he didn't open it.
"I think you should open it," he insisted, holding it out for me.
I took the jewelry box, and Luke watched as I peeled the tape away before opening it up. Only one item really caught my eye, and before I knew it I was removing a large, gold wedding band and carelessly passing the box back to Luke as I held it in my hand and studied it carefully.
"Hey, there is a key," Luke said happily as he removed a small one connected to a chain from the jewelry box, emptying it. But I wasn't paying attention, I was too busy holding the ring. "Rory?"
"It was my Grandpa John's wedding ring," I said excitedly, holding it out for Luke as if he'd asked to see it. "I didn't know him; I mean, my mom hardly knew him because he died when she was young. My grandma gave her this ring and she loved it..."
"It's huge," Luke commented, slipping his index finger through the band and finding that there was plenty of room to spare. It made me laugh.
"My grandma always told stories about my grandpa having freakishly large fingers," I said. "You can't really tell in his pictures, but it's true. My mom never wore it. She said she was going to save it, and give it to someone special because her mom chose it for her dad, but... my mom never even dated," I concluded, feeling depressed again.
"But she still gave it to someone special," Luke replied after a moment as he removed the key from the chain it was on, and then replaced it with the ring before he leaned forward to latch it around my neck. "You should wear it." I didn't resist. All I could do was nod, grateful that Luke was currently with me.
"Thanks," I said quietly, and he smiled, giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze before he held up the key and passed me the leather binder again.
"Are you ready to open it up?" he asked. "Or do you want to see what this is?" He held up the CD case and I rolled my eyes, suddenly smiling again.
"I already know what's in there," I replied.
"You do?" Luke sounded surprised.
"Yeah. Every time I bought a CD that my mom couldn't stand--like, you know, because of language and all that--she'd take it if she heard me listening. It was one of the few things we ever fought about."
"So she's giving them back now?" Luke responded, sounding mildly amused.
"She always did say I'd get them back over her dead body," I remarked, finding the situation more ironic than sad. "My mom could have a morbid sense of humor," I explained, when Luke looked at me funny. I turned my attention to the locked binder then, even while Luke continued to study the CD case curiously, and I found that the key in the jewelry box had been a perfect fit. The lock snapped right open. When it did, Luke's attention was on the binder just in time to catch three pictures that slipped out of it. We both looked. The first, was of me as baby. It was one of those unfortunate bathtub pictures. I managed to glare at Luke before he could comment. The second picture was one of my mom, my grandmother and me, probably taken around the time that I was three, at Christmas. The third, was my mom and Grandma Alice, standing just outside the front door of my grandmother's house. It wasn't entirely obvious, but my mom was pregnant, just enough to show. I spotted it right away. What I also spotted, was the familiar macaw on my mom's shoulder.
"Oh my god, it's Mr. Washington," I said aloud, and Luke regarded me inquisitively. I pointed to the bird in the picture and then lifted the bird feather that had been in the box. "He's, like, the only pet we ever had. He died when I was five and my mom buried him in a flower box..." I suddenly put two and two together, made a disgusted face, and sent Luke laughing when I dropped the feather.
"Oh, come on," Luke insisted, lifting up the feather. "She wanted to remember him."
"She plucked Mr. Washington."
"You don't know that he was already dead when she did it," Luke insisted.
"Does that make it better?" I responded, but found myself smiling, anyway. I even took the feather again. "I told you she could be morbid."
"She seems... sentimental," Luke replied quietly, and I fell silent for a moment, offered him a genuine smile and nodded, before turning my attention back to the binder on my lap. I only opened the cover before my hand was on the first page, my eyes trained on the handwriting that filled it. It was the same writing that had been on the shiny red paper before I'd opened my present.
I couldn't read it, my vision was suddenly too blurry for that. But, what I did do, was turn the page, only to find more of my mom's handwriting. And it was on the next, and the next, and the next, along with a pressed four-leaf clover.
"This is so much better than a letter." I didn't even realize I'd said it out loud until Luke smiled at me.
"She sent her diary," he said, sounding like he approved. But, I suddenly found myself frowning as I turned back to the first page and looked at the date.
"She started this a week after we found out," I said quietly.
"What do you mean?"
"When they told us... this was a week after they told us she was going to die." I suddenly closed the binder and shook my head. "I can't just read her diary."
"It's private," I stated. "She wouldn't want me to."
"If that was true she wouldn't have given it to you," Luke pointed out. "Rory... don't do that to yourself, okay? If she started writing after she found out what was going to happen--well, then don't you think she did it for you?"
I stared down at the journal, knowing that he was right. I guess this was just... hard. All of it was hard. And overwhelming. I felt like I should be sitting down and reading it all immediately, if that's what my mom had left it for. And her wish list. I wanted to read all of that, too, study every picture until I could see each and every one of their details with my eyes closed. But, I also wanted to take my time. Besides my memories, this was the last I had of my mother. I wanted it all to last. I wanted to learn something new about her every day, just like I had when she was alive. I knew I didn't have the patience for that... but I just wanted her to last.
I opened the diary again. I didn't start reading exactly, I just slowly flipped through the pages. There was more to see that just wasn't written, like more four-leaf clovers, pressed to the pages. My mom had always been really good at finding them at my grandma's house. When I couldn't, she'd give me hers and say that I could share her luck. And there were flowers. One was a rose that I remembered giving her, and there were some bookmarks with poetry she liked on them, a silver dollar. I cringed at the lizard's tail, but smiled anyway.
As I took my time to look, I felt Luke squeeze my shoulder as he unzipped the CD case to look through my music, and I was aware of him getting up, moving around the room, but I wasn't really paying attention. I was too busy looking through the book. I hadn't even reached the halfway point when I found a folded-up piece of yellow notebook paper and opened it up, only to find my own handwriting on it.
Good morning beautiful.
I remembered writing it, too. I'd written it just before my mom had gotten really sick. She'd already lost a lot of weight. Her skin was pale, her cheeks seemed hollow, and the night before I'd found her crying in front of her mirror because she thought she was, in her words, hideous. I'd made her breakfast in bed the next morning and left the note. She'd cried.
And I was about to.
I folded up the piece of paper, feeling touched that my mom had kept it when I'd only written it and left it for her without a second thought. I'd known it would mean something to her, but...
I flinched as the speakers wired around the room suddenly crackled. I looked over at Luke, who was over by the CD player with the case. Obviously, whatever he'd been playing before had been blaring, because that's exactly what the familiar voice--the one I hadn't imagined ever hearing again--did, in a sing-song voice through the speakers. It blared.
"Rory! I'm waiting, say goodbye to your friends! You can see them tomorrow."
I looked up the stairs to where my mom's blonde head was sticking out the door to our apartment, and groaned. She had her hair up in a high pony tail. The only time she ever wore it like that was when she was cleaning.
"Five more minutes!" I insisted. "It's only six thirty!"
"It's Thursday," she replied. "Family night. You promised when I let you go to that sleepover last week." She paused and looked past me, to where, like me, Nathan was sitting on the stairs, and Jason was on his bike. "Hi, boys."
"Hi, Gina," they chorused. Nathan gave her a little wave and blushed. I elbowed him and gave him a dirty look. At thirteen, as Jason and most of my other friends had started to notice girls, Nathan had noticed my mother. I, of course, was disgusted about this.
"Five more minutes," I pleaded.
"Five seconds," my mother responded, raising a perfectly sharp eyebrow at me. I released an exasperated breath and did my very best to look completely put out by this. She just smiled, waved to my friends, and went back inside.
I sighed and stood up, doing the lazy-handshake thing with Nathan and Jason. They didn't even ask me why I had to go in early, or wonder what family night was. They already knew that at least one day a week I went in early to spend some extra time with my mom. And, I really didn't complain about it very much, either. Only on book night.
In all fairness, book night only happened about once a month, but I'd always figured that there were better things we could have done with our time. At thirteen, sitting still for three hours in a quiet living room while my mom and I took turns reading whatever she'd picked up from the library that week wasn't my idea of a good time. Plus, she'd make me wear my glasses.
She was waiting for me with my glasses on the long, blue sofa in our small, yet suitable living room when I made my way upstairs. But I didn't go to sit with her right away. First, I went directly to the kitchen to pour us both a glass of juice. "Thank you," my mom said, smiling at me when I handed her a glass. I just groaned when she handed me my glasses and grudgingly put them on. Then, I tilted my head to better see the book that was in her hands. By the looks of the illustration, it was a romance novel. I was also pretty sure that the title had the word desire in it.
"What?" she asked innocently, turning to a bookmarked page almost halfway through the book.
"Is it even legal to make me read that?"
"Probably not," she said reasonably. "But I started it last night and I want to know what happens."
"On your own time, lady," I informed her as I took the book and placed it aside. She laughed and sipped her juice.
"Okay, but that means you have to pick. And, I forgot to stop at the library after work, so you're going to have to pick something we have here."
"But we've read everything here a hundred times," I objected, and then put on my best grin. "Let's watch a movie instead."
My mother's eyes narrowed and part of her top lips curled up as she flashed me a look that clearly said I was being too stubborn for her tastes. But, as always it faded quickly and she suddenly smiled as she passed me her juice glass and stood up.
"I know what we can read," she announced. I remained where I was on the sofa, watching skeptically as she went to the closet by the front door. I sat up a little when I saw her fish out a box from the bottom.
"Weren't you supposed to donate that stuff to Goodwill?" I asked.
"I changed my mind about this stuff," she replied, bringing the box to the sofa where she opened it between us and I groaned again when I saw what was in it.
"Mom, those are baby books."
"Your baby books. Come on, it'll be fun to read a few of these."
"Bunny does his ABC's?"
Obviously, she was trying to torture me. Then again, when I was thirteen, I was under the impression that everything my mom did was meant to torture me.
"Let's read the Fox and the Hound," she insisted. "It used to be your favorite."
"I don't even remember that one," I insisted.
"That's exactly why we should read it," she insisted. "Besides, some day when you have kids to give these to you'll thank me for making sure you remember the stories."
I inwardly cringed at that. For a while now, I'd been coming to the conclusion that having children wasn't necessarily going to be a part of my future. Every time my mom made a comment like that I was reminded of how I thought it was going to break her heart. It was probably the guilt alone that had me reaching for the book when she held it out for me.
"You start," she insisted. "And I'll tell you what, if we can read three of these, we'll watch a movie. My choice."
"Your choice?" I asked incredulously.
"I think I should get something for cutting book night short," she replied, matter-of-factly.
"Fine," I relented. "But nothing that makes you cry!"
"You mean that makes you cry?" she teased.
"Okay, deal," she agreed. We shook on it, and I started to read.
"Rory... it's family time..."
The voice coming through the speakers--the laughter that followed--my mother's laughter, was suddenly interrupted.
"I'm sorry, Rory," Luke said quickly, stopping it as he looked over at me. "I didn't know..."
I was shaking. And, I'd stood up at some point. Couldn't remember doing it. Or dropping my mom's diary. I looked down at it for a long moment, feeling like I'd just broken a family heirloom, and picked it up carefully as I slowly took my seat again.
I met Luke's eyes. He looked like he felt guilty about something, but it took me another whole minute to notice before I cleared my throat and gave a small shrug.
"It's okay," I insisted. "Play it."
Luke studied me for a moment before a small smile curled his lips and he reached for the CD player, this time turning it down. It was still loud, but not so much that it was uncomfortable as I heard my mom's laughter again, a soft sound that sent a chill up my spine.
"Who says I can't read to my grandchildren?" she mused. "And I know what you're thinking, Rory, but anything's possible; and, I have one of your old favorites right here..." I could hear pages turning as Luke took a seat next to me and his hand rested on my shoulder.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?" he asked quietly.
I shook my head and found myself leaning into him somewhat as I took in the sound of my mom's voice. It was a soft sound, but a deeper soft sound. She'd never really had one of those girly voices. In fact, now that I thought about it, she was a little nasal, but I'd always think that her voice was beautiful. More so now, because I'd never planned on hearing it again.
"... the fox and the hound..." And then she started to read.
She could have been reading the Declaration of Independence, or reciting the days of the week for all I cared. It was my mom's voice, and just listening to it was... something. I had her voice. If I wanted to, I could always listen to her voice, whenever I wanted from now on. And, when Luke placed the CD case on my lap and I looked down and saw that there were seven other CD's, which likely had more of her voice on them, I decided that it was the best fucking birthday present she'd ever given to me.
As Luke and I just sat there, listening, I felt that the story was coming to an end far too soon. I just wanted her to keep talking, just for a little longer. I released an audible sigh of relief when I found that it wasn't over as my mom went on to read a second story. Peter Pan, I think it was. She did her really lousy Captain Hook voice. It made Luke laugh. I managed something akin to a smile in his direction before I stared straight ahead and listened some more.
Jase was there. I don't know when he had come downstairs, but when he sat next to me and passed over a box of Kleenex, I discovered that I really did need to blow my nose. I did so as quietly as possible. I also found that when Jase leaned back and listened with us, I wasn't at all bothered by it. My mom was talking.
I didn't notice that Eddie was there, too, until my mom was halfway through a third story. He was standing by the stairs, leaning against the wall, and looked... he looked a little lost, actually. He looked like he wasn't sure if he should be there. Personally, it was okay with me. It probably wouldn't have been, back when I'd arrived. But to see him now, with creases in his brow, his mouth downcast into a frown and his eyes seeming almost hollow, it occurred to me that while Eddie had never loved my mom the way that she wanted him to, he had cared for her. In many ways, he'd known her for just as long as I had, and it seemed rather apparent that hearing her voice was affecting him.
It was affecting everyone, I realized. Luke seemed a little uncomfortable. I hadn't noticed before. He seemed uncomfortable and sad. He was biting his nails like it was a bad habit he'd always had. I don't think I'd ever seen him do it before. And his eyes looked red. He wasn't crying, but they were red, like he was allergic to everything that was currently in the room. And Jase kept looking at me... and Luke. He looked a little sad, but he kept looking at the two of us almost sympathetically. I couldn't quite decide if it made me uncomfortable or if his concern was touching. I decided that it was nice, that he was there to be supportive, but ultimately decided that the entire situation was making me a little uncomfortable. And, as I became aware that I was the only one in a group of men who was, in fact, crying, I abruptly decided that I'd had enough.
I didn't get up and run away, or anything like that. But what I did do, was reach for the shoe box on the floor, and I was completely aware as everyone watched me slowly place items back into it. The feather, the journal. I placed the key back into the jewelry box and placed that in there, and I zipped up the remainder of the CD's, and placed them on top.
"Excuse me," I said quietly as I stepped around Luke, who regarded me with more concern. I was about to overdose on concern. I went to my room, walking at a normal pace, and then I closed my door quietly. And then I stared at it. But, that was because I could still hear my mom's voice on the other side.
"Rory Norick! Open this door right now!"
I winced. My mom hardly ever raised her voice like that. She meant business. As for me, I was twelve. And, I had a full head of thick black hair, cut into the same mop-top style that it had been in since I was two. But, not for long.
I looked at Jason and Nathan, with their newly buzzed heads. They seemed a little worried.
" Do it!" I told Jason as I kneeled down in front of him, not really liking the way that his hand was shaking as he held the clippers.
"Dude, your mom's gonna be really mad!" Nathan insisted.
"Rory, you better not be doing what I think you're doing!" my mother called through the door as she attempted to turn the knob again.
"Just a minute!" I called back, and then in a more rushed voice, "Jason, come on!"
"Okay, okay," he relented, and I closed my eyes as the clippers came into contact with my head, and hair started to fall.
Jason Cross had an older brother, Jeremy Cross. In our world, no one was cooler than Jeremy Cross. He had pierced ears, a really pretty girlfriend, and he drove his mom's cars on the weekends. He'd also just made his school's varsity swim team, and to celebrate, the entire team shaved their heads. Nathan and Jason, the lucky bastards, had been witness to this. Jeremy had agreed to shave their heads, too. I'd missed all the fun. I'd gone with my mom to see Grandma Alice that day. It had been a good visit. The three of us had gone to the zoo and had a lot of fun, but then I came home and found out what I'd missed. Never one to be left out, I'd talked Jason into swiping his dad's clippers. He'd arrived with Nathan, and Nathan and I were confident that Jason was perfectly capable of shaving a little hair off of my head.
Meanwhile, my mom was on the phone with Nathan's mom, who was furious after talking to Jason's mom about the new haircuts spreading like wildfire throughout the neighborhood. My mom had figured out what we were up to as soon as I'd locked my door. I never locked my door. And, if that hadn't gotten her attention, the sound of electric clippers certainly did.
"Rory, you're being impossible!" my mom insisted, knocking again. "Your grandmother's going to throw a fit the next time you see her! Rory, open this door! Jason... Nathan!"
"We'll be out in a minute, Mom!" I called, spitting a few stray pieces of hair away as they landed on my mouth.
"You'd better not be bald!" she called back, and then released an exasperated groan.
"Okay, mister, I'm going to pick the lock!"
Nathan snickered at that.
"Dude, she can do it!" I informed him.
"Hurry up, Jason!" Nathan hissed.
"Okay!" Jason sounded like he'd never been under so much pressure in his life.
"Ouch! Jason!" I protested when the blade came a little too close to my skin.
"Rory, you'd better not be bleeding in there," my mother remarked from the other side of the door as we heard various clicks as she worked on the lock.
"Am I bleeding?" I demanded.
"No," Jason and Nathan both told me.
"I'm not bleeding, Mom!" I called.
A moment later, my mom was opening the door, just as Jason quickly turned off the clippers and hid them behind his back. I thought my mom's jaw was going to drop right off her face when her green eyes focused on me, as I kneeled between my two friends, hair everywhere around us.
"Mom, it's okay," I insisted. "It's just..."
I was interrupted by the sound of her laughter as she watched me, laughter that was becoming more hysterical by the moment.
"What?" I demanded, when Jason and Nathan began to join her. It was not at all comforting that they were all looking at me as this laughter occurred. "Mom, what?"
She only managed to shake her hand as she waved me towards her, and then moved in my direction, taking my arm to guide me off the floor. She was still laughing as she guided me to the bathroom mirror. When she flicked on the light and I saw my reflection, it was my turn to look shocked. Jason had shaved my head alright, but he'd completely missed the sides, and there were patches of my hair sticking up all over the place. I flashed him a murderous look. He shrugged apologetically, still laughing. I glared at my mother as she kissed my cheek.
"Serves you right," she decided. She laughed again, and this time, I laughed with her.
The voice on the speakers stopped. It wasn't the end of the recording, but someone had stopped it. I let out a breath and went to my bed, taking the box with me. I looked down at the items in it. I didn't just want to put it back under the bed. Things were different, now that I'd opened it. It felt different in a way that seemed hard to explain. I guess, if I had to put it into words, I'd say that I didn't want to hide my mom away again. And I felt a little guilty that I'd done so in the first place.
So, I picked up the feather, and I placed it within the pages of the journal, along with the other trinkets, and anything else that I had yet to discover. I took the key out of the jewelry box, and I locked the binder before I placed it and the CD case on my dresser, the jewelry box and the key in my top drawer. As I returned to the bed, I lifted out my mom's wish list, and slid the empty box back under the bed before I began to flip through the small book in my hands.
The little book with the unicorn cover, the list of the things that my mom had wished for, seemed comforting compared to the emotion-provoking items that had filled the rest of the box. I think part of it was because the handwriting wasn't hers. I mean, it was hers, but not the way that I knew it. She'd written those things in that book when she was young, when she thought she still had time to make wishes, maybe even turn them into dreams. She wrote them, probably before she ever even thought about dying. It all should have been sad to think about, but instead, it was a relief.
The last few years that I'd spent with my mom, she'd known. Even when she wasn't thinking about it, it was right there, hanging over her head. She was going to die. I knew how hard it had been for me, knowing that I was going to lose my mom. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it had been like for her. Luke was right; she'd meant for me to read the diary. She'd written it, knowing what was going to happen to her. She'd recorded her voice, knowing.
But, she'd written down her wishes when everything had been... innocent for her. It was a nice reminder that there had been times when things were good for her. She hadn't always had the future--or lack of one--hanging over her head. When it came to the good times, I'd spent more of those times than not with my mother.
It was so easy to not look at her pictures, or to not think about her, because when it did, I felt like my mind was trapped in those last two years when I was terrified, and devastated; and thinking about it made me just a little bit angry, and I generally didn't think it was fair that she was gone.
With my mother, there had been more than those last two years. It wasn't right, not to remember that.
Only, as I flipped to the sketch of the wedding dress again, the peaceful feeling went away and there was more of that damn resentment. I wasn't angry with Eddie. In my heart, I knew that. It wouldn't be right to be angry with him. But for a second--and just a second--I found myself wishing for something that I wouldn't have ever imagined wanting. I wished that Eddie had never left her. I wished that he had stayed. She would have told him about me, and... for a moment, I wished that Eddie Soarda could have been my mom's husband, and my dad. Of course, logically I knew that it might have hurt her more if he had stayed. Actually, I was positive that it would have. Eddie, pretending to be something that he wasn't, would have hurt her. It could have hurt all of us. I knew that.
I closed the book and looked up when there was a light knock on the door.
"It's open," I said in a normal tone of voice, not really caring if whoever was out there heard me or not.
Eddie entered almost cautiously, closing the door behind him before he moved to the bed and took a seat next to me. I moved over to make room for him.
"You opened your birthday present," he said softly.
I nodded. "Luke thought I should; it was probably time to, anyway."
"Yeah," he agreed. "That was pretty special... your mom..."
I nodded again. "Yeah."
"So, are you alright?"
"I'm not crying anymore," I pointed out, and Eddie released a small chuckle.
"You know, crying..."
"We don't have to have that conversation."
"Oh, alright." Eddie sounded neutral, but looked amused.
"My mom loved you." I don't know what possessed me to say it, but it felt almost like an admission on my part, and after it was said, I felt oddly relieved. Eddie however, looked surprised, and maybe a little uncomfortable. Maybe that was because I'd always shut him down when feelings regarding him and my mother had come up before.
"Rory," he responded carefully. "You know I loved her, too, right?"
"But you weren't in love with her." I hoped that didn't sound like an accusation. It's not how I meant it.
Eddie sighed and shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment.
"I don't know if this is going to make sense to you, but when I was sixteen... I think I was a little in love with who your mom was, Rory. I always had been. She was my best friend, and when I came out to her--as far as I was concerned, none of that had changed. But romantically speaking..."
"I get it," I replied. "I guess I just wish..." I stopped myself, not really knowing where I was going with this as I looked down at the little book in my hands. "I wish she could have been happy."
Eddie opened his mouth to respond to that, but before he got any words out, I'd made a split decision. I opened the book with the unicorn cover to the page with the wedding dress, and Eddie's name, and I showed it to him. Not to make him feel guilty, but... because I just thought he had a right to see it, and I didn't think my mom would have minded.
Eddie's mouth closed, and he looked. He looked for a long time, and then took the book from me, gently almost, as if it might have fallen apart in his hands otherwise--or maybe he just thought that I would have objected to letting him take it. I didn't.
I watched him, as his hand went to the paper where her handwriting was, just as mine had, and rather than looking upset about anything, a more serene expression came over his features and he leaned towards me, as if he needed to so I'd hear him.
"When we first started dating, your mom passed me notes in class that looked exactly like this," Eddie admitted. "And I really did love her. It just wasn't enough, Rory. I don't know if you can understand that..."
"Do you regret it?" I asked him.
"No. No," he said quickly. "Only if... if I ever hurt her. I never wanted to hurt her. I don't regret her."
I hesitated for a moment before asking my next question.
"Do you regret me?"
Eddie looked at me for a moment, and then slowly shook his head.
"No... I wouldn't have regretted you if I'd never even met you. You're Gina's... and mine. That's enough." He was silent for a moment, still looking at me. It made me nervous, and I had to avert my gaze to the floor. "And Rory--your mom was happy. I know she was happy with you. She...would have done anything for you."
"She would have done anything to see you happy. I know, she loved me. But I think what you need to understand is, that I wasn't the love of her life. You were."
"Don't cry baby, I'll be home soon," my mom insisted as she wiped a few stray tears running down my face. She looked pretty. A black dress and shiny earrings. She was wearing makeup, which she hardly ever wore. I liked the way that her eyes looked, but I could have gone without her lipstick smudging on my cheek. I was just shy of six years old, and I felt like she was abandoning me to go to her twenty-first birthday party with my grandma and a few friends.
"I don't wanna stay with Mrs. Grichel," I objected. "She smokes cigarettes and she doesn't let me have gum."
My mom smiled, as she pulled my blue comforter further up my legs.
"Well, Mrs. Grichel won't smoke in the house, and you don't need gum, anyway. It's bedtime; I promise I'll be back soon, okay?"
"But I wanna go with you."
"I'm sorry baby--not this time, okay? You know it's only for grown-ups. Now come on, lay down and close your eyes. I promise I'll be home when you wake up, that's only three good dreams away."
"One good dream," I bargained as I lay back on my pillow, and she kissed my forehead as she tucked me in.
"Two good dreams," she responded, laughing as she patted the bedding down around me. "I love you."
I tried to respond, but my lip was too busy quivering as I held back tears.
"I'll see you soon," she whispered, and then she was leaving, softly closing my bedroom door behind her.
The moment she was gone, my room was filled with the sound of my own sniffling. I hated staying with babysitters. My mom rarely went out, but when she did, I hated that, too, especially when I couldn't go with her. All I understood this time, was that my mom was having a birthday party and I wasn't allowed to go with her. In my little world, that just wasn't fair.
When my door started to open, I pulled the covers over my head. I didn't like it when Mrs. Grichel saw me cry. She had three boys at home, and none of them ever cried. She'd tell me that only little girls cried, and I was not a little girl. But, when I felt a hand, pulling away the covers, I was forced to give them up. It wasn't Mrs. Grichel's wrinkled face looking back at me, though.
"I've been thinking..." she said, smiling. "Would you like to go find some cake, stay up way past your bedtime, and make Grandma Alice really mad?"
I frowned at that last thing.
"Why is grandma going to be mad?"
"Because it's my birthday, and I'm not going to some silly party. I want to spend it with you," she said, matter-of-factly.
"What about Grandma Alice? Do you wanna have your birthday with her, too?"
"Hmm... you're right. Let's save her a piece of cake. Come on." She smiled, holding her hand out for me, and I took it.
"Mommy, can I dress up like you?"
"I don't think that'll be a problem. You wanna wear the itchy pants Grandma got you for Christmas?"
I quickly shook my head.
"Those pants make me itch," I informed her.
"Okay, then you can wear the ones mommy got you," she responded, seeming pleased with herself as she kneeled down and opened her arms for me. "Give me a hug."
I did so, sinking in as she held me tight.
"I love you," she whispered into my ear, and this time, I responded.
"I love you."
After Eddie left my room, because I'd insisted that I wanted a nap, just to keep him from watching me break down again, I'd composed myself and called Seth. I'd told him that I didn't think I'd be going out tonight, and then when he asked why, I was as honest as I could be. I told him that I'd opened up some stuff from my mom and I simply wasn't up for it. He seemed to understand, and asked me if I'd call him the next day.
That's why, around nine o'clock as I sat outside, my feet in the pool, I was surprised when Eddie came to tell me that I had a visitor. It only could have been one person, and I smiled as Seth came through the back door, and Eddie went back inside.
"I'll be in here," Eddie said, as if it were necessary. I gave him a nod, watching him until he was gone, and then approached Seth, who seemed somewhat nervous.
"I know you said you didn't want to go out... I just wanted to say hi."
"Hi," I replied, moving a little closer. The way I was looking at him was practically an open invitation. He finally smiled and stepped forward to give me a short hug.
"Were you swimming?" he asked.
I looked down at my fully clothed body, minus the shoes, and shook my head. "Not really."
"Oh... um, look... you sounded a little upset on the phone, are you..."
"I'm okay," I insisted, and then gestured towards the pool. "You wanna sit down... we'll stick to the shallow end."
I took his hand, hoping that he was comfortable enough with that, knowing that Eddie was inside. He didn't seem to mind. I led him to the pool, he kicked off his shoes, and together we sat down, our ankles twining beneath the water.
"You said you got something from your mom?" he asked, after a long moment of silence.
In all honesty, at that point I thought that I was completely burnt out on the subject--until I started talking to Seth. I told him about the birthday present, and how I'd waited to open it, and finally, what was in it. And he seemed completely interested. He listened as he held my hand, his thumb massaging my knuckles as he stopped me to ask questions every once in a while. The conversation ended, however, when I became distracted with Seth himself and found myself removing his ball cap again. We were kissing again a moment later. Shy, quick little pecks because neither of us knew who might walk out on us. We didn't find out until I got brave enough to slip Seth the tongue. His hand slid up my neck, leaving a trail of goose bumps before he was cupping the back of my neck, pulling me closer.
Someone across the pool cleared their throat and we snapped apart immediately.
"Sorry," Luke said sheepishly from under the porch light. "Uh... Rory; Jase and Eddie were wondering if you guys could come in for a second."
"Sure," I replied hesitantly, and as Luke went back into the house, I looked at Seth worriedly. That was a mistake, because he looked just as concerned as he pulled his hat back onto his head.
"Maybe I should just go," he said quietly.
"It's okay," I insisted, squeezing his hand. I really hoped that we weren't going in there for another sex talk. The only way to find out was to brave it.
Seth didn't hold my hand as we entered the house, but he was next to me when I found Luke, Eddie and Jase in the kitchen, and I froze in my tracks.
"I know it's not your birthday," Eddie said quickly as he looked between me and the ice-cream cake on the table, which had seventeen lit candles on it. "but I think your mom would have wanted you to have one tonight."
I just stood there. I felt Seth's hand on my back.
"Are you okay, Rory?" Jase asked me.
I managed a small smile and forced myself to move forward.
"Yeah, I'm good."
"Hey," Seth started to say, quietly from behind me, "I think I'm gonna..."
"Stay," I insisted, looking back at him as I gently touched his side. "I want you to stay."
Seth smiled hesitantly and gave a small nod, but I doubted that he would have gotten out anyway, because a moment later, Eddie had his hand on Seth's shoulder and he was leading him towards the table as Jase held out a knife for me.
"Wanna cut the cake?" Jase asked me.
"He has to blow out the candles first," Luke protested.
"Right," Jase replied, laughing. "Get over here and blow out your candles first."
I did so. Three times. Luke had managed to get trick candles onto the cake, something he seemed very proud of himself for. No one really sat down, we just sat around the table, eating cake and talking about anything we could think of. I kept one ear trained on Eddie as he spoke to Seth, fully prepared to derail any embarrassing questions that might come up, and then I turned crimson when they sang me Happy Birthday.
The first time we'd had cake, it was to honor Luke's mom. This time, it might have been masked as an early birthday celebration for me, but I knew what it was really for. My mother. Only, we'd acknowledged Luke's mom in silence, and while no one was really mentioning mine, I couldn't help but wonder if any of this was appropriate. She was gone, I was there... and it wasn't fair. But, as I looked around the kitchen, over the smiling faces, some of which had been close to shedding tears with me over her loss not so long ago, I realized something. It was an injustice to my mother's memory to believe that I couldn't think about her, and be happy at the same time. She'd made me happy, and that night I realized that most of her memories had the same effect. It was something that I couldn't have been more grateful for.