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The Last Year
Cold October air blew across the barren schoolyard. It was just past two in the afternoon, and everyone was sitting in class waiting for the bell that would signal the end of the school day. I was far more excited than the others, I found myself barely able to contain my excitement. It was October 13th, my birthday. The seconds ticked by as I stood up and walked to towards the door.
“Mr. Mortizzi, what do you think you’re doing?” My history teacher, Mr. Stevenson, said sternly. He was a lean man, roughly in his thirties, with glasses that hid his expression from view.
“Geeze, Mr. S, I’m sorry. I just can’t wait to leave, it’s my birthday, you know.” I muttered aloofly, looking at my shoes. My black and white Chuck Taylor’s had become rather scuffed. I’d have to clean them later.
“I know, Chris, you didn’t let the class forget, even for a minute,” the man grinned. My friends laughed, and I blushed before joining in.
I walked back towards my seat, knowing the bell would ring before I got there. I glanced around the room and saw Lukas Hetfield, the troublemaker I called my best friend. He was leaning back in his chair, spinning his pencil between his fingers like a drumstick. His curly blonde hair had a unique flair to it, and his light brown eyes were always seeking affection. I high-fived him as I passed his desk; we exchanged excited nods.
That’s when she caught my eye. The three of us, Lukas, her, and I, had been childhood best friends, inseparable for years. That had changed a couple of years ago, but it still didn’t change the way I felt about her. I stared too long, longer than a friend should. She was beautiful, and I quickly looked away when her eyes briefly met mine. It was always her eyes that got me. She smiled, and I hastily smiled back.
The bell rang, and students flooded into the halls as Mr. Stevenson tried fruitlessly to remind us of our homework. I hesitated for a second, having been disoriented by her smile, and then headed towards the throng of students in the hall.
Fifteen minutes and an uneventful bus ride later, I was home. The party wouldn’t begin for another two hours, so I had time to kill. I kicked off my cons and walked casually to my bedroom. My parents were away on business, no surprise there. Mom and Dad, who owned a record company, were away three weeks a month, usually meeting with executives in Los Angeles. Aside from having Lukas as a quasi-roommate, I practically lived alone. My older brother, Jackson, hadn’t returned a call in two years.
Jackson had stormed out two years ago after the ‘incident’. His birthday was only a few weeks after mine; he was turning 21. After he left, he moved to Georgia with his fiancé to live closer to Uncle Jay, his namesake. Maybe Jackson and Diana had been married already, I didn’t know. I tried not to think about my brother. That’s not to say I didn’t think about Jackson, because I did think about him. A lot. I just kept it to myself.
I opened my bedroom door cautiously. My parents had only left a few hours after I left for school. If they had left me a present, it would be on my bed. Low and behold, a colorfully wrapped box sat on my bed, with an ornate baby blue envelope lying. But something wasn’t right with this picture. A second envelope, a small white one with a hastily scribbled address line, sat in front of the box. I picked the strange card up, vaguely recognizing the chicken scratch handwriting, and found the familiar return address. The card had been sent from my brother’s P.O. Box. He didn’t want us to find his home address, and we hadn’t pursued the subject. I was surprised Jackson sent anything, after skipping his usual gifts last Christmas. I didn’t expect him to resume sending gifts, maybe Diana had pressured him. I opened the envelope and its contents fell out onto my lap; two hundred dollars in cash and a short handwritten note that read:
I’m sorry. Wedding is set for a year and a half from now. I know this is kind of sudden, but will you be my best man? It would really mean a lot to me to have you there. Mom and Dad aren’t invited. Write back. Diana sends her love.
I crumpled the note. I didn’t know what had gotten to Jackson, but I wasn’t buying into it. Again, I suspected Diana put him up to it. She had tried in vain to convince him to keep ties with the rest of the family, myself particularly. I felt guilty accepting Jackson’s money, but two hundred dollars is two hundred dollars. I opened my parents’ gift, and was pleasantly surprised to find a new guitar amp beneath the tight wrapping. I had busted my previous one only a week before, in what can only be described as something that seemed like a good idea at the time. I put the amp aside and crashed onto my bed, falling asleep within seconds.
I woke up sharply half an hour before the official start of the party, when Lukas rang the doorbell. I usually left the front door unlocked for him, but I had fallen asleep in a hurry. I unlocked the front door and let Lukas inside, and I laughed when I saw he had hilariously overdressed; he rented a tuxedo for the occasion.
“Hey, broseph,” Lukas greeted me. He had always been fond of using slang that no one else used. He slapped me on the back and produced a twenty dollar bill from his pocket. “Happy birthday, Chris, let’s make it a good one.”
“Thanks, man, I appreciate it. You know you didn’t have to get me anything,” I told him with a smile on my face, knowing full well what his response would be.
“You’re my best friend, bro! Besides, you only turn fifteen once.” Lukas turned to me with a glint in his eye. “So, is she going to be here?”
I laughed at the question, but inside I cringed a little bit. Lukas had a knack for asking questions he already knew the answer to, a habit he showcased in the classroom more than necessary.
“Of course she will be. But my friendship with her has been weird since the dance last spring. Seriously, we only spoke once during the summer!”
“She was away all summer. She likes you though. Try to use some of that birthday luck at the party!” He elbowed me in the ribs. Lukas had always been able to get girls with ease, sometimes two different girls in the same week. On the other hand, I had only had two girlfriends in my life. Neither relationship had left me with any good memories.
As the official start time for the party approached, the guests began arriving. I had only invited about ten kids, not because I didn’t have enough friends, but because I didn’t feel like putting forth the effort to clean up afterwards. Laziness; go figure.
Lukas and I shared the party spotlight with our usual banter and antics. Even she thought we were funny, and the three of us smiling and laughing brought back memories of our childhood together. My memories of those days aren’t as crystal clear as Lukas’ but I remember the feeling of bliss. Our lives had been Hallmark cards.
Before long, Lukas dimmed the lights and a candlelit birthday cake was brought in. We belted out an obscenity-filled rendition of the old classic, and Lukas’ idea of a big finale was to push my face into cake. Of course, he didn’t think to blow out the candles beforehand. I had to frantically attempt to blow them out, and by the grace of God managed to avoid catching my hair on fire.
It was still a school night, so by nine o’clock my friends had started to file out of the house. Lukas was asleep on my couch, his head buried under a blanket of pillows. I thought I was alone in the house with him, but she was still here, helping the cleaning process.
“Hey, thanks. I appreciate this.” I said nervously, avoiding her gaze. Her hair was a dark brown, nearly black, in sharp contrast with her grey-blue eyes. I loved her eyes. They saw through mine, past my defenses and right into my soul. I had difficulty reading her expression; she looked as if she was searching for something.
She must have found whatever she was looking for, because after a moment a smile appeared on her face.
“No problem, Christian. I hope your birthday has been great,” She spoke carefully, as if choosing the wrong words would be disastrous. Her voice had an ethereal tone, and I heard the faintest hit of gravel.
She had gotten dressed up for my party, I realized. She was wearing a black dress that matched her hair, and silver crescent earrings that glowed in the moonlight. I was taken aback by how beautiful she was, right there, in that exact moment. It dawned on me that with looks like hers, she could have just as easily became a cheerleader or had a new boyfriend every week. When she spoke again, my concentration was broken and I came crashing back to earth.
“Back in May…the dance,” she began, “it was…nice.”
My heart skipped a beat, and I saw myself in her shoes, picking my words carefully and with far more thought than normal.
“Yeah, I had a good time. I didn’t get to see you much during the summer,” I replied, sitting down on the couch opposite Lukas, who was now snoring loudly.
“The fair is coming next week, we can go together, if you’d like,” she said in her cautious way. She was cute; as if she really needed to ask me twice!
“Okay. Yeah, that sounds really fun!” I grinned, quite aware that I sounded stupid. “So, what do we do now?” I had been talking about cleaning, but she thought I wasn’t.
She leaned in and kissed me. It was a light kiss; I could feel the tender nervousness in her lips. I was nervous, too. We opened our eyes and I found her staring back at me. For once, she wasn’t searching for something. She was just taking it all in.
My fingers crept slowly towards hers. I grasped her fragile hand and held it in mine. A grin swept across her face, and mine followed suit. Across the room, Lukas fell off the couch and crashed to the floor.
“Ow, what the f—” He caught himself mid-sentence upon realizing we had company. “Oh, I see how it is. Couldn’t you guys have gone up to Chris’ room?”
She blushed madly with embarrassment and I looked between her and Lukas while trying to explain just how wrong his assumption was.
“Well, I should probably get going. Bye Lukas. Goodbye, Chris, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She interjected. She walked serenely toward the door. Lukas motioned for me to follow her, and I took his advice.
“So, does this mean we’re…?” I trailed off. I was annoyed myself for being so flustered around her. This didn’t happen to me!
“…If you want to be. Do you?” She asked hopefully, her questioning eyes wide and bright.
“Only since I first laid eyes on you,” I laughed and kissed her goodnight. It was quick and light, like our first. She lived around the corner, and could walk home on her own, but I felt like offering to walk her home nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, she said yes.
We walked together, mostly in silence, occasionally making small talk. She was telling me about her summer when she stopped talking and grabbed my hand. Her fingers were cold in the night air.
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
“I don’t want to ruin the moment…I want this to be about us, right now.”
“I’d like to hear the rest of your story, if you’d be so kind,” I told her playfully as she gripped my hand tightly.
Before long, we were outside her home. Standing at her doorstep, she kissed me again. I was caught off guard, having already kissed her goodnight at my own house. She giggled when she saw my reaction. Her laugh was warm and comforting.
“Well, good night, Christian. Happy birthday.” She walked up the brick steps and waved goodbye before disappearing into her home.
“Goodnight, Eleni,” I said aloud to no one.