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Elaina stepped timidly into the bakery, her shining white shoes smudged a bit from the rain. The black buckles on them were stained with dirt, but they looked just as fancy to her as they always had. Maybe even better. Her yellow ankle socks were perhaps a tad bright for a day like today, but it was her birthday and she was allowed to pick out her own outfit.
She'd chosen her dad's leather jacket, her mother's white blouse with flowers along the collar, her aunt's wedding ring and her grandfather's favorite blue belt looped through her jean shorts. Her mom had looked... well, she would have looked mortified if Elaina had known what that word meant, but to Elaina she just looked surprised.
It was her seventh birthday and seven was her lucky number. Her dad had said they would go to a football game together for the first time when she turned seven -- a tailgate party, he'd said, with food like caramel apples and football cookies -- before he left. She was pretending he never had left, and he was here with her. The jacket had his smell lingering on it, like mint leaves and mens' perfume and dust, and if she closed her eyes she could see him when his favorite team got into the Rose Bowl. He'd jumped out of his rocking chair and shouted and picked Elaina up from where she was on the couch and twirled her around, dancing with her like he did with Mom. He'd been so happy, it was infectious. He was wearing the leather jacket.
Elaina had selected Posy Hann's Bakery because she knew they had sport-themed goods, and she was going to buy a football sugar cookie. She had been planning it out for years. After that she'd drag her mom over to the market and get a cheap, packaged caramel apple. They probably weren't as good as the ones at the tailgate, but they were the best she could get.
"Hello, young dear," smiled the clerk. "How can I help you?"
"Elaina?" her mother asked softly. "Do you know what you want?"
Elaina pointed at the cookie in the showcase. She was careful not to touch the glass because her mom said she'd leave finger smudges.
"The football?" inquired the clerk.
The clerk reached in the case wearing plastic gloves and wrapped her cookie in wax paper. She put it in a white paper bag and handed it to Elaina. "Happy birthday, dear."
Elaina looked surprised and the clerk laughed. Elaina's mother looked even more dumbstruck than Elaina. She asked what Elaina wanted to: "How did you know?"
"Someone called in earlier and told us an Elaina was turning seven today. Goodness me, it was around five in the morning, too. He also said to give you this," she handed Elaina a ten dollar bill, "for an apple from the store."
Elaina beamed at the woman, reaching out with a stubby little hand to take the money. She half expected her mother to intervene, but she didn't. If Elaina had known what horrified looked like, she would have seen it on her mother's face.
"Did the, er, caller tell you... his name?" her mother stammered.
Elaina looked up. She'd never heard her mom stammer before.
"He did say to give his greetings to a Yvonne. That would be you, dear?"
A pause. "Yes."
"Oh! Good gracious. He left each of you a little note, too. They came in the mail just today! If he hadn't called in I would have thrown them away." She slipped an envelope to Elaina's mother and a yellow one to Elaina. Of course, her favorite color. And the color of the football team's helmets...
The note read:
"Happy birthday, Layna! I'm sorry I couldn't be there, but there should be a pair of tickets to the game. Enjoy the food! Love you!"
Elaina's eyes widened and she dug into the bottom of the envelope with her fingers. Two slightly-creased tickets were inside, for October 8th. Tomorrow.
She tugged on her mother's shirt to show her, but she looked at her face and saw she was crying. Maybe Daddy finally told her why he left.
Instead, Yvonne showed her daughter her letter.
See you at the game!
It was just a sentence, but it seemed to say others, too. Sentences like, "I love you," "I'm sorry," and "I miss you." Elaina handed her mother a ticket.