The rest of May melted away with the increasing heat of the summer days. Alex showed me the sections of Pueblo that I had failed to explore in my short time there and I was thoroughly impressed with the small beach town's attempt at creating a sort of fair for the tourists.
I met many people too with his help. There was Gilda, a middle aged widower who baked cookies almost every day and always offered some to the kids of Pueblo, even if they were now too old to accept them. She had appeared magically in front of me with a tray of chocolate chip cookies and, with an encouraging smile from Alex, I had taken one. Another one was Matthew, a thirty-something year old that owned the only pool in Pueblo, even the beach houses didn't have any pools. He offered swimming lessons for the half the price of the ones offered in Toronto and he promised a shark-free experience.
My favorite person though was Sean, Alex's best friend. It wasn't because of the way he wore his usual attire of undershirt that showed his black chest hair, and red pair of casual shorts that often fell too long on his short legs. I paid no mind to the way his black hair accepted the ocean breeze and blew with it, never against it. What I liked most about Sean was the way that he made Alex smile. They looked like such boys together; the type that showed me what true friendship was like. I soon learned that Alex was the spontaneous one and that Sean was his conscience, reminding him that he wasn't as invisible as he sometimes thought he was.
The nights became shorter and the days became longer as Alex and I explored the town limits together. The air became hotter with my ever-growing emotions for him that fought against the memory of Jacob, and more than once I had to stop myself from dreaming about Alex and I being together. Our days were routine, finding something new and exploring it to its greatest depths, but I knew that we were enclosing in on something that I shouldn't have been thinking about in the first place.
He had met my parents multiple times and there was no doubt that they liked him. I often reminded him of how he had become an instant favorite after saving Angela's life. He would often joke and show me simple things that I never paid mind to. One of those things had been the lines on my hands and what they meant.
"This line," he'd said while holding my left hand and running a finger down the long arcing line by my thumb. "Stands for your life and every break signifies a sudden change in your life's path."
I'd held my breath, tensing up immediately at his words.
"And this one," he'd continued while passing the same finger along the line that ran under my pinkie, ring, and middle finger, oblivious to my tension. "Stands for your love life and how many kids you'll have."
But one thought that kept gnawing at me while the summer continued to tick by and bring us closer, was that he never made an effort to introduce me to his family. I knew that we weren't dating or "together", but even as friends, I thought that he would be polite and let me meet them. But he hadn't by the time that the day before my birthday, June sixteenth, rolled by. So I'd let the idea nag at me even as I reminded him of my birthday the following day.
"The big eighteen?" He'd asked with a long whistle. "Someone's getting old."
I had hit him playfully. "Then you must be ancient!"
"Hey now," he'd warned with a voice that sounded anything but serious and foreboding. "I'm only a year older, I turned nineteen in January."
"Of course," I had looked sideways at him sheepishly, "grandpa."
This of course had provoked him and he'd come on top of me with the technique that he had learned: tickling me in the places that guaranteed my silence about the subject.
The morning of my birthday felt different. Not because it was my birthday, but because my mind suddenly check marked something in my memories: this was the first birthday that I hadn't celebrated with Jacob in three years. I remembered him handing me a package back when I had turned seventeen that had included the bracelet that I now wore and a letter. He had given me a look that said, "You will never guess what's in there" and I had opened the letter hungrily. I could still remember the words carefully.
I will always love you, think of this present as incomplete--I will slowly complete it for you every year that we are together.
Crap. I looked down into my lap and held my breath for a moment too long. I expelled, coughing, and pulled at the purple sheets around me. I was sitting upright on my bed, back against the headboard and legs pointed straight towards the end of the mattress.
My fingers were slightly trembling and I looked over at my cell phone expectantly, half of me forgetting that the early morning reminders weren't coming in anymore. I grabbed my cell phone and flipped it open. I didn't know what I was hoping for, but nothing appeared on the screen--just the display picture of the sunset that I had taken several days before. Clicking on the phone book icon, Alex's name was the first to come up. I wondered what he was doing.
Suddenly my phone rang and I nearly dropped it in surprise. I quickly relaxed my frightened nerves and answered.
"Hello?" I said uncertainly.
"Hey!" It was Amanda, her high-pitched voice sent unexpected shivers down my spine and I smiled. "Happy birthday legal girl, so, what should we do for such a special day?"
"The beach?" I asked tentatively.
"The beach?" She sounded astounded. "Nuh-uh, we're going somewhere special for your birthday, whether you like it or not!"
The special place turned out to be the small fair that the town hosted every summer from ten in the morning to ten at night. Alex had brought me here on one of the first of our many nights spent together. He had won a white stuffed teddy bear for me, which I had secretly put on my bed and had prepared the answer of "Oh, I just won it at the fair!" in case anyone asked. To my chagrin, Amanda had invited Claire. I didn't mind when Jess joined us on our other mini summer adventures (whenever I wasn't with Alex), but for some reason Claire showed an open dislike for me and tonight was no different. The memory of a cool night full of music and sand brought me the sight of her and Alex talking in hushed, pained whispers.
"Happy birthday!" Jess screamed as soon as she saw me. Her blond hair hung loosely around her broad shoulders as she hugged me tightly. I could smell the scent of Calvin Klein for Women clinging onto her freckled and tanned skin. She was slightly taller than me, and considering that I wasn't too tall, she must have been just shy of five-feet-five-inches. Over her shoulder I looked at the silent Claire, whose blond hair sat neatly in a braid over her shoulder. She wasn't smiling, just simply glaring. It was hard to believe that these two very different girls could be siblings.
The day passed quickly and Claire had ignored any questions that I had for her. She had been silent and unsmiling in all of the pictures that Jess had taken and had ignored her sister's pleas of "Claire, please for heaven's sake, just smile".
Our lunch had consisted of freshly made popcorn and cotton candy and my stomach hurt a little after our large glasses of root beer floats. Even as I laughed at the jokes that my friends made and the stories that they were telling me about the citizens of Pueblo, every glance that I dared myself to give to Claire gave me an uneasy feeling.
"Look," I finally said, pulling her gently aside by a tense arm. "I don't know what your problem is with me, but I think it'd be best if you just told me so that we both can enjoy ourselves."
To my utter amazement she smirked and her blue eyes sparked with anger. "You outsiders think that you run everything don't you?"
"I'm sorry?" I asked, not sure that I was hearing right.
"You come in here and act all high and mighty, richer than any of us combined, hang out with our friends, our boyfriends and you still have the nerve to tell me how to behave?" Her voice was low and threatening, I knew that she was being careful that her sister and friend couldn't hear her. "I suggest you mind your own business and enjoy this fairytale that you have created for yourself before it vanishes when everyone finally sees how you really are!"
I stood frozen as she wove her way around me. Her voice was icy when she turned around once more to relay one final message to me. "By the way, if my boyfriend had died only a few months ago because of me, I wouldn't be going around with someone else's boyfriend so soon after."
Her comment made me sick to my stomach, and as I said goodbye to Jess and Amanda later in the day, I couldn't shake the feeling. It was only when I was back in my room staring out the window at the sea that I realized that Alex hadn't called me all day. I wondered what Claire meant by referring to him as her boyfriend, as far as I knew he was single. The way he looked at me when he thought I wasn't looking was proof enough, but could I have just been fantasizing his stares of affection? What bothered me the most though, was her comment about Jacob; how could she know? And how did she know that I felt guilty over his death?
The image of Jacob talking to me while crossing the streets of busy downtown Toronto haunted me. The red lights told the cars to stop, but one car had played the chance game at the same moment that I had pushed him jokingly forward.
I closed my eyes. No, I would not force myself to go through those emotions again. Endless nights of nightmares, screaming matches with the grief counselor that I had been forced to see for the whole month of April. My parents' faces as they watched me slowly deteriorate until they barely recognized me.
No, don't do this to yourself. I ordered my mind before heading downstairs to have dinner with my family
The sun outside was setting by the time that my family and I finished eating my birthday dinner. A chocolate cake with the words Happy 18th Birthday Ave! sat cut in several places (Angela wanted to eat several of the flowers that decorated the cake) and mom and dad placed a large box on the table in front of me. Whatever was inside was wrapped in royal blue paper and a finely tied white ribbon decorated the top.
"What's this?" I asked automatically, part of me all ready knowing what it was.
"Open it Ave," dad urged me with the same proud smile that he'd worn every year that I grew older.
Hesitantly I began to tear the paper apart and when I saw the well known image of a white Apple I became speechless.
"Well," mom began to explain when she saw my surprised face. "I know we said that you couldn't have one until next year, but after everything that has happened, we think you deserve it."
I smiled up at them and then to my sister who returned it with chocolaty lips. I ran my fingers over the corners of the box and smiled down at it, I got the one thing that I had always desired before Jacob's accident and it had only taken the suffering of this past year for me to get it.
By the time that I had brushed my teeth, washed my face, and buried my head in my pillow it was eleven p.m. and Alex hadn't called yet. The image of his smiling face came into view and his Spanish words that he used in surprise whenever I made him laugh sounded faintly in my ears.
I was sleeping when my cell phone rang. At first I didn't pay attention to it, ignoring it was a priority at this time of night. But the shrillness of its urgent ringing finally made me reach back blindly and grabbed it loosely in my hand. Before looking at the caller I.D I answered the phone.
"Hey you," it was Alex, his voice sounded apologetic. "Can you come out?"
I took the phone away from my ear for an instant to see the time in neon green on the screen. "Alex," I warned into the phone groggily, "it is two-twenty-five in the morning, can this wait?"
"No," he answered in a hushed whisper. "I'm waiting out here, it's cold and wet, please come out."
It was then that I noticed that it was raining outside. The first rainy night of the summer. I didn't know if I could trust his words, after all he hadn't called me the whole day and it had been my birthday.
"Okay," I finally answered after a long moment of silence.
He was standing outside on the sandy beach just as promised. I guessed that he'd jumped over the fence and the way that his eyebrows bent just right at the corners, and how his mouth was in a silent line made me forget any anger I had towards him. The soft rain fell soundlessly on my skin as I walked over to him. He was so still.
"Hi," I said while watching the rain outline his silhouette.
He didn't say anything and I took a step closer. Seeing how drenched his black shirt and blue jeans were made me wonder how long he had been waiting for.
"I waited for your call today." I continued and he still said nothing.
When I was a several feet in front of me he bent forward into a bow. His curly blond hair almost glowed in the diamond-like rain and his eyes were staring right at me. His right hand was poised with his palm up, silently asking me to put my own over top of it. Ignoring the shyness of my heart I placed my hand in his palm.
He held it tightly before straightening his back. "May I have this dance?"
I giggled softly, surprised at the sound and asked, "Alex, what are you doing?"
Though I was shyly giggling, his face was full of emotion and wordless apologies. "I'm sorry I didn't come see you, there was an emergency with one of the chefs at the restaurant, and I had to be there all day."
I stopped giggling and stared at him. I mean, really stared. His brown eyes connected with mine and I felt the strength of what was happening between us.
"Yes," I answered finally, breathless. "You may."
Instantly he pulled me closer to him and I rested my chin on his shoulder. His right hand held my own tightly in a classic dance position and his left hand wrapped around my waist and pulled me against his frame. I could feel the tears forming in my eyes before they fell down my cheeks and I moved my face so that I was lost in the smell of his neck. Strands of curls licked my cheeks and I thought of how perfect his height of five-nine was for me.
"Happy birthday," his voice came out muffled through my loose hair.