An Unexpected Gift

Amy tugs on the back of Dad’s shirt. When he turns around, she reaches her hands up and squeezes her fingers open and shut. “Not now, sweetheart. I’m tired.”

Amy disobeys and continues tugging on the back of Dad’s shirt. “What did Daddy just say?!” Mom says this without missing a beat between chopping vegetables and throwing them into a pan. The sound of the searing garlic intrigues Amy so she gives up on Dad and hobbles over to the stove. “Amy, no! This is hot! Hot!”

Mom opens her eyes wide letting Amy know just how serious she is. Amy understands and retreats back to her dolls in the den of the family’s apartment. “Can you set the table, please?”

Dad rolls his eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is that too much to ask? Did you have a rough day at work?” Mom’s voice reeks of condescendence.

“Yes. Actually, I did. I dropped a bottle of…you know what it doesn’t even matter. I’m sick and tired of you down playing my job!”

“Oh like it’s really that hard. You’re a daytime bartender at a hotel.”

“And what is it you do all day?”

Mom looks over at Amy who is running her fingers through the yellow stringy hair of her dolls. Mom doesn’t respond to Dad’s last comment but instead turns back to the stove, throwing a handful of peppers into the pan. Dad takes an exasperated breath and gets up to set the table.

An hour later, the table is cleared and the dishes are in the sink which is good enough. Mom is sitting on Amy’s bed watching her finish the warm milk from her sippy cup. Mom yawns and thinks about how much she needs to do tomorrow. “All finished?”

Amy nods and hands Mom the cup. “sssanthemum.”

“But that’s a long book and Mommy’s tired.”

Amy puts her head down and pouts her lips. Mom curses the TV character who must have taught her daughter this adorable trick. “How about we read half? Deal?”

Amy nods her head and Mom opens her daughter’s favorite picture book knowing she will have to read the whole thing. At the end of the story, Mom sees those blessed bags under her daughter’s eyes. She kisses her forehead, tells her she loves her as much as the universe, and turns out the light. “Daddy?”

“Sorry, sweetie. Not tonight. Daddy had a tough day. I think he’s already sleeping, like you should be.”

“Okay. Night Mommy.”

Mom walks back into the den where Dad is sprawled out on the larger of the two couches holding a beer bottle in one hand and the remote in the other. His eyes are closed. Mom sighs and opens her laptop. She checks her Facebook but immediately regrets it. A sinking feeling forms in her stomach when she sees a group of girls from her grade all wearing the same themed Halloween costume. She scrolls down quickly to remove the picture from her screen but when another classmate’s status announcing his early decision acceptance into some college that sounds expensive, Mom shuts her laptop and closes her eyes.

She will be nineteen in about five months and the cake from Amy’s second birthday is still fresh on the counter. Mom stands up, takes the beer from out of Dad’s hand, and walks into the narrow kitchen. She tosses the can into the recycling bin, reminds herself to take the recycling out tomorrow, and grabs a fork. She digs it into the cake and puts a piece into her mouth. She does this again barely giving herself time to savor the pink frosting she made from scratch or the chocolate cake which she hates to admit is a little dry. She wanted to go to culinary school. She takes another bite, swallowing her hopes and dreams along with it, and then takes another bite.

***

Missy crouches down, wraps her gloved fingers around the silver flask, unscrews the cap, and takes a swig. She puts a finger under her nose to prevent any over-reactions to the taste and stands up again. Casey makes an interception and runs several yards before being tackled. The crowd claps and cheers and the cheerleaders wave their pom-poms and spell out his name. Tyler turns to Missy and makes a crude joke about that play deserving a few sexual favors from her. Missy rolls her eyes and puts her hand up as if to say, “Please, I’ve got it covered.”

The parents’ section sits down again and resumes watching the game. Missy knows she should go over and sit with Casey’s parents at least until the end of the quarter, but no matter how much gum she were to chew right now, she just doesn’t trust her drunken tongue. Maybe, she thinks, it will be okay just to wave at the end of the game. She’s with her friends now, anyway. She turns around to Becky. “Anything going on after this?”

“I think Alex might be having a few kids over.”

“Are you going?”

“I don’t know. My mom usually does this Thanksgiving breakfast thing. Depends on if I want to be hungover for it or not.”

“You wouldn’t have to drink.”

“Wouldn’t I though?”

“True. Or we could just smoke.”

“We? You’re not going to hang out with Casey after this?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And besides, weed makes you hungry.”

Missy stares at her friend for a moment without saying anything and then turns back around. Becky was a good friend in that way, observant but nonjudgmental, but were Missy’s eating habits that obvious to everyone else? She had eaten half a bowl of cereal this morning under her mom’s watchful eye but that was it. She got out of dinner by picking up a shift at the pharmacy and stopped home just long enough to grab her flask and change into something warmer for the game. Thanksgiving is tomorrow and she has been dreading it since the leaves started changing. The pumpkin cheesecake was her thing. She promised her mom she would make that and intended to keep her promise, but the thought of actually having to eat it made her nauseous. In fact, having to eat anything on the menu for tomorrow put her stomach into a knot.

With two minutes left in the game, Casey takes the quarterback’s hand-off and runs it to the end zone, but at this point, Missy is too drunk to be paying much attention. The stamping and howling from the crowd nearly knocks her over. Becky grabs her shoulders to steady her. “Think you’ve had enough there?”

“You want some?”

“No. I’m okay. I have to drive anyway.”

“Oh no, me too.”

“Not anymore, you don’t.”

“No. I’m fine.”

“I’ll drive you home.”

“I can’t leave my car here. It’s fine. I can drive. I live like right there.”

“Just text Casey. Tell him to drive your car.”

Missy takes out her phone and tries her hardest to send Casey a congratulatory, yet romantic, legible text. When the game ends, she walks with Becky to the parking lot, making the decision to avoid Casey’s parents at all costs. A few of the guys invite them over to Alex’s. Some of the girls call for a girls night at the diner. “Not tonight girls. I got to get home. Plus, Missy’s not hungry.”

Missy stops walking and again stares at her friend. “Stop doing that.”

“Stop not eating.”

“I can’t. I don’t want to.”

“You’re not fat.”

“It’s not about that.”

“Okay, whatever. I don’t feel like getting into this right now. This is for your mom to deal with. Does she know you’re not eating?”

“No.”

“Okay…well, whatever. New Years resolutions, right?

“Right.” Missy says goodbye to Becky and sits in her car. She turns on the heat and her music. She pops a few Altoids into her mouth and waits for Casey. About thirty minutes later she sees him walking over. He’s freshly showered and his hands are jammed into his varsity jacket. Missy can’t help but think how adorable he looks. She looks down at her own attire: Vans, black skinny cords, a white thermal, a flannel, and a zip-up, but at least her gloves were school colors. She was the drunk misfit dating the jock. It wouldn’t be a cliché if it weren’t for those 1985 Brat Pack movies. Casey opens the door to the passenger seat where Missy is sitting. “Hey, Sketch.”

“Hi.”

“Scoot over.”

“Can you drive?”

“Oh? Have we been drinking tonight?”

Missy blushes and puts her head down. “Yes.”

“Okay. I’ll drive. But then we’re listening to my music.”

“That’s fair. But wait.” Missy steps out of the warm car and presses up on to her toes. She puts her arms around her boyfriend and leans in to kiss his cold lips. Casey wraps his arms around her lower back and goes in for a deeper kiss until there is that cocoon of warmth between them that still manages to send a chill down one’s spine anyway. Missy pulls away but only enough so that their foreheads still touch. “You were so good tonight.”

“I might have been showing off.”

“It worked.” Missy goes in for another kiss. Casey gently holds her against the car, teasing her with hints of passion. He pulls away and opens the door for her. “So what does ‘Missy’s got it covered’ mean?

“Who said that?”

“Tyler texted me.”

“Oh. It was just a joke.”

“Well do you?”

“Do I have it covered?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’ll have to find out.”

“But babe…I got the winning touchdown.”

“Yeah.” Missy puts her hand on his thigh. “I know.”

Casey pulls out of the parking lot and starts driving. Missy sits perfectly still in the passenger seat, feeling her excited heart thump against her chest. He starts giving her a detailed account of the last few minutes of the game and the coaches speech in the locker room. Missy tries to listen, but her mind has suddenly jumped to somewhere else.

She is thinking about food. Ironically enough, food seemed to be eating up her thoughts more and more each day. If this had been last year, before her parents’ divorce, she would have had Casey meet her at the diner where she would have left her table of girl friends to sit alone with him so they could talk and laugh over fries and hot chocolate. Then, they would have driven their cars to the lake. Missy would have gotten out of her car and into the backseat of Casey’s car where they would have steamed up the windows making cramped, awkward love to each other. Now, Missy sits perfectly still in the passenger seat.

Casey pulls up along the lake and turns his lights off. “So, where did you go?”

Missy looks at him now. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t think you heard a single word I said in the past ten minutes and I’m curious to know where you went.”

“Oh. No where.”

“Really? You’re going to be like that?”

“I’m just going to hop in the back now.”

“Well that’s romantic.”

Missy sits back down in the passenger seat with a “humph.” She thinks she might cry and reaches in the center console for her mints. Missy and Casey are silent for a moment too long. The thick air of young, teenage love seems to have dissipated somewhere between the school and the lake. Missy wasn’t really sure what was wrong with her. Hunger, maybe, but she knew better than to bring that up to Casey. He would never understand. He would try to help by bringing her to the diner and ordering a bacon cheeseburger. That’s not what she needs. What she needs is for her mom to stop crying over the divorce when it was her own affair that tore their family apart. She needs her dad to stop sleeping in his office and actually make an effort to buy his own place. She needs her little brother to stop being so needy and she needs her math teacher to stop giving her that sympathetic I’m-here-if-you-want-to-talk look.

Casey takes one of his rough fingers and wipes a tear from Missy’s cheek and tucks some hair behind her ear. “Tell me.”

Missy dabs at her eyes making sure not to ruin her makeup and takes a swift breath. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. I don’t really want to talk about it yet.”

“Do you want me to drive you home?”

“No…no, not now.” She looks into his blue concerned eyes that sends a feeling of comfort through her body, making her want to cry again for a whole new set of reasons. She bites her lip, instead. “I just want you to hold me.”

Casey pushes his seat all the way back and Missy climbs on top of him placing her head in his chest. She breathes in his scent and closes her eyes. Casey holds her with one hand on her leg while the other strokes her dark brown waves. The only sound is a soft indie tune coming from one of the CDs Missy made when she got her license. Missy could have laid there forever. Eventually though, she lifts her head, stares into his eyes, and kisses him. She kisses him deeply. She pours all of her worries into that kiss. Casey feels it and in that moment wants nothing more than for his own kiss to fix her. He holds her cheeks and together they let the rest of the world slip away from them.

Casey and Missy eventually find their way into the backseat where clothes are shed and the windows steam up. Missy grips his shoulders and lets out soft, quiet moans. Their breathing becomes one along with their heart beats. Casey finally collapses, putting his head on Missy’s chest. She sits up a bit and strokes his head the same way he had done for her. She slowly allows her eyes to close, but opens them again when she hears…

“Mommy!”  Mom puts her fork in the sink and walks over to Amy’s room. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“I can’t find bear.”

“I thought you were holding him.”

“No.”

“Okay. I’ll look.” Mom walks back into the den and shakes Dad awake. “Hey. Have you seen Bear?”

“Our room?” Mom walks into her bedroom, looking around for the stuffed animal. She finds it under a pile of clothes on the rocking chair. She looks at it for a moment, then rips open the velcro on the bottom. She reaches her hand into the bear’s stuffing and pulls out a letter. It’s dated three years back. It reads: Dear Miss, Happy Valentine’s Day. I got you this bear to protect you from the bad dreams. I love you. Forever, Case.

“Mom!”

“I’m coming! I found it!” Mom folds up the letter and puts it back into the bear. She brings it to her daughter, kisses her goodnight again, and then walks back into the family room and sits down beside her boyfriend. “Hey.”

“What’s up.”

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I know you work hard.”

“Come here.” Missy crawls on top of Casey and puts her head in his chest. She breathes in his scent and closes her eyes. Casey put his hand on her leg and strokes her hair. “I think you should go to culinary school.”

“We can’t afford that.”

“Well…I’m happy you’re still eating right.”

“Yeah, you can thank Amy for that.”

“Right.”

“Hey, I’m happy too.” Missy lifts up from his chest and looks into his eyes before kissing him. He goes in for a deeper kiss but is interrupted by a, “Mommy!”

“It’s your turn.”

Dad gets up from the couch and heads over to his daughter’s room while Mom gets down on the floor and cleans up all the toys.

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