Within the hour, Jules and I have the chocolate cake in the oven, and we’re doing dishes. Well, I’m washing the dishes; she’s been scrubbing the same bowl for the last few minutes, using lots of soap and water. It’s a good thing I’m standing next to her, or we’d have to mop the floor, too.
She’s still got faint lines from the batter on her face as she diligently works at cleaning up our mess. Vanessa should arrive any minute with dinner, and Jules can’t wait to celebrate.
We’ve barely finished when the front door opens, and Vanessa calls out in the singsong voice she uses to get Julia’s attention. “I’m home. Anybody here?”
Julia squeals and rushes to greet her mom. “In here, Momma. Unks and I made cake. Do we have candles?”
I turn around the corner just in time to see Jules launch herself into Vanessa’s arms. The love they share for one another makes my chest constrict. I don’t know what I’d ever do without them.
Of course, I’ve been with Van since the womb. Thankfully, I’ve never had to live without her. She managed to beat me into the world by a whole seven minutes, a fact she’s never let me forget. I’ve always been her “little brother,” though I’ve towered over her in height our entire lives. I took after Dad, while she looks more like Mom.
“I’ve missed you, sweet girl,” Vanessa says as she squeezes Jules in a hug that wiggles her whole body, causing infectious laughter to spew from my niece.
When the laughter dies down, Jules squirms, letting it known it’s time to let go. The second her feet hit the floor, Jules reaches for Vanessa’s hand. “Come on, Momma. Let’s go see if the cake’s done.”
“Just a sec, Jules. I need to grab dinner.” I notice she’s already dropped bags of food on the entry table. I have no idea what she’s brought, but the smell has my stomach grumbling.
Before she can reach for the food, I intervene. “I’ve got the bags. The cake should be done any second. Let’s go pull it out.”
Maybe it’s a twin thing or the fact that we’ve lived together our entire lives, but after pulling the cake from the oven, Van and I work seamlessly to put dinner on the table. I love that Van’s brought home my favorite. Steak and mushrooms for the two of us and Julia’s favorite, homemade mac and cheese. As I help Vanessa plate our food, I notice a large side of steamed broccoli. A huge grin forms, knowing Jules’ reaction.
Without a doubt, Jules will eat every last floret she can get her hands on, especially if it has any amount of butter on it. I’m not sure which she likes more, the broccoli or the butter. If Van or I are to stand any chance of getting any, I dish us first. Maybe it’s a family trait, as we can’t get enough of it.
What’s funny is Mom wouldn’t be caught dead eating a green vegetable that wasn’t salad or green beans. But Vanessa and I devoured whatever vegetable Dad put in front of us. We’d always laugh at the faces she’d make as we wolfed down our veggies. That’s probably the only thing I ever saw my parents be so polar opposite about. Dad and his green veggies always got Mom grumbling.
Though it’s a happy memory, my chest tightens as I fight to recall exactly how disgruntled Mom used to act. I’m not so sure if she really felt that way, or it just became an expected behavior.
It’s funny how grief hits in the strangest of times. One minute, you’re reliving a happy memory; the next, it’s painful. Fuck… I can’t remember the exact sound of her voice.
“Unks, you’re gonna dish me more broccoli, right? You know I eat lots,” Julia interrupts my thoughts, and I’m thankfully brought to the present.
“Of course, squirt. How can I forget?” I tease as I put another huge helping onto her plate. Then I do the same for both Vanessa and me, making sure we get our share before she devours the rest. I’m certain she’ll eat more broccoli than mac and cheese tonight.
Just as we make it to the table and are ready to dig in, Vanessa opens Pandora’s box by asking Jules, “So, how was your day?”
Jules beams as she holds the bite of broccoli she’s forked close to her mouth. The overexuberance only a three-year-old can possess. “Great… You’re never gonna believe what happened at school today…” She takes a huge bite of broccoli, chews it fully, then proceeds to tell us every minute detail of her day. The girl must have a photographic memory or something because she’d put many college students to shame with the amount of detail she can describe about ordinary things.
We learn about Cyrus’s shoes being on the wrong foot, how Miss Shannon forgot who was supposed to be line leader, and it caused a fight between Grace and Eli. She also tells us about how she made an art project she couldn’t bring home tonight because it wasn’t quite dry.
This. Right here is what family’s all about.
I wouldn’t trade a moment for these experiences. Van and I interject when we can, but for the most part, we simply eat our meal and let her get her chatter out. It’s amazing how full of life and optimistic a three-year-old can be. They always tell it like it is, and you never have to doubt what’s on their mind.
Of course, with all her talking, Vanessa and I finish eating long before Julia. Eventually, Vanessa gets up and clears her plate while I do the same. Once Julia’s finished, she eagerly asks, “Can we have cake now?”
I feign shock, making my eyes go wide and my mouth drop open. “Just where are you going to put this cake, Jules? Do you have a hollow leg I don’t know about?”
This earns me another giggle and a dramatic eye roll. Yeah. She’s all Van in this moment, especially when she levels me with an expectant stare. “Unks. You know…” She pauses for exaggeration. “There’s always room for cake.”
“If you say so…” I draw out sarcastically. “What do you say we frost the cake now that it’s cooled enough?”
Julia hops up from the table to clear her plate. Then rushes to her stool in the corner and drags it to stand at the counter with me. Taking the can of coconut-pecan frosting, I pull off the lid. Julia reaches for the frosting spatula we’d set out on the counter before dinner, loads it up, and plops the frosting in the center of the cake. Since the cake is still a little warm, it doesn’t spread as easily as it should, but Julia gives it her best effort. Thank goodness, we’ve kept the cake in the pan because at the rate she’s going, there’s no way it would spread all around the edges. But it’s not like either Van or I care. This cake is made purely with love from our favorite tiny baker.
Vanessa takes this time to wipe down the table and pull down some plates for cake. She finishes long before we’re ready for her. When she can’t take it any longer, she swoops her finger into the frosting and nabs a taste for herself. This, of course, earns her a disgruntled, “Momma. You gotta wait for us. No tasting the cake until we sing! It’s the rules, you know!”
“Hey, it’s my birthday,” Vanessa feigns defensiveness. “And I’m the oldest. I get to make the rules around here.”
“It’s Unks’ birthday, too. You gotta share this cake, Momma. Or no presents!”
Vanessa’s mouth morphs into the perfect O as her eyebrows nearly shoot off her head. “Presents… You didn’t tell me anything about presents.” She looks between Julia and me, and it’s all I can do to keep a straight face.
“Only for those who wait until after we sing Happy Birthday to eat the cake,” she deadpans.
Once Julia’s finished frosting the cake, she reaches for the box of candles I set out and proceeds to put the whole box of twenty-four, but Vanessa stops her.
“Hey now… we’re only twenty-one. There’s no need to use the whole box. Leave three off.”
Julia does as told, then Vanessa grabs the matches and lights the candles.
Holy shit. The cake’s a fireball.
Instinctively, I pull Julia away from the cake and take her to the table. “Next year, I say we just get the candles with the numbers on them, or the house might go up in flames.”
“No kidding,” Vanessa grumbles as she carefully walks the cake to the table.
As soon as the cake’s safely on the table, Julia sings, and we eagerly join in. It’s tradition that we sing at the same time. Vanessa and I learned at a young age it’s never worth waiting for the song to be sung twice, when all that matters is getting our slice of cake.
For the past few years, I make the same wish, in fear of it not coming true otherwise.
Help us be okay without them.
After Vanessa and I each make our secret wish, we blow out the candles with ease as Julia claps excitedly. It doesn’t take long before we’re devouring the cake and immersed in eating the rich chocolate perfection.
The second Julia’s done, she pops up from the table and runs out of the kitchen, leaving Vanessa and me to stare at one another, wondering what Julia’s up to now.
We don’t have to wonder long because before we can voice our thoughts aloud, Julia storms back into the room, her hands full with two hand-drawn bags in her hands.
“It’s time for presents. Mommy, since you ate the cake first, Unks gets to open his first.”
I’m surprised to find the bag is much heavier than I expect. I already know what’s in Vanessa’s bag, as I picked it out. But I’m confused at what she could’ve picked out for me that’s this size.
Julia’s eyes are wide with excitement as I reach into the bag and discover a package the shape of a shoebox. She’s dying to help me rip into the package as she is for all special occasions. Her cuteness is completely undeniable. “Get over here, squirt, and help me open this.”
Julia squeals with delight as she helps me rip into the packaging and shreds it to pieces in a matter of seconds. “What is it, Unks?” She practically pants. There’s no way she has a clue because this girl can’t keep a secret to save her life, so I glance over to Van to see if she’ll give us another clue.
Nope. Just a knowing grin. I should’ve expected this as she’s like a vault when it comes to secrets. It is indeed a shoe box, but I’m still not convinced that’s what’s in it. It still feels too heavy. But when I pop it open, I find the pair of running shoes I’d been looking at the last time we made a trip to the mall. They’re supposed to be light though, so I pull one out and find it’s weighted down with something.
“What the…” I wonder as I reach inside, only to find five rolls of quarters in each shoe. “Why on earth would you do this?”
Vanessa’s eyes challenge me. “You always guess what you get before opening. I wanted to throw you off. Besides… you know it’s tradition to get money to spend how we want. So… what are you spending yours on?”
Rolling my eyes at her antics, I chuckle. “Uh… quarters are a nice touch, but you don’t have to spend money on me. The shoes were more than enough.”
Vanessa’s head shakes back and forth as her eyebrows narrow in my direction. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was pissed. “I’ve been saving tip money for weeks to pull off this prank. The least you can do is thank me.”
I glance to Julia, who’s watching expectantly. I should know better than to refute a gift from my sister. “Thank you, Vanny.” I tack on her old nickname to make her crack.
Her lips tip at the end, and her eyes twinkle in mischief. But she remains silent.
Of course, Julia can’t stand the silence, so she quickly gushes… “What about your present, Momma?”
Yeah, that makes Vanessa crack. She cannot handle the surprise turned on her. She eagerly picks up her package. I didn’t go to the extent of wrapping anything. I’m all about gift bags. She quickly removes the tissue paper and pulls out the small white box I placed inside and sets it aside, as she reaches for the frame I’d placed beside it. Her mouth forms a perfect “o” when she pulls out the framed selfie I’d taken of the three of us at the beach.
“Oh, Vince, this is perfect.”
It is. The sun is setting, Julia has the most adorable expression on her face, and Van and I are cheek to cheek with her. Julia had just said something to make us crack up, and all of our smiles are wide. Our matching hazel eyes all dance with amusement.
“There’s somethin’ else, Momma.” Julia points to the box.
Vanessa hugs the frame quickly before setting it down on the table in front of us, then reaches for the small white box. Most would assume it’s jewelry, but the smirk forming on Van’s face lets us all know she expects what’s inside.
Yeah. I don’t disappoint.
Van lifts the lid, and Julia gushes, “Look, Momma, I made that.”
Sure enough, she painted the rock covering up the hundred-dollar bill inside.
“See… I also follow tradition.” I waggle my eyebrows, bringing lots of memories to mind.
“At least you follow the tradition of putting money with the rock, like Mom forced you to all those years ago. Jules, I can’t tell you how many years he got away with only wrapping a rock up for me. Grandma finally made him put money inside, or I’m sure Scrooge here would never part with his funds.”
This makes us all laugh.
“Unks… that’s just… mean. Why would you give Momma rocks for her birthday?”
“It’s okay, Jules. Vinnie has been doing this for as long as I can remember. Grandma caught on pretty quick, so I always get money, too.”
Nodding in agreement, I add, “I have no idea how it started, tradition is tradition. We’ve gotta hold onto those.” I bop her on the nose to make her squeal with laughter. “Okay… who wants cake?”
* * *
Ryan and I make it into the bar a little after nine. Music reverberates through my body from the moment we walk through the door. Wondering what all the hype is about, I take a moment to look around. Sure, people are scattered across the dance floor, and tables line the walls and are scattered off to one side. A rectangular bar sits in the center of the room for people to access from all sides. It’s what I’d expect from a place like this, but I can already tell it’s not my scene.
I can dance—or at least I used to in high school, but if given the choice, I’d rather just hang out. I’m here to experience this ‘rite of passage’ my friends claim I can’t let slip by. When I spot Derek and Brayden at table near the back of the bar, I beeline it to greet them.
“Hey, man!” Brayden bellows as he stands and reaches out his hand to shake mine. “Happy Birthday!”
Before I can respond, I’m pulled into a bro-hug, and his large palm smacks my back. When he releases me, I manage, “Thanks. Glad you could make it out.”
“Man—I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Derek stands to pull me into a bro-hug as well. “Seriously, Vince. We’re happy to be here.” He looks around for someone I don’t see. “I thought your sister and her friends were joining us.”
I shrug. “Nah, she’s home with Jules. They’re going out tomorrow.”
He shrugs, like it’s to be expected, then he quickly glances to the dance floor. “Maybe I’ll have to come out tomorrow night, too. To make sure they behave themselves.”
That earns a laugh from all of us. God knows those girls can handle themselves. None of them are heavily into partying, but you can’t be in college and not go out from time to time.
Ryan guffaws, “Brayden - Dude you’ll use any excuse. Why don’t you just admit you like one of Van’s friends and at least be honest with yourself? You’ve been crushing on Holland forever. Are you ever going to just admit it?”
Brayden rolls his eyes as he lets out an exasperated sigh. “Dude. I know. But she just broke up with John. I’m giving her some space—for now.”
“Just make sure you don’t wait too long, or she’ll be moving on with someone—and it won’t be you,” Ryan advises in a way that lets us all know he’s only looking out for Brayden.
“Speaking of moving on—have y’all seen that hot redhead behind the bar? I think I’m finally gonna ask her out tonight,” Derek boasts in a way that tells me he may have started the party a bit earlier than the rest of us. His eyes are slightly glossy, and he haphazardly throws his arm up in her direction. “I mean… have you seen her? She’s beautiful and can make one hell of a drink. What else would I need?”
My eyes wander to where the bartender’s standing talking with a customer. I see Derek’s point. Her red hair is pulled back in a ponytail and still flows past her shoulders. Her black t-shirt and dark-denim skinny jeans fit her perfect body like a glove. Whatever the girl she’s waiting on says, makes her laugh—and it’s a beautiful sight to see. Her head’s thrown back in full abandon as she holds her belly. It’s not often you see people let loose like that, especially in public.
“Dude!” Brayden shouts, pulling my attention to him. “You don’t stand a chance with Sydney.”
Interesting… I wonder why. Derek never has trouble getting girls. He’s not a player—per se, but he’s definitely developing a reputation with us for being a ladies’ man. The problem is—the girls don’t seem to get that he’s not ready for a serious commitment—so when they want something more serious—he usually ends it.
Pretending to be defensive, I see amusement in Derek’s eyes as he plays along with a devious smirk. “And why is that?”
Instead of Brayden explaining, I’m surprised when Ryan interjects, “Oh, go ahead. We’ll just be right here eating popcorn, because I’m sure we’re about to get one hell of a show.”
As I look between my friends, there’s obviously something I’m missing. Ryan and Brayden clearly know something Derek and I aren’t privy to. As they just stare at one another in challenge, I break the silence between us. “I don’t know about you—but I’m here to have a drink. Anyone care to join me?” I look around for a waitress and see there are none to be found. May as well just go up to the bar and order one for myself.
“I’ll go,” Derek offers with ease, and I do my best not to snicker. “Besides, your first drink is on me.”
Ryan and Brayden each pull out some cash from their wallets and give us their orders. I don’t miss the fact that Derek passes the shorter line to approach Sydney. From his determined expression, I can tell he’s getting ready to play his A-game.
This should be entertaining, at least.
We wait for a group of girls to grab their orders before Sydney greets us with a smile as she wipes down the counter in front of her. “What can I get for ya?”
If I thought she was a knockout from across the bar, I was seriously mistaken. This woman is downright gorgeous. Her green eyes dance between us as she waits for our response, and I can’t help but notice a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose.
“How’s your night going, Sydney?” Derek drawls in a tone, as if he’s a long-lost friend.
She’s not wearing a nametag, so her green eyes darken as her brows pull together, as if she’s trying to place him somewhere. In a matter of seconds, it’s clear she has no idea who he is. But she pulls out her best customer services skills and pastes on what I’m sure is a fake smile. “Great. What brings you guys in?”
Derek reaches out to pat me on the shoulder. “We’re here for my buddy’s birthday. What time do you get off? Maybe you can help us celebrate.”
Sydney’s green eyes dart to mine and looks me over from head to toe. We’ve never met. But if I’m not mistaken, there’s a flicker of recognition from her. We stare at one another for a moment before she returns her attention to Derek. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m closing tonight. What can I get you two to drink?”
Derek orders shots for everyone and a pitcher of beer, then continues his quest for her attention. “Maybe you can join us on one of your breaks?”
Sydney takes in a sharp breath and releases it slowly as if she’s trying to regain control of her emotions. I swear, I’m a little afraid for what’s about to happen to my dear friend Derek. Her fingers slowly open and close into fists at her sides. In an instant, I can clearly tell she’s taking zero of his bullshit, and I have to say, she’s sexy as hell when she’s pissed—but clearly, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of what’s to come.
Not wanting this to escalate, I slap my palm on his back. “Hey, man. Let’s just get our drinks and get back to the guys. If she wants to join us, that’s cool. But if not, let’s get out of her hair.”
Sydney looks to me pointedly, and her tone turns to ice. “I’ll need to see both of your IDs before I can serve you, birthday boy.”
Until next time, Happy Reading!
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