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“What are you performing Eddie?” the emcee asks her.

She leans into the microphone and says, “Pink Balloon."

As soon as the emcee is off the stage, Eddie loses her smile and goes into her zone.

My name is Olivia King

I am five years old.

My mother bought me a balloon. I remember the day she walked through the front door with it. The curly hot pink ribbon trickling down her arm, wrapped around her wrist. She was smiling at me as she untied the ribbon and wrapped it around my hand.

“Here Livie, I bought this for you.”

She called me Livie.

I was so happy. I’d never had a balloon before. I mean, I always saw balloons wrapped around other kids wrists in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, but I never dreamed I would have my very own.

My very own pink balloon.

I was so excited! So ecstatic! So thrilled! I couldn’t believe my mother bought me something! She’d never bought me anything before! I played with it for hours. It was full of helium and it danced and swayed and floated as I drug it around from room to room with me, thinking of places to take it. Thinking of places the balloon had never been before. I took it in the bathroom, the closet, the laundry room, the kitchen, the living room. I wanted my new best friend to see everything I saw! I took it to my mother’s bedroom!

My mothers

Bedroom?

Where I wasn’t supposed to be?

With my pink

balloon…

I covered my ears as she screamed at me, wiping the evidence off of her nose! She slapped me across the face as she told me how bad I was! How much I misbehaved! How I never listened! She shoved me into the hallway and slammed the door, locking my pink balloon inside with her. I wanted him back! He was my best friend! Not hers! The pink ribbon was still tied around my wrist so I pulled and pulled, trying to get my new best friend away from her.

And

it

popped.

My name is Eddie.

I’m seventeen years old.

My birthday is next week. I’ll be the big One-Eight. My foster dad is buying me these boots I’ve been wanting. I’m sure my friends will take me out to eat. My boyfriend will buy me a gift, maybe even take me to a movie. I’ll even get a nice little card from my foster care worker, wishing me a happy eighteenth birthday, informing me I’ve aged out of the system.

I’ll have a good time. I know I will.

But there’s one thing I know

for sure.

I better not get any

shitty ass pink balloons!

When the crowd cheers for her, Eddie eats it up. She’s bouncing up and down on the stage and clapping along with the crowd, forgetting all about the somber poem she just performed. She’s a natural. We give her a standing ovation as she comes back to the table.

“That felt so awesome,” she squeals. Gavin throws his arms around her and picks her up off the ground and kisses her cheek.

“That’s my girl,” he says as they sit back down in their seats.

“That was great Eddie, guess you’re exempt,” Will says.

“That was so easy! Layken, you really need to do one next week. You’ve never had one of Mr. Cooper’s finals before. They aren’t fun, believe me.”

“I’ll think about it,” I say. She did make it look easy.

Will laughs and leans forward. “Eddie, you haven’t had one of my finals either, I’ve only been teaching two months.”

“Well, I’m sure they suck,” she laughs.

They call another performer to the stage as the table grows quiet. Javi’s leg keeps brushing against mine. Something about him gives me the creeps. Maybe it’s the obvious creep factor. Throughout the performance, I keep drawing myself in more and more until I have nowhere else to go, but he somehow keeps getting closer. Just when I’m on the verge of punching him, Will moves in and whispers in my ear.

“Trade me seats.”

I hop up and he slides over as I take his seat. I silently thank him with a look. Javi straightens back up and glares over at Will. It’s obvious there is no love lost between the two of them.

By the start of the second round, everyone at our table is dispersing amongst the crowd. I spot Nick at the bar chatting up a girl. Javi eventually sulks off, leaving just Will and I at the table with Gavin and Eddie.

"Mr. Cooper did you see-"

“Gavin,” Will interrupts him. “You don’t have to call me ‘Mr. Cooper’ here. We went to high school together.”

A mischievous grin crosses Gavin’s face. He nudges Eddie and they both smile at Will. “Can we call you…”

“No! You can’t!” Will interrupts again. He’s blushing.

“I’m missing something here,” I say as I look from Will to Gavin.

Gavin leans forward in his chair and puts his elbows on his knees. “You see Layken, about three years ago…”

“Gavin, I’ll fail you. I’ll fail your little girlfriend too," Will says.

Everyone’s laughing now, but I’m still lost.

“Three years ago, Duckie here decided to start a prank war with the freshmen.”

“Duckie?” I say. I look at Will and his face is buried in his hands.

“It became apparent that Will, I mean ‘Duckie’, was the one behind all the pranks. We suffered at the hands of this man.” Gavin laughs as he gestures toward Will.

“So, we decided we’d had enough. We came up with a little plan of our own, now known as Duckie’s revenge.”

“Dammit, Gavin. I knew it was you! I knew it,” Will says.

Gavin laughs. “Will was known for his daily naps in his car. Particularly during Mr. Hanushek’s History class. So, we followed him to the parking lot one day and waited until he was off in la la land. We got about twenty five rolls of duct tape and wrapped him inside the car. There had to be six layers of duct tape around his car already before he finally woke up. We could hear him screaming and kicking at the door all the way back to the school.”

“Oh my god. How long were you in there?” I ask Will. I don’t even hesitate when I speak to him. I like that we're interacting again, even if it is just as friends. This is good.

He cocks an eyebrow at me as he responds. “Now that’s the kicker. Mr. Hanushek’s history class was second period. I wasn’t cut out of the car until my dad called the school trying to find me. I don’t remember what time it was, but it was dark.”

“You were in there almost twelve hours?”

He nods.

“How’d you use the bathroom?” Eddie asks.

“I’ll never tell,” he laughs.

We can do this. I watch Will as he interacts with Eddie and Gavin; they’re all laughing. I didn’t think it would be possible before-a friendship between us. But here, right now, I do.

Nick walks back up to the table with a sour look on his face. “I don’t feel so hot. Can we go?”

“How much did you eat Nick?” Gavin says as he stands up.

Eddie looks at me and tilts her head to the front door, insinuating it’s time to go. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Cooper,” she says.

“Are you sure about that Eddie?" Will asks her. "You and your friend here aren’t taking another courtyard nap tomorrow?”

Eddie looks back at me and clasps her hand to her mouth as she exaggerates a gasp and laughs. Will and I stand up as they all file out.

“Just leave Kel at my house tonight,” he says after everyone is out of earshot. “I’ll get him to school tomorrow. They’re probably asleep by now anyway.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, it's fine.”

“Okay, thanks.”

We both stand there, not certain how to part. He steps out of my way. “See ya tomorrow,” he says. I smile and shuffle my way past him as I catch up to Eddie.

***

“Please, Mom? Please?” Kel says.

“Kel, y’all spent the night with each other last night. I’m sure his brother wants some time with him.”

“No he doesn’t,” Caulder says.

“See? We’ll stay in our room. I swear,” Kel says.

“Fine. But Caulder, I’ll need you to be at your house tomorrow night. I’m taking Lake and Kel to dinner.”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll go tell my brother and get my clothes.”

Kel and Caulder run out the front door. I squirm in my seat on the couch as I unzip my boots. This dinner she’s referring to must be it; the big introduction. I decide to press her a little further.

“Where are we going to dinner?” I ask.

She comes to the couch and sits, grabbing the remote to flip on the TV.

“Wherever. Maybe we’ll just eat here. I don’t know. I just want some alone time, just the three of us.”

I pull my boots off and snatch them up. “The three of us,” I mumble as I walk to my room. I think about that as I throw my boots in my closet and lay on the bed. It used to be "the four of us." Then it became "the three of us." Now, in less than seven months, she’s making it "the four of us" again.

Whoever he is, he will never be included in a count with Kel and I. She doesn’t know I know about him. She doesn’t even know I’ve already labeled him and her as "the two of them," and Kel and I as "the two of us." Divide and conquer. That’s my new family motto.

We’ve been living in Ypsilanti for a month now and I’ve spent every single Friday night in my room. I grab my phone and text Eddie, hoping her and Gavin won’t mind a third wheel tonight on their movie date. She texts me back in a matter of seconds, giving me thirty minutes to get ready. It isn’t enough time to thoroughly enjoy a shower, so I go to the bathroom and touch up my makeup. The mail is in a pile on the bathroom counter next to the sink, so I pick it up and look at it. All three envelopes have a big red post office stamp across them. Forward to new address is stamped over our old Texas address.

Eight more months. Eight more months and I’m moving back home. I contemplate hanging a calendar on my wall so I can start marking down the days. I toss the envelopes back on the counter, when the contents of one of them falls to the floor. When I pick it up, I notice the numbers printed in the top right-hand corner.

$178,343.00

It’s a bank statement. It’s an account balance. I snatch up the rest of the mail as I run to my room and shut the door.

I look at the dates on the bank statement and then sort through the other envelopes. One of them is from a mortgage company so I tear it open. It’s an insurance invoice. An invoice for our house back in Texas that I was told we sold. Oh my god, I want to kill her. We aren’t broke! We didn’t even sell our house! She tore my brother and I from the only home we’ve ever known for some guy? I hate her. I have to get out of this house before I explode. I grab my phone and throw the envelopes in my purse.

“I’m going out,” I say as I walk through the living room toward the front door.

“With who?” she asks.

“Eddie. Going to a movie.” I keep my replies short and sweet so she won’t see the fury behind my voice. My whole body is shaking I’m so angry. I just want to get out of the house and process things before I confront her.

***

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