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"I dropped the football and walked right off the field. I got to my grandparent's house at two in the morning and grabbed Caulder right out of bed. I brought him home that night. They begged me not to do it. Said it would be too hard on me and that I wouldn't be able to give him what he needed. I knew they were wrong. I knew all Caulder really needed-was me."

He turns and slowly walks back to the desk in front of us and places his hands on the back of it. He looks at both of us, tears streaming down our faces.

"I've spent the last two years of my life trying to convince myself that I made the right decision for him. So my job? My career? This life I'm trying to build for this little boy? It is a big deal. It's a very big deal to me."

He calmly returns the desk to its place in the aisle and walks back to the front of his room, grabs his things and leaves.

Eddie gets up and walks to Will's desk and grabs a box of tissues. She brings the box and slumps back down in her seat. I pull out a tissue as we both wipe at our eyes.

"God, Layken. How do you do it?" she says.

She blows her nose and grabs another tissue out of the box.

"How do I do what?" I sniff as I continue to wipe the tears from my eyes.

"How do you not fall in love with him?"

The tears begin flowing just as quickly as they were ceasing. I grab yet another tissue. "I don't not fall in love with him. I don't not fall in love with him a lot!"

She laughs and squeezes my hand as we willingly sit out our much deserved detentions.

14.

“And I know you need me in the next room over

But I am stuck in here all paralyzed.”

-The Avett Brothers, 10,000 words

Chapter Fourteen

I've never had sex before. I came really close once, but chickened out at the last minute. My longest relationship was with a boy I met right before I turned seventeen.

Kerris had a brother who was in college and he brought a friend home with him during Spring Break two summers ago. His name was Seth and he was eighteen. I thought I loved him. I think I really just loved having a boyfriend. He attended the University of Texas, which was a good four hour drive away.

We had been together for about six months. We talked on the phone and online a lot. I was seventeen at this point and we had discussed it plenty, so I decided I was ready to have sex with him. I had a midnight curfew that night so he rented a hotel room and we told my mother we were going to the movie theater.

When we got to the hotel, my hands were shaking. I knew I had changed my mind but was too scared to tell him. He had put so much effort into everything. He even brought his own sheets and blankets from home so it would feel more intimate.

We had been kissing for a while on the bed when he took off my shirt. His hands were making their way to my pants when I started crying. He immediately stopped. Never pressured me, never made me feel guilty for changing my mind. He just kissed me and told me it was okay. We stayed in bed and rented a movie instead.

It was seven hours later and daytime when we finally woke up. We were both frantic. No one knew where we were, both of our phones had been turned off all night. I knew my parents were worried sick. He was too scared to face them with me so instead he dropped me off at my driveway and left. I remember staring at my house, wanting to be anywhere else but there. I knew they were going to make me talk to them; tell them about where I had been. I hated confrontation.

***

I'm standing in front of my jeep now, staring at the gnome filled yard of our house that's not our home. That same feeling of trepidation deep within the pit of my stomach is back. I know my mother is going to want to talk about it all. The cancer. Kel. She'll want to confront it and I'll want to hide.

I slowly make my way to the front door and turn the knob, wishing someone was holding it shut from the other side. Her, Kel and Caulder are all seated at the bar.

They're carving pumpkins. She can't talk now. This is good.

"Hey," I say to no one in particular as I walk through the front door. She doesn't acknowledge me.

"Hey, Layken. Check out my pumpkin!" Kel says as he swings it around to face me. Its' eyes and mouth are three big X's and he's taped a bag of candy to the side of the pumpkins face.

"He's making a sour face. 'Cause he ate some sour skittles," he says.

"Creative," I say.

"Look at mine," Caulder says as he turns his around. There's just a bunch of huge holes where the pumpkin's face should be.

"Oh…what is it?" I ask him.

"It's God."

I cock my head at him, confused. "God?"

Caulder laughs. "Yeah, God." He looks at Kel and in unison they both say, "Because he's 'holy.'"

I roll my eyes and laugh. "I don't know how you two found each other."

I look at my mom and she's watching me, trying to gauge my mood.

"Hey," I say, specifically to her this time.

"Hey," she smiles.

"So," I say, hoping she'll grasp the double meaning behind what I’m about to say. "Do you mind if we just carve pumpkins tonight? Is it okay if that's all we do? Just carve pumpkins?"

She smiles and turns her attention back to the pumpkin in front of her.

"Sure. But we can't carve pumpkins every night, Lake. One of these nights we'll eventually have to stop carving pumpkins."

I grab one of the available pumpkins off the floor and set it on the bar and take a seat when someone knocks at the door.

"I'll get it," Caulder yells as he jumps down.

My mother and I both turn to the front door as he opens it. It's Will.

"Hey, Buddy. You answering doors here now?" Will says to him.

Caulder grabs his hand and pulls him inside.

"We're carving pumpkins for Halloween. Come on, Julia bought one for you, too." He's pulling Will through the living room and toward the kitchen.

"No, it's fine. I'll carve mine another time. I just wanted to bring you home so they can have some family time."

My mother pulls out the available chair on the other side of her. "Sit down, Will. We're just carving pumpkins tonight. That's all we're doing. Just carving pumpkins."

Caulder already has a pumpkin and is placing it at the table in front of Will's chair.

"Okay, then. I guess we're carving pumpkins," Will says.

Caulder hands him a knife and we all sit at the bar-and just carve pumpkins.

Kel instigates the first awkward moment when he asks why I'm so late getting home from school. Mom eyes me, waiting for my response while Will just cuts away at his pumpkin and doesn't look up.

"Eddie and I had detention," I say.

"Detention? What were you in detention for?" my mom asks.

"We skipped class last week, took a nap in the courtyard."

She brings her scooper down to the table and looks at me, obviously disappointed.

"Lake, why would you do something like that? What class did you skip?"

I don't reply. I purse my lips together and nudge my head toward Will. My mother looks at Will just as he looks up from his pumpkin.

He shrugs his shoulders. "She skipped my class! What was I supposed to do?" he laughs.

My mother stands up and pats him on the back as she picks up the phone book.

"I'm buying you supper for that."

***

The whole evening is surreal. Everyone's eating pizza, talking, laughing, including my mother. It's good to hear her laugh. I can see a difference in her tonight. I think simply being able to tell me she was sick has helped relieve some of her stress. I can see it in her eyes, she's more at ease.

We listen as Kel and Caulder tell us what they want to be for Halloween. Caulder keeps switching back and forth between a Transformer and an angry bird. Kel still hasn't come up with anything.

I wipe pumpkin remnants up off the floor and take the rag to the sink and rinse it out. I put my elbows on the counter and rest my chin in my hands as I watch them. This is more than likely my mother's last time to carve pumpkins. Next month will be the last time she sees Thanksgiving. After that, she'll have her last Christmas. But she's just sitting here, talking to Will about Halloween plans, laughing. I wish I could freeze this moment. I wish we could just carve pumpkins forever.

***

Will and Caulder leave as my mom goes to her room to get ready for her shift. I finish cleaning the kitchen and gather the sacks of pumpkin discard and combine them all into a large trash bag. I take the bag to the curb at the end of the driveway when Will comes outside with his own bag of trash.

He walks to the end of his driveway before he realizes I'm even there. He smiles at me and lifts the lid, throwing the bag inside.

"Hey," he says as he puts his hands in his jacket pockets and walks toward me.

"Hey," I reply.

"Hey," he says again. He walks past me and sits against the bumper of my jeep.

"Hey," I reply as I lean against the jeep next to him.

"Hey."

"Stop it," I laugh.

We both wait for the other to talk again, but instead there's just an awkward silence. I hate awkward silences, so I break it.

"I'm sorry I told Eddie. She's just so smart. She figured it out and thought there was more going on than there is, so I had to tell her the truth. I didn't want her to think bad of you."

He leans his head back and stares up at the sky.

"I trust your judgment, Lake. I even trust Eddie. I just wanted her to know why this job is so important to me. Or maybe I said all that so you would know why it's so important to me."

My brain is too tired to even analyze his comment. "Either way, I know it was hard for you…telling us everything like that. Thank you."

We watch as a car passes by and pulls into the driveway next to us. A woman gets out, followed by two girls. They’re all carrying pumpkins.

"You know, I don't know a single person on this whole street other than you and Caulder," I say.

He directs his eyes to the house that the three people just entered. "That's Erica. She's been married to her husband, Gus, for about twenty years I think. They have two daughters, both teenagers. The oldest one is who babysits Caulder sometimes.

"The couple to the right of Caulder and I have been here the longest, Bob and Melinda. Their son just joined the military. They were great after my parents died. Melinda cooked for us every day for months. She still brings something over about once a week.

"The house over there?" He points down the street. "He's the one renting your house to you. His name is Scott. He owns six of the houses on this street alone. He's a good guy, but his renters come and go a lot. Those are about the only people I know anymore."

I look at all the houses along the street. They're all so similar and I can't help but try to imagine the differences of all the families inside the homes. I wonder if any of them are hiding secrets? If any of them are falling in love? Or out of love? Are they happy? Sad? Scared? Broke? Lonely? Do they appreciate what they have? Do Gus and Erica appreciate their health? Does Scott appreciate his supplemental rental income? Because every bit of it, every last bit of it is fleeting. Nothing is permanent. The only thing any of us have in common is the inevitable. We'll all eventually die.

"There was this one girl," Will says. "She moved into a house on the street a while back. I still remember the moment I saw her pull up in the U-Haul. She was so confident in that thing. It was a hundred times bigger than her, yet she backed it right up without even asking for help. I watched as she put it in park and propped her leg up on the dash, like driving a U-Haul was something she did every day. Piece of cake.

***

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