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She laughs and shakes her head.

"Seriously, Mom. I want him. I want to raise him. He'll want to stay with me, you know he will. You have to give us the choice. We haven't had a choice in any of this. You have to give us this one."

"Okay," she says.

"Okay? Okay you'll think about it? Or okay, okay?"

"Okay, okay."

I hug her. I hug her tighter than I've ever hugged her before.

"Lake?" she says. "You're getting basagna sauce all over me."

I pull away and realize I'm still holding the spatula and it's dripping all over her back.

***

"Why can't he come over?" Kel asks after I pull in the driveway and send Caulder home.

"I told you already. Mom needs to talk to us."

We walk inside the house and Mom is putting the basagna in the oven.

"Mom, guess what?" Kel says as he runs to the kitchen.

"What, Sweetie?"

"Our school is having a costume contest on Halloween. The winner gets fifty bucks!"

"Fifty bucks? Wow. Have you decided what you want to be yet?"

"Not yet." He walks over to the bar and throws his backpack down.

"Did your sister tell you we're all having a talk tonight?"

"Yeah. She didn't have to, though. We're having basagna."

My mother and I both look at him.

"Every time we have basagna it's bad news. Y'all cooked basagna when grandpa died. Y'all cooked basagna when y'all told me dad was dead. Y'all cooked basagna when y'all told me we were moving to Michigan. Y'all are cooking basagna right now. Someone's either dying or we're moving back to Texas."

My mom looks at me wide eyed, questioning our timing. He seems to have opened it up for an even earlier discussion. She walks over to him and sits down. I follow suit.

"You're very observant, that's for sure," she says.

"So, which one is it?" he asks, looking up at her.

She places her hand on the side of his face and strokes it. "I have lung cancer, Kel."

He immediately throws his arms around her and hugs her. She strokes the back of his head, but he doesn't cry. They are both silent for a while as she waits for him to speak.

"Are you gonna die?" he finally asks. His voice is muffled because his head is buried in her shirt.

"I am, Sweetie. But I don't know when. Until then though, we're going to spend a lot of time together. I quit my job today so that I can spend more time with you."

I wasn't sure how he would react. At only nine years old, he probably won't grasp the true reality of it until after she actually passes away. My father's death was sudden and unexpected, which naturally prompted a more dramatic reaction from him.

"But what about after you die? Who are we gonna go live with?"

"Your sister is an adult now. You're going to live with her."

"But I wanna stay here, by Caulder," he says as he lifts his head from her shirt and looks at me. "Layken, are you gonna make me move back to Texas with you?"

Up until this very second, I had every intention of moving back to Texas.

"No, Kel. We're staying right here."

Kel sighs, soaking in everything he's just been told. "Are you scared, Mom?" he asks her.

"Not anymore," she says. "I've had a lot of time to accept it. In fact, I feel lucky. Unlike your dad, at least I've got warning. Now I get to spend more time with the two of you here at home."

He lets go of my mother and puts his elbows on the bar.

"You have to promise me something, Layken."

"Okay," I respond.

"Don't ever make basagna again."

We all laugh. We all laugh. This was the hardest thing my mother and I have ever had to do, and we're laughing. Kel is amazing.

***

Two hours later, we have a huge spread of basagna, bread sticks and salad. There's no way we're eating all of this.

"Kel, why don't you go see if Caulder and Will have eaten yet," my mother says as she eyes the food with me. Kel darts out the door.

She sets two more places at the table while I fill drinks with tea.

"We need to talk to Will about helping out with Kel," I tell her.

"Will? Why?"

"Because, I want to take you to your treatments from now on. It's too much for Brenda. I can miss a day of school every now and then, or we can go when I get out."

"Okay," she says as we finish preparing the table.

Kel and Caulder come running through the front door, followed by Will a moment later.

"Kel said we're having basagna?" Will asks hesitantly.

"Yes sir," my mother says as she scoops basagna onto plates.

"What is basagna? Bologne lasagna?"

He looks scared.

"It's basagna. And it's the last time we'll ever have it so you better enjoy it," she says.

Will walks to the table and waits for Mom and I to sit before he takes his seat.

We pass around breadsticks and salad until everyone's plates are filled. And just like last night, Kel is the first one to make it awkward.

"My mom's dying, Caulder."

Will glances at me and I give him a half smile, letting him know we talked.

"When she dies, I'm gonna live with Layken. Just like you live with Will. It's like we'll be the same. All of our parents will be dead, and we'll live with our brother and sister."

"Cool. That's crazy," Caulder says.

"Caulder!" Will yells.

"It's fine, Will," my mom says. "It is kind of crazy if you think about it from the perspective of a nine-year-old."

"Mom," Kel says. "What about your bedroom? Can I have it? It's bigger than mine."

"No," I say. "It's got a bathroom in it. I get her bedroom."

Kel looks defeated. I don't budge, though. I'm getting the bedroom with the bathroom.

"Kel, you can have my computer," my mother says.

"Sweet!"

I look at Will, hoping this conversation isn't weirding him out, but he's laughing. This is exactly what he was hoping would happen. Acceptance.

Over dinner, we all discuss what will happen over the next few months and make arrangements for Caulder and Kel while mom receives her treatments. Will agreed to let Kel come over whenever he needed to and said he'll continue to take them to school. I'll be picking them up on the way home every day, unless I'm at a treatment with mom. She made Will agree to let her cook them supper most nights in return for his help. The entire night was a success. I feel like together, we all just punched death square in the face.

"I'm exhausted," my mom says. "I need to take a shower and get to bed."

She walks into the kitchen where Will is washing dishes at the sink. She puts her arms around his waist and hugs him from behind. "Thanks, Will. For everything."

He turns around and hugs her back.

When she walks past me on her way to her bedroom, she purposefully nudges me with her shoulder. She doesn't speak a word but I know what she's hinting at-she's giving me her approval. Again. Too bad it doesn't count.

I wipe the table off and walk to the sink to rinse out the rag.

"Eddie's birthday is Thursday. I don't know what I should get her."

"Well, I know what you shouldn't get her," he says.

"Believe me, I know," I laugh. "I think Gavin's taking her out Thursday night. Maybe I'll do something for her on Friday."

"Oh, speaking of Friday. Do you guys need me to watch Kel Friday? I forgot Caulder and I go to Detroit this weekend."

"No, you're fine. Family stuff?"

"Yeah. We stay with our grandparents one weekend a month. Kind of a truce we worked out for me stealing him away in the middle of the night."

"That's fair enough,” I say. I reach over to the sink and unplug the drain.

"So you won't be at the slam Thursday?" he asks.

"No. We'll watch Caulder that night, though. Just send him over after school."

He puts the last dish in the strainer and dries his hands on the towel.

"It's pretty weird isn't it? How everything worked out? You guys moving here when you did? Kel and Caulder finding each other, right when Kel probably needed a best friend the most? Him taking your mother's news so well? It just all worked out."

He turns toward me and smiles. "I'm proud of you, Lake. You did good today." He plants one of his lingering kisses on my forehead, then walks to the living room.

"Caulder still needs to take a shower, I guess we need to go. I'll see you tomorrow," he says.

"Yeah. See ya."

I sigh as I think about the one thing that isn't on his mind. The one incredibly huge thing that didn't work out; us.

I'm starting to accept it. That we won't be together. That we can't be together. Especially the last two nights he's been here. It really feels like we've finally transitioned. There are definitely still moments, but none we're not able to overcome. It's only October and he'll be my teacher until June. That's still eight long months. When I look at the shift my life has made in the past eight months, I can't fathom what my life will be eight months from now. When I lie down and close my eyes, I make a resolution. Will is not going to be my first priority anymore. I'm putting my mother first, Kel second and life third.

Finally. He no longer has a hold on me.

***

"Eddie, will you go grab me a chocolate milk, Babe? I forgot to get one." Gavin is giving Eddie puppy dog eyes. Eddie rolls her eyes and gets up. As soon as she leaves the table, he turns toward us and starts whispering.

"Tomorrow night. Getty’s. Six o'clock. Bring a pink balloon. And we're going to the slam afterward."

"Gavin, are you crazy? That's not funny, she'll be pissed," I whisper.

"Just trust me."

She's back at the table with the chocolate milk.

"Here, Babe. You owe me fifty-cents."

"I owe you my heart," Gavin says as she hands him the milk.

She slaps him lightly across the head. "Oh, grow a pair! You're such a sap," she says, right before she kisses his cheek.

***

I reluctantly walk into Getty’s pizza with a pink balloon in my hand. Gavin and Nick are gathered in the back of the room at a booth. He motions for me to join them. There are so many pink balloons. She's going to be pissed.

Gavin grabs my balloon and writes something on it with a big marker. "Here," Gavin says as he hands me the fistful of balloons. "Take all these and go to the back by the bathrooms. I'll come get you when it's time, she'll be here soon."

He shoves me toward the bathroom before I have a chance to object. I stand in a corner in the hallway between the men's room and the janitors’ closet. I look up at all the balloons, and that's when I notice there are names written on each one of them.

Moments later, an older gentleman walks down the hall toward me.

"Are you Layken?" he asks.

"Yes," I reply.

"I'm Joel, Eddie’s foster dad."

"Oh, hey."

"Gavin wants you out front, I'll take the balloons now. Eddie's out there. She thinks I went to the bathroom so don't say anything about the balloons."

"Uh, okay." I hand him the balloons and walk back to the table.

"Layken! You came! Guys this is so sweet," Eddie says. She starts to sit at the booth when Gavin pulls her back up.

***

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