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"We're not eating yet. We need to go outside."

"Outside? But it's cold out there."

"Come on," he says as he pulls her toward the door.

We all follow Gavin outside and stand next to Eddie. I look at Nick but he shrugs, implying he doesn't know what's going on, either. Gavin pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and stands in front of Eddie.

"I didn't write this letter, Sweetie. But I was told to read it."

Eddie looks at us and smiles, trying to gain hints from our expressions. We can't give her any, because we don't even know.

It was July 4th when you came to me. Independence Day. You were fourteen. You burst in the door and went straight to the refrigerator, telling me you needed a sprite. I didn't have any sprite. You told me it was okay and you grabbed a Dr. Pepper instead. You freaked me out. I told the caseworker there was no way I could keep you. I'd never fostered a teenager before. She told me she would find you somewhere to go the next day, that she just needed me to keep you for the night.

I was so nervous. I didn't know what to say to a fourteen year old girl. I didn't know what kinds of things they liked, what shows they watched. I was clueless. But you made it so easy. You were so worried about making me feel comfortable.

Later that night when it was dark outside-we heard fireworks. You grabbed my hand and pulled me off the couch and drug me outside. We laid on the grass in the front yard and we watched the sky. You didn't shut up. You told me all about the family you just came from, the family before that, and the family before that. The whole time you were talking, I was listening. Listening to this little girl, so full of life. So full and enthralled with a life that tried so hard to knock her down.

Eddie gasps when she sees Joel in the window of the restaurant with dozens of pink balloons. He walks outside and stands beside Gavin. Gavin continues reading the letter.

I've never been able to give you much. Other than eventually teaching you how to park, I've never even taught you very much. But you've taught me more than you will ever know. And on this very special birthday, your eighteenth birthday-you no longer belong to the state of Michigan. And as of right now, you legally no longer belong to me. You no longer belong to any of the following people that once held claim to you and your past.

Joel starts reading names out loud as he releases balloons one by one. Eddie is crying as we all watch the balloons slowly disappear into the darkness. He continues releasing them, until all 29 siblings and all 13 parents names have been read and released.

He still has one pink balloon remaining in his hand. Across the front of it, in big black letters, it says DAD.

Gavin folds the paper up and takes a step back as Joel walks toward Eddie.

"I hope for your birthday, you’ll accept this gift," Joel says as he hands her the pink balloon. "I want to be your Dad, Eddie. I want to be your family for the rest of your life."

Eddie hugs him and they cry. The rest of us slowly walk back inside Getty’s so they can have their moment.

"Oh my god, I need a napkin," I sniff as I search for something to wipe my eyes. I grab some napkins off the counter when I look at Nick and Gavin. They're both crying. I grab a few more napkins for them as we walk back to our booth.

17.

“If I get murdered in the city

don’t go revengin’ in my name

One person dead from such is plenty

No need to go get locked away.”

-The Avett Brothers, Murder in the City

Chapter Seventeen

I can honestly say I feel like I've moved through the five stages of grief in every aspect of my life.

I have accepted my father's death. I accepted his death months before we even moved to Michigan. I've accepted my mother's fate. I realize she hasn't even died yet, and that the stages of grief will once again recommence when she does. But I know it won't be as hard.

I've accepted living in Michigan. The song I listened to on repeat at Will's house in the floor was called Weight of Lies. A portion of the lyrics say,

"The weight of lies will bring you down, follow you to every town 'cause

nothing happens here that doesn't happen there."

Every time the song looped, all I ever heard was the part about the lies-and how they weigh you down. Tonight as I drive toward Detroit in my jeep, I know what those words really mean. It's not just lies they're referring to. It's life. You can't run to another town, another place, another state. Whatever it is you’re running from-it goes with you. It stays with you until you find out how to confront it.

Whatever it is I was hoping to run back to Texas from, it would eventually make its way back to me. So here I am in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Where I'll stay. And I'm okay with that.

I've accepted the situation with Will. I don't blame him at all for what he chose. Sure, I had fantasies of him sweeping me off my feet, telling me he doesn't need a career when he has love. The reality of it is, if he would have put his feelings for me first; it would've been hard to accept that he could so easily throw away the things that are the most important to him. It would have said a lot less about his character. So, I don't blame him, I respect him. And someday when I'm ready, I'll thank him.

***

I pull up to the club a little after eight o'clock. Gavin had a surprise for Eddie so they took a detour, said they'd be here late. The parking lot is unusually crowded, so I have to take a spot in the back of the building. When I get out of the car, I take a deep breath and prepare myself. I'm not sure when it was that I decided I was going to perform tonight, but I'm having second thoughts.

My mother's words linger in my head as I make my way to the front door. "Push your boundaries Lake, that’s what they’re there for."

I can do this. They're just words. Repeat them and you're done. It's that simple.

I walk in the door a few minutes late. I can tell the sac is about to perform because you could hear a pin drop. I sneak in and quietly make my way to the back of the room. I don't want to draw attention to myself, so I slide into an empty booth. I take my phone out to turn the volume down and text Eddie letting her know where I'm sitting. That's when it happens; I hear him.

Will is standing in front of the microphone on the stage, performing a piece as the sacrifice.

I used to love the ocean.

Everything about her.

Her coral reefs, her white caps, her roaring waves, the rocks they lap, her pirate legends and mermaid tails,

Treasures lost and treasures held…

And ALL

Of her fish

In the sea.

Yes, I used to love the ocean,

Everything about her.

The way she would sing me to sleep as I lay in my bed

then wake me with a force

That I soon came to dread.

Her fables, her lies, her misleading eyes,

I'd drain her dry

If I cared enough to.

I used to love the ocean,

Everything about her.

Her coral reefs, her white caps, her roaring waves, the rocks they lap, her pirate legends and mermaid tails, treasures lost and treasures held.

And ALL

Of her fish

In the sea.

Well, if you've ever tried navigating your sailboat through her stormy seas, you would realize that her white caps are your enemies. If you've ever tried swimming ashore when your leg gets a cramp and you just had a huge meal of In-n-Out burgers that's weighing you down, and her roaring waves are knocking the wind out of you, filling your lungs with water as you flail your arms, trying to get someone's attention, but your friends

just

wave

back at you?

And if you've ever grown up with dreams in your head about life, and how one of these days you would pirate your own ship and have your own crew and that all of the mermaids

would love

only

you?

Well, you would realize…

Like I eventually realized…

That all the good things about her?

All the beautiful?

It's not real.

It's fake.

So you keep your ocean,

I'll take the Lake.

Air. Or Water. I don't know which one I need. I slide out of the booth and head toward the front door but make a beeline for the bathroom. I just need silence.

When I open the door to the bathroom, the stalls are empty. There's a girl washing her hands at the only available sink, so I decide to wait on the water. I pick the big stall. I lock it behind me and lean up against the door.

Did that just really happen? Does he know I'm even here? No, he doesn't. I told him I wasn't coming. He didn't intend for me to hear it. Even so, he wrote it. He said himself that he writes what he's feeling. Oh my god, he loves me. Will Cooper is in love with me.

I've known all along how he felt about me. I can see it in the way he looks at me. But to hear his words and the emotions behind them-how he said my name. How am I supposed to face him? I'm not. He still doesn't know I'm here, I just have to leave. I need to leave before he sees me.

I open the bathroom door and scan the area but I don't see him. Luckily, another performer is on stage so most of the eyes are glued to the front of the room. I slip through the entryway and out the front door.

"Layken! Look what Gavin got me!" Eddie is making her way inside, holding her hair back, wanting me to look at her ears.

"Eddie, I've got to go."

Her smile fades.

"I'll call you later." I brush past her without looking at the earrings. "You didn't see me!" I yell behind me as I go.

I make my way around the building and smash into Javier as he's rounding the corner. Good grief! Is the whole class here? Someone's going to let it slip that I was here. I don't want Will to know I saw him.

"Hey, what's the hurry?" he asks as I slip between him and the wall.

"I gotta go. I'll see you tomorrow." I quickly walk away. I don't have time for chit chat. I just want to get in my jeep and pull out of this parking lot as soon as I can.

"Wait, I'll walk you to your car," he says as he catches up to me.

"I'm fine, Javi. Go ahead and go inside, they already started."

"Layken, we're in Detroit. You're parked behind a club. I'm walking you to your car."

"Fine. But walk fast."

"What's your hurry?" he asks as we make our way to the rear of the building.

"I'm just tired. I need sleep," I say as I slow down, feeling confident that Will didn't see me.

"There's a café down the road. Want to go grab some coffee?" he asks.

"No, thanks. I don't need caffeine, I need my bed."

He is silent as we make our way to my jeep in the back of the lot. I reach down to grab my keys out of my-shit! My purse. I left my purse in the booth.

"Shit!" I say as I kick at the gravel in front of me. My shoe loosens a piece of rock and it flicks against the door of my jeep.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

"My purse. I left my keys and my purse inside." I fold my arms across my chest and lean against the jeep.

"It's not that big of a deal. We'll go back inside and get them."

"No, I don't want to. Would you mind getting it for me?" I smile at him, hoping it will be enough.

"Layken, you don't need to stay back here by yourself."

"Fine. I'll just text Eddie to bring it out. Do you have your phone?"

He pats his pockets. "No, it's in my truck. Come on, you can use it." Javi says this as he reaches down and takes my hand and leads me toward his truck.

***

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