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The same fleeting feeling I had on that stage, on his dryer, in the booth in the back of the room-it's gone. I can't do it again. I want to run. I need air. I need to feel the Michigan air against my face.

I throw open the door and take a step outside when a voice, amplified through the speakers, stops me in my tracks.

"That's not a good idea," he says into the microphone. I recognize his voice, and that repetitive phrase.

I slowly turn around and face the stage. Will is standing there, holding the microphone between his hands, looking directly at me.

"You shouldn't leave before you get your scores," he says as he motions to the judges table. I follow his gaze to the judges who are all turned around in their seats. All four of them have their eyes locked on me; the fifth seat is empty. I gasp as I realize Will was the fifth judge.

So he saw me. He watched me do my piece.

I sense that I'm floating again as I make my way to the center of the room. Everyone is quiet. I look around and all eyes are on me. No one understands what's happening. I'm not so sure I even understand what's happening.

Will looks at the emcee standing next to him. "I'd like to perform a piece. It's an emergency," he says.

The emcee backs away and gives Will the go ahead. Will turns back to face me.

"Three dollars," someone yells from the crowd.

Will darts a look at the emcee. "I don't have any cash," he says.

I immediately pull the two dollars in change out of my pocket and run to the stage, smacking it down in front of the emcees feet. He inspects the money I laid before him.

"Still a dollar short," the emcee says.

The silence in the room is interrupted as several chairs slide from under their tables. There is a faint rumble as people walk toward me. I'm surrounded, being pushed and shoved in different directions as the crowd grows thicker. It begins to disperse just as fast and the silence slowly returns as everyone makes their way back to their seats. I return my gaze to the stage, where dozens of dollar bills are haphazardly thrown at the emcees feet. My eyes follow along as a quarter rolls off the edge of the stage and falls onto the floor. It wiggles and spins as it comes to rest at my foot.

The emcee is focused on the pile of money before him. "Okay," he says. "I guess that covers it. What's the name of your piece, Will?"

Will brings the microphone to his mouth and finds me in the crowd. "Better than third," he says.

I met a girl in a U-Haul.

A beautiful girl

And I fell for her.

I fell hard.

Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way.

Life definitely got in my way.

It got all up in my damn way,

Life blocked the door with a stack of wooden 2x4's nailed together and attached to a fifteen inch concrete wall behind a row of solid steel bars, bolted to a titanium frame that no matter how hard I shoved against it-

It

wouldn't

budge.

Sometimes life doesn't budge.

It just gets all up in your damn way.

It blocked my plans, my dreams, my desires, my wishes, my wants, my needs.

It blocked out that beautiful girl

That I fell so hard for.

Life tries to tell you what's best for you

What should be most important to you

What should come in first

Or second

Or third.

I tried so hard to keep it all organized, alphabetized, stacked in chronological order, everything in its perfect space, its perfect place.

I thought that's what life wanted me to do.

This is what life needed for me to do.

Right?

Keep it all in sequence?

Sometimes, life gets in your way.

It gets all up in your damn way.

But it doesn't get all up in your damn way because it wants you to just give up and let it take control. Life doesn't get all up in your damn way because it just wants you to hand it all over and be carried along.

Life wants you to fight it.

Learn how to make it your own.

It wants you to grab an axe and hack through the wood.

It wants you to get a sledgehammer and break through the concrete.

It wants you to grab a torch and burn through the metal and steel until you can reach through and grab it.

Life wants you to grab all the organized, the alphabetized, the chronological, the sequenced. It wants you to mix it all together,

stir it up,

blend it.

Life doesn't want you to let it tell you that your little brother should be the only thing that comes first.

Life doesn't want you to let it tell you that your career and your education should be the only thing that comes in second.

And life definitely doesn't want me

To just let it tell me

that the girl I met,

The beautiful, strong, amazing, resilient girl

That I fell so hard for

Should only come in third.

Life knows.

Life is trying to tell me

That the girl I love,

The girl I fell

So hard for?

There's room for her in first.

I'm putting her first.

Will sets the microphone down and jumps off the stage as he walks up to me. I've gone so long teaching myself how to let go of him, to break the hold he has on me. It hasn't worked. It hasn't worked a damn bit.

He takes my face in his hands and wipes my tears away with his thumbs. "I love you, Lake," he smiles as he presses his forehead against mine. "You deserve to come first."

Everyone and everything else in the entire room fades; the only sound I hear is the crash of the walls I've built up around me as they crumble to the ground.

"I love you, too. I love you so much," I say. He brings his lips to mine and I throw my arms around him and kiss him back. Of course I kiss him back.

The End.

Epilogue:

“But when I think

I just might get something

Out of this

My parents taught me to learn

When I miss

Just do your best

Just do your best.”

-The Avett Brothers, When I drink

Epilogue

I walk around the living room, taking long leaps over mounds of toys as I gather wrapping paper and stuff it into the sack. "Did y'all like your presents?" I ask.

"Yes!" Kel and Caulder yell in unison. I gather the last of the wrapping paper and tie the ends of the trash bag together and head outside to throw it away.

As I'm walking to the curb, Will emerges from his house and jogs toward me.

"Let me get that, Babe," he says as he takes the bag out of my hands and carries it to the curb. He walks back to where I'm standing and puts his arms around me, nuzzling his face in my neck.

"Merry Christmas," he says.

"Merry Christmas," I reply.

It's our second Christmas together. The first without my mother. She passed away in September this year, almost a year to the day that we moved to Michigan. It was hard. It was extremely hard.

When someone close to you dies, the memories and recollections of them are painful. It isn't until the fifth stage of grief that the memories of them stop hurting as much; when the recollections become positive. When you stop thinking about the person's death, and remember all of the wonderful things about their life.

Having Will by my side has made it bearable. After graduation, he applied to get his Master's in Education. He didn't take the job at the Junior High after all. Instead, he lived off of student loans for another semester until I graduated.

Will takes my hand as we walk back inside the house. The amount of toys that are piled in my living room floor is astonishing.

"I'll be back, last load," Will says as he takes a stack of Caulder's things and walks back out the front door. This is his third trip across the street, transferring all of Caulder's new toys to their house.

"Kel, these can't all be yours," I say as I scan the living room. "Y'all start gathering them up and take them to the spare bedroom. I need to vacuum." There are small remnants of gift chaos all over the living room floor.

After I finish vacuuming, I wrap up the cord and return the vacuum to the hallway closet. Will walks in the front door with two gift sacks in hand.

"Uh, oh. How'd we forget those?" I ask just before I call the boys into the living room.

"These aren't for the boys. These are for you and Kel." He walks to the couch and motions for Kel and I to take a seat.

"Will, you didn't have to do this. You already got me Avett Brothers tickets," I say as I settle into the sofa.

He hands the sacks to us and kisses me on the forehead. "I didn't. They aren't from me."

He takes Caulder's hand and they quietly slip out the front door. I look at Kel and he just shrugs.

We simultaneously rip the tissue out of the sacks and pull out envelopes. "Lake" is sprawled across the front in my mother's handwriting.

My hands are weak as I slide the paper out of the envelope. I run my arm across my eyes and wipe away my tears as I unfold my letter.

To my babies,

Merry Christmas. I'm sorry if these letters have caught you both by surprise. There is just so much more I have to say. I know you thought I was done giving advice, but I couldn't leave without reiterating a few things in writing. You may not relate to these things now, but someday you will. I wasn't able to be around forever, but I hope that my words can be.

-Don't stop making basagna. Basagna is good. Wait until a day when there is no bad news, and bake a damn basagna.

-Find a balance between head and heart. Hopefully you've found that Lake, and you can help Kel sort it out when he gets to that point.

-Push your boundaries, that's what they're there for.

-I'm stealing this snippet from your favorite band, Lake. "Always remember there is nothing worth sharing, like the love that let us share our name."

-Don't take life too seriously. Punch it in the face when it needs a good hit. Laugh at it.

-And Laugh a lot. Never go a day without laughing at least once.

-Never judge others. You both know good and well how unexpected events can change who a person is. Always keep that in mind. You never know what someone else is experiencing within their own life.

-Question everything. Your love, your religion, your passions. If you don't have questions, you'll never find answers.

-Be accepting. Of everything. People's differences, their similarities, their choices, their personalities. Sometimes it takes a variety to make a good collection. The same goes for people.

-Choose your battles, but don't choose very many.

-Keep an open mind; it's the only way new things can get in.

-And last but not least, not the tiniest bit least. Never regret.

Thank you both for giving me the best years of my life.

Especially the last one.

Love,

Mom

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