Michelle stepped out of the room, returning a few seconds later with a tissue for her eyes. She sniffed and walked over, rustling Matthew’s hair. “Aren’t you lucky? You have a daddy up in heaven and a best friend down here to help take care of you.”
She wadded up the napkin and dropped it on the coffee table as she passed by it on her way to the cardboard box. Grabbing the edge, she grunted as she pulled it across the room toward the bookcase in the corner.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
She turned and looked the bookshelf of pictures up and down. “Working over here now.”
I glanced down at Matthew just in time to see a small twitch of his eyebrow.
“Don’t do that. Leave those,” I insisted.
“Why?” She turned to face me with a small frame in her hand.
I nodded down toward Matthew. “He’s confused enough about all this. Don’t put all his memories in a box. Seriously, leave them.”
“Okay,” she hesitated, “but I wanted to put up some pictures of us too…”
“Then I’ll buy you another bookshelf, and we can put our memories on that one, but leave that shelf just the way it is for Matthew.” I smiled down at the son of my best friend, the little boy whom I loved just as much as if he were half genetically mine.
Michelle looked down at the picture of her, Big Mike, and Matthew at Walt Disney World and kissed it. She walked over and held it out for Matthew, who kissed it too. She turned to walk away and I grabbed her wrist, pulling the picture toward me so I could kiss it too. Matthew smiled and I realized the best thing I could ever do for him in his whole life would be to show him I loved his dad just as much as he did.
FOUR HOURS LATER, the backyard was hectic, to say the least. Brody, Kacie, and Louie were sitting around the table talking to Jodi and Vince, who had just stopped over for a couple minutes after a long day of planting lilies in their backyard. Baby Grace was sound asleep on Brody’s chest while Emma sat on Kacie’s lap, shoving pieces of watermelon into her mouth as juice dripped all the way down her arm. I was standing behind Brody’s chair keeping a close eye on Maura, who was in the sandbox.
“When did you get a trampoline?” Jodi frowned out into the yard as she watched Lucy, Piper, and Matthew jump around on the trampoline with Becca and Logan, Andy’s kids. “I don’t remember you having that last summer.”
“That’s because we didn’t.” Michelle grabbed a beer from the big metal cooler and twisted the top off with her bare hand. “Viper actually brought it over from his house a couple weeks ago.”
Louie’s eyes widened and flashed over to mine. I winked at him as he coughed on the gulp of beer he’d just drank.
Andy came through the sliding door, carrying the drink he’d just mixed inside. “Look who I found when I was in there,” he bellowed.
Darla and Neil waved at us as they followed him outside.
“Yay! You made it!” Kacie cheered. “I wasn’t sure you’d be back from your trip in time.”
“We haven’t even been home yet. I’m exhausted, but I couldn’t miss this. How is everyone?” They made the rounds, giving hugs as they walked by everyone. When Darla got to me, she tilted her head to the side and smiled. “Glad to see you so damn happy. You deserve it.” She wrapped her arms around me, and I squeezed her back as hard as I could.
“Thanks. You too,” I mumbled into her shoulder. “Look at us, two formerly single whores, each partnered up happily. Who would’ve thought, huh?”
“Not me.” She giggled and pulled back, kissing my cheek on the way by.
“Taylor and Isaac should be here in a bit too,” Michelle announced. “And I hope everyone’s hungry. I made a ton of food.”
“Wait, you cooked?” Jodi’s eyebrows raised. “Uh-oh, hope the pizza place is on standby.”
“Stop it!” Michelle threw her beer cap at her as she walked over and hugged me around the waist. “I’m actually pretty good now. I’ve had an incredible teacher.”
“Yep, that’s me,” I bragged proudly, puffing my chest out. “Lawrence Finkle, teaching women across the country new tricks for over ten years now.”
The women booed me while Michelle punched me right in the gut and glared.
“It was a joke, it was a joke!” I grunted and protected myself from her onslaught.
“So let’s see…” Louie looked from person to person around the yard. “Baby Grace is what, five, six months old now? Are we taking bets on who gets pregnant next? Michelle or Kacie?”
“Oh no!” Kacie shook her head adamantly. “This momma needs a break.”
“We’ll see.” Brody reached out and squeezed her leg. “I told you I wanted a dozen little Brodys, remember?”
Kacie rolled her eyes and pushed his hand away playfully.
“I think we’re waiting a while too, homie.” I laughed, putting my arm around Michelle’s shoulders. “We aren’t ready to share a house yet, let alone a fetus. And wait a minute, if we’re taking bets, I’m thinking the newlyweds over there should be in the running.” I nodded toward Jodi and Vince.
“Oh, hell no,” Jodi said. “We’re sharing lilies, not babies.”
“Well if you’re throwing baby bets around, can we get in on the running after the wedding?” Darla grinned.
“What wedd—” Kacie’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my God, are you engaged?”
Darla proudly held her left hand up, revealing a brand new diamond on her ring finger. Everyone got up and started hugging them in congratulations. Right away, the girls started babbling about bridesmaid dress colors, and I walked over to shake Neil’s hand, staring him straight in the eye. “She’s a sweet girl,” I said sternly. “Be good to her.”
“I will.” He nodded, shaking my hand back.
“So wait a minute…” I turned back toward the group. “Michelle and I are together, Jodi and Vince are married, Darla and Neil are getting married… that just leaves you, Andy. We gotta find you somebody now.”
Andy shook his head and was about to argue with me when Brody blurted out, “Louie’s available!”
Four more hours later and everyone was gone. Michelle and I had collapsed on the couch, completely exhausted and trying our hardest to ignore the mess in the kitchen.
“That was fun,” she sighed. “We should do it again soon.”
“We should,” I agreed. “At Brody and Kacie’s house, though. Have you seen that kitchen?”
“Don’t remind me,” she groaned. “Can’t we leave it till tomorrow?”
“I say we don’t even clean it tomorrow. Let’s just throw everything out and buy new dishes,” I joked.
“Deal!” She laughed as she looked off to the side, deep in thought about something. “It’s been a weird year, huh? Kinda makes you wonder where we’ll be a year from now.”
“Do you ever wonder what if?” I asked cautiously.
Her eyes turned sad as she shook her head. “Don’t.” I stared back at her, not saying word. Selfishly, I wanted to know the answer; I needed to know the answer. Finally, she took a shaky breath and let it out slowly. “I have thought about it, and it kills me every single time, because while I can’t imagine my past without him, I don’t want to imagine my future without you.”