She messed with the fabric flower, batting at it like I had when it sprang out of whatever position she'd tried to wrangle it into.
I leaned toward her. "Don't anger the flower," I whispered, raising my eyebrows at her and then glancing down at it, feigning wide-eyed fear.
She snorted and my mom put her hands on her hips. "Oh stop it, you two. That flower is perfectly lovely. It's elegant and feminine. It makes a statement."
"Yeah, it says, 'I'm craaaaa-zy,'" Molly raised her voice and sang out the last word in a high-soprano.
I burst out laughing, clutching my stomach. Molly started laughing, too, and Carolyn pursed her lips at us.
"Oh fine then, if you don't like the dress," she said, looking away. "It's just that you had one similar when you were four and it was your very favorite. You wore it all the time. I just thought . . ."
I got control of my laughter, feeling suddenly guilty, and put my hand on her arm. I didn't like the dress, but her intentions weren't bad . . . mostly anyway. And I hoped it was just a phase—she was still learning who I was now. I was hard-pressed to reject motherly affection, even if it felt a little misguided. "Oh, no, no, really, it's very . . . pretty. I'm just not used to dressing up. I'll get used to it in no time." I smiled at her. "Really."
She pulled me to her, hugging me tightly. "Thank you." She pulled back, bringing her hands together. "All right, we're ready early, but there's so much to do. The florist delivered the flowers and they're in the refrigerator in the garage. Do you think you and Molly could start putting together the centerpieces?"
"Yes, we'd love to," I said, looking at Molly. Her eyes were still on the flower at my chin. I cleared my throat and she snapped her eyes up to mine.
"Oh yes. Right. The three of us, I mean, uh, the two of us would be happy to."
I snapped my lips together not to laugh and then pulled Molly with me toward the garage as my mom called behind us, "The vases are in the lower cabinet next to the refrigerator."
Molly and I assembled the centerpieces as I talked a little bit more about what had happened with Calder the night before, and about some of our history, what it'd been like for us in Acadia. Talking about it now didn't hurt quite as much. He was alive! I checked my phone repeatedly during the day but there wasn't a call or a text from him. How surreal to think of getting a text from Calder. I thought about how he hadn't even known how to use a phone three years ago. I wanted to talk to him about all the ways he'd experienced culture shock after leaving Acadia. And I wanted to share with him all the ways in which I had, too. Thinking about the boy I'd known and first fell in love with caused a strange sort of grief to move slowly through my body. Calder was back, he was alive, and yet . . . he'd never, ever again be that boy. Whether or not he was ever mine again, I'd lost that version of him forever and that ached.
Of course, I wasn't the same either. I'd changed, too.
I was interrupted in my thoughts by the peal of the doorbell. The company that was going to set up the tables, chairs, and heat lamps had arrived. I helped direct the set up and pretty soon the caterer was there. The next few hours went by in a blur of activity.
I quickly went upstairs to freshen up and check my phone again. There was one text and I held my breath as I slid my screen open.
Xander: How you doing today? Just checking in because I can. Still surreal. : )
I smiled and texted him back quickly.
Me: Doing okay. Surreal on my end, too. I can hardly believe it.
As I was putting my phone away, it dinged and I picked it right back up.
Xander: Have you heard from him today?
I frowned as I typed back.
I waited a second and then,
Xander: You will
Me: I hope so. I'll text you later.
Xander: Sounds great
I stood there for a minute biting my lip and wondering if I would hear from Calder.
I brought my phone downstairs and left it on the counter in the kitchen so I could check it here and there.
Then the guests were arriving and I was being introduced to my mom's friends who fawned over me and hugged me, most with tears in their eyes.
Marissa brought Sophia with her and we had a small hug fest in the front foyer, even though I'd seen them both recently. My mom who had met Marissa when I first moved in, hugged her, and cried like she did each time she saw her.
We all went out to the garden, which was beautifully decorated with tables in white linens and the vases we'd arranged full of orange lilies, deeper orange and yellow roses, and sprays of tiny green berries I didn't know the name for.
Twinkle lights had been strung up in the trees and sparkled in the late afternoon sun. The sky would be growing dim soon and the heat lamps would be turned on. The whole garden had a magical feel to it, but I felt empty inside. I had longed for Calder for so long, believing I would never see him again in this lifetime, but suddenly I could, and I was still longing for him. Despair swirled in my gut. Was he with her right now? Was he deciding he wasn't going to leave her? That he'd moved on from me, and that it was best we both keep moving forward? Was it? He'd never experienced anyone else except me, well, before her anyway. Maybe it was selfish not to let him figure out what he wanted now that there were more choices than just some naïve girl down at a spring who worshipped the ground he walked on. We were out in the world now—the big society—and there were women like Madison in it. I grabbed a glass of champagne off a nearby tray and sipped at it, pulling at the flower-beast at my chin.
"You look like you're about to make a run for it," I heard next to me and turned to a tall, good-looking blond man. He was smiling at me.
I smiled back, breathing out. "Is it that obvious?" I took another sip of the champagne and grimaced slightly.
"I don't think anyone else has noticed," he said, glancing around at the women in small groups laughing and chatting, my mother in the middle of one. She glanced over at me and waved a small wave, grinning. Her eyes were never off me for long. I smiled back. The man and I both looked back at each other and laughed softly.
"I haven't seen your mother look this happy in, well, since I've known her." He turned more fully to me. "By the way, I have the advantage here. I know your name. I'm Bentley Von Dorn."
"Oh. Yes, my cousin Molly mentioned you're our neighbor. Nice to meet you." I held out my hand and he grasped it tightly.
His lips pinched. "Oh, Molly, yes. I can only imagine what she had to say." He paused for a minute, his eyes scanning the crowd, for her I assumed. Very interesting. He shook his head slightly and smiled. "It's an honor to meet you, Eden. You're even more beautiful than your mother said. And believe me, she gushed."
I smiled. "Thank you, Bentley. That's very nice of you to say."
"Well I know it's true since I can only see a quarter of your face behind that flower, and I can still tell you're beautiful."
I looked over at him and he winked. I burst out laughing. "It's ridiculous, isn't it?" I finally managed.
Bentley reached out and moved it slightly and it sprang back to its original position. "Ouch," he said withdrawing his finger and frowning. "I think it just bit me."
I laughed harder, some of the tension and loneliness lifting, at least to a manageable level.
I chatted with Bentley, noting that once his eyes found Molly, they rarely moved away, and then I chatted with several of my mom's friends. I finally relaxed a little, although that same low buzz I'd felt deep in my blood ever since I'd first seen Calder yesterday never went away. Everyone was nice and welcoming and we all enjoyed dinner as early evening settled around us, the twinkle lights sparkling brighter and the heat lamps warming the cool air. I sat between Bentley and Molly, pretending to listen to their banter, but really my mind was focused on Calder. It was such a beautiful evening and I wanted to be spending it with him.
I snuck inside and checked my phone, but there was still no call. It was close to six, but I decided to wait to call him until the party was wrapping up and I was free to leave if he asked me to. He might not, Eden, and you have to prepare for that.
As dinner was cleared and dessert was being served, my mom made her way to the shaded area where the small, three-piece orchestra had been playing since the beginning of the party. A couple guys from the catering company set up a white screen behind her as she turned toward all the tables. Everyone grew quiet, turning to give her their attention.
"Thank you all so much for coming today," she said, smiling. "This last month has been," she brought a tissue to her eyes, "the happiest month of my life. I feel almost like I did when I first brought you home from the hospital." She laughed softly, staring in my direction. I smiled back softly at her. "I can't stop looking at you, marveling at your beauty, the miracle you're in my arms, that you're real." She sniffed, bringing the tissue to her nose. "I couldn't spend another minute without showing you off, just like I did then, to all those I love, my closest friends." She beamed at everyone sitting at the tables.
"Last week I started going through my old picture albums." She shook her head slightly. "I haven't been able to do that. All these years and I haven't been able to do that." She dabbed at her eyes again. "But looking through them brought me so much happiness. It reminded me that even though I didn't get all the years, I got some of them, and they were beautiful, just like you. I don't know what you were like when you were ten, or fourteen, or sixteen," she sniffled, "but I know what you're like at twenty-one, and I never, ever thought I would." She sniffled again and wiped her nose, a look of adoration on her face as she looked at me. I picked up a napkin and dabbed at my eyes. "And now we have the rest of our lives to make up for the time that was taken from us." She stood up taller and brought her shoulders back and smiled.
She looked over her shoulder and then moved off to the side of the big white screen as a picture of me as a baby came up behind her. I laughed softly, wiping my eyes as my own gummy smile stared back at me. More pictures came up: me as a toddler, two bottom teeth on display as I grinned, a piece of birthday cake oozing out of my chubby fist. I laughed and sniffled. I didn't remember ever looking at these photos—I didn't think I'd ever see pictures of myself as a child. There certainly would never be any from Acadia. My chest tightened.
More pictures scrolled through: the first day of school, my flaxen ponytails tied with pink ribbons, Christmases, me sitting on a pony at some kind of fair, both my mom and my dad in many of them, their arms around me. I didn't have any specific memories of those events, but just seeing what a happy childhood I had had, warmed me and brought with it a gratitude for where I was right that very minute, despite all I had lost.
I was loved. I had been loved all along. By my mother, and despite all his mistakes, by my father. And by Calder. All my life, someone had loved me. Not everyone got to say that. A deep peace settled through me and I knew that somehow, everything would be okay. I didn't know how, I didn't know why, the details were all a mystery as they always were, but sitting there in that sparkly, fragrant, festive garden, filled to overflowing with love, I knew. I might talk myself out of it later, but in that moment, I heard the whisper, and I knew.
And then he was standing there.
At the very edge of the garden, almost like he was a dream that had just materialized, he was wearing a pair of dark gray dress pants, and a white, button-down shirt with a darker tie. I stared and my lips parted in surprise as I watched him, a soft gathering of butterflies between my ribs. His hands were in his pockets and he walked closer as the slide show ended. Everyone around me started clapping, many of them wiping their eyes and smiling over at me. I looked around and smiled back and then returned my attention to Calder.
"I know what she was like at ten," he said, looking at my mom just a little bit shyly. My mom furrowed her brow slightly, but her lips tipped up in a small smile as well as she tilted her head and took him in. I'd never seen him looking more beautiful than he did right then. Calder Raynes was in front of me wearing dress clothes. The moment was dreamlike, unreal. I was rooted to my chair, gripping the back tightly as I watched to see what he would do next.
"She was a brave, little dreamer, who had an unbreakable spirit." He took a step closer. "She was mighty enough to snatch my heart right from my chest." He walked closer, standing next to my mom now, but his eyes trained on me. I blinked, my mouth still hanging open. Somewhere next to me, I heard several women murmur, "Oh my," and "Well."
Calder looked at my mom, asking silent permission to continue. She nodded her head.
"Fourteen was when she really started to glow and suddenly, I couldn't look away. I wanted to. Because where we came from, it was a dangerous thing to notice." He paused. Every person in that garden hung on his every word, seeming to collectively lean forward in anticipation of what he would say next. "Anytime she was in the room, it was like the whole place was bathed in her warmth." He tilted his head, looking thoughtful for a second. "Does that sound like an exaggeration? Maybe overly dramatic, poetic words from a boy who has loved her his whole life?" He shook his head. "They're not. It's simply the truth. Eden blossomed into a woman before my very eyes, and although there wasn't anyone there to help her do that, she did it with grace completely by herself. It's her strength, her unwavering courage, the thing that makes her the most beautiful in my eyes." His face remained serious.
My mom was staring at him now, too, a wary gentleness in her eyes. Calder walked toward me, joy flooding my heart, and tears pricking my eyes as he weaved through the tables.