Todd and Cheryl and Lizzie had spent Christmas with Cheryl’s family in Oregon, so it was close to New Year’s before we were able to get together. We had a little mini-Christmas though with both our families. And Jordan.
Jordan’s presence at our family gathering didn’t irk me as much as I would have thought. Chris and Steve were right; all of this was my fault, so what would hating on this kid get me? Plus, after hanging out with him a bit, he didn’t seem so cool. He laughed too long, or maybe his laugh was insincere. Whatever it was, every time he laughed, I felt better about him being around.
“. . .so we’re about two hours into our flight and mom is asleep. I’m just sort of zoning out, looking out the window and all of a sudden we hit this pocket of turbulence.”
“Lizz. . .”
“So the whole plane shakes, and mom wakes up—she shouts like, ‘Oooof!’ And she farts!”
“Lizzie, I did not fart.”
“Yes, she farted.”
Cheryl playfully whacked at Lizzie. “It was the guy in front of us; he was farting the whole ride.”
Lizzie couldn’t form a response; she was laughing too hard. We were all laughing too hard. Except for Jordan, who was smiling a wide, open-mouthed smile. He didn’t start laughing until after most of us started to catch our breath. That was it, he laughed too late!
“So, Casey, how was your Christmas?”
Good job changing the subject, Cheryl. I wouldn’t say I had a good Christmas. I was sort of sour on Chris and Steve after they told me what I needed to hear, and Andrew was sour on me after the whole scientist debacle. Todd, Cheryl, and Lizzie were across the country, and since Jenny came home, we’d hung out once, and even that was just because we happened to be at the diner at the same time. I spent most of Christmas vacation either with my dad’s family or just sort of alone and stewing.
“It was good.”
Lizzie leaned in a bit. “I hope you got me something good.”
I had seen this antique music box in a junk store. On top of it was a ballerina. She was worn and cracked, but her legs we long, and her face was strong and joyful. When you wound the box, it would play a melody from Swan Lake, and the ballerina would spin almost with an urgency, almost like she was ready to spin her way right off the box and into your life. She reminded me a lot of Lizzie. I didn’t buy her the box; it seemed too personal. I bought her a journal and a copy of Purple Rain on CD, to replace her worn out vinyl copy.
“You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Cheryl, seemingly pleased that the subject of conversation had changed, said, “Lizzie bought your present in Boston.”
“When did you go to Boston?”
“Just after Thanksgiving; my friend Katie goes to BC, so I went up for a weekend and hung out.”
“Ooo, solo trip to Boston. You’re so almost cool.”
I had meant to say something more like, “You’re becoming cooler all the time,” or, “That’s amazing, what a fine, beautiful woman you’re becoming,” or, “Jesus, could you be any more attractive?” I had meant to say anything other than, “You’re almost cool.” But before I could apologize or take it back, Lizzie cocked her head to the side and smiled.
“Oh, Casey thinks I’m almost cool. I’m truly touched! That might be the best compliment you’ve ever given me.”
I eked out a laugh. Jordan put his hand on Lizzie’s back.
“Come on, we all know you’re the coolest.”
Lizzie scrunched forward a bit on the couch, and Jordan’s hand fell to the cushion.
“Mmm, I dunno, Jordan, Casey knows a lot about being cool. I think this is a big step for me.”
I scrunched forward a bit on my chair.
“Tis true, ‘Lizabeth, tis true. You are right on the precipice of cooldom. All you need is. . .maybe an eyepatch?”
“Eyepatch, right, I should write this down.”
“Yes, yes, write this all down. An eyepatch and a hitch in your gait. Maybe a casually cool mispronunciation of a common word. Like “bee-ans”. ‘Would you please pass the baked bee-ans?’ That would put you right over the top.”
“Excellent, I’ll work on those.”
Cheryl chuckled. “Well, I think you’ll find Lizzie’s present pretty cool, Case. We’ll open presents after dinner.”
“I’ll go see if it’s almost done.”
As I walked to the kitchen, I saw Jordan put his hand back on Lizzie’s back. She leaned in toward her mom and started giggling about something, and Jordan took his hand away and put it over the back of the couch.
“Almost done, ma?”
“You can help me cut up these carrots.”
This was supposed to be more of an information gathering mission, but as I didn’t want to say anything else potentially stupid to Lizzie and I wanted dinner served faster, I thought I could help mom out a bit.
“That Jordan boy seems nice.”
Maybe I was better off in the living room.
“How did he and Lizzie meet?”
“Dunno really. School?”
I cut carrots and placed them strategically on top of the salad. Then I stirred the gravy a bit and taste tested as much as I could.
“Ooo, I forgot potatoes! Oh, it’s too late, too. Do you want potatoes?”
“Okay, quick go down the cellar and get some potatoes. We’ll have to microwave them, don’t tell anybody.”
I went out in to the garage and down the steps to the cellar. I pulled the old shoelace that doubled as a light switch and looked for potatoes. There were none to be found. I heard the creak of the cellar door behind me and saw Lizzie coming down the steps holding a green bag with yellow tissue paper coming out the top.
“I’m looking for potatoes.”
“We don’t have any potatoes.”
“Here, I wanted to give you this; I didn’t want to wait anymore.”
She handed me the bag, and I shoved my hand in. It felt like a book. I pulled it out. It was a copy of The Push Man, and Other Stories by Tatsumi.
“I remembered you talking about it and how it was what Death Man was based on. I got it at Newbury Comics, do you know it?”
I nodded my head. Andrew had talked about going to Newbury.
“Wow. . .almost cool.”
I opened the front cover and inside Lizzie had written, “To the brilliant Casey! I hope this inspires you!” Then she had scratched out the word “loving” and signed it, “Your ‘almost cool’ friend Lizzie”.
“Liz, this is. . .amazing, I just. . .thank you so much. It means a lot.”
“It’s cool, Case. You mean a lot.”
The cellar was dusty and musty. The little bulb hanging from the ceiling was flickering just slightly. All around us was old junk and yard tools caked with dirt. It was beautiful.
“We should go back up. . .you know. . .cuz Jordan.”
“Why’d he leave?”
Lizzie turned her head to the side and then down. Then she looked back at me with sideways eyes.
“So, we should go back upstairs.”
We both reached for that old shoestring that doubled as a light switch. Our fingers touched. We both pulled, and the lights went out. I didn’t hear or sense her move, so I took a small step forward and ended up bumping into her.
I was about to say, “We should go back up,” but I only got to, “We should,” before I felt her hand touch my left cheek. Her breath followed close behind it, and suddenly, her lips were on my lips. All the muscles in my legs and torso simultaneously tightened and went weak. My hands went up to embrace her, but they didn’t know where to go. They landed on her shoulders first but then slid down to the backs of her arms, but that felt wrong too, so they went back to her shoulders. All the while, my lips and jaw were trying to follow along with the dance hers were doing, and my tongue was trying to make a jailbreak from behind my teeth. Before he could escape, Lizzie broke off.
“Yup, let’s get back upstairs.”
I heard her bound up a couple of steps, and then light flooded in when she opened the cellar door. A moment later, my legs remembered how to function, and I followed her up, for dinner.
Dan Pullen lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. He writes stories about simple people and their complex lives.