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2. Your Breath, My Life →

1. The Birthday

ScrawnyMe%s's Photo   ScrawnyMe, 26 Jun 2012

Trust me it’s no fun to wait around for a specific day when you want it to arrive so bad you can taste it. You know you’re helpless about it and you can’t get help from any heavenly powers to make the clock tick faster. All you can do, is wait! But here it was and I wasn’t wasting a single minute of it. I’d wanted a set of wheels right since…well, I’d seen a car. And guess what? I was getting one today! Yipee!

The blinds pulled up, I let the fresh morning air and sunshine consume me. It was nicely warm this particular day. The day was beckoning me. It seemed like a promising one.

The usual chores of brushing, flossing, bathing and dressing done, I took the stairs three at once and got down to the breakfast table. I found dad immersed in the newspaper. Nothing new there. He always found something overly exciting that I could never find as much as I tried.

“Good morning, Zach. You’re up early.” He said with a smile while neatly folding the newspaper and keeping it aside. That was unusual. He didn’t like to be disturbed while he dealt with the world issues. Well, this is a special day.

“Yeah.” I said with a grin.

I could tell from the smell that breakfast was in the last stages of its making.

“Mmm…breakfast smells good today.” I said and scrunched my nostrils to pull as much air as was humanly possible

“That’s ‘cause cereals are almost odorless.”

“I think you have a point.” And he did. Mom was quite a laid back person. Literally. Mom hated to wake up early in the morning since she worked late shifts. Like other mothers, she didn’t like to dote on me and hardly made a fuss about things like making a breakfast for the family first thing in the morning. We were a close knit but independently living family of three people. If that makes sense.

But today, I knew she had been up earliest and made me a special breakfast. And no, it’s NOT pancakes. It’s just a full breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, toast and coffee. Yes, I drink coffee. So sue me. And I didn’t forget to mention the sausages. I HATE them.

I helped mom to get the breakfast to the table. When we all sat down, she told us to wait before we dug in. I was getting impatient. It smelled so good. She got a small package from the refrigerator and opened it. It was a tiny brownie. I had to smile at that.

“I got this last night. I even made them put extra walnuts for you. But you were asleep before midnight so I decided to wait. So, here’s your birthday cake.”

Then she produced a small plastic knife that they provided along with the cake.

It was all quite funny in a way. My mom looking at me with an exasperated expression which clearly read ‘cut the brownie already’ and my dad who was a huge man had an expression which was more like ‘my boy is growing up.’ I tried not to focus on his slightly wet eyes. Did I mention I had a funny family?

It wasn’t so funny when they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in a volume so high, the neighborhood would soon join in the party. And I wasn’t up for it. Not even close. I had turned 16, not 8. Teenagers don’t have parents singing for them at the breakfast table while they cut a tiny brownie. No way!

After the big celebration was over, we all dug in. Including my mom. I had scoffed down the heavenly and rarely available scrumptious food in a matter of few minutes. I stood up. The day wouldn’t begin until I got out and moving. 

“Gotta go. Thanks for the breakfast and the brownie, mom. It was really nice of you to ask for the extra walnuts.”

“Don’t mention that.” She said with a roll of her eyes. “Where are you going?”

“Where else?” I asked with a wide grin.

“Right.” Mom was strange sometimes. She seemed to pace out momentarily.

“Don’t be too late.” That was dad. “Nelly doesn’t wait for too long. He likes to make deals early in the day. He is big on getting his work done in time and you know how cranky he can get if you don’t value that.”

“Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I’m so excited.”

“Yes, I don’t doubt it, boy. Get home by noon.”

“Sure dad and I think Jeremy would like to tag along.

“You think he’ll want to join us?” It was one of those strange questions my parents asked me once in a while. Why wouldn’t Jeremy want to come? Buying a car was one of the most exciting things in a person’s teenage life. Even if Jeremy was a little different from most of the kids in my school, he’d like to join me in getting my first big possession.

“Yeah. I mean who’s even asking what he wants? I’ll just drag his scrawny a…” I looked at mom sheepishly.

“You’re off the hook for today, Zach. But make it a habit, and I’ll kick your ass.”

Mom was way cool for her age. All parents know that kids use such kind of language when they’re around friends. My parents weren’t prudes. Sure, they punished me from time to time when I acted stupid and we had our tiffs. But, I never harbored any kind of deep resentment or hatred for their actions. Teenagers can be intense and some of the kids in school talked about how their parents get on their cases all the time. Fortunately, my folks never acted in a way for me to join in those conversations.

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“He does have a scrawny ass, doesn’t he?”

“Umm…I don’t know. I didn’t notice. He’s too young for my tastes. I like them big.” She looked at dad and made gooey eyes.

“Haha. See ya later.” It was nice to joke around with my mom like that. Oh how I loved my family life.

With a bounce in my step, I began the small journey from my house to Jeremy’s. This was the road I traveled the most. I almost lived at his house as much as lived at mine. Jeremy didn’t come to my place much. He brushed me off whenever I asked why and I stopped pushing it. I didn’t want petty quarrels to ruin what we had.

He had been my friend for more than 10 years. There wasn’t a particular incident that marked the beginnings of our friendship or anything. At 5, I didn’t weigh more than 45 pounds to save him from any big bad bullies. Fortunately, for mine and his sake, he never got into trouble with other boys. So, you can scratch the thought of Jeremy entering my life in a dramatic manner.

The moment he walked into the classroom of our kindergarten, I had decided I wanted him as my friend. Best friend even.

But I had to compete with Toby (or Beto) since they were already best friends. I would see them walking to school holding each other’s hands while their moms chatted away. Toby(or Beto) had the advantage of living in the same neighborhood as Jeremy.

Now I can be pretty competitive if I like the prize. I tactfully sewed myself into their small world and lured Jeremy into being my friend. This might sound like a well planned and well executed conspiracy but it wasn’t anything like that.

I only placed a box of crayons in front of him. Crayons with the heads of animals at the top. I knew Jeremy liked all things colors. I offered him a brown crayon with a bear’s head. I held the crayon towards him and he looked at me suspiciously. He was quite a smart kid. Kids don’t give away their treasured possessions like that.

“Take it.” I said with the cutest smile I could muster.

“Why?” He wasn’t buying my innocence.

“I like to give it to you.”

“Why?”

“I like you.” That seemed to convince him. He quickly took the crayon and colored the bark of the tree he had been drawing. He seemed impressed by his creation and gave me a toothy grin. I took that as an invitation and went and sat beside him.

“Can I tell you a secreet?” He asked conspiratorially

“What?” We weren’t taught words like ‘sure’ or ‘okay’ by then.

“Marky has the same box and I broked the heads of Marky’s crayons.” He smiled wickedly. We weren’t taught words like ‘tore off’ or ‘ripped off’ either.

Now that piece of information unnerved me. My crayons’ heads were in danger. His eyes were looking at them threateningly. When he looked back at me, he must’ve picked my unease from my demeanor.

“Oh, I’m not breaking yours.” And he smiled. That did put me at ease. Almost.

“Marky is mean. He don’t share with me.” He continued. Marky or Mark for me is Jeremy’s older brother. I’ll get to that part later.

I told Jeremy to keep that crayon and the way his eyes popped out  was sign enough that he was very pleased.

“This is my best color.” I never expected someone to have brown as their favorite color. And he did mean ‘favorite’. If you ask how I knew, I was 5 then too.

“Why?”

He looked at me like I was crazy to not know. “I love bears!” He exclaimed.

When Toby (or Beto) came back from wherever he had gone, he saw that I had taken his place.

He told the teacher the same. When she came around to check, I gave her the same innocent smile I had given Jeremy. And it even worked this time. She just made Toby (or Beto) sit beside some little blonde girl. I saw her offering him a crayon and Toby (or Beto) seemed happy with that. I do believe that crayons act as treaties or something in sealing kids’ friendships.

Since then, it was Jeremy and I forever. We did play with Toby(or Beto) and Katy(or Kylie) from time to time but they preferred each other over us as Jeremy was especially interested in mud puddles during those days. So was I. Did I mention we had similar tastes and interests?

We did explore those interests together. Our friendship grew over the years and was built into something so strong, no power could break it. At least that’s how I saw it in the present day.

I had reached the Wilsons’ well kept front yard. I wondered how the house always seemed...perfect. It was obviously expensively architectured.

It wasn’t something I told Jeremy, but I liked the more lived-in feel of my house even if his place was much prettier to look at. Lately, I didn’t feel so comfortable being there. There was something ‘off’ about that place. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with the people living there.

The door suddenly opened from the inside and the warm smile of Mr. Wilson greeted me.

“Hey Zachie boy! Happy Birthday!” He gave me a bear hug and tousled my hair. Mr. Wilson had always been a touchy feely person. We always horsed around Jeremy’s house and Mr. Wilson joined in more often than not.

“Thank you, Pop.” He stepped aside and let me in.

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Yes, you know how mom is a different person on special days.” I said cheekily.

“Your mom is a great cook though. So, I assume you will not want to share my omelet?

“No pop. Thanks for offering. But I’m fuuull.” I said and patted my tummy for emphasis.

I was getting impatient. Jeremy never came to greet me when I visited his house. I had to always track him down. He could be a birdbrain when it came to social niceties.

“Where’s Jeremy?”

“Where do you think he is?” Pop answered without even blinking. That was the same response he had to the particular question. Whenever I went to Jeremy’s place and asked where he was, pop never answered my question and instead asked me where I thought he would be. It was some sort of ritual. It should have been annoying. Only, it wasn’t. It was more like a game. Wherever I said Jeremy would be, I always found him right there. And I mean ALWAYS.

“Ummm…backyard?” That was a lame guess. What would Jeremy be doing in the backyard so early in the morning? Before I could change my answer, pop nodded.

“I’m not sure how you do it, but you’re right. I saw him go to the backyard.”

“Yay! Zach strikes another, yet again!” I whooped and gave him a high-five.

Between Jeremy and me, we had an awesome set of parents.

I went to the backyard through the kitchen and found Jeremy perched on the steps. He was staring ahead with a hollow look. He looked so pale in the morning sun. That guy should eat more and get out more often.

“Hey Stickman!” I called him that not because he resembled a stick figure or anything. He was thin but not painfully so. I wanted to get a rise out of him. As much as I tried, it never happened.

“Hey Zach! Happy Birthday!” Any witty response I had for him to not have a comeback for the name I just called him died down when he turned slowly to look at me. The motion was very steady as if he had been expecting me. He gave me a small smile that warmed my heart. The way his fiery blue eyes stood out on his pale angelic face, seemed to hypnotize me. They seemed to pierce my soul. I swear I could feel this aura coming from him which consumed me whenever he was around me. It felt like someone pumped in fresh air in my lungs now that I’d met him. It was so refreshing.

He stood up slowly and I could only marvel at the grace with which his body moved. Jeremy had always been beautiful. Mesmerizing beautiful. Unconventionally so. Thick eyebrows, small but shapely square-ish eyes, small and straight nose with petal like lips. He had dirty blond hair which looked like they had just grown out from everywhere and covered his head like a hat. I had always been intrigued by the boy. His looks hadn’t really changed from when we were younger kids. He had just…grown.

He was as tall as me at 5’9 although I was a little heavier. Not a surprise considering Jeremy was on the slender side.

I made a show of tackling him down to the ground, while in reality, I just pushed him a little as we both went down on the wooden porch. Jeremy tried to throw me off of him but in vain. I was stronger than him, had always been. Wrestling with Jeremy was fun, in a different way. He was smooth all over and I liked the feel of his skin on mine. It wasn’t like that with other kids. With them, it was all about the sport and the horse play. With Jeremy, I was very protective and I hardly used force when we wrestled. He was like an angel, an angel you worship with care.

Okay! My brain always filled with fog when I was around Jer. He had that effect on me. I couldn’t help the really funny thoughts that crept into my mind. Like another boy being an angel. Pfft! I shook my head to clear it.

Jeremy was still laughing softly and trying to push me off. I realized I was staring at him emptily while my mind wandered off to another place. This must look really strange to him and to anybody else if they happen to watch us.

I quickly stood up and pulled Jeremy along. I put an arm around his shoulder and gave him a noogie with the other. He writhed and squirmed to get away but I had a strong hold. When he let out a little whimper of pain I realized what I had been doing. I quickly let go of him and turned around to gather my thoughts. It was getting increasingly tough each day to keep my hands off Jeremy. I didn’t want to think about what that meant but I had a pretty good idea already. It would be a shame if he read into my thoughts before I told him myself. That is, if he hadn’t already figured.

Jeremy was smart. Really smart. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t called me on my strange behaviour towards him already. He should’ve sensed something by now. Either I was giving his intelligence a lot of credit, or he was just being a really good friend. I was positive it was the latter.

“Oh man, you’re getting heavier. You knocked the shit out of me there.” He said and held his chest for emphasis. He must’ve sensed something from my behavior and he was only lightening the mood by completely ignoring the sudden change in mine. I decided to take the way out he had offered.

“Some of us do eat, you know? We’re not planning our careers in ballet dancing.”

“Touché, Mr. Robinson!” He shoved me with his elbow. I grinned.

The Wilsons had a nice pool in their backyard. We didn’t use it to swim as much as we used it to dangle our feet in and just talk. I loved the way the water glistened under the sun’s brightness. We often swam in it when we were kids but now, we just walked or sat around it. We had been quietly walking side by side along the tiled surface when Jeremy spoke.

“So what’s the plan?” 

 I stopped abruptly and turned towards him. “Like you don’t know.”

“The usual?”

“What’s wrong with the usual?” I frowned.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just assumed you’d want to do more than the usual. Since it’s your sweet 16th and all.” He smiled cheekily.

“Ha ha. Very funny. And no thanks, I’m happy with what we do every year. And anyway, this one is going to be special. I’m getting wheeeeels!”

“I know that, birthday boy. You’ve been talking about it for a year. But that’s part of the gift. What about what you want to do as a celebration? Don’t you want to throw a party, invite the popular and beautiful? What about that girl you’ve been eyeing? Rachael? Don’t you want to impress her by showing off your new wheels? ”

Was he kidding? He MUST know by now how I felt. Sure, I did ‘eye’ Rachael Collins sometimes. But then who didn’t? She was practically there to be seen. Hell, she wore the clothes the size of my cousin baby sister’s. Who was 10!

“Nah! I think I’ll pass your suggestion. As long as I’ve got the people I love by my side, I don’t need anyone else to make it special.” I nudged his shoulder involuntarily. It was this need to touch him and make him know how I felt that made me say and do things unknowingly.

When there was no response from Jeremy for a while, I was scared that I must’ve really put my feelings on a platter and offered to him without thinking this time. As much as I expected him to be ‘fine’ with him when he finally figured them out, I could never be sure.

I looked at him sideways. He was intently staring at me with an unreadable expression on his face. Our gazes locked. Mine bore all the emotions I kept bottled in me. I desperately wanted him to see and acknowledge them. ‘I don’t have the guts to say them out loud, Jeremy. I need you to read them.’ His eyes were cold and inexpressive.

“I think you’re wrong.” He said in a soft tone.

“What?”

“Zach! I’m not enough."

When I didn't say anything, he continued. "I may not be here all the time. I might …” His tone hardened again. “I just think you should try and make new friends and not just want to hang out with me all the time. You need to find people who’re like YOU. Athletic, strong, outgoing. Not just me. Friends make life bearable. They help us go on when things become difficult. Don’t you know it?”

I hated when he got like that. He was more athletic than me when we were younger. One day, he just stopped being himself. It was like one summer break, he closed all doors to his past and got really introverted. When we resumed school, no one acknowledged him anymore. It was like he wasn’t there.

I turned and got in his face really fast. He didn’t even blink. Nothing intimidated Jeremy.

“Oh really? I don’t see you going around sharing your lunch and cookies and making friends. Why is that I need them and you don’t? And Jer, shit! How many times have I told you to not say stuff like this? I’ll choose whomever I want to be friends with. If it’s too much of a trouble for you to bear me, why don’t you just say it?” Did he know how I felt about him and didn’t want to be my friend anymore?

We stared at each other for a while. I could feel steam coming out of my body. I wasn’t angry with Jer. I was frustrated out of my wits!

“Let’s go. It’s time to go select your car. We don’t want to keep your dad waiting.” He said in a happy sing-songy voice. It took time for his words to sink. It was like our last conversation didn’t happen at all.

“O-okay.”

I was still in a haze and wondering why he cut our conversation so abruptly when Jeremy turned. He stood really close and kind of trapped my body between him and the unopened gate. His eyes were soft and glistening.

“One day, Zach. One day you’ll need your friends and I don’t want you to feel alone when you do.” His breath tickled my cheek and ear. He got around me, opened the gate and walked past while I let his words ring in my ears again and again.

When I gathered my wits finally and looked up, I saw Mark's handsome face. He was standing there resting at the back door casually and looking my way with a weirdly haunting expression. I got this really strange tightening in my chest when our eyes met. I nodded to him and walked as fast as I could to catch up with Jeremy.



Next up: Zach and Jeremy go car shopping with Daddy. Zach confronts Mark. About what, exactly? Find out in the next chapter.

 

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2. Your Breath, My Life →