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As I finish my speech, a strange feeling runs through me. I’m not sure if it’s finality, closure, hope, or a sense of new beginnings, but whatever it is—I’ll take it. It beats the despair and isolation that have kept me company for the past year. I raise the glass typewriter in the air. “I leave you all with these final thoughts. . . .”
My last words come out softer as the syllables catch in my throat. Applause reverberates through the grand ballroom and I close my eyes for a few moments, absorbing everything. When I open them a grin crosses my lips. But my smile isn’t for the strangers who surround me or even for my friends before me. It’s for the redheaded girl in the back of the room whose gaze keeps flickering over mine.
Exiting the stage, I keep my eyes locked on hers and can’t help noticing that hers are locked on mine . . . blue to green, a reflection from so long ago, but a memory I’ve never forgotten. However, I can’t read her. Each glance tells a different story. She seems to be shifting between emotions. Like to hate, disgust to admiration. She’s a blend of confusion that echoes my own feelings. I’m pulled from my thoughts as I approach the table and my sister rushes toward me.
“Oh, Ben, I’m so proud of you. I wish Mom were here to see you.”
“Yeah, me too,” I say as I hug her. Again my words catch in my throat.
“Mom, don’t cry,” Trent calls over my shoulder.
I grab his head in a vise lock. “Glad you made it home, kid.”
“I wouldn’t f**king miss this for the world.”
“Better lie low on the swearing or your mother will use the liquid soap in the restroom to wash out your mouth.”
“Yes, I will,” she adds.
I swing my arms around them both. “How do you hear everything?” I ask her as we approach the table.
And I think, Oh yeah, just like our mom.
Caleb extends his hand and pulls me toward him. With his hand slapping my back, he doesn’t say a word, but I can feel what he feels. We had ridden this roller-coaster ride together. Both of our lives had changed once I started my investigation. I may have been the one who had to give up his identity, but a part of him was buried alongside me for those years. We both felt guilt, remorse, sorrow, but now was a time for celebration.
I push him away. “If you cop a feel I’m going to have to deck you.”
His grin broadens. “I’ll try to control myself.”
On a serious note I say, “Thanks for everything.”
His eyes dart to mine and I see the lump in his throat. “What are you drinking? I’ll grab another round,” he says.
He rolls his eyes.
“I need to keep my senses around you. Wouldn’t want you taking advantage,” I joke.
Caleb hasn’t been around much the past year. He hadn’t seen how I let alcohol consume me. Let it erase the memories that were just too hard to bear. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, but I know I function much better when I stay away from it.
Kale and Beck are deep in conversation when I squat between them. “What am I missing that’s so important I didn’t even get a congratulations?”
Kale’s eyes take on a glimmer. “Beck here is telling me about . . .”
My attention wavers the minute I see her again. She pulls her mass of hair back and bends down to examine one of the dishes being set out. When she straightens she catches me staring. We’re close enough that I know she sees it when I smile suggestively, but she quickly cuts her eyes elsewhere. I narrow in on the vision before me. I can see her flawless skin left uncovered by her sleeveless dress. I notice the way her neck and arm flow into a sea of glimmer from the sparkling lights above. I imagine grabbing her, pulling her to me, and bending to nip the smooth hollow where her neck and shoulder meet. She looks back at me and this time a slight smile crosses her lips. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t light up the whole f**king room.
“Don’t go there, man,” Caleb’s voice warns.
“Hmm?” I turn to look at him.
“Here’s your drink.”
Turning back toward Beck and Kale, I clasp Kale’s shoulder. “Great work. Stop in my office Monday. I want to hear all about it.”
“I see the way you’re looking at her.” Caleb won’t drop it.
“I’m not looking at her in any way,” I deny.
“The f**k you’re not. You’re practically licking her off the rim of that glass.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His hard glare cuts across the room to where she stands. “Yeah, I think I do. Just remember she’s forbidden fruit. Leave well enough alone. You’re in a good place right now—you don’t need to go down that road.”