Time in Willow Creek: 11 months, 1 week
“Are you gonna sit there and stare at the candles all night, or are you gonna help?”
“Sorry, mama. My back is killing me and I don’t know why.”
“You pull something?”
“Take a warm bath tonight.”
For Juliana’s birthday to be such a simple party, Harriett was sure breaking a sweat. She was in preparation mode all day, sweeping, dusting, cleaning, and cooking. She invited all of the family—minus Axel–and Kara Cole from the library. Juliana invited the art club—even Selina. The house was going to be full, and Harriett made sure it was presentable no thanks to Hillary. For someone who wanted to begin a family soon, she rarely displayed any interests in domestic life, Harriett thought. She only cooked when she had to and cleaned up when her mother asked her to. Harriett and Harold were concerned about her prospects. It’s not that they wanted her out of the house, but they simply wanted to know she would do well without them. However, at the moment, they were not confident she would be able to survive on her own much less take care of a family.
Juliana wanted to help, but Harriett wouldn’t have it. So, she settled in the living room with a book until she was summoned to the dining room. It was a nice treat to read in there because it was usually Harold’s domain. She wasn’t afraid of him anymore, but she didn’t want to invade his space and spent most of her time in her room. Within one hour, the food and everything was prepared, and Harriett called Juliana to take her place at the head of the dining room table. That was another place which was usually designated for Harold that was freely given to her for the night. Harriett made roasted chicken with carrots and garlic mashed potatoes and brought out a plate for Juliana. All of this fuss reminded her of how her mother used to fuss about their birthdays in a similar fashion. The day would begin with their favorite breakfast. Then, she would take them out of school early to get ice cream with just the two of them. It was a simple pleasure, but such a rare treat as they couldn’t afford to do it often. After the ice cream social, they would head home, and she would prepare a nice feast and a birthday cake. Juliana and her siblings always felt like royalty on their birthdays, and Harriett made her feel that way too.
Shortly after Juliana began her dinner, the guests began trickling in. First there was Camden, Colleen, and Selina from art club. Then Rebecca and family arrived. Finally, there was Kevin and Paul.
It was such a happy night. The savory scent of roasted chicken and fresh garlic filled the air. The vibe in the room was upbeat. Everyone was in a good mood and treated each other kindly. It was a lot more than Juliana (and Harriett) could ask for.
Behind Juliana, Kevin decided to have a little bit of fun at Juliana’s expense. He elbowed Paul in the ribs, winked at him to play along, and spoke louder than usual. “Kids these days. They want everything to be so grand! They turn 19 and expect a royal coronation or something!”
“I know, right? Can’t take them anywhere,” Paul said.
She recognized their voices above all the chatter in the room and smiled.
“Oh shoot, she’s looking at us,” Paul said.
“Do you think she heard what we said?”
“I don’t know. Better say something nice just in case!”
Kevin cleared his throat and got into character. “Oh thou, fairest Juliana, we wisheth…wisheth? Ehhh, we wisheth thee the happiest of birthdays from thine obedient servants.” He bowed.
Paul looked at Kevin like he was diseased. “Where did you pull all of that out from?”
Juliana applauded. “Thank you!”
She thoroughly enjoyed his performance despite how odd and random it was. There was definitely a playful spirit in the air, and Juliana was happy to just to sit back and watch the banter and love all across the room.
Naturally, there were several people observing Juliana, being the guest of honor and all. Harriett watched her and made sure she was comfortable with all the hoopla she created. She hoped she appreciated it. Kevin kept an eye on her, of course. He had been doing a lot of that lately. But, Selina had been watching her too. She was quite surprised when Juliana called and invited her to the party. She wasn’t exactly sure why she agreed to come and arrived with her guard up. She was halfway expecting Juliana to be parading around with Kevin on her arm and rubbing it in her face, but none of that happened. Selina saw what a sweet person Juliana was and that there were no hard feelings. She felt ashamed for how she treated her—and for quitting art club—because she saw that Kevin deserved Juliana if she was who he wanted. He didn’t need a jealous, insecure, catty woman like her.
Halfway through the party, one last guest arrived. Harold saw him first, then Harriett. Harold casually slid over to Hillary and said, “Somebody’s been meddlin.” Hillary looked over at her mother who was staring right at her. She looked guilty but hopeful that everything would work out. It was a strange look and Hillary wondered what was going on. That’s when she saw him.
“She invited him?”
“You know she can’t leave well enough alone.”
She left her father in a huff to confront Jase but also quickly share her displeasure with her mother. She walked behind her and said, “One of these days you’re going to learn to mind your business!”
“What?” Harriett tried to behave innocently. “I threw this party! I invite who I want!”
Hillary grabbed Jase and pulled him in the direction she was going. “Can I see you outside?”
“But…I haven’t spoken to Juliana yet!”
She took him to the back porch. She wasn’t really mad at him; she just had to know what kind of game he and her mother were playing. “What are you doing here?”
“Juliana invited me.”
“Juliana invited you?” she asked incredulously.
“Yeah! And then your mother pretty much told me I was coming. You know no one can say no to your mother.”
“Heh, I do it all the time,” she said under her breath.
“Look, Hillary… I’m not here to fight with you or make things work, ok? You made it very clear that you don’t want to give us a shot; you always have. And, I’m finally going to listen to you. I’m tired of trying to make you understand. It may take a while to get over you, but I’ll be fine.”
“Ok. Good.” Her attitude was a bit too smug.
“You know we can’t be friends anymore, right?”
She was not expecting that at all. It was like a slap in the face. She knew for the moment things were rocky and awkward but figured it was just a little bump in the road they would recover from in time. Telling people they weren’t friends was just a quick and easy way to explain why they weren’t talking. Never in a million years did she imagine that Jase would actually let go. She thought when she finally got things figured out, he would be right there waiting for her like he always was. But, not this time.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Come on, Hill! Did you forget what we did? How it felt? I can’t look at you without…” There was no use trying to explain it to her. The damage had been done, and he already made up his mind. “Things are different now! We can’t come back from this.”
She was panicking. Although she knew she messed up and didn’t deserve a second chance, she didn’t want to lose her best friend for good. “But… It doesn’t have to be weird! We can still–
“You broke my heart!” He felt tears beginning to well up. “I don’t want to be around you! I can’t!”
She knew she had ruined him, but actually witnessing it first hand broke her heart. She felt like crying too. “I’m sorry, Jase.” Her words were just above a whisper. “I wish I could give you what you want. I just can’t.”
“Why? I know you love me. Why won’t you let yourself love me?”
“Because…” She wanted to make him understand so perhaps he wouldn’t be as sad, but she knew he wouldn’t get it. He would only try to convince her otherwise, and she would probably listen. She couldn’t let that happen and needed to stay the course. “I just can’t!”
“Wow. You don’t even have a real answer.”
In that moment, he wasn’t sure why he pursued her for so long. He wasn’t even sure if she was worth it despite the spark that existed between them two months ago. He shook his head and left her to return to the party. She let a few sobs leak out then quickly got herself together and went back inside too. Juliana was ready to blow out the candles and end the party. Everyone gathered around her as she stood in front of the cake. They sang, blew plastic horns, threw confetti, and twirled noise makers in the air as she made a wish. Then, she blew out the candles and embraced the next year of her life with open arms of expectancy.
They all cheered when she blew the candles out and congratulated her. Harriett had something else to say to make the occasion more joyous. “Not only is Juliana a year older, but she’s also celebrating nearly a year here with us! To Juliana!” She raised her hands as she didn’t have a glass. “May you continue to make your mother proud with all of your accomplishments. I know you miss her, but I’m glad that I get to witness everything you do every day. You make me proud too!” She teared up a little. Everyone said, “awwww” and yelled, “to Juliana,” and applauded her again.
The room got quiet, and Juliana knew they were expecting her to say something. She was a little bit nervous. She had never spoken to so many people at once; not even back home. However, all the love she felt in the room gave her courage. “Thank you for the kindness. I love Harriett. She take good care of me. One year ago, I sleep in the park. I went to Harriett and she help me.” She looked around and saw Harold with his grandkids and thought he’d appreciate some gratitude too. “Harold, thank you for letting me play piano.” Everyone was touched. “And Hillary, thank you for being my best friend.”
Applause erupted again, and Juliana began to cut the cake. After everyone was sufficiently stuffed, the party began to break. Kevin stepped away for a moment to reflect on all he had experienced that night. That was the first time he had met the Humphries family in person, and it was a joy to experience these people whom Juliana spoke of frequently. Every day it seemed she became more and more wonderful. As much as he loved learning new things about her, he didn’t need anymore reasons to like her. All the new information did was conflict him even more. Still, he couldn’t get over how young she was.
“Thank you for coming,” she said from behind. Harriett told her that’s what she should say to everyone before they left. She had been practicing that phrase all week.
Kevin turned around and grinned. “You did great! Were you nervous?”
“Yes, a little.”
“I couldn’t tell.”
She was glad. “Are you going too?”
He looked around the corner and saw everyone migrating toward the door. “Yeah, I guess I should. But, first…” He put his index finger in her face. “No birthday is complete without a birthday hug!” He opened his arms wide and invited her with a cheesy grin. She thought it was fun to catch him in those rare moments of silliness. He was always so serious and business-like. But, silly or serious, his sweet musk scent was always welcomed.
“Oh,” he added as he came out of the hug, “and a birthday selfie! That’s what you young kids are doing these days, right?” He took out his phone and took a picture of the two of them.
Harriett was coming around the corner then and saw them. “Oh aren’t y’all adorable!”