Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 4 months, 2 weeks, 1 day
*Mild language warning*
Axel arrived at 7:30 sharp to pick Juliana up for their non-date. At least, he hoped she understood it wasn’t a date. Although his words to her were “lemme take you out,” he explained how he wanted to make up for last time and kind of fulfill his mother’s last request of him. He arrived at the house in plain clothes and was pleased to find her in the same although her garnet lips threw him off.
He took her to a diner in Oasis Springs. The ride was only 26 minutes, but it was the longest, most awkward 26 minutes of his life. Tension hung in the air like a dense fog. Her nose stayed in the window; she never once looked at him. He already apologized to her for what he did last time. What more could he do to make her less anxious around him?
While they waited for dinner to arrive, he figured he should attempt to get to know the girl. They weren’t going to be BFFs, but she was a permanent part of his life now thanks to his family. Perhaps they should be more than just civil.
“So, uhhh…what do you do for fun?”
The subject seemed like a harmless place to begin.
“Fun? I…paint and read books. And I go out with my friends.”
He smirked. How could his mother want to set him up with someone so boring? Did he behave so badly he needed an angel to counteract his actions? Harriett wanted him to be some uptight schmuck in a suit with a wife, nine kids, and a big house on a farm or something. It angered him sometimes when she couldn’t understand he enjoyed his life and wasn’t the settling down type. But, in the end, he could only blame himself for her ignorance. Staying away didn’t give her many opportunities to get to know him. No wonder she had to resort to randomly dropping by to check on him.
She nodded. “Kevin and I go to art club and paint.”
Now there was an interesting topic of discussion. He had been wondering about him. The pretty rich boy seemed to worship the ground she walked on. What did she do to make him that way? Perhaps she had other secret items on her list of fun things to do.
“That’s your man?”
She was there with him, so they couldn’t have been together. But, people had all types of relationships those days, and he needed to know what the deal was.
She blushed. “No….He is my friend.”
He snorted. “Your friend, huh?” He chuckled. “I think that boy wanna be more than just your friend, know what I’m sayin?”
He didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable, but he succeeded anyway. Luckily, the food came, and they ate. In attempts to not repeat their first time together, he changed the subject to something he knew they’d both enjoy.
“So, what did you and mama do all day every day?”
The uncomfortable look was replaced with a tiny grin. “In the beginning, we went upstairs for lessons every day. Later, she take me to places and teach me new words. When I was better, we had lessons only sometimes. Then she let me do more things at the library. After a while, I worked at the library all the time and we did not do lessons.”
“So pretty much you were in school all the time then, huh?”
She shrugged. “You could say.”
He admired her. He and his siblings spent their lives avoiding the lessons their mother wanted to teach them, and none of them came out how she wanted. They all had problems. True, a lot of the problems were through no fault of their own, but they were all messed up. But, this Juliana, who was in his mother’s care 24 hours a day for more than a year, loved her and embraced her teachings. She was the perfect child Harriett never got, and he was glad his mother got to experience some good fruit for a change before she left.
He took a swig of his beverage to distract himself from feeling the onset of tears and hoped the alcohol would begin its work early.
“Mama’s little protegé,” he said between sips.
“You like being in that place every day? I’d be bored out of my mind. I mean…what do y’all do besides check out books?”
She chuckled. “It is a lot of work.”
He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of what this work was.
“You folks doing ok?” the server asked.
“Fine, thanks,” Axel said and returned his attention to Juliana.
“We have to help people find books, make sure the children behave, create new accounts, print library cards, collect fines, put books back at the end of the day, take the books from the book drop and check them in and put them away, take new books from the truck and put them into the system…”
He was quite surprised the inner workings of libraries were so intricate.
“…And then there is the programs we have to plan. And, someone has to decide what new books to order….It is a lot.”
He smiled and put up his hands. “I stand corrected! So…she taught you all that?”
He never had an interest in the library before, but he wondered. If he or his sisters had shown an interest, would she have taught them everything too? Had Juliana become so accomplished because she was the only one willing to learn? Getting to know her showed him areas of his Harriett’s life he failed to discover. And now, this foreign girl who began as a charity case was now his mother’s legacy. He was happy for her, but he felt guilty too.
“What do you do?” she asked.
He was glad to not be the only one asking questions. He wasn’t good at it–at least not those kinds of questions.
“I’m a body builder.”
She looked confused. “Body builder?”
Her ignorance amused him. Of course, that phrase wouldn’t be one his mother taught her. “I work out, build my body,” he flexed, “I enter competitions, and I get paid because I’m hot.” He flashed a cheeky grin.
He wasn’t sure if she was offended or she didn’t understand, but she certainly was not amused. No surprise there. Harriett always used to say body building was not a job. Most people seemed to think so, but he didn’t care. He made decent money without having to be trapped in a building or out in the hot sun all day every day. He loved working out. It was a great stress reliever. As much as he spent time doing it, he figured profiting from it would be the smartest thing he could do.
Both of them were almost finished with dinner. He wanted to make sure she would be ok with their next stop. He was serious about not wanting to repeat the past.
“I love to dance,” she said happily.
He was glad. His drink was weak, and he needed something bolder. He took her around the corner to The Warehouse and noticed Juliana grinning from ear to ear. Was she that excited about dancing?
“You been here before?”
She nodded. “Hillary took me. I met Jase and Kevin here.”
They way she said Kevin’s name made him even more curious about the nature of their friendship. How were they clearly into each and not banging? It made no sense to him. She was cute enough and had a nice shape. Wide hips, little waist, and all kinds of deliciousness in the back. He remembered her being a skinny little thing when they first met. His mother definitely knew how to feed people, and all that weight settled in all the right places. He hoped she wouldn’t blow up like his sister–not that he cared about her or anything. She had some things going for her and would make some man happy one day. Why mess up that chance with love handles and back rolls? He appreciated the view as they walked upstairs. Did Kevin ever try to get with her? He was probably one of those holy roller types Harriett wanted him to be. Maybe Juliana was a tease. She wasn’t his type. But, if she were someone else, he was drunk, and she was a bit older, he would do her.
The music below thumped hard and loud, and the bar was full. Axel’s mood increased immediately. They took seats near the end of the bar.
“What are you drinkin?”
“Uhhh…I don’t know,” she said.
She looked nervous. At first, he thought she was concerned about being underage, but no one ever got carded at The Warehouse. Hillary and Jase had been going there for years even though they had only turned 21 two years ago. Juliana, however, was constantly under his mother’s watchful eye, and who knew what she and her uppity friend got into. He figured she probably did not drink much and decided to help her out.
“You ever had a beer?”
“Arun…two brews,” he yelled to the bartender.
The bartender nodded and poured the beverages.
“You might not like it,” Axel said.
“Here you go.” Arun slid two tall glasses his way.
Axel set one in front of Juliana. She lifted the glass and inspected its dark, brown, foamy contents.
He laughed. “It ain’t gon bite you.”
She sniffed and wrinkled her nose.
“Ugh!” She put the glass down and pushed it away from her.
He chuckled. “I didn’t think you would like it.”
“You like this?” She wiped the foam off her mouth.
He took a few big gulps and finished it.
He shrugged. “Makes you feel good.”
“It relaxes you. But, if you have too many, you’ll end up on the floor.”
She laughed. He wondered how it amused her. She was like a cute little alien who was new to their planet. He expected her ignorance to be annoying, but it wasn’t. It was akin to teaching a child about the world, but not his child. More as a niece or baby sister.
“So you met your dude in a bar. I bet mama loved that one.”
Juliana laughed at the memory. “She yelled at Hillary.”
He snorted. “I bet she did.”
“She said, ‘if you wanna live like the devil, go ahead! But don’t drag her down with you!'”
He was caught off-guard by her impression of his mother. It was quite good. He didn’t think she would do that and wondered if Harriett ever got on her nerves. But, then, tears streamed down Juliana’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she said and quickly tried to get herself together. “I’m sorry.”
Something within him had also been trying to break all night. He wasn’t going to let it, but he let her have the moment. Perhaps she could cry for the both of them. It was touching to see this person who wasn’t related by blood still be affected just the same.
“It’s all right.” He felt like he should have given her one of those supportive pats on the back or something, but he was never going to put his hands on her ever again.
“I must look silly.” She looked around to see if anyone was looking at her.
“It’s still fresh. It’ll catch you every and then. Drink your beer. You’ll feel better.”
“No….I’m ok.” She tried to smile.
“I tell you what. Let’s go downstairs.” He looked over his shoulder. “Look like a nice crowd got it warmed up for us.”
She nodded and they headed to the dance floor. No sooner than they got there, Juliana turned on the magic and danced like nothing ever happened.
He wasn’t expecting her to dance so well and be so into it. On the surface, she seemed to be so shy and timid, but the way she swung those hips, he was convinced she was a tease and Kevin was a pansy. He rocked and two-stepped next to her but far back enough to enjoy the show yet not give the impression they were together. He wanted to keep an eye out for anyone he might want to holla at later, but Juliana was so interesting to watch.
“Your mama know you dance like that?”
She laughed and kept dancing.
She had a playful side, and he wanted to know more about her. Not because he wanted to be with her, but she seemed like a cool person to hang with. Honestly, she was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t believe in platonic friendships before, and the idea of it seemed useless. But Juliana didn’t have an agenda. She wasn’t conniving or catty. She was just a nice girl who liked to have fun–whatever her definition of fun was. Her positivity was infectious just as he assumed his mother thought it would be. It was a nice change of pace.
“Axe,” a male voice yelled.
He looked up to see Don coming his way. “Wassup, bro!”
Don slapped him on the back with a bro hug. “How you been, man? I’m sorry to hear about your mama.”
“Thanks. I ‘preciate that.”
“I didn’t expect to see you ’round here for a while. Good to see you alive.”
“Nah, I’m good, man. I can’t stay down forever. This is my mom’s friend.” He gestured toward her. “Just tryna show her some fun. Juliana, this is my boy, Don.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Don turned to Juliana and waved. His eyes and smile softened. “Hello, beautiful…” His baritone voice was silky and smooth. Axel shook his head and hoped he wouldn’t hit on her. Last time, he was the jerk, and he didn’t want another jerk to ruin her life and permanently tarnish his reputation with her.
“Tell me….How did a nice girl like you get stuck with this tomcat for the night?”
She laughed nervously.
“Leave her alone, Don. She’s off-limits.”
“But, she’s so cute…like a little kitten. Donnie likes kittens.”
Juliana looked back at Axel nervously. He knew he needed to intervene before Don completely went into Donnie mode. A sigh of relief escaped his lips when he turned his attention back to back to him.
“How’s your sister doing?”
Despite Axel’s reputation with the ladies, he was a private person. Most people knew his mother because she was so active in the community, but he didn’t share much about his family with his friends. Some of them knew more than others, but he never introduced them. He knew Don was referring to Hillary, and he didn’t like it. The question was too random to be inconsequential. It wasn’t impossible for Don and Hillary to know each other, but most women knew him because of what he did with them.
Axel’s eyes narrowed and his body stiffened. “How do you know my sister?”
“You have two sisters, right? I’m just asking how the little one is…you know…without her mother.”
Don may have tried to talk himself out of the question, but Axel did not miss the flash of panic that flitted across his eyes. It all made sense now. Hillary got pregnant and didn’t want to say who the father was, and now Don Lothario all of a sudden knows her. Coincidence? He didn’t think so. A surge of energy raced through his veins, and he wanted to punch his friend in the face. But, he gave him one more chance to confess.
He stepped closer to him, fist balled, daring him to lie. “How you know my sister, man?”
Don worked out to look good for the ladies. He looked like he could hold his own in a fight, but he wasn’t tough. Axel wasn’t a tough guy either, but he would fight a man three times his size over Hillary.
Don leaned away from him. “Look, bro, I don’t know her. I was just–“
“You screwing her? That’s your baby?” Axel was so close, he could smell the alcohol on Don’s breath.
Don’s eyes got wide and his body froze. “Baby? I-I don’t know anything about any baby. She got a baby?”
“She’s almost nine months pregnant, and if I find out it was you?” He cracked his knuckles and got so close to his face their noses almost touched. “It’s gon be me and you, bro.” He pressed his index finger into his chest and backed away.
Don couldn’t even look him in the eye. “I don’t know your sister, man. The baby ain’t mine!”
“Better not be!”
“I-I gotta go, man. Good seeing you,” Don said and rushed out of the club.
He stood there for a moment breathing deeply, trying to calm his nerves. When he looked over at Juliana, she looked concerned and a little bit confused.
She nodded and looked like she wanted to know what happened. Maybe she didn’t understand it all.
“Sorry if I scared you. You wanna go home?”
“Let’s go. I’m not in the dancing mood anymore.”
They piled into his car and headed back to Willow Creek.
“Is he your friend?” she asked carefully.
He sighed. “He better be my friend! His punk ass better not be messin with Hillary!”
“He’s not a good man?”
“Hell no! Stay away from him!” He took a few deep breaths. “I mean, I know I get around, but I don’t prey on women,” he said more to himself. “I get to know ’em a lil bit before we get down…unless I’m drunk. That dude will bang anyone with a….I’m sorry. Don’t pay attention to me. I’m just mad.”
“Him and Hillary! She oughta know better than to get caught up in his shit!”
When they arrived at Umbrage Manor, he parked and walked her to the door. He didn’t think it was necessary, but it was a nice gesture just in case the drama reflected badly on him.
“I’m sorry about Don. I wasn’t gonna let him do anything.”
She nodded, but not even he knew how she was supposed to respond to that.
“Well….I guess I ruined another one of your evenings.”
He lowered his eyes and felt like he failed his mother once again. It seemed no matter what he did, Juliana would always be uncomfortable with him. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter how she felt. She didn’t matter much to him, but she mattered a great deal to his mother. He didn’t realize how bad he messed up until he saw her in the hospital for the first time in a year. He disappointed so much, she neither spoke to him nor came by to visit. He hurt her precious Juliana and lost her in the process. It was too late, but he still felt the need to fix it. Having a decent relationship with Juliana was the only way he figured that could happen.
“Dancing was fun…and the food was good,” she said.
He smirked and appreciated her trying to salvage the good parts of the night. Perhaps she didn’t think ill of him after all.
“You’re a good brother,” she said.
He snorted. “I doubt that. I could be a lot better, but….Well…I ‘preciate it anyway.”
A brief, awkward silence fell, and they smiled nervously at each other.
“Maybe we can do this again sometime…without all the drama,” he said.
He felt like a weight had been lifted. “Aight then. Goodnight.”
She smiled and nodded before putting her keys in the door. When the door opened, he turned around and went back to his car. The night wasn’t a drag as he thought it would be. It had its painful moments, and it was awkward as ever. But, Juliana was a pleasant surprise. He wasn’t used to women attempting to know him or even being a listening ear. She was intriguing, and he understood why everyone in his family loved her so much. But, the best part was the night ended without her crying, and she was open to hanging out again. It was happening. He was fixing things. He hoped Harriett could see him from wherever she was and was smiling on him with pride.