Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 5 months, 2 weeks, 5 days
Axel came by to visit with Harold before he and Juliana left for the evening. Between checking on his father, and loving on his newest niece, Axel had been coming by more often. The guilt he felt about not prioritizing his family in the past still weighed on him, but every day he attempted to believe it only mattered that he did not continue his wayward ways and did better. It was a tough pill to swallow. Every now and then, it got the best of him and he struggled.
“Aight pops. I’ll see ya soon.”
“Ok,” Harold said.
Axel grinned at the tiny progress he noticed in his father’s healing. Harold didn’t say much, but at least he wasn’t mute anymore.
He left his father sitting in front of the TV and stood in the foyer yelling up the stairs. “Juliana! Let’s go.”
As she bounded down the stairs, he smirked at the striped shirt and overalls she wore. Watching her hair bounce against her back made him realize why Kevin hadn’t bagged her yet. She was a child. Maybe not in her mind because she was mature for her age, but she presented herself as a child. Perhaps if she painted her face, curled her hair and wore more fitted, revealing clothes, she could have her man. It was so obvious how much she wanted him.
“Hi,” she said. “Where are we going?”
Their budding friendship benefitted him more, but he didn’t want it to be one-sided. Neither would describe their outings as dates, but in a different light, one could see how the term dating could be thrown into the mix. He took her out for the purpose of getting to know her, and that was something he didn’t often do. He’d run out of ideas, and she would get bored with him. In order for this friendship to work, he had to open himself up to sharing her interests as well.
“I thought we’d grab some ice cream and then we could do whatever you wanted this time.”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?”
He hoped he didn’t regret it. “Sure. Do you have anything in mind?”
She smiled. “Yes, but…you need different clothes.”
He smirked. “You tryna get me out of my clothes? I didn’t think you liked me.”
She laughed. He was glad she recognized sarcasm. Perhaps he could be more like himself around her after all.
“No! You are too dressed up. You need plain clothes.” She was still laughing.
“Mmm hmm. I think you’re tryna trick me. I’ma keep my eye on you.”
He winked at her, and she continued laughing.
They left Umbrage Manor and went to his house so he could change clothes. On the way, he found himself concerned with the cleanliness of his home and hoped everything was in order. In a strange way, having her over was similar to having his mother in the house.
“Have a seat. I’ll be quick.”
He disappeared into his bedroom and wondered what she was going to get them into. It probably had to do something with painting if his clothes concerned her. He never tried it before and wasn’t sure if he’d like it, but he tried to keep an open mind.
After dressing, he stepped into the living room and presented himself to her. “Am I ok now?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Good. Let’s go.”
The ice cream place was around the corner. It made more sense to walk, but they needed the car for later. Parking on the street was always too much of a hassle. He had to drive almost halfway back to the house to find a spot. If the dating life was all about dressing in the right clothes and parking, he was glad he didn’t do it. Dating seemed like too much work, and he preferred his own methods of getting to know women. His family didn’t think he liked talking and getting to know them and associated him with the likes of his acquaintance, Don Lothario. But, it wasn’t true. He loved getting to know them over drinks and in bed: the only two places he felt comfortable. Perhaps if Juliana kept agreeing to hang out, he could get over the awkwardness of trying new things.
Axel saw a crowd as they got closer to the entrance. Usually, he welcomed crowds for they were signs of a good time, but he felt out of place. Everyone looked so happy and normal. Families laughed around tables enjoying an afternoon together. Couples on dates gazed into each other’s eyes. He felt like everyone could see he didn’t belong in that environment. It was a silly thought; he knew it. After all, it was an ice cream place, not a fancy art gallery. But, it’s how he felt. Juliana, on the other hand, looked more happy than usual. He smirked again. Children got excited about ice cream.
“Ok, find the flavor you want here, and then tell ’em whether you want it in a bowl or a cone.”
He didn’t get ice cream much, but when he did, he always got the same thing. All he ever wanted was cookies ‘n cream ever since childhood. He and Blake weren’t very twin-like, but of the few things they had in common, cookies ‘n cream was chief.
Juliana made her selection and gave her order to the cashier. Axel came behind her and did the same. After he paid, they found seats and awaited their treats. It made him laugh sometimes how things evolved. As kids, they ordered at the counter, and the cashier scooped the ice cream for them right there. Ice cream was a quick, cheap treat. But now, it was all about the money and creating an experience. He never thought he would ever pay $20 for two ice cream cones. The steep price reflected the ambiance. The place was much fancier than it needed to be with fragrant flowers scattered around and nice tables and chairs. To top it off, they hired waiters to serve the ice cream–or beverage, scone, or whatever yuppies like having with their ice cream. Axel felt like that kind of place would be better suited for Kevin’s neighborhood, but to his surprise, his Willow Creek neighbors were all over it. Times had changed.
Juliana still seemed quite excited. He had to know what tickled her so much. Surely she wasn’t overjoyed to be hanging out with him.
“What you over there grinnin about?”
She hesitated for a moment. “Nothing really…. It’s been long time since I had ice cream.”
He still thought she was a bit too excited about the simple joys of ice cream. To his surprise, however, there was more to the story.
“We were very poor. Mamá would take us out of school early on our birthday to get ice cream. It was rare.”
That made more sense although he still thought she was a child but not because of the ice cream.
“Good evenin,” the cheery server said. “I’ve got one cherry cone, and one cookies ‘n cream cone.” She set them on the table. “Enjoy! Let me know if you need anything else.”
Juliana gasped. “It’s so much!” She was so shocked she laughed. “Look how large it is!”
He snorted. “Welcome to America. Everything’s bigger here.”
“I shouldn’t have all of this!”
“I bet you’ll eat it all,” he teased.
She narrowed her eyes at him before raising the cone to her mouth. “I love cherry. I always got it.”
It was cool to learn they had something else in common.
“Me too,” he said. “Me and my brother used to tear up some cookies ‘n cream.” He chuckled at a few memories which came to mind.
Her eyes widened and jaw dropped a little. “Your brother?”
He sighed. “Guess no one told you.”
Her ignorance of Blake wasn’t surprising. The Humphries family seldom talked to each other about things that mattered, and it frustrated him. Juliana liked talking and was very engaging in conversation. She listened well too. Maybe that was why he and the rest of them were drawn to her. At times, she didn’t say much, but the conversation still fulfilled them because she listened. He had learned so much about his mother’s final years by listening to Juliana’s stories and wondered if he could have learned even more by spending time with Harriett.
“I had a twin.”
She had big, puppy eyes that looked close to tears. “What happened?”
She took another mouthful of ice cream, and the puppy eyes were replaced with squinted eyes and groans.
He laughed at her. “Good ol ice cream headache. Here…put your finger under your tongue…like this.” He showed her what to do.
She looked skeptical. “What will it do?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. That’s what mama used to make us do when we got ’em. It used to work.”
She stuck her finger in her mouth as instructed and held it there until the pain went away. While her pain subsided, another pain came on inside Axel. Talking about Harriett was nice, but sometimes it caught him off guard.
He tried to smile. “Good.”
“So…what happened to your twin?” She asked carefully.
“He drowned when we were kids.”
That was a lifetime ago, and he was so young, the effects didn’t hit him like it did his parents and maybe Rebecca. He could talk about him without feeling sad, and overall, he didn’t think about Blake much anymore. But, sometimes it felt weird to think there should have been another important person in his life. Things like birthdays and eating cookies ‘n cream ice cream made him think about him.
“I’m sorry,” Juliana said.
“Thanks, but…I’m fine. Guess you get why my family is so messed up now, huh?”
She nodded. “I lost too.”
The new information made his heart flutter just a bit. It was so strange. They had so much in common yet they were very different people. But, the commonalities were so strong and affected the deepest parts of them. None of his friends could ever understand what it was like, but Juliana could. He was so glad to know her.
“Who did you lose?”
“Two brothers, five sisters and my papá.”
He was stunned. All this time, the Humphries family behaved as though they had suffered the worse tragedy known to man while someone right under their nose had lost so much more. And, she who had lost the most seemed to be much better off than all of them combined.
It took him a minute to find his words. “Damn…. I’m sorry. How are you so normal?”
She smiled and shrugged. “Five had gone before I was born, and I was very young with the others.”
“But, still. Your parents weren’t messed up? I mean, they had more kids, right?”
She opened her mouth to answer him a few times, but the words must have evaded her. Perhaps he asked too much.
Finally, she said, “Things are different there. They were sad, but they did not show it to us.”
He admired her so much. They all could stand to read a page or two from her book.
They finished their ice cream in silence and head for the car. Before they got too far, he wanted to say something to her.
“Listen…. You’re cool people…”
Telling people what he thought about them didn’t happen much. Deep, reflective thoughts didn’t come naturally, but something about her compelled him to tell her. “I don’t have friends I can talk to about…things.”
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to hang out with me because of…well, you know…”
She nodded again.
“We don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. I know your man probably doesn’t like it.”
She rolled her eyes, but he didn’t miss that grin.
“Mmm hmm. You know it’s true.” It was fun to embarrass her. “Ok…where are we going next?”
She looked around as if she wasn’t sure. “It’s getting dark. We won’t have time.”
“Oh. Sorry. Guess we shoulda came here earlier then.”
“It’s fine. We can go some other time.”
He smiled. “Another time?”