"Happy Birthday, Lizzie." Mamma said softly, shaking my shoulder,
to wake me up.
I opened my eyes and squinted at Mamma, hovering above me, confused.
I tried to think about the date, but honestly I had no idea what the date was. All I knew was that it was Saturday, the day I'd been dreading.
I supposed it was highly possible that it was my birthday today.
Ironic that I felt like my life was over on the same day it began 16 years ago.
I rubbed my eyes and sat up yawning.
"Thanks, Mamma." I said, trying my best to sound happy. It was nice that I was still groggy, so that she didn't wonder at my lack of enthusiasm.
She gave me a quick hug. "I can't believe you're 16 already." She said when she pulled away. "You're growing up so fast."
Faster than she realized. I just smiled.
"You get washed up." She said. "I made waffles for breakfast."
Waffles had always been my favorite, but today I knew I'd have to force them down for Mamma's sake.
"Thanks." I forced another smile.
"Try to hurry, Honey." She said, walking to the door. "I made your dad and Louis wait till you got to the table to start eating."
I nodded and she left my room, closing the door behind her.
Of all the days for Josh to choose, it just had to be today. What an awful way to remember my 16th birthday for the rest of my life.
I got out of bed and quickly took care of my morning routine before heading to breakfast.
"Happy Birthday, Sweetie." Daddy said when I made it to the kitchen.
"Thanks, Daddy." I said as he came over and hugged me. I was glad this hug was a little longer than the one last night - Daddy always got a little emotional on my birthday.
After we took our seats at the table, I noticed the time. It was almost nine. Not real late yet, but alot later than we usually ate.
"I should have been up earlier." I said. "I'm sorry. Were you waiting a long time?"
Mamma and Daddy both said no at the same time that Louis said yes. And he sounded kind of angry when he said it. Which was, again, unusual for him. It would have been normal for him to be whiny, not angry.
Mamma looked at him curiously, as he glowered at the table, before she looked at me.
I shrugged and tried to look like I didn't know what his problem was.
"It wasn't so long." Daddy said, also giving Louis a funny look. "You're entitled to sleep in on your birthday. But since you're here now..." He reached for the food. "I'm starving."
"Lizzie, we're gonna do cake at lunch time." Mamma said. "So if you want to go out, just wait until after, alright?"
"We can do it after dinner." I said hopefully. That was usually when we did cake. Maybe she just changed it because she thought I wanted to go out. Josh couldn't make me go with him if I had to stay home with my family, right?
"We were going to." She said. "But your dad has to work later."
"Oh." I tried not to sound too disappointed.
"I'm sorry." Daddy said. "I was supposed to have all day off, but someone I work with had a family emergency and I said I'd cover for him. But we can do something special later, ok?"
"It's ok, Daddy. Don't worry about it." It took alot of effort to smile while I said it.
I made myself finish every bit of the waffle, strawberries, and whipped cream, for Mamma, and hoped I wouldn't get sick. The way my stomach was feeling, I wasn't so sure. Nervous didn't even cover it.
After breakfast, I helped Mamma clean up the kitchen and then Daddy pulled out the board games.
Normally on mine or Louis' birthday, Daddy would take us somewhere special. Usually it was something free or inexpensive - that was one nice thing about the city.
I didn't mind not doing anything like that, this year. For one thing, I had no idea what there would even be to do around here. Mainly, though, it would be too hard to pretend I was actually happy the whole time.
But I think Daddy felt guilty about having to work and was trying to make it up to me. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I outgrew board games a few years ago.
So, for most of the morning, I played Life, Yahtzee, and Monopoly and tried not to let my anxiety about tonight, show on my face.
I also couldn't help moping a little bit, thinking about how I could be spending this time with Ben. And I felt bad about thinking that way. I loved being with my family, but my time with Ben was severely limited.
I don't think I was terribly successful at keeping my emotions off my face. I'm sure Mamma and Daddy both noticed, but at least they probably thought I was upset about Daddy working later.
After today, it was going to be hard not to let everyone see me upset all the time. I wouldn't have excuses like I did today.
I was going to have to get much better at my 'acting'.
It seemed to take a long time for Mamma to say that lunch was ready. But at the same time, everything seemed to be going too fast. I was anxious to see Ben, but I knew that every minute that went by was another minute closer to seeing Josh.
As with breakfast, I had to force myself to eat lunch. But at least Mamma didn't put in special effort just for me, so I was able to get by with not eating very much.
The cake was another story. Mamma made a beautiful white layered cake that said, 'Happy Birthday, Lizzie', in pink writing, and had pink roses all over it.
I sighed, glad that I didn't eat much for lunch, and started working on my too-large piece of birthday cake.
Daddy saved me from actually having to eat the whole thing, when he got too excited to wait to give me my presents.
"Let her finish her cake first." Mamma chided as Daddy proudly handed me a small box with a bow.
He turned and grinned impishly at Mamma.
"I can finish later." I said, taking the box from him. "Thank you."
I untied the ribbon and lifted the lid off the little box.
Inside was a delicate gold locket, engraved with 'Happy Sweet 16 Lizzie'. It was by far the most expensive birthday gift I'd ever gotten.
I looked at Mamma and Daddy in turn, my eyes tearing up. "It's beautiful." I said. "Thank you."
It was beautiful, but that's not why I wanted to cry. I didn't care about getting jewelry or how much they spent on me. I knew they loved me.
I wanted to cry because they looked so happy. So proud that they could finally afford to give me something like this. And there were still more presents to be opened.
I wanted to cry because it only acted as affirmation that I had to go along with what Josh said. I couldn't take this away from them.
After I put the necklace on, I was handed present after present. More than I ever remembered getting for my birthday. Each one acted as a painful, little reminder for me.
I was able to get away after Daddy left for work. I'd sort of been hoping that Ben would come by, but thought maybe he wasn't sure if he should or not.
So, grabbing my coat, I decided to start walking to his house.
It seemed like a much shorter distance when I was in a car and warm, but the prospect of seeing Ben was enough motivation for me to not think about it too much.
I was just coming up to the house when Ben came outside and saw me.
"Hi." He said, coming down the steps to meet me.
"How are you?" He asked, concerned.
I shrugged. "I'm alright."
He frowned at my obvious lie.
"I wanted to see you." I said honestly.
"I was just about to come by your house." He handed me the gift bag he was holding. "Happy Birthday."
I smiled and took the bag. "You remembered."
"Of course, I did." He said, sounding like it would have been crazy for him to have forgotten.
I gave a short laugh at my own stupidity. "I didn't even remember."
He smiled before he looked serious again. "You've had other things on your mind."
Well, that was certainly true. I looked down and didn't know what to say.
"Come on." Ben said, taking my free hand. "Let's go inside. You're probably freezing after that walk."
I looked up and nodded. The cold stopped bothering me as soon as I saw him, but I was grateful for a way out of that awkward moment.
We got inside and Ben was almost as excited as Daddy had been for me to open my present.
He pulled me over to the couch and looked at me expectantly.
Smiling, I turned my attention to the bag. It didn't matter what he got me, I knew I'd love it.
I had to admit, I was curious, though.
I took out the tissue paper on top and pulled out a stuffed squirrel.
I looked at Ben curiously. It was cute, but kind of random.
"I know you really liked the squirrel part in that movie." He explained.
I laughed. "I did." That must have taken him some time. Where did you even find a stuffed squirrel around here? It's not like our mall had an FAO Schwarz.
"Anyway," He said. "I just sort of added that. The other part is your real present."
"I like it." I said, refusing to let him belittle the squirrel. Now that I understood, I thought it was really sweet. "He's cute. You didn't have to get me anything else."
"Just open it." He smiled.
Even though it was unnecessary, I complied, still pretty curious.
I pulled out a flat, square box and took off the lid.
"Ben!" I gasped when I saw the gold bracelet inside. It wasn't anything fancy, just a delicate gold chain with a pink, sparkling heart charm. It was so beautiful and I didn't have any doubt that it was real.
"It's too much!" I said, looking at him.
"I want you to have it." He said, still smiling.
And I knew I couldn't keep it. It would be ok if this whole mess with Josh wasn't happening, but it just wasn't right to accept it. It wasn't fair to Ben.
"I...can't take it." I said sadly, putting the lid back on the box. "I'm sorry." I tried to hand it back to him.
"Why?" He asked, looking confused and sort of hurt. He didn't make a move to take the box from me. "You don't like it?"
"No!" I said. "It's beautiful. I love it, but...it's just not right to take it when..."
"When we can't be together." He finished for me.
I nodded, feeling the tears coming again.
"I knew that when I gave it to you." He said. "No expectations attached, I promise. I just want you to have it."
"He won't let me keep it." I said quietly, looking down.
"So, don't tell him it's from me." He argued and I looked back at him.
He took the box from my hand, removed the bracelet, and clasped it around my wrist.
"Lizzie, I want you to wear this and know that you're not all alone. So you have a reminder that you can always come to me. No matter what."
I wiped away the tears that were obscuring my vision and looked down at my wrist.
"Will you?" He asked.
I looked up at him again as more tears fell, and nodded.
He gave me a small smile and I put my arms around him and hugged him tightly.
My time with Ben seemed to fly by. I was happy to be with him, but at the same time, I was miserable. I knew that it was the last definite time, until I'd be able to sneak away without Josh finding out.
Before I knew it, I had to go get ready for my dreaded date.
Ben drove me home and I found it harder than ever to get out of his car.
I just sat there for a few minutes clinging to his hand like it was my life preserver. It felt like if I let go, I would drown.
Ben touched my bracelet. "Any time." He reminded me.
I looked up at him and nodded. I knew I wouldn't be able to take him up on his offer until Josh got bored with me, but it was comforting to hear him say, anyway.
"I'm gonna come see you whenever I can get away." I said, in a rush. "Whenever he won't know." I felt the need to tell him, so he'd know I was going to try. I just wish I knew when it would be.
Ben's eyes tightened, but he nodded.
I looked in his eyes, memorizing them. I wanted so badly to tell him that I loved him. I thought that he probably knew, but I wanted to say it. So that he'd know for sure. But I was too nervous to actually get the words out. And it didn't feel right to say something like that and then leave him for Josh.
I just hoped he could feel it, the way I could feel his love for me.
"I better go." I said, remorsefully.
Ben nodded again and tenderly cupped my face with his hand.
I covered his hand with my own and closed my eyes. The temptation to kiss him was stronger than ever, but I knew if I did that, I wouldn't be able to leave him like I had to.
I settled for placing a soft kiss in his palm before saying goodbye and slipping out of the car.
I got to the front door and looked back at him for a long minute before I forced myself to go inside.
Closing the door, I leaned against it, squeezed my eyes shut, and made myself hold in the tears that were trying to make their way out. Mamma couldn't see me crying.
When I felt like I could make it through the house with out bursting into tears, I pushed off the door and ventured into the living room. I stopped abruptly when I saw who was waiting for me.
"Anna, hey!" I said, surprised.
"There you are!" She said, standing up from the couch. "I thought I might have missed you. I was about to call Ben to see if you were with him."
"I was." I said. "Sorry. Were you waiting long?"
She shook her head. "I only got here a few minutes ago. Your mom said she wasn't sure where you went."
I looked around, wondering where Mamma was. I didn't really want her hearing anything Anna might say.
"She's in the kitchen getting me a drink." Anna answered my unasked question.
"You wanna go to my room?" I asked.
"Sure." She turned and started walking.
Mamma came out of the kitchen before we made it to my room.
"Lizzie, I'm glad you're home." Mamma said, handing Anna a Diet Coke. "Poor Anna almost had to put up with me for entertainment." Mamma grimaced.
Anna shook her head. "I was looking forward to more stories about Lizzie." She grinned at me.
I felt my face flush, wondering what Mamma told her.
Mamma laughed. "Maybe next time." She said walking back to the living room.
I saw my sadness reflected back in Anna's expression. We didn't know when 'next time' would be. I wondered what Mamma would think when she didn't see her or any of my other friends anymore. Especially Ben.
"I would have come over earlier," Anna said, once we were in my room. "But my mom practically held me hostage all day."
"That's ok." I said, shaking my head. "I'm glad you came." I felt guilty for only thinking of Ben all day. My time with Anna was almost up too. But at least it would be easier to see her without Josh knowing, we still Gym together and would be able to talk in the locker room.
"I actually have to go in a few minutes." She said, rolling her eyes. "I'm being forced to watch my pain-in-the-butt brother to make sure he doesn't burn the house down while my parents are out. I just wanted to come by and give you this." She indicated the bag in her hand.
I hadn't really taken much notice of the shopping bag, she was carrying. But now that she pointed it out, I could just see a gift bag sticking out of the top.
"Anna," I said. "You didn't have to get me anything. You already got me earrings."
She shrugged. "I wanted to." She handed me the bag.
"Thanks." I said taking it from her.
She was giving me that expectant look, so I dug into the bag and pulled out the soft, red sweater, inside.
"It's beautiful." I said, holding it up to myself. "Thank you."
"Happy Birthday." She said with a sad smile.
I gave her one back.
"Well, I should really, get going." She said after an awkward minute. "I've already been gone longer than I told Mom I would be."
I nodded. "I'm gonna have to go soon, too." I said, glancing away.
Knowing how much she loved to dress me up, I was tempted to ask her to stay and help, just for a few minutes. I kept my mouth shut, though. She probably wouldn't enjoy it so much, knowing what I was getting ready for.
When I looked back at her, she was wearing that expression again. The one that told me, there were a whole bunch of things she'd like to say right now.
But just like before, she kept it all to herself.
"See you later?" She asked.
"When I can." I nodded.
She sighed and gave me a hug before I walked her to the door.
I glanced at the clock when I got back to my room. It was already 6:30. I felt my stomach drop, thinking about the little bit of time I had left.
I stared at the clock for another minute while I took some deep breaths to try to get my panic under control.
It wasn't going to help anything to worry about it now. It wasn't an option anymore. The best I could hope for was to be as prepared as I could be.
I dug through my underwear drawer to find the hidden box that Ben had given me when he made me swear to always, always protect myself.
With shaking hands I shoved the small box into my barely used purse and zipped it closed. I felt like it was horribly obvious what was inside.
When I glanced back at the clock, I couldn't believe how much time had slipped away.
I knew the time had come where I had to get dressed. I shivered. This was actually going to happen.
Josh said to wear something "nice". I doubted that the jeans I had on, qualified to him as nice, but I was tempted to wear them anyway.
Knowing him, though, he'd probably march into my room and pick out what he wanted, not caring what Mamma thought.
I'd have to just suck it up and get it over with. I looked through my closet. I didn't actually have much that I thought would qualify.
One thing was the super short skirt that Anna snuck into my shopping bag - so not happening!
That left the black dress. Sighing, I took it out of the closet and put it on. I wasn't crazy about how short it was, but it was much better than the mini skirt.
I slipped on the shoes, ran a brush through my hair, and decided I was done. If I was going anywhere else with anyone else, I'd attempt to actually do my make up and hair. But I really wasn't about to put in any effort, for Josh.
Maybe when we got to wherever we were going, he would see other girls who took the time to do those things and want them instead.
Long shot, I knew, but I could hope.
I felt a jolt of fear, when I realized that I only had five minutes till seven. Not knowing if he'd be early, and not wanting him to come inside if he was, I grabbed my coat and purse and went out to the living room to wait.
"You look nice, Sweetie." Mamma said. "Going out?"
I nodded nervously. "Unless you want me to stay home?" I tried, hopefully.
"No, Baby." She smiled indulgently. "You go, have fun."
Fun. Right. I exaggerated the effort of putting on my coat so I could look away before she had a chance to notice the despair, I was positive, was on my face.
A car horn beeped, just then and I felt the panic rise up again. I tried my best to control it in front of Mamma.
"Is that your ride?" She asked.
I went to the window to check, even though I already knew the answer.
I saw Josh's car parked in front of the house. It was too dark to actually see him inside it.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Yeah."
I glanced back at Mamma, wishing she'd change her mind and tell me to stay home.
Forcing the most genuine smile I could, I said, "Bye Mamma."
"Not too late, Lizzie." She reminded me as I headed for the door. "Your dad worries."
I looked back and nodded before I left the safety of the house and went into the terrifying unknown.
"Happy Birthday, Lizzie." Mamma said softly, shaking my shoulder,
to wake me up.