Steven was the first to take a step forward, laying a flower at the foot of the headstone.
As the flower rested on the long, green grass that surrounded his mother's graveside, he thought back to that early, Sunday morning. He'd run out of bed, still wearing his pajamas and hair a mess, before his mother could catch him. Since most four years old detest sleep as much as most parents desire it, Steven was the only one awake.
Tip-toeing outside, his gait awkward and uncontrolled as most young kid's steps are, he made his way to the front door. Stretching his arms up, he latched on the door knob, turning it both ways until he found out which way opened the door.
When it creaked open, he stepped outside, barefoot and ran down the stairs. Laughing uproariously, a big smile on his face, he headed towards their garden. The little patch of mud, dotted with flowers, was all his parents had time to tend, plant and water.
Steven stepped right into the mud, sinking into the cool, damp earth. Bending down, he plucked three daffodils, knowing that they were perfect for his mother.
Running back inside, leaving the door wide open, he'd surprised both his parents with the flowers. Exclaiming in a loud, high-pitched voice that he had a birthday present for his mom.
They were daffodils, their stems still coated with mud and damp with dew.
Tracking mud into the house, bringing it as far as into his parent's bedroom, his father wasn't impressed. Yet, with a large smile and a kiss, his mom took the flowers and gathered her son in her arms. "I love them, Steven!"
Every birthday since, it'd been his tradition to give her daffodils-this time from a florist, not her garden.
With a somber smile he knelt down. "Happy birthday, Mom. Love you." He laid down two more flowers, stood back up and somberly watched his father approach her grave.
Instead of crying as he normally did on this day, Steven found his tears had dried. There came a point in one's life when the heart-wrenching sorrow of losing a loved one, was replaced by a dull ache. Only his father, trembling at her grave, shed any tears on this day.
"I love you." He knelt close to the ground, his hands gripping the tombstone weakly. Giving it a squeeze, he brushed off his pants and gave Steven a smile. "Thanks for coming along, Steven."
He nodded his head, staring at his mother's grave with a sigh. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
"I wish she could see you now, Steven." His father spoke with a shaking voice. "She'd be so proud, so proud…" he couldn't finish anymore, as his tears overcame him. Stepping closer to his son, he wanted so badly to wrap him in his arms. There was so much of her in him.
Instead, he walked past his son, wishing that the tears would stop. He was the pillar of the family, he was supposed to take care of his son. Not weeping as if she'd passed away yesterday, while he was wasting away to cancer.
He was to be strong for his son.
Steven followed after his father, somberly walking back to their car.
Above them, the sky was a light blue, the sun just rising over the trees. Yet it did nothing to cure his gloomy, distressed mood.
Especially last night, when he had fallen asleep and not dreamt of Julia. Did that mean those days were over? Would he ever see her again? Although she said that he would, there were small doubts clouding his mind.
He wanted to dream again.
"Do you still want to go to the café?" Steven opened the passenger's door, stepping into his seat. Closing the door, he watched as his father awkwardly got in, hacking and coughing away. Tear stains were still visible on his wrinkled, pale face.
"Yes, just give me a moment." He covered his mouth with his sleeve, coughing into it loudly. Fresh tears fell from his eyes, while he wheezed for air. After a few minutes of this, the coughing faded and he started the car.
"They're getting worse. Are you sure you're okay to drive?" He remembered the doctor's words about a month. No matter what his father said to comfort him, Steven knew they were only like the lies that soothe a distressed child.
"I'll be okay." He smiled, reversing the car out of the cemetery's parking lot. Shifting into drive, he turned the vehicle back onto the main road, joining in with the rest of traffic.
"I hope so." Steven glanced up at him, while he turned on the radio. Music, loud and overtly cheerful filled the cab of the car. Leaning back in his seat, he tried to enjoy the familiar tunes. Yet, his smile faltered and his mind wandered back to Julia and his father's cancer.
Then to Cerise.
This memory actually brought back his smile.
He hadn't seen her in such a long time, it'd been such a surprise to have seen her two nights ago. He had mostly enjoyed their conversation, well, except upon hearing out about Desmond. Although he had tried not to show it, there'd been a little jealously that flared up inside him.
It didn't matter that they hadn't been together in four year-she could still make him jealous.
That bothered him.
Why should it? He was falling in love with Julia, or perhaps already was in love with her.
Taking his phone from his pocket, he turned it on, staring at the bright screen with a smile. A little number on the screen indicated he'd missed two messages. By clicking on them, he saw one was from Cerise, reading: "Hey sorry, I missed your text yesterday, had a great night! Have to do it again sometime!" He was about to text back a reply, but he was far too curious about who sent the second message.
"Hey, Steven," she added a heart, before saying how she missed him and couldn't wait until their next dream together.
To this message, Steven replied quickly. "Love you too, it's so crazy we can actually do this."
"Who's that?" His father was just turning off the road and into Mountain House Café's parking lot.
"Who am I texting?"
"Yeah." He said, followed by several coughs as he quickly found an empty parking space.
"Just a friend." Steven tried to hide the smile that stubbornly lit up his face.
"Mhmm." He smiled knowingly, took the keys out of the ignition and unbuckled. Steven followed suite, smiling as he thought of the warm coffee they served inside the café. Caffeine would be much appreciated on a day like today.
He stepped out of the car, noticing for the first time that there was a certain coolness to the air. Although it was only September, it would not be long until winters chill descended upon the city. "Mom would love a day like this," he said to his father, following him across the parking lot and towards the café.
Turning his head, he smiled. "Yes, she would."
Going to Mountain House Café had been a family tradition for the Walker's even before Steven was born. Back when his parents were newlyweds, his father said that this was his mom's favorite place to eat. It had also been the place where they'd met-when she was a waitress and he a young, struggling musician.
He'd been writing a song that evening and was struggling to find the right words for it. Frustrated and in need of inspiration, he went out of his apartment and just strolled down the sidewalk, thinking over and over again for those perfect words to fit the melody he had created.
Since it was a cold night and the newly opened Mountain House Café was close by, he went over there, took a seat and waited to be served. When she came to his table, her eyes wide and blue, matched perfectly with long, wavy brown hair, he had found his inspiration.
Seven months later, they were married.
When Steven was born, they made a point of going to the Mountain House Café for each of their birthday's. As a family. She knew many of those who worked there, including the owners and would always make sure they got the best service.
Steven remembered loving the café when he was kid.
Now, it was a somber, nostalgic time, whenever he ate with his father in the café. He still loved going there, but he could never truly enjoy the food and conversation. There were too many memories there-more so for his father, that he found himself recounting those times in his head.
The Mountain House Café had become a time machine of sorts. Whenever he stepped through those double-doors, met by the strong aroma of coffee and baked goods, he was brought back to his childhood.
When his family was complete.
Today, when he stepped inside the café, the experience was no different. Only, unlike most time he'd gone, the café was quieter-emptier then it usually was. A lone waitress walked in-between the tables, wiping them with a cloth and putting the chairs in their proper place.
Sitting in a booth, the only other occupants of the café were both employed in a smiling, good-natured conversation. None of them looked at the father and son, not even the waitress, a new girl if Steven was correct, gave them notice.
His father broke out into a loud series of coughs, before the waitress looked up at them. With a forced smile, her weary eyes telling how she truly felt, she welcomed them in. "Welcome to Mountain House Café, is this all in your party today?"
"Yep, just us two." Steven answered for his father, who was still coughing away.
"Okay, follow me." She led them to a booth against the far wall, which was parallel to the main road outside. Once the two were seated, she immediately took their orders, leaving Steven to wonder why she was playing the role of both hostess and waitress.
Steven ordered their gourmet blueberry fritters and a large, double chocolate mocha. His father held off the coughing long enough to place his order.
Checking his phone, when the waitress was gone and his father coughing away, he saw that Julia had responded. The words 'love you more' so powerfully gripped him, filling his stomach with excitement, slight nausea and euphoria. How many years had it been since he'd been spoken to in such a loving, passionate manner?
Even if it was just words on a screen, the sentence was powerful.
Responding that she was wrong and he loved her far more, Steven put away the phone. Staring at his father, who was beginning to shake slightly, he wondered if it would be the right time to talk about his conversation with the doctor.
About the month left to live.
Grimacing, he couldn't bring himself to say it.
Thankfully, his father started the conversation with a weak smile. "So, you decided to go out on a little adventure, last night?" There was a knowing, amused way in which his lips curved into a thin, wry smile.
"You saw that, huh?" His cheeks reddened, as he waited for the lecture to begin. "I'm really sorry about that," he paused awkwardly, unsure of what else to say, "wont happen again." He glanced out the window, staring at the cars that rushed by, unable to look his father in the eye.
His father only stared at Steven, a frown on his face. Yet, there was no anger or hostility in his gaze, only a burdensome sorrow mounting in his heart. He wanted to reach out to his son, to tell him that he wasn't angry or upset.
To let his son know how much he loved him.
In past times, when the cancer wasn't even detected, he recalled how hard he'd been on the boy. After losing his wife, he found that he paid a lot of attention to what Steven did, both right and wrong. Fear had come over him that a similar fate would befall his son if he wasn't completely watching over him.
So, in his deep love for his Steven, he did all he could to keep the boy safe.
No parties, no going to new places, strict curfews, regulated media intake-everything and anything to keep him out of harm's way.
Now, with the doctor's ominous words hanging over his head, he found himself unsure of what to do with Steven. For most of his life, he'd been protecting the boy, making sure he grew up properly, but doing nothing to prepare him for a life as … an orphan.
Life on his own.
So, staring at his son, he was also at a loss for words. How could he voice all of what he thought? His uncertainty. Could he really ground or lecture Steven with only a month or so left of his life?
"It's okay, Steven." He finally said, a somber smile on his face. "For today, I just want to talk with you. I love you, you know that, right?"
Eyes wide, he nodded his head hesitantly. "I know Dad." He felt his phone vibrate in his jeans pocket. "Does that mean I'm not grounded?"
"Don't let it happen again." Was all he replied, or ever said again on that matter.
"Thanks." Steven only felt his guilt rise higher at his father's mercy. It also made him worry more about the cancer eating away at him, since, his father would never have let that go when he was younger.
Checking his phone, he saw that it was from Julia. He smiled as he read her message, then replied that he had to go and loved her so much.
The phone went back into his pocket and stayed there for the rest of their time in the café.
The drinks were soon served, along with the pastries, which both of them gobbled down. With his worry over getting punished now gone, Steven eased into a light, interesting conversation with his father. Though he never shared his dreaming gift, no matter how much he wanted to get it out, he did tell him about meeting Julia at camp.
Most of their meeting anyways.
Again, his father surprised him with an interested, engaged response to the news. Only from the flicker in his gaze or the down turn of his lips, could Steven tell his father wasn't thrilled.
Still, this had been the first time, in a long time, that he'd had an enjoyable conversation with his father.
However, their time at the café did not last.
Later in the evening, when Steven was back at home, he went out into his balcony. Sitting on a lawn chair he'd brought up to the veranda, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.
Only, he was disturbed by the short text that he received.
"Love you," her message read on the phone of his screen. "Forgive me…"
And he received no other text from her for the remainder of the night.
"Hey, don't letPhil catch you!" Cerise called out to her friend Leanne, who was still at one of Superstore's checkouts. Leanne wished her last customer a good night, then laughed, before wishing Cerise a good night as well.
"Okay Cerise," she giggled, turning around to see Phil, the head cashier, walking down the aisle towards the dozen of checkouts. He returned her smile, winking at her good-naturedly. "Take care!Phil will have no idea!"
"Will have no idea about what?" Phil asked as he approached Leanne, while Cerise went down another aisle, away from the front of the store. Unbuttoning the front of her work blouse, she stepped past several customers, all of them glancing at her curiously.
She could hearPhil laughing uproariously as Leanne most likely shared what the two had been talking about. Smiling to herself, she strolled down the clean, empty aisles and turned off to the 'Employee's Only' area of the store.
The 'back' of the store, where the groceries and merchandise were stored, was eerily quiet as she entered. Two grocery associates, unloading a pallet of frozen goods from the freezer, paused momentarily to glance at her, before going back to their work.
She smiled at one of them, but he was already talking with his friend, their voices lowered. None of them paid attention to Marina either, who was busy at the other end of the warehouse like storage room, which was easily the size of a gymnasium, cutting open boxes with cheap merchandise.
A small path ran alongside the wall of the storage room, where boxes, stands and pallets occupied the remainder of the room. Walking down it, she took off her work blouse, donning now yoga pants and a grey, sleeveless undershirt. "Hey, Marina!" She called out to the older woman, knee-deep in boxes she was opening.
"Hi there, Cerise. You're leaving already, what time is it?" She wiped the sweat from her brow, putting down her knife.
"It's nearly seven o'clock, but I'm off early today-my dad's celebrating his fiftieth birthday tonight andPhil felt like being nice for once."
"He let you off early? Wow, what did you do for that?"
"Just being my wonderful self; he likes me." She smiled sweetly, yet her tone carried a self-mocking tone. Both of them knew why Phil liked her so much. "You should try being nice to him, he might give you more breaks."
"Nice? To Phil? That isn't possible dear." She picked up her knife, the wrinkles on her tanned face growing as she smiled.
"Well get used to long shifts, no breaks and working customer service till you drop."
"I already am." The two of them laughed. Cerise wished her a good day, Marina responded likewise and she went back to cutting open boxes, while Cerise went to her locker.
Standing in front of the lockers, two of her co-workers were talking and giggling loudly. Chris, a new girl who was still learning to work the register, was talking and laughing with Kylie, who'd been a cashier for several years. "So which department does he work in? He isn't a cashier is he?"
Kylie rolled her eyes, "You really think they'd let him face all those customers?" They both broke out into laughter, neither of them noticing Cerise, who bent down to her locker, spinning in the right combination for her lock.
"Oh right, I guess that shouldn't be the last thing they see before they leave."
Chris laughed again, putting on her coat and noticing Cerise for the first time. She was about to say something, but Kylie shook her head. Instead, she led the girl away from the lockers, towards the staff room, whispering into her ear, while glancing back at Cerise.
Cerise only swore under her breath, thankful that Drake hadn't been around to hear the way the girls spoke about him. Who cared if he wasn't amazing to look at? She could think of plenty of horrible things to say about Kylie, but was nice enough to keep quiet about.
Wouldn't she just love it, if Cerise went to the other cashiers and gossiped about her.
Not that crap wasn't gossiped about, there'd always been plenty of that. It was just that no one ever gave Drake a break about his physical appearance. It had been the running joke ever since he started years ago.
Grabbing her purse out of the locker, she put her folded work shirt in its place and locked the door. Brushing a thick strand of her auburn hair from her face, she stood up, stretched and saw Drake walking towards her from the staff room. His own work shirt was draped over his shoulder, while he wore a loose-fitting, white undershirt.
"Cerise." The two of them reached for their sweaters, which hung on the wall opposite the lockers. Hers was closer to him, so he took it off the hook and gave it to her. "You still need a ride home?"
"Yeah, that'd be awesome. My dad's celebrating his fiftieth today." She accepted her sweater, thanked him and put it on. Zippering it up mid-way, she waited for him to put his stuff into his locker.
"Fifty? Wow, tell him I said 'happy birthday'!"
"Better not," she smiled, folding her arms over her chest. "The less people know about his age, the happier he is. You're not the only who's surprised he's that old."
"Pshh, fifty isn't old. Tell him he still has half his life to live."
"And he'd say he just finished the better half." She walked alongside Drake, away from the lockers and back into the colossal storage room. "He's really moody around these birthdays of his."
"Not going to be a good party, then?"
"He's a bit happier when he's smashed."
"Who isn't?" Drake laughed, waving to Marina when they passed by her. "Take care, Marina."
"Bye, Drake. Tell your dad I wish him a happy birthday, Cerise!"
"For sure!" She headed towards the terminal that was positioned on the wall in the storage room, before going back onto the floor. "Have to clock out." Which she did hastily, then resumed walking and talking with Drake all the way from the inside of Superstore to his car, which sat close by the entrance in the parking lot.
When they were both in the car, Drake started the ignition, and quickly drove off. Loud music, which poured out of his speakers while held up by a deep, reverberating sub-woofer, filled the cab. Lowering the volume, she also got buckled and faced Drake.
"You didn't hear, Kylie did you?" Concern was written all over her face, which Drake took a moment to study before answering.
"Yes." He turned the wheel, accelerating the car onto a main artery in the city.
Drake scratched the back of his neck, a nonchalant expression on his face. "I'm not. Neither should you. People just like to feel better about themselves, so they put down those who they deem beneath them. Happens all the time."
"But doesn't it bother you?"
"Cerise, you're beautiful." He responded with a genuine, kind smile. "You've always been, it's a gift I think. So of course, looks really matter to you, since they've become a big reason why people accept you. Whenever then, looks are criticized, be it yours or someone close, you feel for them, since how you look has always been important. But look at me, Cerise."
He took his eyes off the road for a second, so that Cerise got an eyeful of his face.
She bit her lower lip, staring into his eyes, not bothering to look at a face she knew as well as her own. "You're not ugly, Drake."
"Of course I am, Cerise. Physically, I'm hideous. It's something I've come to accept." He smiled at her, his tone gone of the bitterness or frustration she expected to hear. "But that's why it doesn't bother me-I'm glad that my face is the way it is. When someone insults my looks, why should it bother me, if I give it no value? Do you feel insulted when someone mocks the garbage you keep in your garbage bins?"
"Your face-your looks are not akin to garbage, Drake. To me, actually, you look fine."
He only grinned, turning into the suburbs where Cerise lived. "I'm glad that you think that, Cerise, but really, I don't care what people say about my face. It's amusing actually. It only hurts when they use that as a reason to treat me rudely."
"And they do."
"Yes, I'm aware." His smile faltered. His grip on the wheel tightened a bit more.
"I'm sorry, Drake. I just can't stand the way they talk about you." Cerise folded her arms over her chest, biting her lower lip.
"Thanks for worrying about me," he laughed good-naturedly, loosening his grip on the wheel. "Really though, I'm a big boy now, I can handle it." He winked, which she returned with a small grin.
"I know. But trust me, Drake, some day, someone will fall in love with you, who thinks you're adorable and amazing." The car turned down several quiet, lit up streets and crescents, which led to her house. Slowly, he pulled into the driveway, then came to a stop behind a large, soft, golden colored van.
"Maybe," he looked at her, his deep set eyes seemingly seeing right through her. "But most people just can't find it in themselves to see past the skin-deep."
Cerise's eyes flickered to the floor of the car, her cheeks reddening. "Someone will."
"I had hoped so." He unlocked her door automatically and wished her a goodnight when she stepped out of the cab. Driving away, she didn't bother waving at him as he reversed off their driveway.
I had hoped so… his words ran through her mind, meaning much more than he probably intended them to. Or did he mean what she thought? "Oh Drake," she mumbled under her breath, walking up the driveway towards her home.
Why did every guy in her life have to fall in love with her?
While the one guy she wanted, didn't seem to give her once care?
She took her phone from her pocket, turning it on and staring at the empty inbox. With a sigh, she put the phone back in her pocket and tried to get excited about the party that waited inside.