Instead of You(9)

By: Anie Michaels

“I was in such a hurry when I finally got out of work, I totally spaced the cake.” She sounded close to tears.

“Mom, it’s no big deal. Kenzie and I will go pick up the cake.”

“You shouldn’t have to pick up your own birthday cake, Cory.”

“No, this’ll be good. We’ll go get the cake, then we’ll stop at 7-Eleven really quick so I can watch my boy buy his first scratch-off.” His dad turned and smiled at us. “We’ll get Kenzie some too. There’s perks to turning eighteen after all.”

I didn’t want to burst Mr. Wallace’s bubble and tell him I’d driven, at midnight, to the closest gas station and purchased scratch-offs and a pack of cigarettes. Holly and Becca had gone with me, but none of us smoked, so the cigarettes were shoved in my glove box. We didn’t win any money on our scratch-offs either.

“No, I need Kenzie here to help me with dinner if you are all leaving.” She looked to me, eyes pleading.

“I’d love to help,” I said, and stood up.

Mr. Wallace kissed his wife’s forehead, then moved to swipe his car keys off the counter. “Let’s roll, birthday boy. The bakery closes in thirty minutes.”

Cory came up behind me, his hands landing on the curve of my waist, and his lips kissed right where my jaw met my neck. “I’ll be back soon, Kenz.” His fingers dug into my hips gently as he said, “Love you.”

I lifted my shoulder, effectively pushing his face out of my neck, laughing as I said, “Get out of here.” I watched as he and his dad left, feeling just the slightest twinge of guilt for not telling him I loved him back. I’d still never been able to say it, but I didn’t think saying it simply because it was his birthday was right. So instead, I’d playfully pushed him away.

He wrapped an arm around his mother’s shoulders, giving her a side hug and a sweet kiss right on her cheek. “Bye, Mom, we’ll be back soon. Hopefully, we’ll be millionaires.”

“Bye, sweetie. I’m sorry again.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said as he kissed her again. “Love you, Mom.”

I watched as he and his father left the house, trying to imagine in twenty-five years if Cory would look anything like his father from behind. Mr. Wallace still had an inch or two on Cory, but their hair color was identical. Mr. Wallace’s shoulders were a little broader, but Cory was definitely the better built of the two, naturally, being an eighteen-year-old athlete. Just before he closed the door, Cory turned his head and caught my eye, winking and grinning, then disappeared.

“I’m making Cory’s favorite,” Mrs. Wallace said as she tied an apron around her waist, covering the skirt and button-up blouse she had worn to work.

“Lasagna,” I said with a smile.

“Lasagna,” she replied. “Why couldn’t he like pizza the best?”

I laughed. “It’s only his favorite because you’ve never made him help you make it. He doesn’t understand the process.”

“Something tells me that even if he did,” she said, pulling ingredients out of her refrigerator, “he still would want me to make it for him on his birthday.”

“Probably,” I agreed, laughing again.

Forty-five minutes later the lasagna was in the oven, the table was set, and I had returned to the couch to wait for Cory and his dad to get home. Mrs. Wallace had gone to her bedroom to change.

“Where are those boys?” she asked when she finally emerged ten minutes later.

“Maybe they really won a million dollars.” I laughed.

“If they come home with a winning lottery ticket I’m quitting my job tomorrow morning.” She walked to the oven, opening the door to check on the lasagna. I got up from the couch and wandered to the kitchen island, leaning my elbows on the butcher-block top. “So,” she said, leaning back against the countertop opposite the island, “what did Cory get you for your birthday?”

I immediately blushed, thinking about how he was planning on giving me his virginity, but I managed to keep a straight face. “We decided not to exchange gifts. You know, what with Christmas being, like, two weeks ago.”

“Ah,” she said, a grin moving across her lips that it looked as though she were trying to hide. She picked up her phone and started thumbing the screen. “I’m going to call them, see what’s taking so long.”

As she did, I sent a text to Cory.

**Are you almost home? And why did your mom give me a weird look when I told her we weren’t exchanging gifts?**

“He didn’t answer,” she sighed. “Want to start an episode of Downton Abbey while we wait?”

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