3.57 Low Key

So, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. But Dad said he just wanted us to be happy, and Mom’s the most happy with six grandkids under her belt. Leila and I agreed we didn’t have to make a big deal about this. All we’re doing is proving what everyone already knows.

So when Leila suggested we get married in the number one party spot in Windenburg (“One last hurrah,” she said), I agreed. Everyone seemed pretty excited about it. Anastasia had her big wedding. Let us have the small one.

We invited our whole family and everyone we knew. I think it was kind of nice for everyone to just cut loose. No big ceremony or need to dress up super fancy (though, of course, Anastasia still did). It’s like a family reunion.

The dancing was the most fun. I reminded Sidney of our few endeavors into Windenburg, and he showed off some of the moves he learned. Even the old folks were getting into it.

As the sun set, we made our way to the cliffs. Leila held my hand, the bonfire blazing behind us. Everything was rosy.

“I can’t believe you’re letting me do this,” she said. “You get me so much that instead of a big wedding, you let me have a dance party. I’ve been in a lot of relationships, and none of them have mattered to me as much as you. I love you. I love that I’m part of your family. I want to grow old with you. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.”

I kept my voice steady as I started my vows. “I’ve spent most of my life searching for love. I never like myself as much as when I’m with someone who likes me, and you–you make me feel the best I ever have. I’m happy with you. I trust you. My son trusts you. I never want to give up this feeling. I love you, and I’m going to love calling you my wife.”

She slipped the ring on my finger as the final touches of red left the evening sky. I don’t deserve her. I don’t deserve to be this happy. I’ve never done anything with my life.

And still she chooses me. Watcher, I’ve never felt as lucky as this.

And that’s how we got married. The two of us on a lonely bluff, with our whole family watching.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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3.56 Welcome Home

Leila never got the job, but that didn’t matter.

Mom and Dad love having her in the house. Dad cooks all her favorite (with soy substitutes) and she and Mom talk books all the time. Mom showed her that picture book she wrote about me back when I was a baby, and now Leila reads it to Donovan all the time.

Even Huey treats her like one of the family. She’s begged for a pet since she was five years old, and finally she has a dog. She’s begging me to get a cat, but I’ll wait a minute before that happens.

Every day with her is amazing. She sees me off to work, and I help her with job hunting, but the most important person I have to think about is still Donovan.

It’s amazing how much he sprouted up. He’s in school now and killing it. He talks to all his little friends.

This little girl Rachel spends all of her time at our house. I think they’re besties. It’s so adorable.

Donovan takes after me more than I thought he would. I was hoping he’d have Ernest’s genius and good heart, but he’s the only one who enjoys the museum as much as I do. He’s a lot artsier, though. He constantly brings me new pictures. I hang them all up on the wall.

Leila takes him out while I’m working, and he adores her. I used to be so worried he didn’t like her, but he treats her like another parent. I love seeing the two of them together. We’re like a family.

Speaking of, we all went to see Aaron after the baby was born.

Sorry, babies. I said he was cursed, right?

“I still can’t believe you had triplets!” I said.

Rarely have I seen a man as tired as my brother. With the restaurant taking off and three babies upstairs, he’s probably gotten a total two hours of sleep in weeks.

“It’s a lot,” he said. “And I don’t have Mom and Dad taking care of them.”

I ignored the shot at my parenting. “You’re going to go crazy when they’re toddlers.”

Dad placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re always available for babysitting.”

“Can I go see them?” Donovan asked.

“Upstairs.” Aaron gestured to the staircase. “I think Theresa’s putting them down.”

“Quietly,” I reminded him, but he was already racing up the steps.

Triplets. Thank the Watcher I only had Donovan. Babies Kelsi, Andrea, and Alan are going to put their parents through the ringer. Donovan keeps asking me when he’s going to get a brother, and I direct him to this other parents.

Ernest and Stacy finally tied the knot, and Donovan was there as his best man. He spends every other weekend at their new place (and spring break, and two weeks out of the summer).

Life is so good right now. There’s nothing I’d give up.

Our family keeps expanding. Our home is finally the perfect size. I have a good relationship with my siblings, who are settled into happy lives, and Donovan loves all of his parents.

It’s finally coming together. My family. Finally complete.

3.55 Passing Time

I’m not the only one who got lucky the night of Anastasia’s wedding.

Theresa’s so, so pregnant. She ballooned right up, which sounds mean, but is really a sign she got struck by the Dabney fertility curse.

Mom and Dad are so excited, especially after May’s little girl was born. The grandkids are just rolling in. Mom’s never been happier.

Which is good. I’m a little worried about Mom. It’s getting harder for her to do all the gardening, and we’ve been hiring someone to do it on the weekends. I feel kind of bad that I never took an interest. Especially because they’re grandma’s plants.

I’m visiting Windenburg constantly now. Leila takes me to the museum and we spend our evenings playing bar games.

When we’re not meeting in person, it’s near constant texting.

And late night phone calls (which can be very fun).

And I probably could’ve stayed happy like that for a long time, no matter how much I wish her into my bed every night, but today she calls me.

Leila finally found a career she wanted to pursue: party planning. She’s been doing small shindigs for friends and coffee shop events, but she finally found an agency she’d love to work with. In Newcrest.

She calls to ask me–if this whole thing goes through–about moving in. There’s still a lot of what-ifs to deal with. She set up an interview, but she doesn’t actually have a ton of stuff to move, and she’s been hinting for a long time that she’s done with Windenburg.

I don’t care. All I want is to see her every day of my life. We’re already planning move in days and logistics. My baby’s coming home.

3.54 Wedding Day

Thank the Watcher, Anastasia’s wedding is finally here.

Anastasia, bless her, held it all together pretty well. She got her dream wedding at the Von Haunt Estate in her fairy tale dress, with her handsome prince. We all watched in rapt attention as they said their carefully prepared vows and slid the ring onto each other’s fingers.

Uncle Lance and Uncle Ellis had tears in their eyes. As soon as the ceremony was over, Uncle Ellis wrapped his arms around Anastasia and told her how beautiful she was. It overwhelmed me to look at them, this amazing family. Uncle Lance and Uncle Ellis have a beautiful daughter who’s now ready to start a family of her own. I got misty-eyed thinking about Donovan, and I glanced at Leila, who smiled a me.

The party made its way to the reception up at the mansion, and I hung back. Mom was talking to June (probably trying to figure out when her wedding would be). I saw Dad looking at the fountain and walked up to him.

“It was a really nice ceremony,” he said.

“Anastasia has to go all out.” I smiled. “I guess it kind of sucks for you guys though.”

He looked at me, his lip turned up. Even old, he looked like my dad. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged. “Aaron and Theresa had their Romance Festival wedding, and May refuses. It looks like no one’s going to have a big wedding for you guys.”

He shook his head. “You did a nice thing for your brother, you know? Even though you two fight all the time.”

“Yeah.” I brushed my hair back. “He deserves to be happy, though.”

Dad put a hand on my shoulder. “I feel the same. You kids live your own lives, and the only thing I care about is if you’re happy. You know your grandma got married on a whim at the Romance Festival.”

I nodded. We’d all heard the story a hundred times. Uncle Lance and Uncle Ellis got married there too, in honor of her.

“Don’t think you have to live your life to make your mom and me happy,” he said. “We’re going to love you no matter what.”

I wrapped him in a hug. “Thanks, Dad. That means a lot.”

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go party.”

Few partied like Anastasia. A whole spread was set out on the patio of the mansion, and she took her slice of cake, looking for her husband. Confetti was thrown, noisemakers rang, and we cheered on the new couple.

Anastasia was so gorgeous in her dress. I’m glad she went with something more traditional. I think she just wanted an excuse to have a giant rock around her neck and some fancy gloves. Francis looked handsome too. Together they make an amazing couple.

I found Alicia immediately and forced her to take a picture with me in our dresses. She hates it so much and I’m going to hang it on my wall forever.

Dad in the background, photobombing us. I could probably build a whole wall of Dad making goofy faces in the background of my pictures.

Leila hasn’t really had to mesh with my family like this yet, and she was amazing. She managed to dazzle May and June despite both of them being ridiculous successful. Mom tracked her down and they chatted for what felt like twenty minutes. I’m sure Mom was wheedling her for her own opinion on marriage and weddings. She caught my eye while they were chatting and gave me a big grin.

I found Aaron and Theresa messing with the chess set. Beautiful and smart. How did Aaron deserve this girl?

“How’re you enjoying the party?” I asked him.

“You know Anastasia,” he said. “Ostentatious as ever.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” Theresa said. “I was planning something much bigger than this before we moved.”

“I can imagine it,” I said. “You looking gorgeous in all white, Aaron looking like a big dork right next to you. I’m imagining a dress like this one. You’re glowing.”

She laughed. “Careful! You’re going to make Aaron jealous.”

“I’m just giving you ideas for the renewal,” I said, giving my brother a smirk.

“Alright, dummy.” Aaron pushed me away. “Don’t you have a girlfriend to pay attention to?”

“Sadly.” I winked at Theresa, who laughed again. “Enjoy the rest of the party.”

I found Leila exactly where I expected her: on the dance floor. Anastasia and Francis were cutting a rug as the DJ pumped out the Windenburg hits. I grabbed Leila’s hand, and she pulled me close. We’d barely even popped the champagne, but she was bubbly all on her own. I kissed her. Everything about today filled my chest with bubbles. I love my girlfriend. I love my family. I love everything about today.

Soon everyone joined us on the dance. Now the drink was flowing, and the music jammed. The floor became a crowd, and I laughed with my Mom as we danced together, took Anastasia’s hand, and danced with Alicia like we were sixteen again. Good song after good song played. I bet anything that Anastasia herself put together the playlist.

As the sun set around the manor, Leila found me on the dance floor and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. Sweat covered all of me, and I definitely wasn’t drinking enough water to have this much fun. We headed away from the manor towards the hedge maze, and I paused to look at the sign in front of it.

“I used to come here all the time as a kid,” Leila said. “My mom thought it was so romantic.”

“Didn’t the husband, like, burn them alive because he was jealous?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, my parents divorced.” She took my hand. “I did take a number of dates here.”

“Really?” I let her lead me through the tall hedges. You could barely peek over the other side, but she seemed confident. “You always seem so bored when we go to museums.”

“Lots of parties out here,” she clarified. “I’ve learned my way around.”

“So where are we going?” I asked.

She smiled, following the curve of the path to a small corner. “Somewhere private.”

I giggled. “My whole family is on the other side of this hedge.”

“Forget them.” Her fingers entwined in mine. Her dress was tight to her body, and her skin felt cool against mine. “It’s just you and me.”

I put my hand to her cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re getting all weepy because someone got married.”

“I wanted to remind you,” I said. “And it’s not just because of the wedding. I think about a future with you all the time.”

Leila didn’t say anything. She took my hand and closed the space between us. This beautiful, vibrant woman wants to share her life with me. I’ve met few people who burn as brightly as she does, and it keeps me warm. I want to share everything with her. I love her so much.

And I don’t care who knows it.

We did eventually make it back to the manor. I gave Anastasia her proper congratulations.

“This is the best party I’ve ever thrown!” she shouted, clearly drunk and clearly deaf from the bass.

“It’s your wedding!” I shouted back. “I think it’s a little more than a party.”

“Whatever.” She grabbed my hands, jumping up and down. “I’m married! I’m gonna be a mom!”

I laughed. “Tonight?”

“Maybe!”

“Never change, Anastasia,” I said. “You deserve all the happiness in the world.”

She said goodbye to the last of the guests, and we headed back to the hotel. Leila and I held hands the whole way in the car. I laid my head on her shoulders and dozed off. I’m so sad today is over, because in another day, I have to leave her. I hope it’s for the last time.

3.53 The Visit (Part Two)

Mom and Dad are so excited to have Leila around. I think they’re desperate to get me hitched. Dad talks her ear off the whole time she’s here, and she loves his jokes. Not as much as his cooking though.

Dad made a tofurkey too (show off). She swore she couldn’t tell by the smell. I warned her as we sat down to a set table (that was Mom showing off), and I could tell she wasn’t sure about it.

Took one bite and her whole face lit up. I couldn’t stop laughing. I’ve been eating vegetarian my whole life (and I still stick to it, mostly), but Dad knocks it out of the park. Sorry, Aaron, even your cooking doesn’t compare.

The day before she went home, I texted Ernest, asking if he wanted to meet up at the park with Donovan. I was still bubbly from sharing a bed with Leila, and if Stacy turned out to be Ernest’s forever girl, Donovan would have four adults acting as his parents. I want us to be able to be a family.

We met at the park down the street from him. Donovan’s spent countless hours here now. Ernest is still looking for a new place, and I wonder if Donovan will be sad to not spend every weekend here.

“I like Stacy,” I told him. “She’s so perfect for you.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Leila seems…”

“It’s okay.” I gave him a smile. “She’s got a big mouth. But she’s really sweet, honest. And she loves Donovan.”

“That’s what really matters,” he said.

I glanced over where Stacy and Leila were sitting. They were deep into some conversation about the Windenburg sites. Leila had so many opinions about the best and worst places, and I could tell Stacy was way out of her depth.

I heard Ernest laugh beside me, and I gave him a look.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just your face. You looked all dreamy.”

I shoved him. “Don’t make fun.”

“No, it’s nice.” He nudged me back. “Now I know what you look like when you’re in love.”

I rolled my eyes at him and went to rescue Stacy. Ernest took her hand, and they walked around the park while Leila and I watched Donovan. He crawled out of the jungle gym, finally tired. He eyed the both of us as he stood up on his little legs. He crawled over to the other bench.

“You think Donovan likes me?” Leila asked.

I watched him where he sat. “He hasn’t met someone he doesn’t like yet.”

“Can I pick him up?”

I nodded.

I watched Leila walk across to the other bench, and Donovan immediately started wiggling his limbs. His face filled with a bright grin. There was my boy.

“He seems to like me now,” she said.

“See,” I said. “I’ve never brought home a girlfriend before.”

“Are you accusing this kid of something?” she asked.

I laughed. “No! Maybe he, like, knows.”

She put her finger in his little hands. “Me and this kid are gonna get on great.”

I stood up, wrapping an arm around her.

“I really hope so,” I said.

3.52 The Visit (Part One)

Seeing Leila outside the context of Windenburg is kind of surreal. I’m used to seeing her under the flashing lights of the dance floor or in the cool evening light as the old world lamps came on. In the bright light of my front lawn, she looked almost out of place.

Mom and Dad were so happy to finally meet her. They had Donovan ready to greet her too, which was what I was most excited about. I’d explained it to him as much as I could, but he’s still young. I don’t know if he really gets what girlfriend or boyfriend means.

Normally he runs straight up to strangers, and he’s so used to having people come in and out of the house. Today he hung back and watched. Mom and Dad were their usual happy hosts. They offered to show her around the house, and Dad was going to get started on lunch, but I reminded him we already had a date planned. Leila’s only spending a few days with us between job hunting. Besides, I’m her girlfriend. I can show her around.

As Mom and Dad headed into the kitchen, taking Donovan to his chair, Huey ran into the room. Leila didn’t hesitate to give him pets. He gave a happy bark, tail thumping against the ground, and he rolled over so she could get his belly. She grinned at me as I watched.

“My parents never let me have a pet,” she said. “I’m so jealous.”

I heard Mom moving the dog food around in the kitchen, and Huey raced away without a second thought. I shook my head.

“Some days it’s really nice,” I said.

I took her upstairs, pointing out paintings in the living room or the game set Aunt Mira left behind. We have so much stuff gathered up over the years, and she wanted to look at everything. Finally I took her into the guest room. It’d been May’s room years ago, completely redecorated since then.

“I hope it’s okay,” I said.

“You live in the nicest house I’ve ever been inside, and you ask me if it’s okay.” She grinned, looking around. “These are some really sweet digs.”

“It’s all yours as long as you’re here,” I said. “And I really appreciate you being cool about this whole meet-and-greet with my ex.”

She walked around the room a little before settling on the bed. I settled beside her, wondering for the hundredth time if it was cool offering her the guest bedroom. We’ve only seen each other when I was visiting Anastasia. Despite our initial connection, we hadn’t had the time or privacy for anything more intimate. I could offer her my bed, but was that too much too soon? Was the guest bed too cold? Did it make it seem like I didn’t want her?

“This place is severely amazing,” Leila continued, interrupting my anxiety train before it had time to leave the station. “And I’m weirdly excited to meet your ex. I want to scope him out. See what you’re into.”

I laughed. “Is my penchant for redheaded party animals not obvious enough?”

“It’s so cool that you have such an easy relationship with him,” she said. “I think I’ve burned nearly every bridge in Windenburg.”

“Well, we always have a bed ready for you,” I said.

She smiled and leaned in, and that panic overtook me again. Had that been an invitation? It’s been four years since I’ve been with anyone at all. I feel like I’ve forgotten everything about dating. I feel like I’ve forgotten everything about having sex. I thought I might get a crash course in it as her hand touched my thigh, and my phone went off. A text from Ernest. Time to go.

We settled into the booth of the same breakfast place we’ve always gone to. Ernest and Stacy were already there, and Leila was quick with the introductions. I grabbed for a menu, desperate for something to fidget with.

“It’s so good to finally meet you,” Ernest said to Leila. “I see all the pictures April posts.”

“Windenburg looks like so much fun,” Stacy said. “I’ve never been outside of Willow Creek.”

“It’s a neat town,” Leila said, “but I’m enjoying something different.”

I was trying my best not to stare at Stacy. I don’t want to say I’m jealous, because I’m not, but she’s so–she’s so unlike me. I feel like Ernest picked out my polar opposite somehow. She’s sweet, full figured, well read, helps out at the local animal shelter, and looks like she’s Suzy Homemaker. Looking at the two of them, they’re a perfect match. It’s so weird to think Ernest went for me when he so obviously deserves her.

“I’ve Internet stalked you too!” Leila said, and I brought my hand up to hide a smile. “The second I saw pictures of Donovan I had to see which lover boy brought that beauty into the world.”

“Ignore her.” I pushed her arms down. “She’s just being mean.”

“You have Donovan next weekend, right?” Stacy grinned at Ernest. “I’ve only met him a few times, but I’m so excited to spend a whole day with him. If that’s okay, April.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I trust Ernest. And if Leila is spending a few days with us, you deserve the weekend.”

“I’m really glad we’re doing this anyway.” Ernest put a hand on hers, looking at her–looking at her the way he used to look at me. I remember the way my chest tightened, like looking into a bright light in front of the whole auditorium. But Stacy gave him star eyes back. I glanced at Leila, who was giving me a smirk. I can tell when she wants to be snarky, and I bit my cheek to keep from smiling.

We got our food, and we kept talking. The more Stacy talked, the more I got why Ernest was so into her. She’s so sunny and sweet. Their combined positivity could power the sun.

I thought lunch would be weird, and it was, kind of. But it feels so nice being, like, four adults. Having a conversation with Ernest that didn’t evolve around potty training. To be a couple thinking about couple things. My whole life’s revolved around other people since I got pregnant. It’s so nice to do something for myself for once.

The first day with Leila here was amazing, even if we were exhausted by the end of it. We microwaved leftovers for dinner and watched a movie with Donovan. I left Leila to relax while I put Donovan to bed.

I’m so used to having the upstairs to myself. Leila was brushing her teeth as I pushed open the door to the bathroom, which wouldn’t have been so bad, if it weren’t for what she wore to bed. Or rather, how little of it she wore.

“Sorry,” I said, trying not to look. “I haven’t had to share this bathroom in a minute.”

She only laughed.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It could be way worse.”

It’s not like I’ve never seen a girl without her pants on before. But something about Leila completely throws me. She’s effervescent. She shines. In my boring bathroom with Donovan’s potty half a foot from us, she blew me away.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” She moved closer to me. “Do I make you nervous?”

I fidgeted. “I–I don’t mean to be nervous.”

“It’s just, like–” Now she looked nervous. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or anything. I’m fine sleeping in the guest room, but I was sort of excited to, you know… Get some private time.”

“Look,” I said, swallowing down my embarrassment. “The truth is I haven’t had a date since Donovan was born. It’s been four years since I’ve been with anyone.”

“Four years, really?” She snorted and stopped when she saw my face. “Sorry. I guess I can’t judge.”

“The point is,” I continued, “I’m, um, afraid, I guess. That I’m so out of practice. And around you I feel like–like I’m a teenager again. Like I’m back in that club, when we first met. I know that sounds stupid.”

She smiled and took my hands. Leila’s got this sexy smirk, and I could feel my heart beating faster.

“You are, without a doubt, the sexiest woman I’ve met,” she said. “And your flustered routine is super cute. And I’m absolutely certain that, even if you did lose your mojo, a fair amount of tutelage will get your right back on top.”

Now was my turn to laugh. “Is that your best line?”

“You want me to do better?” she asked.

No interruptions to stop us. No parents to walk in on us, no texts from the ex, and Donovan was safely put to bed. When her hand went up my thigh, I didn’t stop her. I found the skin beneath her shirt, she found the latch of my bra, and I felt the flush of her skin, the sweet scent of her, the warmth that flooded off of her.

It felt so, so good. I haven’t felt this good in ages. I haven’t had someone touch me like this in ages.

And in the end, we fell asleep together. I missed this too. Having someone next to me. Sharing a bed. Just being with someone.

Which never lasts long. Watcher, I hope Donovan didn’t hear any of that. He was upset over a nightmare he had. He’d been having them for weeks now. I bought him a little nightlight, but he still got me up in the middle of the night.

I comforted my baby. He didn’t question why there was someone in my bed. Maybe not everything about this week is about me.

As I put Donovan down to bed, I found myself imagining a future like this. With Leila. Sharing a bed with her, looking after Donovan, climbing back into a warm bed with my girlfriend.

It’s a really nice future to look forward to.

3.51 Advice

I was helping Donovan get dressed when Ernest called. I was expecting our usual conversation. (What’s the plan for next weekend? Did I leave Donovan’s lovey at your place? I read an article on a parenting website and I have some concerns.) He surprised me though.

“Her name is Stacy,” he said. “You’ve met her at least once.”

I tried to think back to various friends, co-workers, and others I’ve been introduced to. Vaguely I knew he’d been dating some sweet faced blond woman. Maybe it still felt awkward discussing our dating lives to each other, but Ernest had only mentioned it in passing a few times when I was picking Donovan up from his place.

“You want me to have dinner with her?” I asked. “What for?”

“If she’s going to be part of my life, she’s going to be part of Donovan’s,” he said.

“Oh.” I sat down on Donovan’s bed, watching him wobble around his room. “So it’s serious.”

“Yeah.” I could hear the wistful tone in his voice. “But if she’s at my place, or if things, you know, keep moving, Donovan’s going to get to know her.”

I sucked in a breath. “Let me look at my calendar, okay? We’ll plan something out.”

I took Donovan downstairs for his breakfast. Mom was already cleaning up plates, and she must’ve noticed my face. I told her exactly what Ernest had told me.

“That’s good,” she said. “I was getting worried neither of you were going to date again. Having a kid isn’t the end of your life, you know?”

“I know,” I said. “I just–I hadn’t thought about it before. How dating would affect Little D.”

“It’s not like you and Ernest are bringing home someone new every week. And he’s too young to really remember if you do break up.”

I shook my head. “But what if he gets attached?”

She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not like you have people in and out of your door all the time. He hasn’t even met Leila.”

I tossed my plates into the sink. “Do you think he should then?”

“Honey.” Mom gave me a look. “You’ve been a total of three months? Long distance? It’s a little early to have this freak out.”

Too late, Mom. I hadn’t been in a relationship since I got pregnant with Donovan, and having a relationship after having a kid was completely foreign territory to me. If he gets too attached to Leila and we break up, or if this Stacy girl doesn’t work out after she moves in with Ernest, would that ruin his life forever? I don’t want to give him a complex.

The good news is I have someone I can ask.

“You’re freaking out,” Aunt Mira said.

“I know,” I muttered. “I guess I wasn’t expecting this. I haven’t really thought about dating since–”

“Since your baby boy was born?” She smiled at me. “Strange, how I know the feeling.”

I tugged on my ponytail. “How long did you wait? To start dating again?”

She shrugged. “Sidney wasn’t a toddler anymore, I know that. I had free time again. The difference between you and me, April, is that I dated assholes and pretty boys. You date nice pretty boys.”

“I’m serious, Aunt Mira,” I said. “You waited so long to introduce us to any of your boyfriends, and that was when you were sure. Ernest and this new girl have only been seeing each other a few months. What if Donovan gets super attached and then they split?”

“I thinks kids are a little more elastic than that,” she said. “I didn’t want Sidney–or any of you–to meet the men I dated because they were mean, or they hated kids, or I knew it was going to end bad. But do you think Ernest would be with someone like that?”

I let out a breath. “No.”

“Do you think Leila’s going to turn out like that?”

“No,” I admitted. Leila loves when I talk about Donovan. I know she wants to meet him.

“You have to trust your instincts here,” Aunt Mira said. “And if you’re so worried about meeting Ernest’s new girlfriend, invite your own along. Even the score.”

We drank our coffees and got up to leave. I thanked her one more time for talking with me.

She spread her arms out. “Who am I if I can’t be the barometer for nieces and nephews bad decisions?”

I laughed. “Really, Aunt Mira. I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

“So sweet.” She wrapped me in a hug. “And I mean it. Invite your girl. It’s time she got to know the whole family anyway.”

We said goodbye and I headed back home. The thought of Leila staying with us was a lot to think about, and fresh anxiety pushed up in my chest, but Aunt Mira was right. I had to trust my instincts.

3.50 Bridal Week

I love Anastasia. She’s my best friend. I’m so happy to be her maid of honor. But this whole wedding business is a real trip inside her head.

Uncle Lance, Uncle Ellis, and I all went with her to pick out a wedding dress. Anastasia, of course, is a ball of energy. We went to this little boutique in the center of Windenburg, which gave the full treatment: champagne, a private showing, all the stops.

It was kind of awesome talking to Uncle Lance again. It feels like my life’s going complete circle. He was there when I had my first kiss with Leila, and now he’s here when I have my first date with her.

Anastasia was so happy to parade around in every single dress. I absolutely thought she was going to go with one of the more daring ones. Uncle Ellis and Uncle Lance debated forever which one they liked more of all the ones she tried on. I know they’re artists and love the more avant-garde looks, but I think her final choice was the most her.

I’ve never seen them all so happy. Uncle Lance legit teared up when she put on her dress. I’m kind of sad Mom and Dad are missing out on our major moments. Aaron and Theresa barely had a plan for their wedding, and May refuses to get married. Maybe one day June’ll tie the knot officially with Arjun, but she hasn’t said anything yet. Mom’s more worried about grandkids than weddings, but I know it’s something they want for us.

Anastasia made me try on the hideous bridesmaid dress too. I can’t imagine Alicia in this. She’ll absolutely die. But I promised Anastasia the wedding of her dreams, and if that means wearing this, then I’ll do it for her.

I had to show Leila pictures. She laughed when she saw me.

“You look amazing!” she said. “You’re going to outshine the bride!”

“Shut up.” I slipped my phone back into my pocket. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Anastasia did that on purpose.”

“Oh, no doubt.”

“You’re going to have to wear something hideous too,” I said. “So you don’t outshine me.”

“Oh, baby.” She pulled her arms around me. “You look amazing in everything.”

I laughed and pushed her off. “You don’t have to lie.”

“Well I’m not sacrificing my sexiness for you.” She gave me a wink. “Anastasia’s going to be so pissed.”

Leila and I have texted nearly every day since the last time we were out together. She’d promised to show me her favorite spots in Windenburg, so I’d expected night clubs and loud music and crowds of people in a sweaty dance floor. I was surprised that our first date was taking place in this low key bar. She ordered some local brew and we played fuzball. I was so sure she’d school me, and I killed.

“Ha!” I shouted as I nailed the ball straight into the goal. “You aren’t going easy on me, are you?”

Leila shook her head in defeat. “I suck at these games. How are you so good?”

I stretched casually, to show how cool I was. “You don’t have four brothers and sisters you gamed with. Nothing worse than your big brother beating you at video games.”

“Come on,” she said. “You won. I owe you a beer.”

“You have to tell me everything that’s going on in Willow Creek,” she said as we sat. “You said your brother and sister opened their restaurant?”

I nodded. “Soft open last week, but there’s some food critic they think is going to stop there, so everything’s firmed up. We could go, if you visit.”

“I’ve never had San Myshuno cuisine.”

“That is blasphemy in my house,” I said. “Dad is a Spice Festival champion. You should come with us sometime. It’s an absolute treat.”

“That’s so cool.” She sighed, putting her chin in her hands. “I feel like Windenburg is so spent, you know? Like the party scene is great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it feels just so unsustainable.”

“There’s some really nice parts,” I said. “My cousin lives out in the country, and my uncles lives out on the island. The Von Haunt estate is really nice.”

“The quiet life, huh?” She smiled as she looked at me. “I guess maybe I’m getting ready to settle.”

“I never thought Anastasia would settle,” I said. “She’s giving up traveling so much after she’s married. She’s even talking about having a kid. Words I’ve never thought I’d hear.”

“Did you ever think you wanted one?” she asked. “A kid, I mean.”

“Yeah?” I shrugged. Before having Donovan, I hadn’t thought too much about it. “Mom’s, like, obsessed with grandkids, so we all agreed to have at least one. What about you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Your kid is super cute, but the thought of birthing one myself always freaked me out. I’ve never been with someone long enough to really think about it. I think the plan to be your wedding date a few months from now is the most commitment I’ve ever exhibited.”

I laughed. “I thought I had a terrible track record.”

“Oh, trust me,” she said. “By Windenburg standards we’re practically married.”

We hung out a few more hours, playing games, trying different lagers, and just talking.

I still had a few days in Windenburg where I helped Anastasia decide flower arrangements and taste cakes and plan the bachelorette party, but Leila took up the most of my time.

Leila is so sure of herself. There’s not an ounce of hesitation in any of her actions, and even in her uncertainty she’s carefree. I don’t know how to be like that, but I do know being around her makes me feel less anxious about my own worries. It makes me never want to leave her.

 

3.49 Night Out Redux (Part Three)

We got to the club, and Leila immediately ordered us a round of drinks. She waved to a couple of girls in the crowd, and Anastasia ran up to greet a few of them. Windenburg isn’t as big of a town as it seems. Everyone knew everyone.

I settled next to Leila, who tipped her drink to me. I glanced around the small club. Not that Willow Creek had an amazing selection, but I was surprised to see how low key it was.

“The club we went to as kids was so much bigger,” I said.

She laughed. “They shut that place down super hard. Underage drinking and all that.”

“I just mean, Anastasia always liked to go someplace showy. And you look like you’re into the same thing.”

She shook her head. “I actually love the small venues. More intimate, you know? It’s the same reason I like small town gay clubs. It’s a community.”

“That’s actually kind of lovely,” I said.

“Here.” She pushed my drink closer. “Drink this. Let’s dance.”

I downed it, and she took my hand and led me to the dance floor.

Anastasia shot me a look as we jumped onto the dance floor, and I rolled my eyes. But I saw her point. It was hard to keep my eyes off Leila. The Ghost of Winterfest Past had arrived. My imagination had been given time to inflate the events: make the night wilder, make her prettier, make the kiss hotter. But seeing her right in front of me, making her real. That was the wild part.

And it felt so much like we were picking up exactly where we left off. The small stage meant we were close to the DJ, and the music pounded against my ears, but the crowd pushed us closer together. We were dancing, together. Her hand drew across my shoulder, her hips pressed to mine, and with each bass drop we moved a little closer to each other. Song after song played, and I stopped wondering where Anastasia was, or worrying about the crowd, or hesitating with where my hands were reaching.

And there it was. I wouldn’t call it a lightning strike, but a spark.

“It’s, uh, getting warm,” I said as the DJ took a quick break. “I haven’t danced this much in a while.”

“We don’t have to dance,” she said. “I want to talk. It feels so, like, destiny to run into you tonight. I want to know everything about your life.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “I’d like that too.”

As the music started up again, we found a quiet spot, and we just shared. Everything. She talked about how she’d been working odd jobs all over town, picking up things and dropping them as needed. It told her about my own struggles finding direction. She’s an only child with parents that split when she was in high school, and she didn’t think it was goofy at all that I still lived with my parents (“saves money, you know?”). I even told her about Donovan, and how things are with Ernest.

“You’ve done so much!” she said. “I’m impressed!”

“It’s not impressive,” I said with a laugh. “Without my family, I’d be–I don’t know. Not able to raise a kid, for sure.”

“You shouldn’t sell yourself short,” she insisted. “You’ve done way more than I ever have. And your family helped, but it seems like you help them just as much. You’re pretty incredible.”

I knew my face was red. “I bet you’d do just as well in my position. You’re pretty incredible too.”

We leaned into each other, and then it just felt natural. Her arms wrapped around me, and I brushed my fingers against her sweating skin. She was cool in the heat of the club. We kissed.

I want to laugh at my baby self being so so nervous about a gentle peck on the lips. This felt right. Good. Amazing. Her hand trailed down my side, searching for skin beneath the fabric, and we pressed closer together. I wanted her. More and more I wanted to touch her skin, find the spots that made her gasp, and I didn’t care that there was a club full of people near us. I wanted her to push me down on that bench and draw her hands up my thighs. Watcher, it’s been a long time.

And just as easily as that, the lights in the club came up, and I leaned back in surprise. The DJ was stepping down from their perch, and the crowd was moving towards the exit.

I didn’t want to move. “That was, um…”

“Definitely worth waiting ten years for,” Leila finished. “But I think we’re getting kicked out.”

I giggled, drunk on this emotion. “What time is it even?”

She only took my hand, helping me up from the bench. I didn’t want to let go. I was scared she’d say goodbye, and it’d be another ten years before we saw each other again.

“Oh, wow,” Leila said as we stepped out of the dark club. “It’s almost dawn.”

“This is the latest I’ve stayed out in three years,” I said.

She laughed. “You need to party in Windenburg more often.”

I smiled. “I’m going to be around a lot in the next few months, since I’m Anastasia’s maid of honor.”

“That’s good. I want to do this again.”

I took a deep breath. “This is a little wild, but I don’t have a plus one to the wedding. I know this was just one night, but I kind of–I want to see you again.”

She grinned big. “That’s such a move, you know?”

“You don’t have to say yes.”

“I want to,” she said. “This was a ton of fun, and I’d love to try this out. When are you in town next?”

“In like a month,” I said. “We’re going wedding dress shopping.”

She shook her head. “That’s going to be a treat. Here.”

She held out her hand, and I took out my phone. Quickly she added her number, adding a heart emoji next to her name. When she handed it back to me, she didn’t let go of my hand, pulling me closer instead.

The sun was rising over our heads, and everything felt warm all of a sudden. I didn’t want her to leave me, but I knew we couldn’t stay.

“I’ll see you in a month,” she said. “Don’t be a stranger.”

There wasn’t much of a better goodbye than that. I watched her leave, every bit of me vibrating. Maybe I was just horny, but I couldn’t think of the last time someone made me feel like that.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when Anastasia leaped out at me, her face saying everything.

“I can’t believe!” she shouted. “I can’t believe that all just happened!”

“You’re the one who wanted me to find a plus one,” I said. “It worked out, didn’t it?”

“She was such a cool kid in high school. And you two couldn’t keep your hands off each other.”

I smiled. “We made a date for when I’m back in town. Hope you don’t mind me sneaking away.”

“Are you kidding?” She was practically jumping for joy. “This is the best. You’ll have to tell me everything.”

Exhausted, giddy, and elated, I couldn’t stop myself. This was the best night I had in ages. I feel good. I can’t wait to come back to Windenburg.

3.48 Night Out Redux (Part Two)

We stopped in the closest coffee shop for a pick-me-up. The party had lasted past midnight. I texted Mom and Dad to let them know we’d snuck out. Anastasia didn’t seem worried what her fiance would say.

“I’ll admit,” she said as we waited on our coffee, “the thought of giving up the single life is a little threatening.”

“There she is.” I put in my own order for a latte. “I was worried we’d lost you.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I don’t have any regrets, but I know how much Donovan has completely taken over your life. I love dancing and going out. What if I don’t get to do that anymore?”

She got her pastry as well, and we sat at the counter to wait. There weren’t a ton of people in the shop, but Windenburg is known for its population of late nighters.

“Tell me getting married won’t make me completely boring,” she said.

“Anastasia.” I sighed. “Getting married won’t make you completely boring. It’s impossible to make you boring.”

“That’s true.” She slumped forward and bit into her pastry. “What about you?”

“Am I boring?” I asked.

“No. I mean, kind of. You’re not as fun as you used to be.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “What’s that mean?”

“It’s been nearly three years since you dumped Ernest,” she said, mouthful of chocolate. “You haven’t made eyes at a single person since. Remember when you dreamed of having that spark?”

“I told you,” I murmured. “That’s not real.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked.

“I mean, it doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “I’ve had that spark with people, and it’s never panned out. You need more than just a lightning strike.”

“That’s fair. But I can’t stand to see you dateless this long. Pact. We’re getting you a plus one for the wedding.”

I laughed. “You can’t guarantee that.”

“Absolutely!” she insisted. “They don’t have to be your true love, but you should date someone again. Just mess around. Have fun.”

“I guess I do miss it,” I admitted. “I like being in a relationship. But it’s been so long since I’ve felt anything real.”

“Well I can’t guarantee real,” she said, “but we can start with ‘cute and fun’ and work our way up.”

I waved a hand at her. “It’s your party. I thought you said no pregnancies and no engagements.”

She grinned. “You can date someone without either of those happening!”

I rolled my eyes. “Not in my experience.”

Anastasia stuffed the rest of her food in her mouth, and I sat back. It’d be easy to say nothing had really changed after having Donovan, but I guess I had slumped down on the whole dating scene. It felt… weird, I guess, because Ernest and I still see each other all the time. In nearly every relationship, I feel like I was waiting for something to happen. Nothing ever did.

I was distracted, which is probably why it took me a minute to notice the woman sitting next to us. She was giving me a look, and when I turned to her, she gave me a big smile.

“This is so weird,” she said, “but I feel like I know you from somewhere.”

“Oh,” I said. “Maybe. I visit fairly often. My cousin lives here.”

“Hi.” Anastasia leaned over. “That’s me.”

“Oh, Watcher!” She jumped up. “Anastasia! And that totally makes you–oh what was it? Alice? Addie?”

“April.” I studied her face. “You’re…?”

“Leila,” she said. “Watcher, it’s been a long time. You probably don’t even remember, but we met at that club.”

I thought back. “The–”

“Oh!” I shouted. “Leila!”

She laughed. “You remember me?”

How could I not? My first kiss! My first kiss with a girl, even!

“Yeah,” I said, trying to play it cool. “Anastasia, you took us to that big club, and Aaron and Sidney got super drunk.”

I looked at my cousin, who was grinning big. There was no doubt that she remembered.

“Absolutely.” She leaned forward. “It’s so funny that we ran into you.”

“This is so weird, sorry,” Leila said. “It has to be, like, ten years, and it was just one night, but somehow I knew it was you.”

I don’t know if I would’ve recognized her without her pink hair. I did, on occasion, when I was way younger, still dream about dancing in that club with that pink haired girl. Some things are just formative. Now she looked–well, she looked like the kind of person that girl would grow up to be. Her bleached ends told me she never really gave up on dying her hair, and her shorts and tied top despite the chill was either all about fashion or suggested she intended to sweat tonight.

“Are you going out tonight?” I asked.

She nodded. “I’m supposed to meet some people, but I’m debating between a few places.”

“We were looking for a party,” Anastasia said quickly.

I held back an eye roll. Leila laughed.

“What party are you coming from?” she asked. “You’re a little dressed up for the usual scene.”

“Anastasia had an engagement party,” I said. “She’s getting married in–”

“In eight months,” she said.

“Getting married?” She clapped her hands together. “That’s awesome!”

“Oh, you know.” She preened. “It’s pretty exciting.”

“Well, we have to party down now.” Leila picked up her espresso cup. “There’s this little nightclub that’s the absolute scene. You’ll probably turn some heads, dressed up like that.”

I could feel Anastasia’s eyes burning into my back. And, you know what, she’s right? It’s been too long since I’ve been with anyone, and there was something about this meeting that felt, well, serendipitous.

“Why don’t you lead the way?” I said.

She grinned, and I did feel my heart beat a little faster. “Let’s do it.”