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After finishing my math test, I immediately called Iz to see where she was. I got worried when her phone kept going straight to voicemail. I would’ve loved to know everything was fine. I wanted to find out that her phone died because she forgot to charge it. I knew that wasn’t the case. It was her birthday, which she declared as the worst day of the year for her. I knew not to mention it when she woke up. I went about everything as if it was any other day. That’s what she wanted and I respected her wishes. She’d been so stressed about everything going in her life. On top of that, she had a bad habit of repressing her pain and taking it out on herself. I knew it was only a matter of time before she reached her breaking point, all the signs pointed to it happening on her birthday.
I removed my phone from my pocket and called Elle.
“Hey, Milo. How’d your test go?”
“Well, I think. Thank you for letting me borrow your notes. Have you seen Izzie?”
“No. I thought she was still at your place.” I could tell by her tone that her mind immediately went to the place mine did.
I cursed under my breath. “Do you have any idea where she might be?”
“She doesn’t have a car, so on campus somewhere.”
“Her dance bag’s gone.” She added after a pause. I assumed she entered her room to gather clues.
“I’m going to the dance studio. I’ll text you if I find her or if we need to form an official search party.” I switched directions.
“Seriously, don’t forget to notify me. I’m really worried.”
“I won’t. I promise. Bye.” I hung up and shoved my phone into my pocket.
I swiped my student ID card to gain after-hours access to the studio. I was relieved when I first laid eyes on her. I texted Elle to put her at ease. My mood immediately shifted when I noticed what she was dancing to and how she was doing it. Instead of the instrumental track we were all given to audition to, she was dancing to a hard rock song that utilized string instruments. The lyrics’ theme was pain and betrayal. She used her body to illustrate each emotion with perfect clarity. She never looked at herself in the mirror, making it clear that she was dancing what she felt inside; she wasn’t trying to put on a show.
When the song was over, she noticed me in the mirror. She turned around, but remained silent.
I turned off the stereo system and made my way to her. “Are you okay?”
“Why are you not talking?” I tried again.
She walked up and hugged me instead of saying anything. She buried her face into the fabric of my shirt. She held onto me tightly, as if she was afraid that I would vanish at any moment.
I closed my eyes and rubbed her back.
“I’ve given you so many reasons to leave. I would have, if given the choice.” She pulled away from me. “I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.”
“My boyfriend still thinks I’m perfect. You need to remain in friend mode if you want me to be honest.”
“I’m right here.” I reassured her.
“Why are you thanking me?”
“For being yourself. Having someone understand me makes me feel less insane.”
“Less?” I questioned lightly.
“Being a little crazy is a good thing. Normal is a synonym for boring. Think of all the fun we have with our friends and each other.”
I breathed out a laugh. “I think you’re right about that.”
“I’m not going to cry anymore. It has gotten old.” She said somewhat playfully, but I knew she was serious.
“Yes, you are. What you’re not allowed to do is bottle everything up.”
“I’m not going to hurt myself. Stop worrying.”
She nodded. “I know what it can do and I don’t want this to be the end.”
I hugged her. “Thank you.” I kissed the side of her face.
“Interesting turn. You’re thanking me now?” I could hear the smile in her voice.
“For holding on to hope. I know it is not the easiest thing to do right now.”
“I’m not alone. That takes some of the pressure off.” She leaned up and kissed me.
“You can keep practicing while I’m in here. I love watching you dance.”
“Are you sure? There are other things we could do. I don’t want you to get bored.”
“Just dance. I know it will make you happy.” I kissed her forehead and sat down on the bench at the front of the room.
She practiced for a few hours. I alternated between watching her and interacting with my phone. I suggested that we go off campus for dinner, reminding her that weekend food was not up to par with weekday meals. I gave her time to change, waiting in the living room of her suite.
“Can we go get burgers?” She leaned on the back of the couch.
“I have never had one of those.”
“Then we are definitely changing that. Wait, how are we leaving?”
“The palace issued me a car to use for the duration of the semester. I managed to spin it into an academic necessity.”
“How’d you manage that?” She giggled as she reached out for my hand.
“I told Verna about all the times Ryan had to rush me to the store to get school supplies in the middle of the night because I had a project due the next morning.”
“Nice one.” We left her suite holding hands. “Are your far guards following us?”
“From afar. They will still be out of sight.”
“I guess that will be okay.”
I escorted her to my car. I held her door open for her.
“Way to earn that ring.” She joked as she sat down.
I shook my head and walked over to the driver’s side.
“Do you like my dress?” She clicked on her seatbelt.
I glanced over at her as I did the same. “You look beautiful. Are you sure you want fast food?”
“Yep. It is not that fancy. I also want to see you eat your first burger.”
“If you insist.” I put the key in the ignition.
Izzie laughed as I struggled to order at the first drive through I had ever attended. We went to point lookout, an out of commission lighthouse over looking the river. We remained in the car and turned on the radio.
“Presentation gets a D-.” I unraveled the wrapper of my sandwich.
“Disregard how it looks and just eat it.”
“Don’t make me feed you.” She dipped her French fries into her milkshake.
“What are you doing?”
“You’ve never done this either?” She stopped midswipe.
I shook my head.
“Here.” She approached me with the vanilla ice cream-dipped fries.
I ate them reluctantly.
“Hm. That is quite good, actually.” I licked my lips.
“See. Eat the burger. You will not be disappointed.” She put her feet out the window, crossing her ankles.
“This is delicious.” I commented on the burger.
“Told you so.”
We ate in a comfortable silence, ambiance created by the music. I kept looking in her direction. Each time my eyes met hers, I struggled not to wish her a happy birthday.
“What? Do I have something on my face?”
I kissed her instead of answering, scared I’d say something.
She shifted and joined me in the driver’s seat. We made out until her back honked the horn. We laughed. She rested her hands on my shoulders. “We should get back. I’m supposed to webchat with Audrey in thirty minutes.”
“Fine.” I pretended to groan in annoyance.
She pecked me on the cheek and returned to her seat.
“You should come over afterward.”
“Yeah?” She smiled over at me.
“I am unapologetically needy tonight.”
“I guess I can oblige. Sister first, though.”
I drove us back to campus without a hitch. We went our separate ways after arrival. I showered and cleaned up my room as I waited for her. She showed up an hour later.
“Is this just a sleep over or…?” She placed her bag on the floor beside the door.
“What do you want?”
“To cuddle and watch movies.”
“That’s what we are doing.”
She bounced onto the bed beside me. I put my arm around her. She rested her head on my shoulder and we watched movies on my laptop until we were ready for bed. I woke up to my phone vibrating on my nightstand. I read the text message from Elle and a smile crept onto my face. My left arm was pinned beneath Iz, so I used my right one to shake her gently.
“Wake up, Beautiful. Today’s a very special day.”
“Hmm. What’s today?” She kept her eyes closed.
“You’ll have to get up and find out.” I coaxed in a singsong voice.
She groaned and turned over to face me.
“But sleeping’s fun. Let’s do that instead.” She placed her hand on my chest and meddled with the collar of my T-shirt.
“We’ve got stuff to do.” I pecked her on the lips.
“Not cool, Princey, not cool.” She groaned and climbed out of bed.
“You and your million and one names for me.”
“Can you at least tell me what we’re doing?” She placed her hands on her hips.
I couldn’t keep myself from checking her out as she stood before me in a tank top and a pair of my boxers.
I shook my head. “I refuse to spoil this.” I got out of bed.
She saw that I was making my way to the bathroom and beat me to it.
I pounded on the door. “Izzie, unlock the door!”
“Since you changed my plans of sleeping until the middle of the afternoon, I’m changing yours of going to the bathroom.”
“But Isabella, I have to go…” I whined with my forehead pressed against the door.
“Should’ve thought of that before you woke me up at the crack of dawn.”
“It is 12:30 in the afternoon. It is in no way early!” I groaned and pushed myself off the door.
“Are up mad at me!?” She added quickly.
“Yes, but I still love you!” I called back to her, making sure I was loud enough to be heard over the water.
“Yay!” She exclaimed happily. I chuckled to myself as I went across the hall to use the bathroom Finn and Nick share.
I rushed through my morning routine as quickly as possible. I needed to ensure Izzie wouldn’t wander into the living room without me. She was still in the shower when I returned to my room to get dressed. After I was done, I sat down on my bed and waited for her. She came out, wrapped in her towel with her hair drenched.
“Are you still mad at me?” She smirked in my direction.
“A little.” I warded of a smile of my own.
She leaned down and kissed me. “Don’t be.” She pecked me once more.
She went over to her bag and started getting dressed. I laid on my back and stared up at the ceiling to give her some privacy. She climbed on top of me when she was done.
“What are you –?”
She silenced me with a kiss. I allowed myself to get swept away by her. I moved my lips in sync with hers, placing my hands on her hips. My bedroom door opened without warning and we both looked over at it.
“Sami’s hungry.” Ryan used our code phrase as he glared at me for getting distracted.
“What does that have to do with us?” She remained on top of me, deeming that it was too late to move. He kept his eyes locked on mine.
“We will go to the dining hall with you. Just give us a second.” I requested.
“Don’t make me come back in here.” He shut the door.
“Does he knock?” She looked down at me with a small smirk.
“Usually I lock the door when we display affection.”
“Thank you for being patient with me.” She leaned down and captured my lips with hers.
“I am only being a decent human being. You have no reason to thank me.” I pecked her once more. She rolled off of me and stood up from the bed. I did the same and took her hand in mine.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, IZZIE!” Our friends exclaimed as soon as we walked out of my room.
They transformed our living room into a private birthday party, complete with colorful streamers, balloons, a ‘happy birthday’ banner, a cake, and a pile of presents.
Izzie’s eyes widened in shock as she started giggling uncomfortably.
“Thank you so much, guys, but my birthday was yesterday…” She admitted reluctantly.
“Not anymore. You didn’t like your old birthday, so we’re giving you a new one. Every year on April 15th, we’re going to celebrate your birth. So, happy new birthday, Beautiful.” I told her.
Tears collected in her eyes and the biggest smile made its way onto her face as she placed her free hand on her chest. “You guys did all this for me?”
“What part of ‘we love you’ don’t you understand? Happy Birthday, Babydoll.” Elle walked over and pulled her in for a hug.
“I’d love to take the credit for coming up this idea, but it belongs to Prince Charming.” Elle informed her as she pulled away.
Iz looked to me. “Really?”
“It was something your old family took away from you. It’s only fair that your new one replaced it.” I shrugged.
She engulfed me into a constricting hug. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“You deserve all of it.” I kissed the top of her head.
“I love you.” She let go of me
“I’m passing out hugs. All of you are amazing and I love you.” She made her way to each of our friends to hug them.
“Are you really hungry? Maybe I should rethink this hug.” Iz teased Sami.
“No, that was just our code phrase. You’d be hearing about it if I was.”
She giggled and hugged her.
“I know you’re not cool with hugs. Can today be an exception?” She asked before hugging Finn.
“Bring it in.” He extended his arms to her.
She hugged him with a smile. “I’m going to count this as my gift. I got a Finn hug, not many people can say that.”
I smiled and shook my head at her.
“Tell no one of my guy code violation.” Ry told her as she hugged him.
“Your secret’s safe with me.” She smiled up at him.
“I hope the kids were on their best behavior for you, Mom.” She hugged Morgan.
“There were a few arguments, lots of getting sidetracked, but we all made it through.” She played along.
“That’s good to hear.” She giggled.
“I’ll be sure to tell a certain cousin of mine all about this.” She moved on to Nick.
“Please and thank you.”
She giggled and pulled away. “So what’s first?!” She looked to us expectantly.
“What, have you never had a birthday party before?” Sami retorted playfully.
“I had my last one when I turned 8. I’m a little rusty, so what do I do first?” Her face was still lit up as she looked around at everything.
“Can I kill your parents with Sami?” Finn asked in response.
“Just my dad, but after my party, okay?” She fired back in a bubbly and excited voice.
“Cake first, Iz.” Ry chuckled.
They had placed her cake on one of our end tables. It was a cream colored cake with pastel colored butterflies all over it. She practically ran over to it.
“It’s so beautiful. I love it! Wait, did you make this, Ry?” She teased, looking in his direction.
“No, Miles, wouldn’t let me sing. It’s not going to be as good as it could’ve been.”
Elle looked to him pointedly. He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Elle and Nick baked it. They let Sams and I do a taste test; it’s amazing. Finn and Morgan decorated, that’s why it looks nice.” He admitted.
“When did you have time to make this?”
“Yesterday afternoon. Mrs. Swanderson let us use one of the classroom kitchens.” Morgan answered.
“She was cool with it once she learned everyone’s favorite fire starter would be on diversion detail.” Ryan teased.
I narrowed my eyes at him.
Izzie giggled. “I love you.” She pecked me on the cheek.
“Back on track. We’re going to sing happy birthday so that you can blow out your candles.” Morgan placed a single candle into the cake. Finn pulled out his lighter and lit it.
“Why only one candle? I’m turning 17.” She asked curiously, seeing they had an entire box.
“We have to christen today as your new birthday. You’ll be blowing out candles 17 times and making 17 wishes to make up for lost time. Don’t worry, we’ll only sing our rendition of the birthday song once.” Nick offered her a warm smile.
She beamed and nodded in understanding. Her huge smile never faltered as we sang to her. She closed her eyes, made a wish, and blew out her candles. Morgan added a candle, Finn lit it and she blew it out sixteen more times. We all took slices of cake and sat down to watch her open her presents. I sat down in one of the armchairs and she sat down on my lap.
Ryan picked up one of the boxes and handed it to her. “It’s from me.”
Nestled inside the pink tissue paper, was a hot pink hoodie, a white tank top with pink and silver sequins, and black sweatpants.
“I thought I’d get you some ‘Ellen-approved’ workout clothes. I know you like to wear them to dance and stuff, so I got you some that you can wear without her threatening to disown you.”
“Thanks, Ry, that’s really sweet of you. I love them! And good job on the sizes.” She beamed at him as she held each item for everyone to see.
“Open mine next.” Morgan gave her a new box. She shredded off the gift wrap paper and lifted the lid. There was a metal, ballet-themed lunch box. There was a Post-it note on it that said: “Open Me!” She unfastened it and lifted the lid. Inside, there was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a juice box, applesauce and an apple.
Izzie looked up at her with a bright smile. “Mom, did you pack me a lunch?”
She giggled and nodded. “All of your favorites. There’s more.”
She returned to the gift box. She lifted out a whistle.
“Since you’re refereeing Elle vs. Sami fights with me, you need the proper gear. It’s hard to be heard sometimes.”
Iz giggled. “I love it. All of it. Thanks, Mom.”
“That’s mine.” Sami announced when Iz lifted a gift bag from the coffee table.
She broke the seal created by a clear piece of tape. She lifted out the tissue paper and pulled out a plush frog stuffed animal.
“You helped me save the real frogs, I thought it was only fair that I gave you one to keep.” Sami shrugged.
“It’s so cute and soft. I love it. Thank you!” She hugged it to her chest.
“Mine will make more sense following Sami’s. It’s the little one.” Finn pointed.
Izzie picked it up and opened the blue gift bag. She lifted out a gold key. For whatever reason, it made her smile like crazy.
“My own key to the school?”
He nodded. “You held your own out there with us. You earned it.”
“Wait, how do you have a key to the school?” Nick looked to him.
“That’s classified information.”
“Do you and Sami have them too?” Elle asked.
“We’re essentially a special key-bearing society. If you stop asking questions, you’ll raise your chances of being inducted.” He replied.
“Whoo! I’m special.” Iz cheered.
She went back to the table to select another one to open. She picked up mine.
“Nope, not until the end.”
She looked at me. “Are you kidding me?”
“No. You can’t open mine yet.”
She playfully groaned and rolled her eyes.
She selected another box and returned to her seat on me.
“That one’s from me.” Nick informed her.
“YES! New horrible horror movies!” She cheered after shredding the wrapping paper.
He nodded. “And one good one. I can’t watch them, but the horrible ones make you happy and that’s all that matters. A good example of the genre will make you see just how awful the other ones are.” He explained.
“And I’ll laugh even harder. Genius. Thanks, Nick.” She smiled at him.
“I still can’t open yours?” She looked back at me.
I shook my head. “You still have Elle’s.”
“So mean to me.” She joked, picking up the only other gift on the table.
She tore off the pink wrapping paper and removed the lid from the box. Inside, there was a scrapbook. On each page, there was a title of one of our adventures together, pictures of us, and mementos. For example, on the Camp Artsy page, the sheet music for the first song on our backup set list was the background and pictures of us were glued on top of it. She went all the way through to the end of the school year, having the prom and final performance pages decorated, but missing pictures.
Iz looked up at her with tears in her eyes and the brightest smile.
“You’ll remember what you’ve accomplished and us with perfect clarity, even on your darkest days. Regardless of where you go, you’ll never be alone.” Elle explained.
“And now I’m crying.” Iz said lightly, using her sleeve to dry her eyes.
Elle walked over to us and hugged her. “Happy tears, right?”
She nodded. “I love being your sister.”
Elle pulled back and smiled. “Good. You’ll get a kick out of the other part.” She returned to her seat beside Ryan.
She lifted her scrapbook. Beneath it, there was a black V-neck T-shirt. It looked too big for Izzie. Iz busted out laughing as soon as she saw it. I looked to her in confusion.
“Say hello to your new shirt, Miles. It’ll look good on you.” Elle informed me with a wink.
Izzie started giggling harder as the others joined in.
“How do you know my size?” I checked the tag.
“I’m a professional shopper. I make it my business to know with one glance.”
“I love you.” Iz told Elle, still cracking up.
When she calmed down from her Elle-induced laughter, she looked back at me.
“Can I PLEASE open the one from you now?” She pleaded with her bottom lip poked out.
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to get you anything.”
She tried not to smile. “You don’t listen and neither do I. That’s why this works.”
“I guess you can open it.”
She picked up the little blue box and untied the white ribbon. Her whole face lit up as she discovered a silver globe charm nestled inside.
She looked back at me. “What’s this one mean?”
“It’s okay that your old world has come crashing down. You have a new one.” I fastened the charm to her bracelet.
“I love it. Thank you.” She placed her other hand on the side of my face and placed her lips on mine. We pecked each other a couple of times.
“Cool it with the mushy crap. I need to know what’s in the card.” Sami called to us.
“We made a bet. It better contain more than five inside jokes or I’m locking you out of the suite, Miles.” Ryan added.
“We should put them out of their misery.” Iz smiled.
“You’re nicer than I am.” I placed a kiss on her cheek as I handed her the card.
She ripped it out of the envelope quickly. She smiled over at me when she read the cover.
After reading it, she gasped softly and brought her hand to her mouth.
“Does this mean what I think it means?” She looked to me.
I nodded. She hugged me as tightly as possible.
“What the hell does that thing say?!” Sami asked.
“On it.” Elle walked over to us and grabbed the card. She remained standing and read it aloud.
“‘Happy Birthday, Beautiful’. — Aww, so sweet.” She looked at me with a smile before she resumed reading.
“I hope you are enjoying your new day. We speak of our imaginary life together often. We will have to wait on the baby penguin named Mittens, but we may be able tackle some of the other stuff this summer. If all else fails and our procrastination gets the best of us, we can always watch horrible horror movies, eat applesauce, and play Flirty Distraction’ — what’s Flirty Distraction?” She stopped reading to ask.
“It’s a game we made up. We silently flirt with each other. If we distract the other person from what they are supposed to be doing, we get a point. Touching and talking are not allowed, doing so makes the other person win automatically.” I explained.
“That’s what you two have been doing in math? I’ve been trying to figure that out for ages.” Elle cried in shock.
Izzie nodded with a smile. “It’s fun. You should try it some time.”
“Maybe. –” She smiled and resumed reading. “You are invited to spend a month in Listonenia with me. Mittens really is a no go, but we might be able to get your picture taken with a mini horse named Butternut Sprinkles. I have discussed it with Wilmer. He is highly confused, but he seemed receptive. Love, Milo.”
“You guys get to see each other this summer?!” Elle exclaimed excitedly.
“Only if she wants to go.” I looked over at Iz expectantly.
“Of course. You’re luring me in with so many loves of my life.” She beamed.
“Am I ranked below Butternut Sprinkles?” I joked.
“It’s a mini horse named Butternut Sprinkles, Milo, BUTTERNUT SPRINKLES.” She played along.
I laughed. “I don’t stand a chance.”
“I’m happy you understand.” She patted me on the back, smiling.
“Aren’t you happy I asked Aud to tell me your birthday? You’re one step closer to Butternut Sprinkles.” I smiled.
She rolled her eyes with a smile. “Maybe.”
“Iz, –” I coaxed.
“I’m very happy and extremely grateful for everything all of you guys have done. I’ll say that.” She offered as a compromise.
I chuckled. “You’re so stubborn.”
“You know you like it.” She joked, leaning into me.
“I love you. Happy birthday.”
I want her to be happy. I hate that she feels lost. I truly do not feel that her identity lies in whom her father is. Finding one way or another would change a few things, but she is still the Izzie, I know and love at the end of the day. With a little coaxing, our friends and I brought her back out just as she was rebuilding the wall around herself. We appreciate and love her. We’re more than willing to give her what she’s always wanted — a family.