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The Shirt You Let Me Wear Home

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The title is from 'Hostage' by Billie Eilish.

;;

Jackson is twelve when he first learns how to ride a bike.

His mother buys a grangy worn-out bicycle from the thrift store for thirty dollars, cleans it up, and takes him to the park to teach him. It’s late; the sun had already gone down and yet, there Jackson was, pedaling an ugly, bright orange contraption that he had no idea how to use. He complained every single day and he had quickly grown to hate nightfall. But his mother, Catherine, in her usual way, was relentless and practically dragged him each night to the park to practice.

After the second week, however, Jackson had enough.

“Mom,” Jackson said, stopping his wobbly bike and setting his feet down on either side of its frame. “I don’t want to do this anymore!”

Catherine looked up from her array of bills and focused on her son’s face illuminated by the yellow street lights. “Keep pedaling, Jackson.”

Expecting him to continue without another complaint, she was surprised when Jackson slammed his bike down on the pavement.

“I said I don’t want to do this anymore,” Jackson enunciated while clenching his fists. “It’s dumb, my hands hurt from falling, and I don’t know how to use the stupid brakes.”

Standing up from the park bench, Catherine makes her way over and places her hand on her son’s shoulder. “We’ve talked about this. I work in the mornings and I can’t drive you to school. I am not letting you walk two miles to school everyday.”

However, Jackson only gets angrier and viciously retracts his shoulder from his mother’s grasp. “Then why can’t dad take me!”

Tears begin to form in his eyes and a bit of Catherine’s heart breaks. “It’s impossible,” she begins. “Your father left us; you know this, Jackson.”

“It’s all your fault!” Jackson yells, kicking the bike and rattling the chain. “Dad wouldn’t have left if it weren’t for you!”

“Wait, I..” However, her sentence gets cut short when Jackson begins to run into the dark. Catherine lets him go.

She walks back to her bench, glances at the debt she has no clue how she’s going to pay, and cries. She cries for her son who has to learn to live without a father, cries for their financial situation where she’s barely earning enough for the week, and cries for herself because she doesn’t know how to raise a young boy all alone.

It’s nine when she decides to go back home. She picks up the bike and walks it back to their small apartment on the first floor. When Harper Avery left her and Jackson, he took all his savings, his large house, and anything else that signified even a sliver of wealth. As a result, both she and Jackson had to move from a life of luxury and privilege to a life of poverty and hardship.

She cursed the name Harper Avery and when the divorce finalized, she changed her last name back to Fox, her maiden name. However, Catherine couldn’t find it in herself to take the Avery name from her son. It was all he had known and who was she to strip him of his identity?

Jackson comes back home just before midnight and finds his mother to apologize.

He’s in seventh grade when he begins to ride a bike to school.

;;

When Jackson is a freshman in high school, he gets suspended.

He had been going to public school for three years now and luckily, his middle school required uniforms. All Jackson had to worry about was if his white collared shirt was tucked in and that it didn’t have an odor after wearing it for the third time in a row.

Now that he’s in high school, students are not subjected to navy blue pants and white shirts. For most kids, it’s a blessing, but for Jackson, it means he has to remember to alternate between his two pairs of jeans and his faded t-shirts.

Usually, most kids don’t even notice Jackson. He’s tends to keep to himself and never raises his hand in class. He doesn’t want the attention; he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. His dad left, so what? As long as he has his mom, he’ll be fine.

One day, Jackson forgets to change his shirt. Normally it isn’t a big deal since no one pays attention to him anyway, but today, Alex Karev notices.

“Oh, look! It’s loser boy,” Alex points and snickers to his group of friends. “Didn’t you wear that ugly shirt yesterday?”

Jackson attempts to ignore them and walks to his desk in the far corner. However, Alex and his friends follow.

“I can smell you from here! Gross!” Alex pinches his nose, but Jackson triple checked before he left his house that it didn’t.

“Look at all the rips in his shirt,” Alex continues, this time grabbing Jackson’s sleeve. “I bet he has lice too. Let’s check before he contaminates all of us.”

This time, Jackson stands abruptly.

“What... is little poor boy gonna hit me?” Alex taunts. “Come on, do it!”

Jackson stands there, nose-to-nose with his tormentor, and considers shoving Alex before remembering his mother. Violence is never the answer, she always says.

“Are you afraid? You know... my dad works with your mom and he tells me her hair is always greasy.” Jackson’s eye twitches at the mention of his mother. “That’s so nasty! I bet she only showers when she wants to get—”

Jackson didn’t want to punch Alex, but anyone who talks bad about his mother is never safe. Blood stains his knuckles and he swears he hears a ‘crunch’ when his hand meets Alex’s nose.

By the time Catherine gets the message from Jackson’s school, it’s past seven. She rushes to the school and apologizes to the principal for being late.

When they get home, Jackson refuses to tell his mother the reason for punching Alex. It’s best that she doesn’t know.

Jackson doesn’t attend school for an entire week, but he doesn’t regret it.

;;

On his seventeenth birthday, Catherine takes him to the grocery store.

It’s a rare occasion for both of them; they had become accustomed to the dollar menu at McDonalds and ramen noodles as sustenance. But this time, Catherine wants to make her son a birthday dish of his liking.

Jackson nearly cries when they walk through the doors of Jewel Osco, Chicago’s well-known supermarket, and he glances at the array of vegetables; they’re fresh. And who knew there were so many types of apples?

“Pick whatever you want,” Catherine smiles. “Today is your day. I’ll make whatever you choose.”

Jackson looks at the aisle signs and immediately heads toward the pasta section. Before his dad left, his mother would make the most amazing lasagna. It was something Catherine didn’t allow the chef to make as it was a secret Fox family recipe. But when the arguments started, their family dinners dwindled. Jackson can’t remember the last time he’s had a home-cooked meal.

Catherine follows her son and silently recounts the money in her pocket. Anything he wants, she tells herself.

Picking up a box of lasagna noodles, Jackson looks up at his mother. “Can you make lasagna like you used to?”

“Of course I can,” Catherine smiles. “Let’s go look for the other ingredients.”

They scour the entirety of the store, picking up the tomatoes, onion, meat, cheese, and other ingredients needed to make Jackson’s special birthday meal.

“Wow, mom, look at all the flowers,” Jackson says, as they come across rows of bouquets and plants.

“They’re beautiful,” Catherine responds, a wistful look in her eyes.

Back when everything was okay, gardening was one of her favorite things to do. She loved spending hours in her secret world where she was in charge of everything - from the flowers to the color schemes. Her most favorite of all, however, were the tulips. Having to give up something she loved was so difficult, but she knew that her son was more important.

Jackson picks up a bouquet of yellow and red tulips, “Tulips were your favorite right? Should we get them?”

“No, no, baby. It’s okay. Today we get what you want,” Catherine responds after looking at the expensive price. There is nothing more she wants than to have a piece of her old life with her, but she worries they won’t have enough money to afford the groceries and the flowers.

“Alright, next time then,” Jackson says, putting the flowers back.

With a cart full of groceries, they set everything down on the conveyor belt and Catherine watches as the total gradually increases.

After paying the grand total of $53.78, they load the car and head home.

Jackson can barely hold in his excitement as he watches his mother prepare the ingredients. He makes conversation, talking about his long day at school and he can only think back to the time when things were always like this; when he’d get to talk to his mom about ordinary things instead of only seeing her very late at night.

He can’t help but think of how much he depends on his mom. She works two jobs so she can put food on the table. She’s the one who encourages him in his schooling - who supports him in anything he chooses. It’s impossible to imagine a life without her.

The timer from the oven calls his attention. The sweet aroma of tomato sauce and beef fills the entire house and Jackson’s stomach grumbles.

Catherine cuts a large portion for her son and sets it on a paper plate. She hands him a plastic fork, fills a glass of water, and walks over to give him a backwards hug. “Happy birthday, Jackson.”

“Thanks mom, love you,” Jackson responds before stuffing a forkful of lasagna in his mouth.

Catherine eats a small portion and lets Jackson eat the rest. He devours the entire pan in less than thirty minutes.

It’s Jackson’s birthday when Catherine lies that she’s not hungry.

;;

It’s the last week of January when Jackson finds out his mother has stage IV breast cancer.

Catherine had known for months now, yet, she never wanted to stop working. Who else would pay the bills?

So yeah, her appetite dramatically decreased, she always had aches and fatigue, and she had the worst case of insomnia, but at least her son was being fed.

When she got the news in October, at first she was angry. She was was furious at God - if there even was one - and felt entirely lost. How could He take away everything she had, only to take away her health too?

“How bad is it?” She asked her sandy-haired doctor.

“Since your breast cancer was caught late, it has already metastasized to your lungs and bones,” her doctor admitted. “Usually in these cases, the survival rates are very low. I’m extremely sorry.”

“And how much time do I have?” Catherine asks with tears in her eyes.

“Well, it’s a little hard to tell since—”

“How much time do I have?” Catherine interrupts, voice shaking but strong.

“Less than six months,” her doctor says, eyes downcast. “Again, I’m very sorry. Is there anyone you want me to call?”

Silent tears streak her cheeks and she shakes her head. She cries for a long, long time.

She gets home late at night, which wasn’t something unusual, and peers into her son’s room. He’s already asleep with one leg outside of the covers and his arms thrown above his head. Catherine stands there admiring her boy and can’t help but feel grateful for such a wonderful son.

Catherine retreats back to her room and prays for the first time since her husband left. Please help my son. Please help my son.

The coughing starts in December. At first she’s able to play it off as just the flu, but her shortness of breath after walking down the two steps of their home makes Jackson more suspicious.

He finally finds out through a call from the hospital. Jackson is in his sixth period biology class staring at the birds outside his window when his cell phone rings loudly. Fumbling through his bag, along with stares from his classmates, he looks at the caller ID to see the University of Chicago flashing on his screen. Confused, but sensing the dire need to answer, he stands up from his desk.

“I’m sorry,” he says to his teacher. “I have to take this call.” Walking out into the hall, he answers his phone.

“Hello?” He says, expecting an automated message. However a voice is on the other line.

“Hi, is this Jackson Avery?”

“Yeah?” Jackson says.

“I’m calling from the oncology department from the University of Chicago medical center in regards to your mother,” the voice states, and Jackson already begins to make his way to his car.

“My mother?” Jackson repeats, digging his keys from his pocket.

“Yes, Catherine Fox, correct?”

Jackson nods but realizes the voice on the phone can’t see him. “Uh, yeah. What’s this about?”

“Can you please come down to the hospital? I’m afraid we can’t discuss this over the phone,” the voice says, but Jackson is already in his car.

“Absolutely, I’m on my way.”

When Jackson walks into the oncology center, he realizes he has no idea who he’s looking for. The oncology department? Isn’t that for cancer?

“Mr. Avery,” a voice calls out. Jackson turns and is met with a young doctor with a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m Dr. Calloway. Right this way.”

Jackson is curious on how the doctor was able to recognize him, but nonetheless, he follows.

They pass through a series of hallways that the hospital purposely made to look happy, but Jackson’s mind was running a mile a minute that even if there’d been an image of a cat balancing on one leg, he wouldn’t have noticed.

Dr. Calloway leads him into a space that appears to be a family room and he motions Jackson to take a seat on the leather chair in the middle of the room. Jackson sits and watches as the doctor sits directly across from him. There’s no one else inside the room.

If anyone were to walk past the room and look through the window, they’d see a sympathetic doctor resting his hand on the shoulder of a withered boy—one who is sobbing so hard he’s struggling to breathe. They’d empathize, but would have no idea that boy’s whole life just fell apart. They’d be completely oblivious of the fact that his ill mother had fallen down the stairs and was likely to pass within the following week. No, they didn’t know.

But that was exactly what had happened. Catherine Fox awoke that morning with extreme pain, but in her usual manner, managed to force herself to work. Even though her body was protesting—screaming at her to slow down, she wobbled her way into her office. The only thing standing between her and her work, though, was the giant flight of stairs she had to walk down in order to reach the door.

Catherine took a deep breath, and took the first step. Her joints ached, she instantly became lightheaded, and her legs gave out from under her.

She was rushed to the hospital and suffered a hemothorax; blood was gradually filling her lungs. However due to the tumors on her lungs, a thoracotomy would likely guarantee she wouldn’t come out of surgery alive.

So, Dr. Calloway made a choice. He’d place a chest tube to drain out as much of the blood, and it would inevitably place an imaginary hourglass on Catherine’s life. Her timestamp would read less than one week.

Jackson learns everything about his mother’s condition that day. He learns that her breast cancer is at the most advanced stage. He learns that she found out in October and was given six months left to live. Six months.

He screams—curses at God and at cancer and at his stupid inability to see his mother was sick. Six months. It’s January. That means she had three whole months left, until April. But instead, he’d be planning a funeral before February even fully started.

;;

Catherine is three days from death when she receives a bouquet of flowers from her son.

Knowing that his mother would no longer be able to work, Jackson spends his last week with his mother working at the Maggie Daley Park ice arena. He found the job on a whim; the arena was in dire need of a zamboni driver - their old one had just quit - and Jackson just happened to be a pretty good driver. His first day of work was January 30th, exactly the day after he found out his mother wouldn’t live until Valentine’s Day.

Considering the arena needed someone to clean the ice every three hours, Jackson made twenty-five dollars an hour. He had fallen into a schedule; arrive at the area at three when his mother was likely to sleep for the rest of the day, and get back to the hospital at eight before the front doors of the hospital closed for the night. In six hours, he’d make over a hundred dollars and by the end of his fourth day, he’d have just about six hundred.

Working was something Jackson had come to enjoy. It was a time where he’d get to decompress and think about how lucky he was to have a mother as amazing as Catherine Fox.

School was no longer important to him and didn’t care if the school was calling about his whereabouts everyday. All that mattered was his mother and that she was comfortable and happy.

Before Jackson’s shift on February third, just three days before his mother’s death, Jackson makes a stop at Jewel Osco.

Without standing in awe like last time, Jackson heads directly towards the flowers. Tulips tulips tulips, Jackson whispers in his mind like a mantra. Mom liked tulips.

When he finds the section, he scours the water-filled buckets for them. The tulips he chooses are white and when he goes to check out, the lady at the counter tells him their color signifies an apology. Jackson excuses himself and goes back to pick up a second bouquet.

Upon returning to his mother’s room, Jackson sets the flowers on a small table near his mother’s bed and sits on an armchair provided by the room.

Jackson couldn’t believe how unfortunate his life was. Why me? From all the people in the world, why did he have to be the one whose father left him and whose mother would never see him get married? Tulips were always his mother’s favorite, but glancing at the white apology-filled flowers across the room, he realizes they could never be enough to show his appreciation.

Feeling hopeless, afraid, and terribly alone, Jackson does something he’d never done before: he prays. He sets his elbows on his knees and buries his face in his hands. His eyes swell with tears and Jackson prays for the first time in his life.

Almost as if sensing Jackson’s presence in the room, Catherine opens her eyes and glances at her son in his worn sneakers and faded sweatshirt. Unable to talk, she makes a barely audible ‘hum’ and Jackson’s head snaps forward.

“Mom, you’re up,” he says while making a feeble attempt to cover the fact that he was crying. “How you feeling?”

Catherine raises her eyebrows as a response and Jackson pulls his chair so that he’s able to hold his mother’s hand.

“I got you some tulips,” he says and nods his head toward the bouquet. Catherine makes no move to look at them; she’s in too much pain. “Do you know why I got you the white ones?” He continues, sniffling and wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“Because I’m sorry,” he says, voice shaking and eyes refilling with tears. “I’m sorry I didn’t notice you were sick.” Jackson begins to softly cry.

“You were suffering right in front of me and I didn’t even see it,” he cries, and all Catherine can do is squeeze her son’s hand.

“Mom, you gave me everything - you believed in me, supported me, and loved me when dad couldn’t,” he sputters. “I’m not ready to let you go.”

And with that, every last bit of his self control was let go as sobs racked his entire body. He clutched at his mother’s hand, trying to memorize the warmth it held. “Mommy, please don’t leave me!” he manages to choke out. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

He places his head down on their joined hands and lets all of his emotions run loose. He cries until his chest hurts from heaving, until his body is filled with tingles, and until he feels the warm caress of his mother’s hand on his head.

For Catherine, it was painful to see him like this. All she could do was raise her shaky arm and run it over her son’s hair— over the curls that had begun to grow out. She holds onto him for a long time and lets him cry. And the only thing she wants to do is tell him she loves him.

But that, he already knows.

Jackson’s eyes are red and swollen when he gets to work that day.

;;

It’s February 6th when Catherine dies.

After Jackson sobbed that afternoon in his mother’s room, he finally noticed her appearance. She was dressed in a blue hospital gown and bruises covered her arms and forehead, however her split lip didn’t prevent her from flashing him a small smile.

Jackson clenched his eyes shut and willed the image out of his mind, but the moment he opened them again, her droopy eyes stared back at him. She’s beautiful, he thought.

Three days later, Jackson kisses his mother on the forehead before saying goodbye for the night. Her chest rattled, her skin had turned pale, and her hands were permanently clammy, but to Jackson, his mother still shined.

“I love you,” he whispered, but his mother was already asleep. He didn’t realize that he was sensing dread for a reason.

When Jackson gets the call from the hospital, he’s walking off the ice after his fourth ice cleaning. As soon as he looks at his cell phone screen, he knows.

He feels like he’s suffocating; his vision blurs, his pulse races, and the whimpers and wails he’s uncontrollably releasing are that of a broken soul.

A taxi takes him to the hospital - he’d never be able to drive - and he walks into his mother’s room with a deep breath. Dr. Calloway is standing beside her, head bowed in a silent prayer. Though, Jackson hardly notices him; he’s too focused on his mom.

She looks peaceful, like all her pain was taken away in an instant. Like she’s sleeping. He walks closer to her but he covers his mouth with a sob and has to walk into the hallway to compose himself.

Dr. Calloway follows and places a hand on his shaking shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Jackson,” he begins. “Look at her; she’s not hurting anymore.”

Jackson inhales loudly, seemingly unable to catch his breath. “I don’t know if you believe in God,” the doctor continues. “But I have no doubt that she’s in heaven right now. Look at her,” he urges, and Jackson peers through the window of her room.

He wipes his eyes with his elbow, closes his eyes, and walks back in the room to thank his mother for every little thing she did to make his life better.

/\/

Catherine Fox
1949 - 2018
You were an angel in the shape of my mom

Jackson uses every last penny he saved into his mother’s headstone. He spent days on the epitaph, and picked a pretty marble rock to be engraved. Catherine hadn’t wanted a funeral; she had talked about it way before her diagnosis and before his father left. So, instead, he held a small ceremony at the grave site. Only he, a few of Catherine’s co-workers, and Dr. Calloway were there.

A few people start singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and when it begins to snow, Jackson almost takes it as a sign that she’s there with him.

It’s snowing in February when Jackson says goodbye to his mother.

;;

— five months later—

When Jackson wakes up with nightmares for the eleventh time, he’s sleeping in a homeless shelter.

It is always the same dream - he is running, sprinting rapidly towards his mother, however, no matter how fast he seems to run, she’s keeps getting farther away. The first time it happened, he was sleeping on a bench where his mother was buried. It was nearing the end of April and it was just warm enough to be outside without shivering from the cold.

This time, Jackson wipes the sweat from his forehead and sits up on the springy mattress. It creaks and a few people shuffle in their sleep, but don’t wake up.

He stands, and making sure not to bump into anyone, sneaks out through the side door in the far corner of the room. Unlike the other homeless shelters he’s spent the night in, the shelter in Lincoln Park always has their side door unlocked in case of emergencies. For that, he’s grateful.

Walking into the humid July air, Jackson looks up. It’s 2 am and it’s rare for stars to be seen in Chicago, but on special nights where the sky is clear and the roads are silent, a star or two peeks through.

“Mom,” Jackson whispers before breaking down into tears. “I miss you.”

And it’s all he has to say.

/\/

Back In February, when his mother had passed, Jackson continued working. It was the only thing that he felt gave him purpose. He’d watch all the families, some holding hands to keep from falling, and others racing around the flurry of wobbly skaters. He’d watch the kids as they’d laugh and giggle after falling, shaking off their hands when they stood. And he’d watch those with children, mostly mothers, babysitters, and nannies, who’d be taking pictures, smiling, and wholeheartedly caring for their kids. And Jackson would clean the ice and think of his mother.

Unfortunately, March rolled around, the ice skating area closed, and Jackson lost his job. He had known it would be temporary, but he had no idea how much he’d miss it when it was gone.

The apartment he once shared with his mother was gone too. It had been months behind on rent and, with other utility bills piling, was inevitably foreclosed on not long after his mother passed.

 

At first, Jackson had enough money to spend the night in cheap motels, but it was costing more money than he could make.

So, with no other family around - he was not going to call his father - he had to settle for shelters, the cemetery where his mother rested, and the laundromat where warm air was occasionally released from the pipes around the back.

Most days, Jackson spends them with his mother.

Today, though, when the air is crisp and the birds are singing, he’s sitting on a park bench in Lincoln Park. A multitude of bikes and joggers pass by, and squirrels look up at him in interest, but, one particular scene stands out to him.

It’s an elderly couple, holding hands, and feeding the pigeons. Jackson looks at them in awe and his heart warms. It amazes him how some people can spend their entire lives looking for someone who will complete them, while others get to spend their entire lives with the person they have already found.

He continues watching, and a lightbulb goes off in his head when he sees the man pick a flower from a nearby bush and hand it to his wife.

In that moment, Jackson feels the direct need to give his mom flowers. However, the small blue flowers from the park wouldn’t be enough. He has to - somehow - give her tulips.

As Jackson walks out of the park and down a row of houses, he stops in his tracks. There, hidden by several large shrubs, he sees a row of multicolored tulips perfectly lined in front of a red bricked house.

He checks left and right for anyone who might be watching, takes several steps towards the house, verifies the driveway is empty, and quickly scurries across the grass to pick a single, red, tulip. Just one, he thinks, for mom.

He runs away as fast as he can.

When Jackson steals a tulip from the red-bricked house, he would never expect that single moment to change the rest of his life.

;;

Jackson is embarrassed when he meets a beautiful red haired girl.

After taking a single tulip from the house with the brown door, Jackson can’t find it in himself to stop. So far - he’s resorted to only taking a flower once a week - Jackson has snuck a flower for his mother three times now. The house is completely filled with tulips so it’s unlikely the owner has noticed any missing.

So the following week, Jackson makes sure to be the first one out of the shelter. He wakes up at daybreak, when the sky is still dark and the streets are mostly clear, and sets off on the familiar path towards the house.

Maybe violet today? Or orange? Jackson is so focused on what color tulip he should take his mother, that he doesn’t notice the usually empty driveway is occupied today.

As he is about to clip a purple flower, a loud voice calls out to him.

“Hey!” A female voice yells, seemingly from the house, “Stop that!”

Jackson doesn’t even look up before sprinting in the opposite direction of the house. Shit shit shit!

He stops at the end of the block to peek at who had caught him and mentally kicks himself for not noticing the black SUV in the driveway. Standing on his toes to look over the tall bush he’s hiding behind, he thinks he sees a flash of red hair before the door shuts.

That evening, he sits by his mother - flowerless - and cries.

/\/

Gosh, make it quick, Jackson, he tells himself while peering at the tulip house. After almost being caught last week, Jackson has been extra vigilant this time for any cars in driveways or lights on inside the house.

Crouch down, run, cut, and get outta there, he repeats like a motto. Jackson looks quickly over his shoulder and makes a break for it. Go go go go! He clips a flower, not even looking at the color, and leaves as fast as he can.

He doesn’t notice the girl peeking at him through the curtains.

/\/

He’s not so lucky the next week.

Jackson is in the middle of cutting a pink tulip when a familiar voice yells out to him.

“You!” the voice exclaims and for some reason Jackson freezes and sees a figure standing by the door, but it’s too dark to make out a face. “You’re the one who’s been stealing the tulips!”

The porch light comes on and his line of vision is illuminated. Jackson gapes, breath caught in his throat. The owner of the voice is not only young, but she’s radiating beauty. Her hair, a strong auburn - nearly cherry red - falls in shiny waves over her shoulders. Her skin - smooth, ivory, and slightly sunburnt from the heat - is covered with scattered freckles. And her eyes, good god, are mossy green that seem to glisten even in the dim light.

His mind instantly recalls back to the time his mother took him to the public library when he was eight. Jackson’s eye had immediately been drawn to the bright yellow cover of D’aulaires Book of Greek Myths. His mother had read aloud to him that day, and her voice taught him all about the gods and goddesses.

Thinking of the woman in front of him, Jackson can’t help but compare her to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, and how she looks so lovely that the wind almost loses its breath.

In this case, Jackson is most definitely the wind.

The girl descends the few stairs until she’s standing right in front of him and Jackson can’t move.

“I thought you would’ve learned by now,” she says and Jackson is taken aback because her voice just sounds angelic. “I mean, considering I nearly caught you last time.”

She crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow. Jackson attempts to answer and apologize profusely but he can’t seem to get anything out.

“I... uh. I’m sor- I didn’t-” He clears his throat and diverts his attention to the girl’s pink, fuzzy pig slippers.

“Don’t worry,” she interrupts. “I’m not mad or anything. I was just curious who my tulip-snatching-burglar was.”

Jackson winces and expects her to threaten to call the police however, he is met with a laugh. He slightly lifts his head and sees her tuck a strand of her long hair behind her ear. The girl turns toward the rows of tulips.

“They’re pretty right?” she says, and Jackson can’t believe that he’s having a conversation with the girl he’s been taking flowers from. “Tulips are my favorite.” She turns to him again and Jackson quickly shifts his eyes.

“Have you heard the saying never look a tulip in the eye?” she asks. He shakes his head and thinks I can’t even look you in the eye.

“When I was younger my mom used to tell me that fairies lived in tulips,” she laughs. “And that I should never look a tulip in the eye because I might scare them.”

Jackson doesn’t know why she’s telling him this. He assumed it was because she felt bad for him; that she noticed his dirty clothes and could somehow sense how broken he was. Then again, wasn’t she scared of a random, disheveled guy, stealing flowers from her before the sun was even up?

“Anyway,” she sighs. Her gaze meets his and Jackson can feel his face heat up. She slightly squints her eyes and tilts her head before speaking again. “What’s your name?”

Jackson pauses. It’s one thing having an actual conversation with someone but it’s another thing when someone genuinely wants to know more about him. In that moment, he considers giving her a fake name but his thoughts are interrupted by her voice again.

“I’m not going to report you, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She shivers and wraps her cardigan tighter over her body. “You don’t have to tell me, I just thought—”

“Jackson,” he says, finally finding his voice and simultaneously startling her.

“Oh,” she whispers, peering at him from under the yellow glow of the porchlight. “I’m April.”

Wow is this a dream, he thinks. “April flowers,” he mumbles before shyly smiling.

“What was that?” she asks, leaning closer to hear him better. It’s a chilly July morning and the sun isn’t even up, but Jackson’s face couldn’t feel warmer.

“You know? Uh, A-April flowers bring May showers, or whatever the saying is,” he stutters and rubs the back of his head. I am so embarrassing.

She giggles and Jackson’s skin heats up even more, if possible. “It’s actually April showers, but I see what you were trying to do there,” she smiles.

April is about to say something else but is cut off by a voice behind her. “April? Where did you go?”

“I’m outside!” she calls. “I’ll be there in a minute!” She turns back to him and it appears that she forgot what she was going to say. He takes that as his cue to leave.

“I-I should go,” he says, slowly backing away from her and the house.

“That’s just my roommate,” she says. “You don’t have to go.”

“No, I should,” he says. “Sorry for taking your flowers. It won’t ever happen again.”

“Hey wait— “

“April, what the hell is taking you so long!” The voice yells from inside and April turns to answer.

“Hold on!” She replies. But when she turns back around, Jackson has already left.

The sun is barely rising when Jackson, empty handed, tells his mother about the pretty girl he met.

;;

It’s been years since Jackson has eaten a packed lunch.

He remembers being the only kid in the second grade to take something other than ham and cheese sandwiches. He always hated being made fun of for taking turkey with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables for his school lunches. It was almost like his mother specifically asked their chef to make him a mini version of a thanksgiving dinner, and all he wanted was to be normal.

However when his father left, his mother was left to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apple slices. Jackson prefered his mother’s lunches anyway.

After April caught Jackson stealing her tulips, he tells himself that he wouldn’t go back and that he’d find some other house to take flowers from. But for some reason, whenever he closes his eyes, all he can picture is a pair of bright green eyes and flowy red hair. And strangely enough, the week after meeting April is the first time he’d gotten a good night’s sleep since his mother passed.

Jackson can’t stop thinking about her and he can’t stop talking about her to his mother. Even though they only spoke for no more than five minutes, she somehow managed to wiggle her way into his mind.

Since February, it’s like his life has been moving in slow motion - like every color had dulled to black and white. But ever since that one morning, the city has sped up and the world has brightened. I don’t even know her, he thinks. But somehow, he feels he’s known her for a long time.

He doesn’t know what makes him go back to her house; he promised he wouldn’t take any more flowers, but he has to see her again, even if it’s just a glance.

When he makes it to her house, the sun is already up and it’s evident that she’s not home. There’s no car in the driveway, the curtains are wide open, and all the lights are off. He huffed in disappointment and was about to turn around when he spotted something on the bottom step.

Nearing closer, he makes out a brown paper bag and a white sheet of paper next to it. Jackson knows he shouldn’t be snooping, but curiosity gets the best of him.

Standing directly in front of the bag, he can finally see a large black arrow drawn on the white sheet of paper and the words spelling out ‘For Jackson.’

Jackson’s eyebrows furrow with confusion and he looks left and right before picking up the small bag. For a second, he wonders if this is some sort of prank and that any second she’ll come out from her hiding spot and laugh at him. But even after only speaking to her once, he knows she’s not that kind of person.

Reaching into the bag, he is surprised when he pulls out a sandwich... and then a pudding cup. He sets down all the contents of the bag: a peanut butter sandwich, chocolate pudding, a carton of chocolate milk, and a peppermint patty for good measure, and realizes that April had packed him a lunch. His heart almost wants to explode with gratitude.

It’s quite amazing how in just several minutes of talking, April could tell how lost Jackson was and how badly he needed an act of kindness.

Jackson sits down on one of the steps and opens the plastic bag containing the sandwich. He doesn’t realize how hungry he is until he takes the first bite. The homeless shelter he’d been staying at didn’t have a large variety of foods so he savors every bite. Jackson opens the carton of milk and takes a sip. He notices it’s still cold. April must have set this out this morning. Maybe she’d been leaving him lunches everyday this whole time.

Jackson spills a bit of the milk onto his shirt and he reaches into the paper bag for a napkin. Instead, his hand is met with a piece of paper. He takes it out and unfolds it.

Jackson,

I hope you actually see this this time! Enjoy the five star lunch I’ve so delicately made. Oh, and peppermint patties are my favorite so you’re welcome. It was nice talking to you the other day! You seem like a very nice person.

P.S. I don’t mind if you take tulips. I’m not sure what you do with them but I know that flowers are nicer when you share them with others. But, I am requiring you to help me replant more in the future!

-April

Jackson has never really believed in God, but in that moment, he feels as if he’s been sent an angel in the form of an amazingly kind girl.

With a full stomach, he carefully cuts a tulip and tells his mom all about his lunch.

Jackson doesn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

;;

The next time Jackson cries, he’s happy.

After April’s act of kindness, he finds it in himself to be happier and be nicer to others. After all, April knows nothing about him, yet she managed to do something not many people would do.

So, he hands out free smiles and volunteers to serve the food at the homeless shelter. It’s not much, but it’s the least he could do to show his gratuity.

On Sunday, four days after he ate his lunch on April’s steps, the line at the shelter is longer than normal. Normally, the shelter would be able to find a place for everyone, however, from the looks on the worker’s faces, it seems unlikely.

Jackson doesn’t know why it’s so crowded today; Fourth of July weekend was a week and a half ago. Luckily for him, the staff workers recognize his face and let him through. But something stops him.

“Sorry, ma'am, but the last bed has been taken for the night,” a tall, broad, man states. “You’ll have to find somewhere else to stay.”

Jackson peeks past the door frame and spots a family of two - a mother and her child, probably no older than ten - with fearful looks in their faces.

“Please, sir, you don’t understand!” The woman pleads.

“We have no more beds— “

“There was a fire in my apartment building” the woman interrupts. “I don’t have insurance and I have no place to go.”

“There’s another shelter on Franklin Boulevard. They might have spaces open.”

“I have no way to get there; my daughter is tired and hungry,” she says. “Please.”

Jackson doesn’t know what makes him do it but he glances at the child’s tear-streaked face and decides on his act of kindness for the day.

Coming into full view, he approaches the family and addresses the employee.

“Mark, isn’t it?” He says. The man nods. “Let them have my bed,” Jackson continues. “They need it more than I do.”

The man, labeled as Mark, sputters in shock. In all eight years at the shelter, no one has ever given up their bunk for someone else.

The woman beside him bursts into tears and rushes to give Jackson a big hug. “Thank you, thank you!” She cries.

Jackson is taken aback with the hug but wraps his arm around the woman anyway.

She pulls back and grabs her daughter’s hand. “You look very young,” she woman says while wiping a tear with her opposite hand. “What’s your name?”

“Jackson,” he says.

“I’m Arizona,” she says. “And this is my daughter, Sofia.” Jackson looks at the young girl clutching the arm of a stuffed giraffe and is reminded of himself as a boy. From the looks of it, it’s only her and her mother.

“You have no idea how much this means to us,” Arizona says. “Do you have somewhere else to stay?”

“Yeah, I know someplace,” he lies.

“Well, have a safe night,” she says with a smile. They both walk inside and the door closes behind them.

Jackson looks up at the dusk sky and mutters a silent prayer of guidance from his mother. In big cities like Chicago, it’s unwise to be out after dark and the last thing Jackson wants is to be caught in any form of trouble.

He considers knocking on April’s door, but then he imagines himself dirty and red-faced on her steps and decides against it. She doesn’t know me, he tells himself.

After wandering with no clear place to stay the night, Jackson turns around to find a twenty-four hour pharmacy. Maybe if he stays nears the back trash bins, no one will notice he’s there. Just before crossing the street, he spots something in the corner of his eye.

Aster Paper Warehouse

The words are faded, the windows are dark, and the larger door has been bricked off. It’s a miracle Jackson was even able to spot the warehouse in the first place because it’s nearly hidden by the brick wall covering a portion of the entrance.

Jackson crosses the street and stands on his toes to peer through one of the windows. It’s hard to see because it’s so dark, but it looks abandoned. He makes his way to the door and jiggles the doorknob. It turns. Holding his breath and begging that no alarms go off, he budges the door open.

Darkness and dust. That’s all he can see. He fumbles the side of the wall for the switch and flips it. It takes a few seconds - probably from all the years of not being in use - and the light illuminates the empty space.

Trash litters the floor, several boxes are labeled Aster Paper, a dusty couch is pushed near the back wall, and after peeking through the other doors, a bathroom with running water is located just left of the air conditioner.

Jackson locks the front door and secures it by pushing a large wooden desk in front of it. He kicks the dust from the couch cushions, lays down, and falls asleep within seconds.

/\/

When Jackson returns to April’s house the following Wednesday, he makes sure to get there a little earlier than last time so he can see her again.

However, he’s too late again. This time, instead of seeing a brown paper bag on the front step, he sees a backpack. Jackson furrows his eyebrows and walks over to investigate. There’s no note.

Upon opening the bag, Jackson gasps and tears begin to form in his eyes. Inside the slightly worn, black bag, there’s so much. Soap, socks, a comb, clean t-shirts, a toothbrush, and a multitude of other supplies he’d once taken for granted.

He sits on the steps and gathers the bag in his arms. No one has ever done something so nice to him before. Ever since his mother passed, it’s almost like he had become invisible. He was just a speck of dust in a corner no one checked, a gnat people swatted away, a whisper in a sea of shouts. But April saw him. She cares.

Jackson opens the second zipper and there sits another lunch. This time, Jackson’s tears are let loose and he buries his face in the fabric, letting out appreciative cries.

He forgets how long he cries, but when the tears finally cease, he grabs a tulip, delivers it to his mother, and returns to the warehouse to brush his teeth and change his shirt.

Hours later, with a clean pair of socks on and freshly sink-washed hair, Jackson searches for a way to thank April. Jackson knows full well that he’d be too flustered to thank her personally, so he hunts for a pen and blank sheet of paper to write her a letter.

The sheet of paper is easy to find - he’s in a paper warehouse, after all - and he finds a blue pen in the drawer of the desk he pushes by the door each night.

It takes him a total of two hours and twelve minutes to write the letter - fifteen of those trying to get the damn pen to work. But when he finishes, he folds it in half, and scribbles ‘April’ on the front. Seeing as it’s nearly ten at night when he finishes, he decides to deliver it early the next morning.

He leaves it perched on her mailbox, and after ensuring it can’t fly away, walks back home before the sun had peeked through the clouds.

;;

The second time Jackson sees April, he swears she’s gotten more beautiful.

After Jackson left his first letter to April, she writes him one back.

He first spots the sheet of paper at the bottom of his lunch - she’s been leaving him lunches every Wednesday - and smiles wide when he reads the ‘Dear Jackson’ in her curly handwriting. And when he finishes reading it, he reads it three more times before he heads home.

Ever since then, that’s how they’d communicate. Pages and pages of paper were exchanged between them, messages of laughter, inspiration, and deep thoughts. Even when the tulips were out of season, Jackson left April a new note every Wednesday and she would have one ready for him to pick up.

Through these letters he learned that April had grown up on a large farm in Ohio and had three sisters. He learned that she’s studying to become a sketch artist, and that she’s the first of her sisters to go to college. He learned that she loves cookie dough ice cream and sleeps with her socks on. And he learned that she has a small scar beside her eye from when her sister, Kimmie, hit her with the handle of a broom.

In return, Jackson tells her about himself, too. He reveals his favorite movies and actors, how he once fell down the stairs in front of his crush in the fourth grade, and his new favorite color - it’s green because of April’s eyes, but he’s not gonna tell her that.

Thankfully, April doesn’t ask about his situation right away, but he can tell that she’s curious. Jackson is terrified to lose the only friend he has so he decides to keep it a secret for now. Plus, he really enjoys being pen pals.

It’s November when Jackson miraculously gets a job. It’s at a small diner not too far away from the warehouse, waiting tables. He doesn’t know what convinced the manager, Miranda, to give him the job but he has a feeling that she could somehow read how desperate he needed it.

The very first thing Jackson does with his paycheck is save it. April’s supplies from the backpack, the lunches she leaves for him, and the free food he receives for working at the diner, allow him to get by fairly comfortably.

And Jackson is also thankful that the warehouse has a heater.

After three and a half weeks of working at the diner, Jackson buys himself new clothes and a cell phone. He immediately sets it up and writes his number on the letter he would deliver to April tomorrow.

He signs it, P.S. I got a cell phone! Maybe if I’m lucky, I won’t have to wait an entire week to hear from you :)

And Jackson is lucky. He’s walking back to the warehouse after a slow shift at the diner when he feels a buzz in his pocket. It doesn’t take him long to figure out he had gotten a text. The message isn’t really one at all; it’s an image. Or, well, an emoji.

A loud laugh escapes him when he sees the single, pigeon emoji on his screen. It’s from April, obviously. She had told him her favorite animal was a pigeon a few weeks ago and Jackson used every opportunity to tease her for it. Your family lived on a farm, he wrote to her, but yet, you like pigeons?? How does that make any sense? It was an inside joke between them and it never failed to make him smile.

Jackson walked inside the warehouse, secured the door, and turned on the heat before sitting on the couch; he had bought sheets from a local store and used them to cover the dusty cushions. He pulled out his phone and typed a reply.

guessing this is April? oh, and robins are definitely the superior bird btw

April’s response was almost instantaneous, as if she had been waiting for his reply this whole time. The idea made Jackson’s heart flutter uncontrollably.

duh, unless you were expecting someone else’s message? what r u hiding Avery? and u are WRONG! leave my pigeons alone.

Three texts developed into thirty, the stars had long made their presence known, and both April and Jackson, respectively, messaged back and forth until their eyes could no longer stay open.

/\/

I want to see you

It was a simple text, but it took Jackson about twenty minutes to respond. He had been texting April everyday for well over two weeks now and yet, they hadn’t seen each other once since then.

It wasn’t that he was afraid...well, he was. April was stunningly beautiful and to be honest, incredibly intimidating. She was kind, giving, and funny but still had something mysterious about her.

okay? when?

Jackson didn’t know what to say so he kept it short and to the point.

what about now? we can go to the diner about a block away from the pharmacy, maybe. I hear they have great milkshakes :) do u know where that is?

Panic sets in for two reasons; one, April is not allowing him any time to get ready, and two, she wants to meet at the diner he works at. However, he’s way too excited at the prospect of meeting her that he ignores his nervousness.

yeah, I know where it is. I’ll meet you there in ten minutes?

He takes a deep breath and waits for her confirmation.

yay! see u soon!

/\/

It actually takes him eight minutes to get there. He’s walked the route so many times that he could do it with his eyes closed.

Mac’s Diner is a traditional, 50s themed, oldie-but-goodie restaurant and Jackson is pretty certain it’s been around since drive-ins were popular.

The door chimes when it opens and on a Tuesday night, the diner is nearly empty except for the elderly couple that comes in nearly every day.

“Jackson!” A voice calls out from behind the counter. “I thought you were off today?”

“Oh, hey,” he responds to Izzie, his coworker. “I am off. I’m just meeting someone.”

He sees her smile and nod before taking the booth near the end. He wipes his palms on his jeans, unzips his jacket, and sends April a quick text.

I beat you here, so hurry up! :P

A few moments later, the door chimes and Jackson’s breath catches in his throat because it’s her. It’s the first week of December so she’s clad in a black coat, grey scarf, and an adorable matching hat. He sees her before she sees him so he waves his arm to get her attention. She smiles brightly when she spots him and Jackson wants to die when her dimples poke out.

April makes her way to the booth and Jackson stands up to greet her.

“Hey, stranger!” She says, extending her arms and giving him a hug.

Jackson’s eyes widen and he returns her hug. “Hey,” he says.

He catches a whiff of her lemon scented hair before she pulls away and sits down. Jackson is so nervous, but from their letters and texts, it feels like he knows her so well.

“You look great!” She says.

Jackson laughs. “Thanks, so do you. You chilly there?”

“Shut up, it’s December in Chicago. I’m cold!” Her nose is slightly red and Jackson watches as she removes her gloves.

“It’s only thirty-five degrees you wimp,” he smiles and chuckles when she sticks out her tongue. “I’m surprised you’re not used to the cold weather already.”

“Whatever,” she says. “I get cold in eighty degree weather so leave me alone to shiver, okay?”

He laughs and their conversation is interrupted by Izzie handing them a menu. Jackson can see her wink before walking away.

“I think I’m gonna order a banana split,” April says. “Do you wanna share?” She tilts her head up at him and raises an eyebrow.

Jackson is in awe of how cute she is. “You’re shivering, but you want to eat ice cream?”

“Will you let me live my life,” she jokes. “Now do you wanna share or not?”

“Sure, but no cherries,” he says while closing the menu.

“Fine,” she sighs playfully. “But you’re lame.”

Izzie takes their order and they sit in the diner talking, laughing, eating, and joking for three hours until it’s completely dark out and they’re the only ones left in the diner.

;;

Jackson moves out of the warehouse in January.

After seeing April in the diner, they never stopped talking. Whether through text or on the phone, they spoke nearly every day. December passed quickly and Christmas was especially hard for him.

On the 24th, Jackson visited the grocery store and used a bit of his money to buy a bouquet of flowers - roses this time - and sat by his mother. It was freezing cold, his fingers had gone numb, and the snow had leaked through his pants, but he stayed.

“Why did you have to leave, mom?” Jackson whispered into the frosty air, breath making clouds as he spoke.

New Year’s Eve was spent the same way.

/\/

It was late that Thursday. Jackson had just finished his shift at Mac’s and was on his way back to the warehouse. It was slightly snowing and Jackson stops to stick out his tongue. He smiles and immediately thinks of April and how this is something she’d make fun of him for.

Grabbing his phone from his pocket, he opens it to the camera, faces it towards himself, and snaps a picture of him with his eyes closed, tongue stuck out to catch the tiny flurries. Captioning the text with I feel like a kid, he sends it to April.

He realizes why he doesn’t get an immediate response when he’s nearly home. Every evening, Jackson passes by a bus stop, and normally at this time, it’s empty. However it isn’t tonight.

Nearing closer, Jackson makes out a set of shaking shoulders, no doubt belonging to a woman, and bright red hair.

“April?” Jackson calls out once he has recognized her.

She jumps and looks up— her eyes puffy and tears staining her cheeks.

“Are you okay?”

Jackson takes a seat beside her and stares at her face. Wow, even when she’s crying she’s still beautiful, he thinks.

April clears her throat and wipes her eyes, “I’m fine.”

He raises an eyebrow, clearly not believing her statement, and waits for her to speak again.

“Well, not really,” she says. April sniffles again before continuing. “Remember how I told you about my roommate, Leah?

Jackson nods. April had told him how she and Leah had been best friends since grade school. When she first told him, he’d been jealous. He’d never had someone like that in his life.

“She moved out today,” she says, voice cracking. “Her parents were moving out of state and she didn’t want to be thousands of miles away from them.”

Jackson lets her talk.

“I know we’ll still be friends but it’s just sad that I won’t get to see her everyday.”

April buries her face in her hands, but instead of crying again, she lets out a growl. “And she didn’t tell me any of this until a few days ago!”

She removes her hands from her face and laughs incredulously. “Maybe she thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it,” she mutters almost like she’s talking to herself.

“I mean, she is one of my only friends. Everyone else finds me too annoying” She gestures wildy and all Jackson can do is let her rant.

April looks up and stares at the yellow streetlight. “I came out here because I just had to go somewhere, but then I remembered the busses stop running at seven and I forgot—”

“Hey, hey,” Jackson finally interjects. “Just relax for a second okay?”

He notices her red face when she looks at him, but he can’t tell if it’s from the cold or anger. “You’re not annoying,” he says. “Hell, you’re the only one I can actually stand.”

They’re silent for a moment, staring at one another and Jackson spots a snowflake on April’s eyelash.

“I know this might sound weird and probably insane,” April says. “But I hate being alone...probably more than I hate the dentist, or books with awful endings and maybe—”

“Out with it, birdie,” Jackson says, trying out the nickname for the first time. It fits, considering how pigeons are sort of an inside joke between them.

April takes a deep breath, “Can you stay with me tonight? You can take Leah’s old room and I have my art classes in the mornings so we don’t even have to talk if you don’t want - I just, I’m afraid… I don’t like...nevermind.”

Jackson’s heart threatens to beat out of his chest. April’s request isn’t sexual, no, it’s simply the need to have someone else nearby and Jackson can definitely relate.

“Of course I’ll stay with you,” he says and physically sees her exhale the breath April had been holding.

“Really?” April says, eyes moistening again.

Jackson nods and smiles, “Just warning you...I snore a little.”

April laughs and Jackson helps her stand. “Lets walk you home, yeah?”

She smiles and grabs onto his arm. They walk in silence for a while until April talks again.

“Where have you been staying, anyway?”

Jackson considers lying but decides against it. “A warehouse.” He says it simply because it’s true.

Her arm jolts in his as they stop walking. April looks at him in disbelief and concern. “Jackson,” she says. “It’s like ten degrees out here; what do you mean you’ve been staying in a warehouse.”

Jackson scratches behind his ear. “I found it in September. It’s abandoned and has running water and a couch that I sleep on. And it has an air conditioner and a heater so it’s not too cold.”

April grips his arm tighter and Jackson meets her eyes. They’re full of worry and Jackson is taken aback with the sentiment.

“I don’t care if this is too forward or whatever,” she says. “But you’re moving in with me.”

Jackson smiles at her cute expression. She looks slightly embarrassed but also adamant in her demand.

“Are you sure you wanna live with me?” Jackson says with a smirk. “I could be crazy for all you know.”

April rolls her eyes and then tugs at his arm so they begin walking again. “I’m crazy too,” she says. “I guess that makes us normal.”

By the end of the week, Jackson had relocated all of his belongings into April’s small but homey place and officially closed the doors of the warehouse.

;;

Jackson finally remembers what it feels like to be happy.

“I think I’m gonna get a tattoo.”

April looks up at him, raising an eyebrow in surprise. She sitting across from him at the table, having lunch and working on some homework.

“What of?” She asks, closing her textbook and taking a sip of water.

Jackson hums before answering, “A tulip, I think.”

He’s grateful when she doesn’t question why. “Where would you put it?”

“Right here, probably.” He says, lifting his sleeve and pointing to his bicep.

“When are you gonna get it?”

“After work.”

April laughs, “I thought you were thinking of getting a tattoo, not getting one now.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile now,” he says. “Will you come with me later?”

She smiles and nods before picking her book back up.

That evening, Jackson and April walk to the tattoo parlor he had picked out. Jackson had visited the parlor earlier and spoke to one of the artists about his idea. April is standing very close to him when they shuffle inside, and her shoulder keeps bumping his arm.

“Jackson,” one of the artists, a woman named Callie, calls. “I got your design ready!”

“Awesome,” he says while pulling April behind him and following Callie.

“You’re sure about this, right?” April asks when he’s sitting down in the chair. Callie drags a chair over for April to sit in, and she smiles and thanks her before sitting down.

Jackson smirks, “What? You don’t want me to have a tattoo?”

April rolls her eyes. “I think they’re kinda hot, actually.”

He’s blushing now, and before he can say anything, Callie laughs loudly and nudges him as she falls down into her chair. “If the pretty girl you’re with thinks tattoos are hot, then we should cover you with them, don’t you agree?”

April laughs with her and Jackson hopes his blush isn’t too noticeable.

“Okay,” Callie starts, pulling out a needle and cleaning it while she looks at his arm. “I think this is going to be a kickass tattoo. Might hurt a little.”

He nods and as Callie continues to clean the needle, he turns his head to look at April.

She’s sitting up straight and biting her lip, wringing her hands together on her lap. She looks kinda nervous, and she looks so cute right then that Jackson only hesitates a little when he holds out his free hand to her.

“Hold my hand?”

She laughs, and her green eyes shine as she takes his hand and weaves their fingers together. Her hands are a lot smaller than his, and Jackson never wants to let go.

He can see Callie grinning out of the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t look away from April’s smile.

Jackson’s tattoo looks amazing. After it heals, he catches April looking at it a lot. He makes sure to remember to leave his shirt sleeve rolled up just enough so she can see the edges of it. He smiles to himself when he sees her biting her lip.

/\/

The following Saturday, he visits his mother.

Jackson sinks to the ground, crowding his mom’s headstone. He carefully places the batch of supermarket flowers on her grave, staring at how pretty they look against the snowy ground. He cradles his head in his hands and pulls his jacket tighter over himself.

Even though it's not really a special day or anything, Jackson finds himself feeling numb. It's times like these— the ordinary ones— that makes him feel the pain a little more.

However, the thing is, he doesn’t even know what triggered this onset of sadness. Like, sometimes he thinks about the things his mom used to do and it makes him upset, or April will say something that kinda sounds like her and then he shuts down for a few seconds, but this time, everything was completely normal one minute and the next he was struggling to breathe.

“Mom,” his voice cracks on the first word. “I met a girl. She’s really nice and perfect and...I really like her. Her name’s April and I think that you would’ve liked her too. It’s not fair that you’re not here to meet her.”

He cries and talks for a while longer, and after he’s finished, he stands and walks back to the house, wondering why he feels so empty.

Later that night, April surprises him with pizza, a large tub of ice cream, and his favorite movie. She’s sitting in the living room couch, legs folded underneath her. When he asks, “What’s all this for?”

She just says, “Because I want to. Now come here and appreciate it.”

Jackson smiles and doesn’t question it.

/\/

“I’m bored,” April whines into the phone. Jackson can almost imagine her lying down with her legs propped up against the headboard. “I finished my homework, and now I’m eating Cheez -Its and watching Netflix.”

“Okay, I’m almost there,” Jackson laughs. He glances left before crossing the street. “Just try not to die of boredom until then.”

“Oh, good!” April huffs. “Did you just get out of work?”

“Yeah, it was a slow day.”

“Hurry up,” she says. “I want to start a movie after this episode ends.”

He laughs softly and agrees before hanging up. When he makes it inside— April gave him a key once he’d moved in— he knocks on April’s door lightly, leaning against the headboard.

They had been living together a few weeks now, and although it may appear to be more, they were just friends. But that didn’t mean Jackson didn’t have the biggest crush on her.

April appears in the doorway a few seconds later, grabbing him by the jacket and hauling him inside. “You can just come in, dummy.”

She’s already in her pajamas; a large sweatshirt and shorts and a messy bun and Jackson tries not to stare. April bounces over to her bed and climbs back on. Her queen sized bed is sitting in the middle of the room, and her laptop is open and sitting on the bed. She’s bent over it, staring at the screen, and Jackson blushes when her sweatshirt slips off her shoulder, exposing some of the freckles on her skin.

“So... what should we watch?” April questions.

Jackson shrugs and slips his feet from his shoes. April pats the spot next to her, and Jackson carefully crawls to sit by her.

“I haven’t seen a movie in so long,” he says while wrapping his ankles together. “You know, the warehouse didn’t have cable, or even a tv, actually.”

He laughs but April stays silent.

“I’ve noticed that you never call the places you’ve lived ‘home.’” She says.

Jackson flinches and it takes him a few moments to realize that she’s waiting for an explanation. “It’s cause they’ve never felt like home. That’s why I never called it that.”

“And here? Does it feel like home here?” She asks softly, shifting a bit closer to him.

“Yeah,” he whispers. “And it’s not just because I have my own bed or a laundry machine...I think..”

Jackson pauses, and April’s hand rests on his arm. He stares at her nail polish, and something pushes him to say it. “I think it’s because you’re here.”

He hears a quiet gasp and thinks that he probably messed this up.

“Jackson?” Her voice shakes, and he looks up at her immediately.

“Yeah?”

“It’s like that for me, too.” Her voice gets quieter, and she’s still moving closer. “Even when I was living with Leah, this place was fine, yeah, but it never really felt like home. And then you show up and—”

He wraps his arms around her middle and pulls her closer, tangling one of his hands into her hair and causing her bun to fall down. She’s still speaking into his chest, but he’s not paying attention because wow, it feels so good to be able to hold somebody like this. She’s small and warm and her skin smells like peaches, and god, she’s perfect.

April’s hands settle on his shoulders, and she pushes back after a few seconds. She smiles and says, “watch a movie with me.”

So he nods and lays back against the pillows with her. She grabs his hand and weaves their fingers together, and Jackson rests his head against her shoulder. He falls asleep before she’s even chosen what to watch.

/\/

After spending that night with April—they had both fallen asleep and Jackson had woken up with red hair covering his face and someone laying across his chest— it starts happening more.

Usually after his shift at the restaurant, she demands that he hurry home so they can start binge watching a new show online.

When he walks into her room, he’s removes his jacket and loses his balance while removing his shoes. She’s watching in amusement from her bed, eating popcorn and sipping on a kid’s juice box.

“Enjoying the show?” He asks, kicking his shoes to the corner of the room.

She nods. “Yep. Now, hurry up slowpoke. I’ve been dying to watch this show all day.”

So Jackson crawls up onto her bed and curls up beside her. He rests his head against her thigh and smiles happily when she begins to comb her fingers through his lengthening curls. It doesn’t take him long to fall asleep and he knows April will tease him for it later, but it’s worth it.

/\/

“You know,” April starts, staring at Jackson from opposite the counter at Mac’s Diner, “I’ve always wondered what you did with the flowers you used to steal.”

Jackson flinches. He knew that the question would come eventually but he’d hoped that when it did pop up, he’d be more prepared to answer. Right now, all he can do is look at her plate of finished pecan pie with a dry throat.

“Were they for a girl?” She smirks and raises an eyebrow.

He can tell she’s teasing him but Jackson freezes up nonetheless. What the hell is he supposed to say?

“I can show you,” Jackson says suddenly, surprising her. He doesn’t know what makes him say it, but he feels that it’s time that April knew about the woman who was once the most important to him.

So, after Jackson’s shift ends, he leads her to the cemetery. He doesn’t know what to say, so he just walks.

April falls into step beside him, and Jackson is terrified of what she’ll think. How is he supposed to tell her that the flowers he stole from her were for his mother’s grave?

It’s not a long walk so they make it there in less than ten minutes. When they first walk in, he sees April raise her eyebrows and glance up at him, but he doesn’t look at her. Instead he weaves his way through the graveyard.

He comes to a stop at his mother’s grave, and sits down beside her headstone. Jackson has no idea what April might be thinking, but he’s not going to look up at her. She probably thinks he’s a freak, a nobody, a burden, and she’s probably going to kick him out...

She sits down beside him, and her voice is soft when she says, “Jackson, I’m so sorry. It...it makes sense now.”

He feels her shiver slightly and blurts, “It’s February 6th.”

Jackson is certain that she connected the missing pieces and saw his mother’s death date. February 6th, 2017. It’s been exactly one year since his mother passed. One year since he’s seen her face, heard her laugh, or felt her fingers wiping the tears from his face.

And then all of a sudden it’s like a gate collapses. He can’t breathe, his chest hurts, and he is completely oblivious to the heartwrenching sounds he’s making.

April reacts quickly, hugging his head to her chest as he sobs and lets go of all the emotion he had been holding in. She doesn’t say anything, but at that moment, Jackson is so grateful he has someone like April in his life.

Jackson doesn’t know how much time passes, but when he lifts his head up, April has tears in her eyes too.

“Sorry,” he whispers, voice cracking, “I didn’t tell you about her because I couldn’t accept that she was gone.”

He sniffles and April nods. “And I know I shouldn’t have stolen your flowers, but they reminded of her and—”

“Jackson,” she stops him with a sincere look. “You don’t ever have to apologize. Ever.”

She’s staring at him gently, and she reaches out slowly, weaving her fingers through his. He smiles.

“So, now you know,” he chuckles, squeezing her hand.

“Now I know,” she grins and rests her head on his shoulder.

They sit in silence for a few moments, and Jackson sees her mouthing words he assumes are part of a prayer. When she’s finished, she turns her head to look up at his face.

“You wanna know what else I know?” She says, snuggling closer into his shoulder.

“Hm?”

“Now I know that I am heart throbbing-ly, earth shattering-ly, marriage with two kids, one thousand percent sure...that I am in love with you.”

Her words hit him so hard like he physically ran into something. She’s looking up at him with those big, beautiful eyes he became entranced with, and feels like an idiot.

It’s been obvious this whole time; of course he loves April. He’s probably loved her since that very first day he met her. And god it’s taken him months to realize it.

“Uh...you’re kinda leaving me out here in the open, you know?” She chuckles.

And before Jackson really knows what he’s doing, one of his hands settles on her cheek and he pulls her in even closer until she’s pressed against him. Her eyes are wide and she’s looking at him like finally.

“April,” he mumbles, leaning his head down.

She is frozen in place, looking up at him with what Jackson finally notices as love. Her hand reaches up to cover his, and she inches a tiny bit closer.

“Yeah?” She whispers, breath tickling his skin. They’re nearly nose-to-nose.

“That was the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard, but I love you, too,” he blurts. “I’m so in love with you.”

She’s smiling up at him, tears in her beautiful green eyes, and there’s three heartbeats before she curls her fingers into his hair and yanks his head down until his lips meet hers.

Her mouth moves soft and warm with his until she pulls back suddenly and Jackson is so dazed that he barely comprehends what she’s saying.

“I love you,” she says. There’s a large smile on her face, and there are a few tears running down her cheeks. He wipes them away with one of his thumbs.

“You do?” He says. “Are you...are you sure?” He asks her, knitting his eyebrows together because is this real?

She’s laughing now, and she tugs him closer to brush her lips against his again. A shiver goes down his spine. “Of course I’m sure, you loser. I love you.”

He’s smiling and he can’t remember the last time his heart felt so full. His chest feels light and heavy at the same time, and now it feels like he finally has someone again.

But really, he’s had April this whole time.

He swears he can hear his mother’s laughter in his ears when April takes his hand, presses a kiss to his cheek, and helps him stand up. There’s a ridiculous smile on his face now, and Jackson doesn’t think it’ll ever go away.

;;

On their six month anniversary, April gets him the best gift.

For three months, she had been coming home from her classes a few hours later and he’d assumed it was to study. (In all honesty, he knew how impossible he made it for her to study at their house).

But instead of studying, she had been working on a special project.

So, after taking him to a nice restaurant, she leads him to the cemetery.

“Okay,” she smiles. “Now close your eyes.”

His face scrunches in confusion but he obeys. He hears clinks and shuffles in the background and then is lightly guided forward.

“What are you doing?” He says.

“Alright,” she says, squeezing his shoulder. “You can open your eyes.”

He opens them to find a stunning ceramic vase filled with amazing ceramic flowers— all tulips and painted different colors. Painted on the front of the vase reads ‘From Jackson.’

Jackson turns to look at April, the love of his life, with tears in his eyes.

“What’s this?” He says.

She walks over to grab his hand, bringing it up to kiss his fingers. “You told me how much your mom loved tulips, so I’ve been staying extra in my ceramics class to make her a vase of her favorite flowers.”

Tugging on his hand, she pulls him forward for him to take a closer look and Jackson doesn’t know what to say.

“I thought that this way, you mother can always have flowers with her—even in the winter,” she says.

Suddenly, Jackson pulls April towards him, wrapping his arms around her waist tightly. She embraces his shoulders and buries her face into his neck.

“Thank you,” he whispers into her hair, eyes laden with tears.

She doesn’t have to say anything else because he knows.

They both found each other through loss and no matter what happens, they’ll love each other through the rest of their days.

When they get home, Jackson helps April plant new tulips, and they eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the front step.