October 22, 2001
”Happy birthday tooo… yooouuu!” Everyone laughed as my two older brothers tried to sing as off-key as possible. Our younger siblings all giggled and applauded, calling for an encore, but our mom settled them down.
“Make a wish and blow out your candles sweetie,” Mom said, shifting our youngest sibling, Zoe, from one knee to the other. I thought about it for a minute, shaking off my initial reaction; I settled on asking the powers-that-be for a car, took a deep breath and blew. I managed to get all the candles out in one shot, which to me always seemed like the best odds. Our family cheered again, and Dad hit the lights back on.
“Dibs on a balloon,” Mackenzie called out, referring to the giant globs of neon frosting stuck to one corner of the cake. Mom shushed him as Dad started slicing up pieces, making sure to give me the first and biggest.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said as I carried my plate into the living room. A small pile of gifts was waiting on the coffee table; I eyed them as I sat on the couch, trying to guess what they were based on size and shape.
“Open mine first!” Jessica said, plopping down next to me.
“No, mine!” Avery spoke up, taking the seat on my other side.
“Girls,” Dad said, taking his reserved seat in the recliner. “Cake first, then presents.”
I scarfed down my dessert fast enough to please my sisters without choking, then took another look at the pile. There weren’t very many, but that was fine. We were more about quality than quantity in our family, and I’d always been taught to be grateful for what I received. Still, I really hoped there was a set of keys somewhere on the table.
I opened each present, not exactly surprised but still happy to find some drawing supplies in the mix. There was a moleskine notebook from Jess and a set of colored pencils from Avery, with Zoe’s name tacked on. A new CD from Mackie, and a portable CD player from Ike. Finally, the last present lay on the table - a small rectangular box. I looked up, and both my parents and Tay smiled.
“You’re sixteen now,” Mom said, giving a little sigh. “And it’s time you took a step towards adulthood.”
“We’ve talked it over, and decided that you’re responsible enough to handle this.” Dad smiled and nodded. “And Taylor here has been good enough to help us - and you - take that step.”
I couldn’t contain my grin any longer. I looked up at Taylor, wondering what his part in this was, but he just shrugged and rolled his eyes. Finally, I picked up the box, opened it, and…
“A… name tag?”
“Taylor’s managed to get you a position at the bakery,” Mom explained. “Just part time, of course. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“A… job?” I swallowed back my disappointment.
“Yes, son, a job,” Dad answered; apparently I hadn’t swallowed it back enough. “It’s about time you started learning the value of a hard day’s work.” His tone suggested this wasn’t a negotiation. Some present, I thought to myself.
“It’ll be fun,” Mom said, using the same tone she took when trying to talk the younger kids into a ‘cleaning game’ or ‘educational field trip’.
“It’s really not that bad,” Tay finally spoke up. I shot him a look, but he held up his hands and mouthed the word ‘sorry’. So it hadn’t been his idea, either.
“I get paid, right?” I asked. I heard Ike chuckle behind me, but ignored him.
“That’s what jobs are for,” Dad replied with a grin. “It’ll be your money, to spend - and budget - as you see fit.”
“So, what do you say?” Mom asked. As if I had a choice in the matter. But I put on a smile and answered anyway.
“When do I start?”
“Your real present is in the treehouse,” Tay whispered to me as we headed upstairs. “Meet me out there in ten.”
“O...kay.” I let him pass by me and watched him head into his room. I headed to my own room - the one we’d shared until Isaac had moved out last year. When he’d gone off to college Tay took his old room, and after much begging and pleading, I was able to talk our parents into letting me have my own room as well. Part of me missed rooming with Tay, but mostly I was grateful for the privacy.
I put away my gifts and grabbed my hoodie, then headed back downstairs. I paused in the hallway, listening to the rest of my family settling down for the night. Ike had left shortly after presents, with the excuse of an early class the next day. Once I heard my parents’ door close, I made my way outside to the treehouse in our backyard.
It was pretty impressive; our dad had built it when I was still a toddler, and we’d all helped improve it over the years, reinforcing the floor, adding real walls and a roof. I smiled at the lantern in the window, and made the bird call we’d assigned as the password years ago. Tay’s face appeared briefly, grinning as I climbed the ladder to join him.
“Hey,” he said, sitting on one of the many cushions strewn about the floor. Our small cooler sat beside him, filled with ice and sodas, and a few beers.
“Planning on getting me drunk?” I asked with a smirk; he just shrugged.
“Figured I’d give you the option. No big deal either way. Hey, I’m sorry about before; mom and dad made me promise not to tell you.”
“Yeah, I figured. Still, would’ve been nice to have some say.” I reached for a soda and cracked it open.
“Well if you don’t like it at the bakery, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind you working somewhere else.” He grabbed a beer for himself, popping the top on the edge of the table.
“As long as I work somewhere, right?”
“Pretty much,” he chuckled. I watched him take a long sip of his drink, and curiosity struck me. I’d had a sip of champagne at our cousin’s wedding, but that’d been two years ago. He caught me staring, and smirked. “Want a sip?”
“Um… sure, what the hell.” I took the frosty bottle from him and brought it to my lips. The smell wasn’t the greatest, but then it was a beer, not perfume. I took a swig, and to my surprise it wasn’t half bad. There was a definite edge to the taste, but I liked it. I took another sip, and heard Tay chuckle.
“Not bad, right? Go ahead and keep it, we’ve got plenty.” He grabbed himself a fresh drink, and I sipped mine slowly. I could already feel a heat in my cheeks, and a lightness to my head.
“So this is my present, right? Better than a name tag, anyway.” I laughed, but Tay shook his head, and grabbed a small wooden box I hadn’t noticed on the table.
“You tell anyone about this you’re dead,” he warned, smirking despite the threat. I rolled my eyes at him; he could be such a drama queen sometimes, it was no wonder guys called him a chick behind his back.
He opened the box and pulled out what looked like a cigarette, but I knew better. I knew he smoked, or at least hung out with someone that did. He looked at me, waiting, like he was expecting more of a reaction. I bit my lip and tried not to chuckle.
“Hate to break it to ya, Tay, but if you were hoping to give me my first joint… Skyler beat you to it by a few months.”
“Skyler?” Tay’s brow furrowed as he shook his head. “Damn.”
“Sorry? It was just once, and I didn’t even really get much out of it. He said it was really cheap stuff.” It wasn’t a total lie… The weed Skyler provided for my first time hadn’t been the greatest quality. It’d definitely been more than once, though.
“Oh. Well, this isn’t exactly cheap.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I’m sorry, Zac; I really wanted this to be, you know, a thing. Had it all planned out and everything.”
“That’s adorable,” I chuckled. “It’s sweet, really. Anyway, like I said, Skyler’s stuff sucked, so… I’m sure this’ll be way better. Especially ‘cuz it’s with you.”
“Quit tryin’ to make me feel better,” he said, but a laugh broke through anyway.
“Well, are you gonna light it or just hold it?”
“Oh, right. Birthday boy gets first hit, though.” He fished a lighter out of his pocket and handed it and the joint over. I kept my eyes focused on the task at hand, but I could feel his stare as I lit up and inhaled. The smoke was thick, but it tasted a lot nicer than what I’d had before. I held it in for a couple seconds before exhaling.
“Not bad,” Tay said, nodding proudly. I took another hit, a little deeper than before; too deep, judging by the coughs that hit me, the smoke burning the back of my throat.
“Shit,” I cursed between coughs. I heard Tay laughing as he moved over, patting me on the back. As I caught my breath, my head was suddenly swimming.
“You’re fine. Coughing gets you higher anyway.”
“Is that… so…” I felt like I was wading through a pool, all my movements lagging just a second behind what they should’ve been.
We passed the joint back and forth until it was out. At some point I fell onto my back and lay there, staring up at the ceiling. I could feel Tay’s body heat beside me, hear his breathing. I looked over, and something about his face locked my eyes there. His eyes were half-closed, the red-tinged whites contrasting sharply with the steely blue. His lips curled in an amused smirk, his tongue darting out to wet his lower lip.
I was staring, way longer than I should. The more I realized that, the more I knew I had to look away, but something kept me frozen. I watched his eyes flicker over my face, and I wanted, needed to know what he was thinking. I knew I couldn’t ask without sounding stupid, though, so I forced the words back down before they could escape.
“How you feeling?” he asked. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it sounded so close it made me almost jump. I thought about how to answer, how to describe the simultaneous out-of-body and hyper-aware sensations. He chuckled, and I wondered how long he’d been waiting for an answer.
“Pretty… good,” I replied finally, and he smiled. His smile was so perfect, it almost hurt to look at it. I’d always known he had a picture-perfect smile that could charm the pants off anyone, but for the first time I felt just how powerful that charm could really be. “Thanks, Tay. This is… cool.”
“I’m glad you liked it. You wanna smoke again, just let me know. I’d feel safer knowing you’ve got a trustworthy connection.”
“Kay.” I closed my eyes for a second, just to blink, but found it so much harder to open them up again. I heard Tay chuckle next to me, felt him shift closer.
“Greened out? You can pass out if you want, it’s okay.”
“Mmkay,” I murmured. I rolled onto my side, vaguely aware of coming into contact with him. My mind conjured memories of curling up together in our tent on family camping trips when I was younger. Was it just the memory, or was he really curling up behind me, an arm draped casually over my shoulders? I decided I didn’t really care, as I gave in to the waves of sleep pulling me under.
“Happy Birthday, Zac,” I heard him whisper, just before my mind went dark.