“Go fuck yourself, Cato.”
“She wants you there. She’s missed you. And I can tell you miss her.”
I bit down on the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood. The taste of salt and iron coated my tongue, the bitterness sending a small chill slithering down my spine. “Is Chris going to be there?” I inquired.
Max nodded once. “Yes.”
I grunted, lip curling into a sneer. The simple act of saying his name left a bitter taste on my tongue. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” I grumbled.
“It would mean a lot to my sister if you showed up. You don’t have to stay for the whole thing. You can leave after twenty minutes or something, okay? Just–” Max chewed on the inside of his cheek. “I think it would really make her day if you stopped by.”
“I didn’t get her anything,” I argued gruffly.
Max reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a tiny box. He tossed it to me with an underhand throw, which I quickly caught with one hand. It wasn’t wrapped or anything, so I was immediately able to identify the baby pacifier inside. I sighed heavily, staring down at the little pacifier. There were cute little bumblebees printed on its lime green surface. I could already imagine chubby baby fingers wrapped around the material.
“You owe me seven bucks,” he said.
Max shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “That’s why we’re best friends.”
* * *
The baby shower was being hosted at Terri’s apartment. The walls had been decorated with a variety pastel pink and blue streamers, with various balloons floating about to fill the space. The small living room had been arranged to accommodate all of Terri’s friends and close family, seats circling the pile of wrapped presents stacked in the very center. Soft music played over the radio, providing a gentle ambiance to the scene, and several trays of finger foods and small sandwiches had been set out on the kitchen island. I recognized very few of the party guests, so Mrs. and Mr. Cato stood out. I walked over, drawn to their familiar faces. Upon seeing me, Mrs. Cato threw her arms open and snatched me up in an amicable hug.
“Joey!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Hey, Mrs. C,” I managed to sound as chipper as possible. Mrs. Cato didn’t need to know I was going through hell. Everybody was in a festive move. The last thing a baby shower needed was a grown-ass man pining over a pregnant guest of honor. “Yeah, I didn’t know I was coming either,” I mumbled.
Max punched me playfully in the upper arm. “I dragged him along. He was moping around at work.”
“I wasn’t moping,” I retorted.
“Why? Is everything okay with the garage?” Mrs. Cato asked, concerned.
“The garage is fine. It’s doing very well.”
Mr. Cato didn’t get up from the recliner he looked so comfortable in. He’d always been a man of few words. He gave me a quick tilt of the head in greeting, but that was about it. Despite the light atmosphere of the party, he didn’t seem all too pleased to be there.
“Joe?” came a soft, familiar voice.
I turned to find Terri standing behind me, a hand-knitted baby blanket draped over her forearm. It must have been a gift from one of the other party guests. Air caught in my throat when I gazed down upon her. We’d only been apart for a month, but I was still awestruck by her beauty. She’d gained a tiny bit of weight –a totally ordinary thing to happen– and her stomach had a more apparent roundness to it. She looked happy, a lot less stressed than a few weeks ago, and a small part of me was grateful that she was in a better place. It was genuinely good to see her glowing.
“Hi,” I breathed, holding out the little box. “For you. Well, not for you. For the kid. I figured he’d like it. Or she. Do you… Do you know what it is yet?”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah. Chris and I went to take the ultrasound last week. It’s a girl.”
Genuine surprise shot through me. “That’s great. Wow, a baby girl. I bet you’re excited.”
“Very much so.”
“You thought about names yet?”
Terri giggled, taking the gift in her hands. I froze when the tips of her fingers gently grazed across mine. The touch had been delicate, so light I thought for sure I’d imagined it.
“It’s a toss-up,” she explained. “I can’t decide between Hayley or Charlotte. Chris wants to name her Desiree.”
I curled my face up. “Desiree?” I echoed. “Sounds kind of…”
“Like she’ll grow up to be a stripper?”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “That was exactly what I was thinking.”
Terri cast her eyes down to the pacifier, turning the box about in her hands. “How’ve you been?” she asked gently.
“Er, good. You?”
“I’ve been great. I’ve missed this.”