“Your birthday is next week?”
Joel looks back to his plate and scoops the peas out of his stir-fried rice. “Yeah. It’s not a big deal.”
My heart pulses painfully in my chest when I remember the story he told me about his mom selling his birthday presents to pay for booze. My childhood was filled with princess-themed birthday parties and more gifts than I knew what to do with. I doubt Joel has ever had a themed birthday party in his life.
“Are you guys having a party?” I ask.
“We usually take him out and get him wasted,” Adam says with a laugh. “Does that count?”
Joel gives Adam a genuine smile, but I cut in with an uncompromising, “No.” The guys stare at me, and I rush to resume my usual self-serving attitude. “It’s been too long since we’ve had a party. I want to throw one.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Joel stammers.
I brush him off with a flick of my wrist. “I love throwing parties. Ask Rowan about my Sweet Sixteen. It was amazing.”
Rowan nods, keeping her eyes trained on me. She knows something is up. “It was epic,” she says without missing a beat. “She had a DJ and everything. And she had three dates, and none of them were allowed to wear shirts.”
I snicker at the memory, but Joel still looks skeptical.
“Just trust me,” I tell him. “It’ll be awesome.”
THE FIRST TWO days after learning about Joel’s birthday are spent gathering intel. The next three, collecting materials. The following two, running around like a chicken with my head cut off while cursing Joel’s name for not telling me about his stupid twenty-fourth birthday a few months sooner.
“MOTHERFUCKER,” I shout, raising my needle-pricked finger to my mouth to suck the hurt away.
Rowan ignores me and finishes hanging streamers from one of the card tables lining the walls of our living room. She stands up, brushes off her knees, and smiles wide. “Joel is going to flip.”
Leti spins a mini Ferris wheel on top of one of the tables. Mini liquor bottles occupy each car as party favors. “You should be a party planner,” he says, and I huff out a breath.
“Party planner. Shirt designer. Cape maker to the stars.” I lift a neon-green cape with black spikes running down the back of it off of my lap, silently praying Joel likes it.
Leti turns on music while Rowan finishes setting out snacks and I stand in the middle of the room with my hands on my hips making sure everything is ready to go. When someone knocks on the door, I take a deep breath before answering it.
“Holy shit,” Shawn says as he walks inside, the expressions on the rest of the guys’ faces echoing his sentiment.
“Do you think he’ll like it?” I ask, but Shawn doesn’t have a chance to answer before Adam squeals, “Are those capes?!”
He practically dives into the pile and pulls out one that looks just like the one he described last Saturday—it’s red with a golden A stitched into it, just like Alvin the Chipmunk’s shirt, and he beams like a little boy in a candy shop. Rowan helped me remember the capes all the guys described when they were joking at the buffet, and I did my best to create them. Adam’s looks like Alvin’s shirt, Shawn’s is black with the Batman symbol stitched onto the back, and Mike’s is camouflage with pockets stitched to the inside. He laughs when he finds the toy guns I stashed in the pockets, and I don’t try to stop the smile that blooms across my face.
“Leti, yours is in my bedroom,” I say, and Leti disappears down the hallway in an excited blur. He pouted when he saw I was making capes for the other guys but not for him, but really I just wanted to keep his hideous sherbet-and-magenta-sequined cape a surprise. He runs back out with it secured around his neck and strikes a flawless Superman pose. The rest of the guys are fastening their capes around their necks too when a knock sounds at the door.
“Close your eyes,” I demand with my hand on the knob.
“Do I have to?” Joel whines from the other side.
“YES!” the guys all yell, and I chuckle.
“Are they closed?” I ask.
When he tells me they are, I open the door and lead him inside, plopping a plastic crown on his head and telling him to open his eyes. He opens them to find three grown rock stars and a very giddy-looking Leti wearing homemade capes and little-boy smiles.
“Oh my God,” Joel says with a laugh that tells me he loves it. I hand him his cape, and he holds it up, laughing even harder. “This is fucking awesome.”
His gaze travels around the room, skimming over the Ferris wheel carrying liquor bottles, the one-person beer-pong table with stuffed prizes hanging on the wall behind it, the painted cardboard cutout of two rock stars with holes for people to put their faces in. There’s a table covered with red-and-white-striped bags of popcorn and mason jars full of candy. The star attraction is a cotton-candy maker, and the entire room is flooded with rainbow streamers and balloons.
When I was covertly prying intel out of Joel earlier this week in my attempt to get ideas for his birthday theme, I asked what his favorite childhood memory was and he told me about the time his grandma took him to the circus. I ran with it, throwing together an apartment-sized circus in a matter of days and never doubting it would be worth it.
His expression is utterly unreadable as he takes it all in, and I nibble at my bottom lip, worried that he doesn’t like it. But then he finally looks at me, and his soft smile melts away all my apprehension. “This is too much.”