I shake my head. It’s not too much. It feels like it isn’t enough—not after everything he’s been through, not after everything we’ve been through—but I’m guessing no amount of streamers in the world is going to fix that.
Joel scoops me into a big hug and whispers in my ear, “Thank you.”
“Happy birthday,” I say, burying my face in his neck and squeezing him back. I’ve barely seen him over the past two days since I’ve been too busy setting up and wanted to keep the details a surprise, and I’ve missed him too much to try to hide it.
Another knock at the door interrupts our moment, and the rest of the guests begin trickling in—Driver, some other roadies, a bartender from Mayhem, a few guys from other bands, and a couple of Joel’s friends from high school. I got all the names and numbers from Adam, Shawn, and Mike, and lucky for me, they were all names of guys. Girls show up too, but on the arms of dates, and pretty soon, my apartment is packed with people. Most of the guests don extra capes I made—I reserved a special one for Driver, complete with a giant pot leaf on the back and hidden pockets on the inside—and the guests who think they’re too cool for capes seem content to guzzle down beer and shots and munch on pizza and mozzarella sticks. The cotton-candy machine is a huge hit, and so are the candy table and the rock-star cutouts. Guys play the beer pong game and win stuffed animals for their dates, and Joel nuzzles his chin into the crook of my shoulder as we watch.
He’s laughing on my couch surrounded by a bunch of friends when I sneak to the kitchen to put the candles on his cake—vanilla ice cream with confetti sprinkles. I stick two tall candles at the sides and drape a mini carnival-style banner between them that says, “Happy Birthday Joel.”
“He’s so happy,” Rowan comments, and I stare out to the living room, watching him pick at his blue cotton candy as he laughs at something Adam said. “So are you,” Rowan adds, and I catch myself smiling. I wipe it from my face quickly, ignoring the knowing grin she gives me while I light the candles.
“Flick the switch,” I order, and she gives Leti the signal to cut the lights. The room plunges into darkness, lit only by the brightness of the candles as I walk the cake toward Joel and start singing “Happy Birthday.” Everyone joins in, some singing far more drunkenly than others, and I set the cake on the coffee table in front of him. “Make a wish.”
With the light of the flames flickering between us, Joel’s blue eyes find mine. They linger, neither one of us looking away, and a soft smile touches the corner of his mouth. He blows out the candles with one swift breath, and everyone cheers in the dark.
When the lights come back on, his eyes have already locked on me again, his smile making my cheeks blush. I escape back to the kitchen to grab plastic plates and a serving knife, and Rowan watches me with that annoying smirk on her face.
“Shut up,” I say as I pass her.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You thought something,” I argue.
“Yeah . . . I tend to do that. I’m pretty sure normal people think things.”
She chuckles, and I ignore her. “Grab the napkins.”
“Okay, Miss Bossy.”
As I leave the kitchen, I flick her off with the hand I’m using to hold the cake server, and she calls after me, “I’m thinking thingsss!”
“You’re stupiddd,” I sing back, and her giggle follows me to the living room.
I cut Joel a whopping slice of ice-cream cake before cutting tiny slivers for everyone else who wants one. By the time I’m done cutting, there’s no cake left and I realize I haven’t left any for myself, but then Joel is abruptly tugging me onto his lap and offering me some of his.
After cake, most of the party follows Adam outside for a smoke break, and I decide to make myself a margarita. I’m pouring ingredients into a mixing cup when Jenny, a girl who showed up with one of the guys Joel went to high school with, joins me in the kitchen to dump her plate and fork in the trash. She stands next to me, staring over the breakfast bar at Rowan and Mike playing on the hand-me-down Xbox Mike gave us as a housewarming present. They’re surrounded by a group of guys drooling over their kill counts.
“I never thought I’d see the day when Adam Everest and Joel Gibbon got serious girlfriends,” Jenny muses, and even though I’m not Joel’s girlfriend, I don’t correct her.
“Did you go to high school with them too?” I ask, putting the cap on my mixing cup. I begin shaking the margarita, and she nods.
“Yeah. I went to that school my whole life.”
“What were they like?” I pour a glass for Jenny after pouring one for myself.
“Adam was a heartbreaker even in elementary school.” She takes the glass I offer and laughs to herself. “We had class together in third grade, and I remember that his Valentine box was crammed full of cards on Valentine’s Day. He picked the girl who gave him the most candy with her card, and she became his little girlfriend for the week. I think that was the only girlfriend he ever had until she came along.” She nods toward Rowan, and a little smile sneaks onto my face.
“Shawn and Adam were almost always together, but they were so different. Adam spent most of his lunches in detention for skipping class or fooling around under the bleachers, but Shawn was always at the top of our class.”
“Really?” I say, curious even though I don’t find it hard to believe.