Chris ran up to the door and rang the bell. Sean must have been waiting right inside because it opened almost instantly. Without even talking Chris handed him an envelope and Sean tore into it. The invitation to Chris’ party was encoded and the boys ran off to get a pencil to write down the translation.
(Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to attend Chris’ birthday party. You will be trained as an undercover ninja and finally given a mission to rescue the birthday cake and ice cream from enemies of the state. If you accept join us at our house on November 15 at 4pm.)
Anna walked into the tv room where Gabe sat entranced in a football game. She quietly grabbed a pillow off a side chair and sneaking up behind him pummeled him with it. She totally caught him off guard but he quickly recovered. He grabbed her arms and pulled her over the back of the couch. She shouted in surprise and a little fearful as to what Gabe’s retribution would entail.
Gabe moved his hand to her ribs and tickled her slightly. She let out a yelp and squirmed to escape. He felt her shift and tried to catch her before she crashed off the couch and onto the half eaten bowl of ice cream he had set on the terracotta tile floor. She screamed again as cold, half-melted ice cream spilled through her shirt onto her back.
Gabe peeled himself off the couch and reached to help her up. He bent to grab the now empty bowl from the floor. Anna headed for the kitchen to wash her shirt off in the sink. Gabe followed her, entering just in time to see her twisting and reaching behind her in an attempt to get the water on her back, but not get completely wet in the process. He set the bowl on the island and walked over to help her. He reached around her grabbing the extra fabric and holding it up to the stream of water coming from the faucet.
Once rinsed, Gabe twisted her shirt to wring out the water. He grabbed a red dish towel off the quartz counter and tucked it behind her to absorb the remaining water. Not until he was holding it onto her back, did he realized exactly how close he stood with his arms wrapped around her. He slipped the towel into her hand and stepped away.
“You’re all clean,” he announced as he backed into the island to grab a towel and a rag to clean up the mess on the tv room floor. She watched his discomfort, unsure if she should be offended or laugh.
She followed him out of the kitchen, her damp shirt clung to her back. He wiped up the green, mint chip mess with the towel. The wet rag took are of the remaining sugar on the wood floor. When he had finished he tossed it in the washer in the laundry room. He came back, sat on the couch and moved over to the far side to allow her plenty of room.
What’s going on with him? Why is he acting so awkward and uncomfortable now?
Anna sat on the couch beside him, but didn’t say anything. Gabe wasn’t sure why but he suddenly wanted to avoid her. He focused on the game, trying to avoid thinking about her even though she sat 2 feet away. The silence dragged on and for the first time both of them were uncomfortable.
Sean and Chris came running in once Sean had deciphered the party invitation. He handed it to his dad who read it over and started asking questions about the party and what Chris and Anna had planned. This broke the tension and their normal relaxed manner returned.
Anna had arranged with several of her neighbors to hide dessert toppings in their various yards around the neighborhood. The kids would have to follow clues, running from street to street and house to house to find their rewards and then return back to her house to enjoy birthday cake and ice cream sundaes. The next hour was spent creating clues for the various hidden items the kids would need to find.
They were also going to have an obstacle course where the kids would “train” to prepare them for their hunt. The four threw ideas back and forth, planning out the best and most fun events, as well as, the prizes for each. Chris and Sean tired of the details and ran outside to practice their “amazing ninja skills” in preparation for the party games.
A new football game was underway and Gabe grabbed two sodas and a bowl of popcorn. They were rooting for opposite teams so the teasing and taunting lasted the whole game. Anna’s team won and she celebrated by dancing around the room. Her celebration ended as she headed into the bathroom. Gabe laughed at her and sent a well aimed throw pillow flying across the room into her back as she danced away.
He went into the kitchen to turn the oven on for dinner. Rather than the barbeque they normally enjoyed on Sundays, he had actually prepared oven baked chicken and sweet potato fries. The evening passed quickly and soon it was time for Chris and Anna to go home. They said good bye and on impulse Gabe hugged Anna before she walked out the door and kissed her cheek. She responded warmly, but surprised.
Gabe often hugged and kissed his friends good bye, but their initial meetings were so tumultuous that it hadn’t been a part of their friendship until that point. He wondered though at his sudden desire for more than a quick kiss good-bye. I would never let anything happen to mess up Sean’s friendship and dating Chris’ mom would definitely mess that up. No relationship has ever worked out for me and they never seem to end positively. Anna is simply not an option.
Chris’ birthday was a clear Southern California morning, a little brisk but Anna knew it would quickly turn warm. She busily baked cupcakes and cleaned the house in anticipation of 14 rambunctious children and their assorted parents. The patio still needs sweeping and then I can start on the balloons.
The doorbell rang and she sighed, not wanting the interruption into her plan. She heard Chris open the front door. “Sean!” Chris called from the living room and then ran to find his mom to inform her Gabe and Sean had arrived.
Anna, very surprised, walked in the living room, wondering what they were doing there already. Gabe didn’t appear apologetic at all for the early arrival. He simply grabbed the broom from her hand and directed Chris and Sean outside to start blowing up balloons. He walked right past her with a short “hello” and started sweeping the patio as though it had all been prearranged.
She does so much by herself. She is so independent. I bet it’s killing her to let me waltz in and do this for her. It makes it even more fun to know she doesn’t expect it.
Gabe watched her turn and head to the kitchen to answer the timer and pull the cupcakes from the oven. He finished cleaning up and marched over to the pile of multi-colored balloons the boys had inflated. One by one the round balloons were tied onto the banner. With each boy standing on a straight back kitchen chair, they strung them along the front of the garage and the side of the house. The helium filled ones were set in the middle of each round table and at the various event areas.
Once she turned off the oven, Anna left the cupcakes to cool and then she went in to clean the bathroom. Why is he here this early? Does he think I can’t handle this and I need his help? Does he think I’m too much of a control freak and he needs to do it better?
Stop over reacting. He probably came to help and that’s it. Although his smirk tells me he’s enjoying my frustration. He’s probably just waiting for me to say something. Well, I’ll just play along and let him do the work! It actually is nice to have someone here to help out.
Anna went outside determined not to acknowledge his attempt to discomfort her. She stopped short when she saw all they had accomplished in such a short time. Gabe saw her face and knew he impressed her with the effort. It made him feel good to know she appreciated what he wanted to do for her. He turned and got the boys busy throwing tissue paper streamers across the yard. They attached them to fence posts and tossed them over tree branches then tied them to the patio cover.
She focused on attaching the decorated poster boards to the chairs scattered around the yard, so the kids would know how to follow the training course. Then, she arranged obstacles for them to conquer along the path. An hour later the front door opened, followed by a loud knocking and a shout “Hello, hello” as Anna’s sister, Emi, walked in with her husband and daughters. Anna called to them to come to the backyard.
Leena and her sister, Kimme, stepped out onto the patio shortly followed by Emi and her husband, Griffin. Gabe paused to introduce himself and then Sean to her family. A few minutes later her parents, Bob and Mary, came walking in the yard. The kids now jumping on the trampoline and the adults talking muffled their arrival.
Her mom brought cake decorating tips and frosting bags. The boys and men were put in charge of the base frosting and Anna, her sister, and mom focused on the details. Sean picked up the bag of black frosting wanting to learn how to draw with the small round tip and create the designs on the cupcakes. After a little practice he did pretty well and he was put in charge of adding masks to each ninja face.
Gabe stood in the kitchen mixing the two pitchers of blue and orange kool-aid when the guests started to arrive. He decided to hide out until most of the children were dropped off. He didn’t want to add any chaos to the event. Anna’s best friend, Rachel, came into find a platter for veggies and stopped dead when she saw him, her mouth slightly open until she recovered. He waited for her to react, but she calmly introduced herself, explained her mission and left the room. “He’s even cuter in person,” he heard her say to someone who giggled and the two of them walked back outside.
He heard Anna shouting over the chattering children trying to explain what was going to happen and how they could follow the course. She handed out ninja masks. Gabe hurried outside to set the kool-aid on the table and then take up his post at the hamster ball run. The large plastic ball was made up of inflated sections. The children would climb inside and roll themselves around the grass area, hopefully avoiding crashing into the fence and other people. The few younger children would need help, while the older kids would need to be reminded to not lose control.
The mayhem started and Gabe got his work out pushing the ball around, saving individuals and other obstacles from being run over as children rolled amok. Anna ran back and forth fetching things for the adults who were helping all while tending a station of her own.
Once every child had passed through each station the clue hunt began. The older kids solved the puzzle and with Chris leading the way took off running down the street. Anna hadn’t thought through how she would keep up with the running kids and bring up the slower smaller children behind them.
Gabe suddenly sped up behind her, scooping up her young niece and Rachel’s little boy, one under each arm. He took off running to catch up and Anna was now free to run ahead. Place to place they collected ice cream toppings, candles, and the lighter. Finally, with all the necessary items found, they ran back to the house to sing Happy Birthday and enjoy the treats.
The cupcakes and ice cream were quickly devoured and the children’s interest moved on to opening gifts. Chris opened each one and politely thanked each person. The whole group squealed in delight when he opened the large Lego set from Tanner, Rachel’s son. The box containing the radio control helicopter from Sean was torn open and before she knew it Gabe climbed on the roof to fetch the helicopter gone rogue.
Parents arrived one by one to collect their kids and the noise and energy level decreased as each child departed. Emi, Griffin, Bob, Mary, and Gabe stayed, helping to clean up. Slowly the trash bags filled and the dishes loaded in the dishwasher. Anna wanted the balloons left up because they were so cheery and decorative, but the streamers and posters were all thrown away. Leena and Kimme carried gifts into Chris’ room and Chris, Tanner and Sean swept up the loose bits of paper and popped balloons that covered the yard. Rachel and her husband James, who had arrived during the melee, swept and vacuumed the main room.
Finally, the adults collapsed in the living room and the kids went into Chris’ room to enjoy his new toys. The afternoon ended eventually and Anna's family left. Rachel offered to pick up Chinese food, but Gabe waved her off and saying he would return in a few minutes with dinner. James took Tanner home to start dinner and Rachel sat with Anna to talk for a few minutes more.
“Honestly, I thought you were exaggerating when you talked about how much time you’ve been spending with Gabe and Sean,” Rachel confided.
Anna pretended to be shocked, “Me, exaggerate? Never! Only a hundred million times a day!”
She confessed that it still seemed weird to her to have a famous friend, but that unless they were out in public where people fussed over him, she usually forgot what he did for a living. It wasn’t part of who his personality on a regular basis. To her, he was just a friend and fellow single parent.
“Emphasis on single!” Rachel responded, “He is so good looking and totally nice. How is he still single?”
“He is gorgeous,” she admitted, “and he’s surrounded by equally gorgeous women all day on the show. I haven’t figured out why he hasn’t been snatched up at least once.”
“He spent an awful lot of time here helping you, I noticed,” Rachel hinted.
“He wouldn’t ever be interested in me. Like I said, he’s surrounded by drop dead good looking women all day. He could have any of them, I’m sure,” Anna waved off Rachel’s knowing look.
“You underestimate yourself, Anna. You’re attractive,” Anna started to protest Rachel’s comment, so she added, “True, you’re not movie star good looking, but the outside package is not the only thing that attracts a man, especially a man who has been single so long. He’s probably looking for a good partner, not the hottest, shiniest, young thing.”
“It’s been five months. Don’t you think if he was interested he would have done something about it by now?” Anna retorted.
“It’s been five months. Don’t you think if you were interested you would have done something about it by now?” Rachel mimicked her. Anna made a sarcastic face and changed the subject.
Rachel left before Gabe returned with Thai food. Anna had changed into comfortable cut off sweats and a loose t-shirt. The boys chose a movie and they all sat on the living room rug around the coffee table to eat.
Food eaten and bellies full, Anna and Gabe picked up the dishes to load them in the dishwasher. The extra food was arranged in the refrigerator and finally everything was done. Anna let out a loud sigh and rolled her head to remove the exhaustion from her neck. Gabe turned her around and rubbed her shoulders for a few seconds. He stopped abruptly and she turned to look at him. He had that distant look again.
“Thank you,” she said sincerely, “I don’t know what I would have done without you today. You were running around with the kids and playing games. When I needed them to move on to another activity you corralled them. Decorating and cleaning up and dinner tonight,” she counted out the things he had done on her fingers. “I really appreciate it all.”
He shrugged off her compliment and thanks, “Your family pitched in too,” he said.
She shook her head No, “They helped, but the kids had a good time with you. Acting silly and playing around is not exactly their forte.”
She just wanted to give him a hug, a proper thank you. She stepped close to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. It took him a second to realize she was only hugging him. Gabe wondered why he felt slightly disappointed. He responded by wrapping his arms around her and his hands on her back but after a few seconds she hadn’t released him. He fought himself at first, but then surrendered, holding her tightly. She buried her face in his shoulder while he laid his cheek on her head. Her hair smelled faintly of…vinegar? She has been using natural products again?
For a moment Gabe told himself he should let go, but he ignored it and held onto her. Anna wanted to back away, but the warm feeling of being this close to him tempted her. She did resist the urge to look at him, afraid he would read what she was really thinking. Finally, mutually, they pulled apart, feeling a little uneasy.
Anna interrupted the silence, “Thanks again.” She took a deep breath, “We should probably go back in and finish the movie.” She moved her head in the direction of the television. Gabe simply nodded.
For a brief moment Gabe remained dazed, he couldn’t think at all. He moved zombie like into the other room and sat on the couch. Anna stewed next to him, berating herself. I shouldn’t have touched him. I shouldn’t have held on. I wanted to stay there so much longer, but it was too much. He’s probably freaked out because I can’t keep my hormones under control.
She doesn’t seem bothered at all. What was that? I really didn’t want to let her go. I can’t have feelings for her; it just doesn’t work that way. I care about her too much to ruin it with attraction or emotions.
Sean and Chris decided to move off the floor and onto the couch, forcing Anna and Gabe to move closer together. Thirteen year old boys might be best friends, but sitting squished together is not cool so they each chose an arm, pushing their parents together in the middle.
Anna carefully tried to avoid touching Gabe as much possible. Gabe put his arm around Sean so he could lean away from her. It felt awkward for both of them.
The movie ended and over the protests of Chris and Sean their parents insisted it was time for the party to end. Anna hugged Sean good bye and automatically moved toward Gabe before freezing inches from him unsure what to do. Casual, act casual. The line from a popular television show about ten years earlier ran through her head, “I’m light and breezy.” She snorted trying to stop herself laughing out loud. Gabe stared at her assuming she had suddenly lost her mind.
She confessed what had made her laugh and he recalled the show, he had seen it several times in reruns too. He laughed at her explanation, mainly because he felt like he needed to act “light and breezy” as well and the laughter once again broke the tension. She hugged him sideways, as little contact as possible, and peck kissed him on the cheek. He returned the gesture and they said good bye. She walked back in the house emotions running through her head. Only sheer exhaustion would let her sleep tonight. Grateful for such a full day, she could shut down her brain and get some rest.
Gabe still had an hour drive to sit and stew in his regrets while Sean drifted off. Arriving home, he woke his son, directed him in the house and into bed. A hot shower relieved his tired muscles after hours of pushing and lifting children and party items. Once in bed he tried to focus on his plans for the next day: Church and then an early Thanksgiving dinner with his sister, brother-in-law, and their kids. They would not able to travel up to the mountain cabin for the holiday with the rest of the family. He drifted off to sleep disturbed by dreams of snow covered mountains and long hikes alone, almost alone.