The next week was a whirlwind.  I finally got the okay from both Celeste and Zella that we would throw Toby a welcome home party!  I would have liked a little more time to plan and get things just right, but I had some tricks up my sleeves that I hoped would make the night unforgettable.  I didn’t know as much about Toby as I would have liked under other circumstances- favorite food, drinks, games or music? I filled in the pieces I could with input from Zella, but the rest was up to me to plan. I hoped I had made the right choices.  

I was probably more concerned about it than I should have been, in hindsight, but I really love to throw parties and organize events, maybe it is the one thing that living under the same roof as Dorothy Stuckey had actually served to benefit me!  She was a master at it, Master Hostess.  Anyone that had attended a party of hers would definitely agree – party planning is one task mom never had to pay someone else to do.  From the time that I can remember I have watched in wide-eyed amazement as she completely converted any and every setting to look like something thematic.  I always wondered why she didn’t do it more often and for others, the other parties we’d attended never measured up, and mom took particular pride and pleasure in that.  Which I suppose answers my question; she liked to keep it that way.

I was just putting the finishing touches on the tent I’d set up in the park when my phone went off.  In my desire to get the flowers in the vase just right, I didn’t think to look at the name.

“Yes?”

“Uh.. Oona?”

“Uh huh.”  Really whoever it was would have to talk faster and more efficiently than that if they expected me to make time for them!

“I was wondering…” They paused and I paused, barely recognizing that smooth voice on the other end and also hesitating to admit that it could be him.

“Yes?”  What was he wondering?  Why was he stammering?  Was it bad news?  He didn’t sound frantic.  I gave up guessing, “Robbie, is that you?”

A sound of relief escaped into the phone, “Yes.”

“Okay?  What’s going on?  Everything okay?  The plane’s on time  right?  Everyone is still on go?”  I had a lot of work to get done and chit chat wasn’t on my to do list.

“Everything’s fine.”

Hmmm.  Okay, so why was he being cryptic?  Why wasn’t he speaking?  Why was he hesitating?  I did what I do best when I’m pressed for time and frustrated, I blurted, “Out with it!”  I hadn’t meant for it to be so abrasive or so interrogative, but his hesitations were frustrating. If you can’t tell already, I have a short tolerance for people, even good people.  Call it my upbringing.  When the parents’ idea of wasting time is waiting on their child to finish her sentence, it tends to bleed into said child’s social interactions.

He laughed, “Okay…well, I wanted to know if I could pick you up and take you to the airport?”

I was confused, “Pick me up?  As in driving to get me?  As in you driving?”

He laughed again, “Yup.  Got my walking papers, so to say.  I’m now on crutches with a boot.”

I was excited for him!  That was great news.  I could tell the last time I’d seen him that the wheelchair was getting old and inconvenient with his leg being extended in a brace.  I was just thinking about how great it would be to see him hobbling free from the chair, when he interrupted my thoughts.

“I mean, you don’t have to.  I realize you can drive, but I thought with everything else you’ve got going on that it might help to have a ride.”

Then it was my turn to laugh, “You’re kidding, right?”

He sounded confused, “Not that I know of.”

I laughed again and explained,  “I have a driver; he can take me if I get in a bind.  It’s kind of what we pay him for.”

I had embarrassed him, “Oh yeah, sure.  Some kind of stupid of me, huh?”

“No.  Not stupid.”  I paused.  What would it hurt if I let him take me to the airport? He was trying to offer help and there wasn’t much else he could do.  I would let him. “Sure, on second thought.  Come and pick me up.  I’m at the park.”  He agreed to meet me in twenty minutes.  I looked at my watch.  I had allotted enough time to run back home if needed and since I’d been trying to bother Charles less and less these days, I had already decided to drive.  Seemed he had enough demands to meet with my mother.  That left me just enough time to finish discussing the music with the DJ. Robbie’s call ended up working out perfectly.

I was just approving the additions to the play list when I heard his jeep.  I grabbed my purse and ran out to meet him.  I stopped dead in my tracks. He was already out of the vehicle and hobbling to the passenger side door to let me in.  I stood there and watched him. 

As he smiled, he took my hand and helped me into the seat, “Sorry, if it stinks in here.  Not sure what that smell is.”

I laughed and looked around at the discarded fast food bags and empty cups in the backseat. “Could be something in one of those,” I said pointing to a bag that was still laying in the floorboard.

He raked his hand through his hair and actually blushed pink, “Yeah, I’m not always the cleanest person.  I guess I missed that one.”

I laughed.  It was comical. For a girl that lived in a world that was nauseatingly ordered to mask the stench of reality, real chaos and mess actually found me relieved and a little grossed out.  I looked behind me again and saw a trash bag still there where he had apparently discarded other things that had previously junked up his jeep. Of course, if I’d had another ten minutes to spare, I’d have been forced to do a more thorough tidy, but the fact that he’d had tried didn’t escape my attention.

“It looks amazing,” he complimented as he struggled to pull his injured leg into the jeep.

I felt sorry for him.  There was a part of me that felt I should offer to help, but how and with what?  I just pretended like I didn’t see him all together.  I looked out the passenger window toward the tent and smiled, “Yeah, I guess.  I wanted to do a little more in the inside of the tent, like have a juke box, but the nicest one was already rented and the DJ is really good and remarkably available!”  I figured my excitement would fall on flat ears; most people don’t understand the thrill of such things for me.

“Wow!  Really, that’s awesome!” 

I looked at him skeptically.  Was he being sarcastic?  His smile seemed genuine enough, and he was looking in my direction.  I smiled and nodded, “Yes, it really is.”  Then the thought hit me, “Do you think he’ll like it?”

Robbie looked confused, “Huh?”

I repeated, “Do you think Toby will like it?”

We were stopped at a traffic light so he turned toward me and smiled again, “Honestly?”

“Well, of course.” 

Then, he hesitated.  That unnerved me.  He hated it.  Toby would hate it.  It was over the top.  I always did things over the top!  I should have known.

“Guys don’t usually pay attention to stuff like that.”  He must have seen the sad look that crossed my face, the work that I was beginning to think I’d done in vain, because he continued, “But if he has any sense at all, he’ll love it.”

“Right.”  I already saw the handwriting on the wall.

He continued, “What will mean the most to him is that you cared enough to do it, and it won’t take much to see that you put time and money into getting it just right.  You have a good heart, Oona.”

I laughed.

“You disagree?” He glanced over.

“Just not two words I’ve ever encountered together,” I pushed my hair back over my shoulder to dismiss the shame I felt creeping in.

He laughed, “What? Good and heart?”

I grinned reluctantly, “No, good and Oona.”

I figured he’d laugh, but he didn’t. Instead he just looked over at me and smiled, “Well, that’s gonna change.”

I didn’t quite know what to say about that.  He barely knew me.  He didn’t know what I was capable of, the thoughts that filled my mind, the words that I’d uttered under my breath just ten minutes prior to his arrival.  He’d have taken back those words in a heartbeat, if he’d only known half of what Oona was capable of!

The rest of the ride was traveled mostly in silence, with an occasional comment on the usual hot Louisiana weather.  When we got to the airport, he didn’t unlock my door to let me out, instead he insisted on hobbling around to open it for me.  Ridiculous gentleman’s sentiment.  I should have been opening his door!  He was the one struggling to walk! Regardless, I resisted the urge to tap my foot as he made his way around and waited semi-patiently.

“Thanks for that.  As ridiculous as it was.”  Honesty is my pitfall.

“Ridiculous?” He seemed entertained and challenged me.

“Yes. Ridiculous.” I took his hand as he assisted me down and refused further comment.

Luckily, Celeste met us before we made it all ten feet to the gate where friends and family were waiting.  Robbie was obviously tickled, and I was intentionally ignoring him.  She ran up and hugged him and almost knocked him over.  With the speed in which he caught his balance, I took it that her affection for him had always come with energy and excitement, and he was no less prepared for her force.  I was not.  I coughed after she released me in her bear like hug.  For a little thing, she was strong and powerful!

“Easy, sis, don’t kill our friend.” He laughed, hanging on his crutch with one arm, and patting me on the back with his other.  I kept coughing, not as much over my loss of breath as much as for my loss of words.  Our friend, there was something very intimate about that statement.  I found myself eyeing him again, and I still wasn’t quite sure if I could believe him as genuine.  He seemed too nice.

Zella galloped up to us with a face-swallowing smile.  As much as I hated to admit it at times, she was always a bright ray of sunshine.  Her recently touched up blue locks, bounced playfully around her face, and the hue made her green eyes look mossy.  She wasn’t beautiful by the world’s standards, but she was very attractive.  There was something about her that drew you in, made you want to learn more, hear more, understand more.  If you asked her what that was, she’d reply patly, “It’s Jesus.”  I just stopped asking.

That day her eyes were twinkling and there wasn’t a soul in that circle that didn’t know exactly why.  Her Prince Charming was coming home!  Funny that I was okay with that.  I had once wanted Toby to be my Prince Charming, but he didn’t look at me twice.  From the time that he’d arrived in America just the year before, Zella was the only girl that he’d had eyes for.  It had bothered me at first…the way he looked at her, the way he took up for her, the way that his eyes sparkled when she made him laugh, but I understood it.  He was a good guy.  Zella deserved a good guy.  She was a good girl, with a good heart.  Zella and good – they were synonymous.

The intercom interrupted my evaluation with the news of the plane’s arrival.  Celeste squealed and Zella ran back to the roped off section of the gate. I wasn’t sure what to do.  I just stood there.  Waiting.  Robbie cupped my arm and ushered me forward as he hobbled beside me.  There are large moments in my life when I seriously doubt what I am doing with that group of people.  That was one of those moments.  Seeing their faces and hearing their voices and expectation and joy over a friend, it was so much not a usual part of my life that I questioned it.  There were moments when I was sure that it was only five more minutes and my alarm would go off, the dream would be over, and I would wake up in my own cold and lonely world with only the Goss twins to keep me company.

In no time at all, Toby had de-boarded and was practically running to us, eyes set on one blue haired spirit, who was trying to act cool but whose smile was so big I felt sure I had seen every single one of her teeth!  I found myself very curious.  What would they do?  Would they hug?  Would they kiss?  Would they run to meet and then casually shake hands like somehow the electricity they were putting off didn’t exist? 

I looked at Robbie and wondered if he was thinking the same thing.  He didn’t seem to care.  He wasn’t altogether overly exhilarated about any of this.  His eyes were cautiously fixed behind me.  I didn’t know on what or who exactly until I felt the tap on my shoulder and his unmistakable voice, “I haven’t missed anything have I?”       

I turned around startled, “Liam?”

“You look surprised to see me.”

I was.  “I wasn’t expecting you to be here.  I mean, you don’t even know Toby.”

He winked, “True, but he’s gonna be a part of my youth group.  Figured now was as good a time as any to introduce myself.”

Robbie turned away and clinched his jaw, “Figures.”

There was definite tension between the two of them, and it frustrated me.  Then I realized, I’d missed the moment!  The moment of meeting between Zella and her beau.  I wanted to slap Liam!  Instead I cornered him with my words, “Great.  You just took all the joy out of that one moment for me.”

He seemed taken aback and confused, “I’m sorry?”

I almost growled.  “I have been waiting and wanting to see the moment when my two friends would see each other face-to-face, and all I was able to catch is the after moment when he’s hugging Celeste and Zella has taken his backpack!  All because you have to act like some kind of big man on campus and arrive fashionably late and startle me!”

He seemed disappointed.  “Well, that’s not what I intended.”

I was finished with him, “You won’t convince me of that, Mr. Neilson!”

Robbie was stifling a laugh so I turned my frustrations on him, “If you are quite done with your rudeness, I have a party to host.”  I turned on my heel to leave the airport terminal, dialing Charles as I walked away from all the disappointing chaos when I heard someone call my name.

“Oona!  You aren’t leaving yet are you?  I haven’t even said hello again!”

I stopped and sighed.  Darn that Toby boy.  He was always able to make me melt.  I dropped my defiant pose, turned around and smiled at that sweet face I had once been in love with.  He left the others and rushed to meet me with a genuine and loving hug.  I let out my steam and whispered against his ear, “Hi.”  He had that effect on me.  I couldn’t stay mad when he was around, even if he happened to be the one I was mad at.

“So, how are you?”  His question caught me off guard, as he pulled me away and held me at arms-length, smiling, “And where are you heading in such a hurry?”

I looked at the two men that had just ticked me off and said, “Nothing that can’t wait.”

“Good!”  He smiled and his fabulous blue eyes twinkled.  “Because I brought souvenirs!”

I smiled, put my phone back in my pocket and followed him back to the crowd. Everything was gonna be alright.  I looked at Liam and Robbie and shrugged.  Those two boys would have to figure it out.  Toby was home, and as much as I hated to admit it, that affected my heart.

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