It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (24 page)

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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Chapter Thirty-Six
Lily

I’m curled up on Atlas’s couch, exhausted from moving.

Our
couch.

This is going to take some getting used to.

I had Theo and Josh help me unpack the rest of Emerson’s and my things because Atlas has a late night at work. I wake up early, he gets home late, but it’s exciting that we’ll now get more pieces of each other, even when it’s in passing. And we have Sundays together.

But tonight is a Friday, and tomorrow is a Saturday, Atlas’s busiest days, so I’m entertaining Josh and Theo until my mother returns with Emerson. The three of us have been watching
Finding Nemo
, but it’s almost over.

I honestly didn’t think they would sit through it because they’re at the age when preteens tend to want to separate themselves from Disney cartoons. But I’m learning that Gen Z is a different breed. The more time I spend with these two, the more I think they’re unlike any generation that came before them. They’re less prone to peer pressure and more supportive of individuality. I’m a little bit jealous of them.

Josh stands when the credits begin to roll.

“Did you like it?”

He shrugs. “It was pretty funny, considering it started
with the brutal slaughter of all that caviar.” He takes his empty bag of popcorn toward the kitchen, but Theo is still staring at the television. He’s shaking his head slowly.

I’m still stuck on Josh’s description of the beginning of the movie…

“I don’t get it,” Theo says.

“The caviar comment?”

Theo looks between me and the television. “No. I don’t get why Atlas said that to you about finally reaching the shore. It wasn’t even a quote in the movie. He told me he said it because of
Finding Nemo
. I waited for someone to say it through the entire movie.”

I’m sure I’ll have to get used to a lot of things now that I live with Atlas, but knowing he talks to this kid about our relationship is probably not one of the things I’ll ever get used to.

The confusion in Theo’s eyes flips like a light switch. “Oh.
Oh.
Because when life gets them down, they keep swimming, so Atlas was saying life will no longer…
okay
.” His mind is still going a mile a minute behind those eyes. He starts to shake his head as he pushes himself off the floor. “I still think it’s cheesy,” he mutters. Theo’s phone buzzes right as he stands. “I gotta go—my dad’s here.”

Josh is back in the living room. “You aren’t staying over?”

“I can’t tonight; my parents are taking me to a thing in the morning.”

“I want to go to a thing,” Josh says.

Theo is pulling on his shoes when he hesitates. “Yeah, I don’t know.”

“Where are you going?”

Theo’s eyes flash briefly to mine, and then back to Josh. “It’s a parade.” He says it quietly, but also like it’s a warning.

“A parade?” Josh tilts his head. “Why are you being weird? What kind of parade is it? A pride parade?”

Theo swallows like maybe him and Josh haven’t had this conversation, so I’m nervous on Theo’s behalf. But I’ve been around Josh enough over the last several months to know that he values his friendship with Theo.

Josh grabs his shoes and sits next to me on the couch and starts putting them on. “What are you saying? I’m not allowed to go to a pride thing because I like girls?”

Theo shifts from one foot to the other. “You can go. I just… I didn’t know if you knew.”

Josh rolls his eyes. “You can tell a lot about a person by their taste in manga, Theo. I’m not a dumbass.”


Josh
,” I say.

“Sorry.” He grabs a jacket from the closet. “Can I stay over at Theo’s tonight?”

Josh’s casual attitude about this monumental moment between the two of them reminds me so much of Atlas.

Considerate Josh.

But his question about leaving with Theo kind of stumps me. My eyes widen slightly. I’ve only lived here four days. Josh hasn’t asked me permission for anything before, and Atlas and I haven’t really laid ground rules. “Yeah, sure. But let your brother know where you are.”

I really don’t think Atlas will mind. Now that we live together, we’re going to have to tackle things like this when it
comes to Josh and Emerson. Who parents who, when, how. It’s kind of exciting. I like figuring out life with Atlas.

My mother still hasn’t returned with Emerson yet, so once Josh and Theo have left, the house is quiet and empty for the first time since we moved in. I’ve never been here alone before. I spend my alone time walking through rooms, looking in cabinets, familiarizing myself with my new house.

My new house.
That’s fun to say.

I go out back and sit in a chair on the deck, staring over the backyard. It’s the perfect backyard for a garden. Almost unheard-of for a place this far into the city. It’s like Atlas searched for a house specifically for the perfect garden space just in case I ever came back into his life. I know that’s not at all why he chose this house, but it’s fun imagining he did it for that reason.

My phone rings, startling me. It’s Atlas returning an earlier call with a video chat.

“Hi.”

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Picking out a spot for my garden. Josh wanted to stay over with Theo, so I let him go. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is. Did they help you at all?”

“Yeah, we got most of it done.”

Atlas looks relieved by that. He runs a hand down the side of his face like he’s releasing stress. It looks like it’s been a busy day, but Atlas tucks it away beneath a smile. “Where’s Emerson?”

“My mom is on her way back with her.”

He sighs like he’s sad he couldn’t get a glimpse of her. “I’m starting to miss her,” he says. The words come out
soft and fast, like he’s a little bit scared to admit he’s starting to love my daughter. But I caught his words, and I’m keeping them next to all the other sweet things he’s ever said to me. “I’ll be home in about three hours. Will you be awake?”

“If I’m not, you know what to do.”

Atlas gives his head a little shake, and his mouth ticks up in the corner. “I love you. Be home soon.”

“I love you, too.”

As soon as we end our call, I hear Emerson’s sweet voice, so I immediately turn around. My mother is standing in the doorway holding her. She’s smiling like she caught some of that conversation.

I stand up to grab Emerson from her, and she clings to me. Should be an easy night. When she gets cuddly like this, it means she’s ready to fall asleep. I motion for my mother to have a seat next to me.

“This is cute,” she says.

It’s her first time here. I would show her around, but Emerson is already rubbing her face into my chest, trying to fight her tiredness. I want to give her a chance to fall asleep before I stand up.

“What a magnificent place for a garden,” my mother says. “You think he chose this place on purpose, hoping you’d come back into his life?”

I shrug. “I was actually wondering that myself, but I didn’t want to assume.” I pause, then turn and look at her after her question actually registers.
Back into his life?
I never told her Atlas was a friend from back in Maine. I just assumed she didn’t remember him.

I assumed she had no idea that the Atlas in my life now was anyone from my past.

She can see the surprise on my face, so she says, “It’s a unique name, Lily. I remember him.”

I smile, but I’m also confused as to why she never brought it up before now. I’ve been dating him for over six months, and she’s been around him a handful of times.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. My mother has always been a little hard to get to open up. I can’t blame her. She spent years with a man who left her no voice, so I’m sure it’s been hard for her to learn how to use it again.

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “I figured you would bring it up to me if you wanted me to know.”

“I wanted to, but I didn’t want it to feel awkward for you being around him. Not after what Dad did to him.”

She looks away from me, her eyes scanning the backyard. She’s quiet for a beat. “I never told you this, but I spoke to Atlas once. Kind of. I came home from work early and the two of you were asleep on the couch. Talk about a shock,” she says, laughing. “I thought you were so sweet and innocent, but there you were on my living room sofa asleep with a random boy. I was about to yell at you, but when he woke up, he looked so scared. Not scared of me, really, now that I think about it. He looked more scared of the possibility of losing you. Anyway, he left in a quiet hurry, so I followed him outside because I was going to threaten him and tell him never to come back. But he just… he did the weirdest thing, Lily.”

“What did he do?” My heart is in my throat.

“He hugged me,” she says, her voice tinted with a drop of laughter.

My jaw drops. “He
hugged
you? You caught him with your daughter red-handed and he hugged you?”

She nods. “He did. And it was a knowing hug, too. It was like he carried this genuine sorrow for me, and I felt that in his hug. Like he was encouraging me, or comforting me. And then he just… walked away. I never even got the chance to yell at him for being in my house with you unsupervised. Maybe that was his plan—it could have been a manipulation tactic, I don’t know.”

I shake my head. “It wasn’t a tactic.”
Considerate Atlas.

“I knew you were seeing him. And I knew you were hiding him from your father rather than me, so I didn’t take it personally. I never interfered because I liked that you had someone, Lily.” She gestures toward the house behind us. “And now look. You have him forever.”

That story makes me squeeze Emerson a little tighter.

“It makes me happy to know there’s a man in your life that gives meaningful hugs like that,” my mother says.

“He gives more than great hugs,” I deadpan.

My mother scoffs. “Lily!” She stands up, shaking her head. “I’m going home now.”

I’m laughing to myself as she leaves. Then I use my free hand to text Atlas.

I love you so much, you idiot.

Chapter Thirty-Seven
Atlas

“Are you seriously about to do this?” Theo asks.

I’m standing in front of a mirror, adjusting my tie. Theo is sitting on the couch, attempting to convince me to let him read my vows before the wedding. “I’m not reading them to you.”

“You’re going to embarrass yourself,” he says.

“I’m not. They’re good.”

“Atlas. Come on. I’m trying to help you. For all I know, you probably end them with something like,
It is my wish for you to be my fish
.”

I laugh. I don’t know how he still comes up with these lines after two years of this. “Do you practice your insults when you lie awake at night?”

“No, they come naturally.”

Someone knocks on the door and opens it a crack. “Five minutes.”

I give myself one more glance in the mirror before turning to Theo. “Where’s Josh? I need to make sure he’s ready.”

“I’m not supposed to tell you.”

I tilt my head. “Where is he, Theo?”

“Last time I saw him, he was in the gazebo with his tongue down some girl’s throat. He’s gonna make you a grandad soon.”

“I’m his brother. I’d be an uncle, not a grandad.” I look out the window, but the gazebo is empty. “Go find him, please.”

Josh and I are a lot alike, but he’s a little bit more confident with girls than I was at that age. He just turned fifteen, and so far, this is my least-favorite age. I’m sure when he’s old enough to drive next year, it’s going to age me an entire decade.

I need to think about something else. I’m already nervous. Maybe Theo is right, and I should look over my vows again to make sure there’s nothing I want to change or add.

I pull the page out of my pocket and unfold it, and then grab a pen in case I want to make any very last-minute changes.

Dear Lily,

I’m used to writing you letters that no one else will ever read, which may be why I had a difficult time when I first attempted to write these vows. The idea that they were going to be read out loud to you in front of other people was a little bit terrifying.

But vows aren’t meant to be something you make in private. The purpose of a vow is to make an intentional promise that is witnessed, whether it’s witnessed by God, or friends and family.

It has to make you wonder, though, or at least it made me wonder what the purpose is behind the need for a public vow. I couldn’t stop my mind from questioning what must have happened in the past to create the necessity for love to be witnessed.

Does it mean that somewhere along the way, a promise was broken? A heart was shattered?

It’s disappointing if you really sit and think about why vows even exist. If we trusted everyone to keep their word, vows wouldn’t be necessary. People would fall in love, and they’d stay in love, faithfully, forever, the end.

But that’s the issue, I guess. We’re people. We’re human. And humans can sometimes be disappointing.

That realization led me down another path in my thought process while writing these vows. I began to wonder, if humans are so often disappointing and so rarely successful at love, what can we do to ensure ours is a love that will stand the test of time? If half of all marriages end in divorce, that would mean half of every set of vows ever made have ended up broken. How do we ensure we’re not one of the couples who becomes a statistic?

Unfortunately, Lily, we can’t. We can only hope, but we can’t guarantee that the words we stand here and promise one another today won’t end up in the file of a divorce lawyer a few years down the road.

I apologize. I realize these vows are making marriage sound like an extremely depressing cycle that only ends happily half the time.

But for someone like me, that’s actually kind of exciting.

Half the time?

Fifty-fifty?

One out of two?

If someone would have told me when I was a teenager that I would have a fifty-fifty chance of living my entire
life with you, I would have felt like the luckiest human on the planet.

If someone would have told me that I had a 50 percent chance of being loved by you, I would have wondered what the hell I did to get so lucky.

If someone would have told me that we’d get married one day, and I’d get to give you your dream honeymoon in Europe, and that our marriage would have a 50 percent chance of being successful, I would have immediately asked what size your ring finger was so that we could get started.

Maybe the idea of love ending being a negative thing is simply a matter of perspective. Because to me, the idea that a love came to an end means that, at some point, there was love that existed. And there was a time in my life, before you, when I was completely untouched by it.

The teenage version of me wouldn’t have seen potential heartbreak as a bad thing. I was jealous of anyone who had ever loved something enough to experience losing it. Before you, I had never met love at all.

But then you came along, and you changed that. Not only did I get the opportunity to be the first person to ever fall in love with you, but I also got to experience a shared heartbreak with you. And then, like a miracle, I was given the opportunity to fall in love with you all over again.

Two times in one life.

How can one man be so lucky?

All things considered, the fact that I made it here, that
we
made it here, to our wedding day, is quite frankly more than I ever dreamed I would get out of life. One breath,
one kiss, one day, one year, one lifetime. I’ll take whatever you’ll give me, and I vow that I will cherish every second I’m lucky enough to spend with you from this moment on, just as I’ve cherished every second I’ve ever spent with you before this moment.

Optimistically speaking, we could live our entire lives together, happily, until we’re old and frail and it takes an entire day for me just to reach your lips to kiss you goodnight. If that happens, I vow that I will be immensely grateful for the love that carried us through our life together.

Pessimistically speaking, we could break each other’s hearts again tomorrow—I know we won’t, but even if we did, I vow that I will be immensely grateful for the love that led to that heartbreak until the day that I die. If it’s my destiny to end up a statistic, there’s no one else I’d rather become a statistic with than you.

But you once told me I was a realist, so I want to end my vows realistically. In my heart, I believe we’re going to leave here today and face a journey together that’s full of hills, valleys, peaks, and canyons. Sometimes you’re going to need me to hold your hand down the hills, and sometimes I’ll need you to lead me up the mountain, but everything, from this point forward, we’re going to face together. It’s you and me, Lily. In good times and bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in the past and for forever, you are my favorite person. Always have been. Always will be. I love you. Everything that you are.

Atlas

I exhale, the page trembling in my hand. They’re exactly how I want them, so I start to fold the paper when Josh walks into the room. He’s joined by Darin, Brad, Theo, and Marshall.

Marshall is holding open the door. “You ready? It’s time.”

I nod, more than ready, but before I stuff my vows back into my pocket, I decide to make one small change. I don’t touch anything already written, but I do add a line to the very end.

P.S. It is my wish for you to be my fish.

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
5.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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