“Jump, jump, jump!”
The chant morphed into a roar as Jimmy stepped to the edge of the roof and peered into the pool. Elle had watched her son leap plenty of times, but never with a plastic beer cup in hand and a hundred screaming teens cheering him on.
She stood, frozen, as he dangled his foot into the abyss and pretended to totter and fall. The kids went wild but Elle suffered an entirely different form of hysteria, her heart catapulting into her throat. Jimmy had promised a “gathering” of his lacrosse team and a few of their girlfriends, so when the entire senior year turned up she’d gripped his arm and demanded that he send them home. Instead he’d shrugged and made an obscure comment about social media.
“Word’s out on The Face, Mom.” He didn’t even have the grace to look chagrined, smiling at a group of girls as they sauntered up the porch steps. “Despite your best efforts, it’s the party of the season.”
They were the first words he’d spoken in hours, furious at her for festooning the house with colorful balloons and streamers. The table laden with his favorite cream and jelly rolls, cupcakes and hotdogs hadn’t helped either; her attempts at mothering taken as sabotage, like she’d wanted to make him look silly in front of his friends. Faced with his palpable humiliation she’d reluctantly agreed to the beer. He wasn’t a child anymore, and she’d wanted to show him that she understood that.
But she’d never intended to host Oktoberfest. Everywhere, the ground was littered with crumpled cups and paper plates, her “fairy food” ravaged within thirty seconds of the doors bursting open. None of the kids were overly wild, there were just so many of them. It had been a big mistake to decline the Davis’ offer to help chaperone. Elle had been so naive, thinking it would be just like Jimmy’s 16th , but those two short years had made all the difference.
Elle stood at the corner of the pool. The outdoor dining set had been submerged, a group of bikini clad girls sitting waist deep and laughing at the gyrating boys above them. Behind them she spotted her son’s best friend Chris talking to a small, pinch-faced girl who was sloshing her drink around in an effort to hold his attention. The serious other half to Jimmy’s levity, Chris McKenzie was too preoccupied worrying about Jim to enjoy himself. For years he’d been the perpetual shadow at her son’s side, reproving him when he’d gone too far, or encouraging him when he hadn’t tried hard enough. Chris dragged his gaze down from the roofline and caught her eye, before turning back to his date. He was as dark as Jimmy was fair, and as Elle looked upwards once more she was struck by how much her son resembled his father. Golden hair slicked back and shoulders rippling from a season of training, they could have been brothers. With a pang, she realized he was the age Ryan had been when they first met, and only a year younger than when they’d learned they were going to be parents.
It was so long ago, but she was still young enough to remember what it felt like to have her whole life before her, as Jimmy did now. The trembling anticipation, the easy assumption that everything would work out fine, because it always did.
Only it didn’t. He too would be faced with moments like this, when everything seemed too hard, too relentlessly unfair. Times when your brain stopped working and the only thing you could remember to do was breathe.
A single drunk driver, a careless stranger in the night, had stolen the life they’d snatched up in their enthusiasm and claimed as their right. Had left her as she was now, a single mom standing in her trashed backyard on the verge of a mental breakdown. She looked up to see a dark figure climbing up the guttering and her hand flew to her throat. God forbid the kids take it into their heads to all start jumping.
It would kill Jimmy, but the party had to end. Now.
Before she could move to cut the music the figure took a few nimble steps and extended a long, brown arm across Jimmy’s chest.
At once her body relaxed, the relief so acute she felt lightheaded. The boys stood together, heads bowed. Jimmy was laughing as Chris tried to coax him back, meeting the jeers of the crowd with an irreverent finger. Jim paused and looked down at his mother and she pressed her lips into a taut smile, grateful for the apology that flickered through his eyes. Reluctantly, he allowed his friend to drag him away, only to twist and stagger at the final moment. Throwing his arm around Chris’ shoulders, he launched them both over the edge.
It only took a second for them to reach the water, but to Elle it stretched into an hour, a decade, a lifetime of acknowledgement that she just wasn’t cut out to be a single parent.
The splash was almost as big as the applause that crashed through the warm night. Dogs started barking and seconds later her neighbor’s back light flicked on. His bald head popped over the fence and was greeted by a whack from an empty coke bottle. They’d always had a courteous, if distant relationship, but Elle guessed he wouldn’t be mowing her nature strip anymore.
The party was over, and thank God for that.
* * *
Jim’s bedroom door closed with an oak splitting thud, so near her face she felt the tiny puff of air it bought with it.
With Chris’ help and the precipitous arrival of the cops, the kids had exited even faster than they’d come. Jimmy had been furious, cursing her so violently that one of the officers had suggested taking him in for the night to teach him a thing or two about respecting his mother.
Elle had politely declined, thought that if she were Jimmy she might be angry as well. Not for a stupid party, but for the dad who wasn’t there to share his first beer, or roll his eyes when Mom insisted that cupcakes were “cool” again.
There was only so much a mother could be.
She turned from his bedroom and walked into the kitchen. Toilet paper hung from the ceiling fan in long, white ribbons, the sultry air making them drift like the tentacles of a giant jellyfish. Chris stood bare-chested in soaking shorts, his muscular back tensed as he bent to pick up the pieces of a broken bottle.
“Chris, you can’t do that in bare feet.”
He glanced at her and smiled. “I’m being careful.”
“And you’re still wet…” She began to move towards the laundry. “I’ll get you some of Jim’s clothes.”
He straightened, a dark lock falling over his forehead. He’d had that same cowlick since he was five.
“I’m fine Mrs. Benson. It’s a warm night.”
Elle sighed, sliding onto a stool to watch him tidy from the bench.
“You know, you worry me Chris.”
He broke into one of his rare, reluctant smiles. “You have Jim for a son, and I’m the one who worries you?”
She nodded. “You’re too grown up, always looking after everyone.” Jaw cupped loosely in her hands, she started to feel the full weight of the day. “You need to enjoy being young and free. One minute it’s all gone and you wake up to discover you’re old.”
He gave her a strange look. “Like you?”
“Yes, like me. I wish I’d gone to lots more parties, been wild, booked a ticket to…” She paused, trying to think of somewhere suitably outrageous. “Ibiza.”
“You’re not that old,” he murmured. “Not like my mom, anyway.”
Elle grimaced as she thought of poor Jacqueline, bent over a bottle. She’d been a beautiful, accomplished woman, until her husband left her with a hastily written note and a taste for Jack Daniels. Elle had never understood pining over such an unworthy man, handsome as the devil, but just as deceitful. Jacqui was well into her fifties now and too old to start again, or so she said. It often occurred to Elle that fate hadn’t played fair with either of their families.
Chris was leaning on the bench, arms crossed and face strained as if trying to guess at her thoughts.
“I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful for your help, Chris.” She gave a light shake of her head. “I don’t know what I would have done tonight without you. The kids were just…”
“Kids.” He snorted in disapproval. “Strange what passes for fun.”
Elle laid her hand on his forearm and felt him flinch. He seemed to hate it when she touched him and for years she’d been gently trying to break through. She wasn’t going to give up; he needed to have a little warmth in his life.
“It’s OK to have fun, Chris. It’s even fine to drink, in moderation,” she added. “School’s over, this is the time when you can be a little bit reckless, do things that might seem mad.” She took the risk of increasing the contact to a mild squeeze. “That’s how you learn who you are.”
As she went to withdraw Chris put his hand over hers and held it fast against his skin.
“What if who I am, is someone I don’t want to be?” he asked. “What if I have ideas that seem…” He looked away, unable to finish the thought. “What if the apple didn’t fall far from the tree?”
The breeze lifted a strip of toilet paper and draped it softly across his shoulder. Elle pulled her hand free, picking it off and watching as it trailed back to the ground.
When her attention returned to him she found it hard to hold his gaze. His eyes were darker than Jimmy’s, green but with flecks of deep grey and almost hypnotic in the low light. He stared at her intently, as if she held the answers to all the world’s problems.
“I’ve known you for a long time Chris. You are a kind, wonderfu-”
Elle stuttered to a stop as he leant forward and covered her mouth with his own. There was heat in it, a raw hunger that stunned her. She pushed feebly at his chest, unable to think past the fact that he tasted faintly of lemonade. When the hot silk of his tongue met her own it sent a shock through her body, forcing her to wrench away so violently she almost toppled off her stool.
“Jesus Chris, what on earth-”
He towered over her, clasped her by the arms and then immediately backed away. “I’m sorry, you were there and I just-”
“Just what? Thought you’d make a pass at me?”
Her body quaked with anger. She wasn’t sure what infuriated her more, his rash action or the fact that for a moment she’d floated in indecision, caught in the sensation before the repulsion broke through. With a sickening sense of dread she wondered if she was to blame, touching his arm and giving him the wrong impression.
“I think you should leave.” The words sounded harsher than she’d intended and he blinked at her in surprise.
“Mrs. Benson… Elle –”
She flinched. “Leave, now.”
Eyes cast to the ground he stumbled past, taking all the air in the room with him.
As the door slammed she turned to find Jimmy standing on the stairs.
Confused rather than disgusted, his mussed hair and superman boxers made him every inch an oversized child. Elle gripped the side of the bench and tried to keep her voice steady.
“Nothing… just a complaining neighbor.”
He padded down the stairs and pulled her into his arms.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
She settled into his grip and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. From nowhere, tears pricked her eyes. She blinked them away.
“No honey, I am.”