Chapter 8

“You’re looking stunning as ever,” Liam grinned as he sat at the bar. Ava was out collecting empty glasses and bottles when he came in.

Ava plucked at the black beer-soaked shirt and arched a brow. “A tap exploded on me when the keg went, I stepped in dog shit walking here this afternoon, and I’m pretty sure I forgot to put on deodorant this morning.”

“I didn’t say you smelled stunning,” he laughed. He hooked his finger, gesturing for her to come closer. Ava wiped her brow with the back of her hand as she approached slowly.

“What are you up to?” she asked with a squint.

Liam spun on the stool, looped an arm around her waist, and pulled her between his legs. “Just wanted to give you a real hello.”

Ava gasped as their lips met, afraid of who might see such a public display. They’d been sneaking kisses for the last week, but to have him grab her in the middle of the bar… What if Sarah walks in right now?

He pulled away to kiss down her chin and neck. She laughed and pushed him away. “That tickles!”

“And you taste like stale beer,” he replied with a mock sneer.

Ava swatted at him with a bar towel. “I warned you.” She strutted away, swaying her hips and bending at just the right angle as she cleared a small table. “How was your day?” she asked as she deposited the bottles on the bar and walked behind.

Liam shrugged and yawned. “You know, the usual. Underpaid, overworked.”

“Says the man who never tips,” Ava smirked. She popped the cap off a bottle he didn’t have to ask for and set it on the bar.

Liam’s blue eyes flashed with mischief. “Oh, I’ll give you a tip if you want one, sugar.”

Her stomach fluttered at the suggestion. She quickly turned before he could see the blush in her cheeks. She was getting confident with flirting but he still had an incredible effect on her.

The door slammed open and in walked Sarah. She looked like she was headed out to a Manhattan dance club, not a dive bar off the highway on a Tuesday night. A few girlfriends playing entourage strutted in behind.

Ava and Liam exchanged a look before Sarah had a chance to approach. I’m sorry, Liam said with his eyes before Sarah wrapped herself around him.

“Hey baby!” she cried, leaving a red kiss print on his cheek. She regarded Ava like some kind of insect before looking up and down the bar. “Is my sister around?”

Ava spun a flat bottle opener around her finger as she dramatically scanned the area. “Hmmm, I don’t see her anywhere. Maybe if I look harder…” she replied sarcastically.

Sarah unwound her arms from Liam’s neck and looked her dead in the eyes. “You might want to watch your tone. My sister welcomed you with open arms. I’d hate to see her have to get rid of you for being rude to the customers.”

Ava didn’t miss the not-so-subtle hint at the cult name. Painfully aware that Liam was listening, she decided to bite her tongue. “What can I get you ladies, then?” All she wanted was a chance to wipe that smug grin off Sarah’s face.

“I think four bottles of Sam Adams. At least then I know you aren’t gonna spit in it or something,” she said, getting a laugh from the hyenas behind her. Ava gave her a flat smile, slammed the four bottles down, and started to walk away. “Idiot,” Sarah snorted. “You forgot to open them.”

“No, I didn’t,” she said over her shoulder. She knew it was childish, but she couldn’t help get a little dig in. She hated that Sarah had any power over her whatsoever.

Just as Sarah was about to start shouting, Liam grabbed the bottles and deftly popped the tops off with his lighter. “There. Ladies, have a good night,” he soothed by handing them each a bottle. But they had apparently found their play toy and didn’t want to let him go.

“Come with us!”

“Let’s play darts. Liam, please?”

He glanced at Ava apologetically as the gaggle pulled him away from the bar. For the rest of the night, she was left to wonder what Sarah was hiding in that safe and why Liam was keeping everything such a secret.

_____________

The next morning was like any other. Ava rolled out of bed a little before noon, stumbled into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. With Dave and Audrey already at work, it was the only time she had to herself in the house. But this wasn’t like every other morning.

Immediately, she spotted the greeting card on the round kitchen table and recognized her sister’s handwriting. For Ava

With a frown, Ava tore the card open, chuckling at the idea of an eviction notice dropping out. Instead, she extracted a simple card. A teddy bear holding a sign wished her a happy birthday and on the inside, a note from her sister.

I wasn’t sure if you’d remember but I didn’t want to miss it this year. Happy “Birthday” – Audrey

Ava sat on the chair with a thud. She read the card with blurry vision until the tears spilled onto her cheeks. I had forgotten. September 3rd…

Birthdays were never celebrated in Open Arms. While her parents and other community leaders did their best to shield the children from most modern ideas and customs, a few managed to work their way in. She didn’t remember how and when, but she and Audrey had each learned about the concept of a birthday. Without fully understanding the idea, they simply chose a date on the calendar and dubbed it their shared birthday.

Her last “birthday” had been spent like any other day back home. Feeding the animals, cleaning the pens, chores, chores, chores. With her mother gone and Audrey escaping, the bulk of the housework landed on her lap. As Ava forced herself to remember back, she seemed to recall having to stay up close to midnight repairing tears in her father’s clothes.

At one point, I remember stopping and thinking about Audrey. In my mind I’d wished her a happy birthday and wondered what she’d be doing to celebrate on the outside…

She set the card on the table, wiped her face dry, and looked around the house as if truly seeing it for the first time. “Ugh, I can’t be here today!” Pacing up and down the hallway, pulling her fingers through her long hair, she finally made up her mind.

Plucking the business card out of her book, she quickly dialed the number on the back, fearing she’d change her mind before she finished. She listened to it ring with a lump in her throat.

“Yeah?” was his gruff answer.

“Liam? It’s Ava.”

“Oh, hey! Everything all right?” His voice audibly brightened which made her smile.

“I’m… I know you’re working, but could you possibly come hang out? I don’t really want to be alone right now and…”

She heard a loud clatter on the other side of the phone, like he’d just dropped a wrench into a tool box. “Where are you? At home? I’ll be there in ten, beautiful.”

_____________

Liam arrived in eight minutes. The sound of the approaching engine gave Ava enough time to run out of the house and meet him.

“Hey you,” he said as he leaned out of the open window. “What’s going…”

“Can we just go for a drive?” she asked, bending to see into the darkened car.

Liam scratched the side of his shaved head for a second before squinting up at her. “Any trouble I need to take care of?”

Ava forced herself to reply calmly, no matter how anxious she felt inside. “I’m having kind of a rough day and needed a friend. There’s nothing you need to take care of,” she replied, finishing the sentence with air quotes.

Liam slid his sunglasses down into place. “Then get in, sweetheart.”

They rode in silence for nearly a half an hour. Hair whipping around her head, hand outstretched gliding along the wind, Ava didn’t know how to cope with the tumult of emotions rattling her chest.

While she understood the truth of it now, Open Arms had been the only childhood she ever had. It was hard, it was dirty, it was a tough way to grow up… but there had been love. She had memories of plenty of nights with her mom and siblings sitting in the living room, playing games, telling stories. But now those memories were tainted. She wanted to remember her mother with fondness and love. Now, she couldn’t help but hate her for all the choices she’d made. In a blind effort to keep her family safe, she’d robbed her children of any future.

“Do you want to go for a walk? We’re not too far from a nice little field I know,” Liam shouted over the wind.

Ava held her hair back and smiled. “Sounds good.”

After they’d parked, their extended silence continued through the first couple minutes of their walk. The fact he wasn’t pressuring her for details made Ava fall for Liam even more. As they walked through a cut grass path, the crickets and cicadas chirping in the taller grass beyond, she reached out for his hand.

“Thank you,” she practically whispered as she threaded her fingers with his.

“You’re welcome,” he replied with a sidelong glance.

“I can’t tell you what’s going on, but… I’m glad you came.”

“Any time you need me. Can you give me a hint though? I have a wicked imagination and I’ve come up with some pretty wild scenarios here…”

Ava bit her lip before responding. “It’s my birthday.”

“Ah! Okay. That’s all I need to know,” he chuckled.

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not like that… it’s…” She watched him for a moment from the corner of her eye. “What was your favorite birthday growing up?”

He rubbed the back of his neck as he thought, his stained white shirt lifting high enough to reveal a portion of his torso. “Ummm, it was either my seventh or eighth. I was absolutely obsessed with Mario and Pokemon back then.”

Ava nodded as if she knew what he was talking about. She was vaguely aware of the characters but not in the deep, almost spiritual way most people her age were. “Right,” she prodded.

“Mom threw me this huge themed party. Everyone who came dressed as their favorite Nintendo or Pokemon character. And for hours that day, we ran around the house playing games, pretending to fight, eating cake… oh!” he exclaimed, jumping to face her. He walked backwards as he continued. “She made this incredible cake. I still don’t know how she did it. It was about this tall and this wide. A fully standing cake statue of Mario. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to cut the thing after blowing out the candles,” he said shaking his head.

Candles? she wondered. Ava grinned at his excitement. “Sounds like she did a good job.”

He jumped back into step beside her. “The best. How about you? What was your best birthday?”

Ava deflected. “We were pretty poor, so we didn’t have anything like that. Did you have a lot of friends growing up?” she asked.

Liam pointed to a leafy tree a little off the path and guided her to it. “Uh, yeah, I guess. It was a small school, so everyone knew everyone. There weren’t enough people for cliques to form or any of that bullshit, so yeah.” They settled against the trunk of the tree, obscured from view by the tall grasses. “How about you?”

“Homeschooled,” Ava replied quickly.

“Ah.”

She picked at the grass by her side, still wrestling with the emotions the day had awoken. “Did you go on many vacations when you were little?”

“Darlin’, what’s going on with you? I appreciate you trying to get to know me, but… I don’t know really understand what’s happening here.”

Ava stared into his eyes, wanting to tell him every single little secret she held close. But with the mood she was in, she knew it would come out in a jumbled, hysterical mess and scare him off before she’d even had a chance to start.

How can I tell him how jealous I am of that birthday party? Of going to school? Of living a normal life and being able to take it all for granted? How can I tell him anything without running him off? He has all these memories and experiences and I have nothing…

That last though rang in her mind like a chiming bell and a soft voice countered, But now you can make your own memories.

“I… Liam, I’m…” she started. Her mouth worked silently for a moment as her mind went blank. Her gaze dropped to his full lips and without thinking, she launched herself into his lap.

Ava’s knees landed on either side of his hips. She held his face between the palms of her hands and stared into his eyes for a moment. When his hands slid to her waist and a broad smile spread across his face, she bent and kissed him fully. What started as a soft, lingering touch of the lips quickly turned into an intense embrace.

Liam pushed his hands up her back, pulling her down against his groin by the shoulders. He captured her mouth with hunger, kissing and nipping until her lips were left throbbing. In a swift movement, she tore her shirt over her head before doing the same to his. Ava needed to feel his hot skin against hers.

After a few voracious minutes, Liam pulled away, scanning her face. “Are you sure you want to…”

Ava nodded breathlessly, diving for his mouth once more.

With a growl, he cupped her ass and picked her up, gently resting her on her back in the grass. Ava looked up at him, tattoos decorating his toned torso, his smile framed by the cloudless sky. She smiled, hooked her finger, and gestured for him to come closer.

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