“This feels weird I should just change back.”
“You look fine.”
“I dunno’ Russell… maybe I shouldn’t go. I mean she never said I could go—”
“She invited the whole class.”
Chris was fiddling with the buttons of a dress shirt that was a little too big on Russell as the other adjusted the collar for him.
“I look stupid,” Chris sighed more uncomfortable by how stiff the fabric feels compared to the well-worn hoodie he was used to wearing.
“No you don’t,” Russell answered though a bit distracted in trying to smooth out the fabric more. Neither of them had an iron and it wasn’t like it’d been hanging up in the corner of his ‘room’. Still, it looked a little nicer and more formal than what the delinquent typically wore. Gardenia hadn’t specified her party would be formal dress, but if it’d make Chris feel a little better to wear it then Russell didn’t mind lending him the shirt. It never fit properly on him anyway.
He’d finished to the best of his ability and stepped off to better look at Chris in the dingy bathroom mirror. If anything, the outfit only looked a little odd because of how much Russell was used to seeing him in more casual wear, but it definitely didn’t look bad. After another minute of fiddling, Chris eventually unbuttoned the top one letting the collar flare just a bit as he moved to put his earrings in.
“It’d look more… me if it was like this I think. Actually, this looks kinda’ cool doesn’t it?” Chris asked finding some solace in letting his actual personality show through a stuffy dress shirt.
Russell let a small smile fall on his face silently agreeing. He was curious and thought to ask about the earrings though if only because Chris had been going back and forth on it earlier.
“Ah… Gardenia said they looked cool before when I managed to say hi in class,” Chris blushed before hesitating once again, “…but maybe her dad would think it was bad or something.”
“Just keep them; it suits you,” Russell insisted before trailing back out to make sure he had everything packed. He wasn’t that close to Gardenia and as a result didn’t really know what to get her, but seeing a necklace in his mom’s jewelry box that he knew she rarely wore seemed like a good enough gift.
“I don’t want to make things awkward!” Chris explained as his hands hovered over the earrings already about to take them out again.
“If you feel weird we can just leave? I wasn’t planning to stay too long anyway.”
For the most part satisfied, Chris gave up adjusting his appearance. It didn’t take very long to make sure his own present was packed away with Russell’s things and finish turning off all the lights before heading out. His mother had been vague on when she’d be home and seemed content to know he’d be eating over a friends’ house. There was no telling whether they’d stay at the party long enough for this statement to be true or not, but he figured it saved them money on worrying about dinner as his mother would be having someone else paying for her meal as well he assumed.
The actual trek to Gardenia’s house was a bit however, namely because of the distance. She lived in a nicer part of town and the farther away they got from their usual hangouts the more Chris’ anxiety began to spike again. Russell had been quiet for most of the walk giving the bare minimum when it came to whatever small talk his friend mentioned. Between fretting over his appearance and whether Gardenia would like his present—a cookbook—admittedly, he was mostly talking to himself anyway.
Russell only interrupted his ramblings to point out they reached their destination. The number on the plate was the same as the one written on their invitations, but it was the familiar faces of their classmates that gave away their location. He didn’t mean to come off as prickly—keeping up with others and faking the amount of genuine interest needed to keep a conversation going was something the shorter teen simply didn’t have in him. More often than not, too many subjects brought up were things he couldn’t relate to or worse ended up feeling envious over once the words left the other person’s mouth.
Being more social than Russell was, Chris was actually able to properly greet the few students who recognized them as even if he wasn’t in class terribly often he at least made a point to talk. The lack of enthusiasm to join in was typical of Russell so Chris didn’t really worry. There was no way for him to understand just why the other rarely participated in conversations and took it at face value. Half the time he couldn’t even be sure Russell was listening.
At present though, he was listening and even now the conversation made Russell uncomfortable. It seems the cake and dinner they’d all be eating was personally prepared by Gardenia’s father. He’d known all about how much the man liked to cook as it was something she’d talk about a lot—as well as her own desires to become just as skilled—but the snide comparisons his brain supplied about how different and unfair it was compared to how his father was couldn’t help but sneak their way in.
At least Chris no longer seemed nervous. Once it’d been obvious his presence wasn’t ruining the party in some fashion he wasted no time in speaking to people Russell considered acquaintances. As much as it made him happy to know his friend could actually enjoy the party now, it didn’t help his own growing jealousy. Other people’s happiness often had this effect on him, but the more he was actually here the more he started to feel he shouldn’t have come.
A mocking voice in his mind reminded him that he could have convinced Chris this was a bad idea and they could have stayed home. He wouldn’t have had to see all these happy faces celebrating someone for being born when he himself had never experienced that happiness.
No longer wanting to stick around the cheery atmosphere, his own dark thoughts had driven him to wander off only thinking to mention he was going to look for a bathroom. Once it had been mentioned, one of their classmates pointed out where it was and Russell didn’t bother staying long enough to confirm whether Chris could tell he wasn’t feeling well.
The party sounded dimmer from upstairs enough that he was imagining himself somewhere else. It sounded even farther the second the bathroom door was locked and he was holding his head between his knees.
Just once he had wanted to put someone else’s happiness before his own. There was so little he had to feel happy about to begin with, but if Chris hadn’t brought himself to come to the party there’d be a lingering regret about the evening and no matter how good a time they had Russell knew he wouldn’t be able to get rid of.
So for just a bit longer, he wanted to make himself put up with it. He was always selfish when it came to Chris so just this once… just this once…
As Russell made that resolution to himself and exited the bathroom, Gardenia was making her way out of presumably her room or some other family room on the upper floor. She paused to look down the staircase at the party in full swing, but her back was left completely open.
All his earlier contempt rose the longer he stared.
“She’s such an angel!”
“Such a sweet girl, inviting the whole class on her special day. How thoughtful!”
“Everyone must love her!”
Suddenly, he figured out just what bothered him about the whole thing. Beyond having never gotten the same kind of affection, it was something he was supposed to get today too.
It was his birthday too.
His own parents had forgotten and no one else had known so of course they hadn’t said anything either. It’d been so long since someone besides him had mentioned it that he actually forgot entirely until just now. Unconsciously, his hand rose as he stepped closer. His steps were silent in comparison to the party below as the thoughts continued.
“I-I—you’re not gonna’ tell her this right? I mean of course you’re not you guys don’t even talk really, but I think I like her.”
“You really can’t tell her Russell! Okay!”
Why was she so lovely? If she was such an angel, then she should fly like one right?
Russell only thought to draw his hand back at the last second as the sound of a door closing behind them registered. At first, he worried it was her father or someone else from her family, but upon hearing his name he was surprised.
Chris placed a hand on his shoulder, slightly out of breath though wearing an expression of relief upon seeing him.
“There you are! You were taking a while so I thought you got sick. Or ditched without me,” his expression was sheepish at that. Seconds after he admitted it though does he actually take notice of the person behind Russell and what the implication of his words could mean.
“G-Gardenia! I didn’t know you were here too! We’d never ditch your party, Russell here just likes to go off without me a lot don’tcha’ buddy?” He paused in his frantic explaining to glance at his friend then back at her.
“Anyway, happy birthday! Everybody was wondering where you were, so you probably shouldn’t keep ‘em waiting.”
The birthday girl looked between the both of them unsure whether to be upset at the mention of someone showing up only to leave or confused as she was having trouble putting names to either of the boys’ faces. They had to have been from her class, but…
Ignoring his sentiment and subtle indication that she should head down to the party, Gardenia clapped her hands together pleased to have finally recognized the both of them.
“Oh! You’re the boys who are always cutting class! I left invites in your desks, but I didn’t think I’d see either of you here,” she beamed not at all bothered by the rather unpleasant rumors that surrounded the two. Some of them had to have been kids being dramatic since they certainly seemed friendly.
“Well, you better not split until after presents and cake,” She teased shooting them a playful smile before trailing downstairs. In a trance, Russell could only stare as the ends of her hair moving back and forth from her steps really did resemble an angel’s wings. Chris himself was distracted as he hadn’t expected her to recognize him let alone talk to either of them directly and the conversation replaying itself in his head was making his cheeks warm.
Only after another moment of their staring, does Chris think to say something.
“We should probably get back downstairs if you’re feeling better. They might be cutting cake soon.”
Not particularly interested in speaking just yet, Russell nodded to show he was listening before following him. Beyond nodding again when asked if he was feeling better, the teen actually tuned out most of what Chris was saying to him. A lot of dishes were lined up on tables likely for people to pick at, which given where he was pointing, was precisely what he was saying, but Russell didn’t have much of an appetite anymore and chose not to grab anything for himself.
Each and every smiling face they passed only worked to make him feel angrier and more depressed, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. If Chris hadn’t shown up when he did, he’s almost certain Gardenia would have ended up at the bottom of the stairs. The thought didn’t frighten him or even really make him feel guilty though. Why had he thought about what Chris said about her before that urge struck him though?
Before he could focus too long on it, everyone was singing and Russell only had enough in him to mechanically mouth the words. He didn’t want to be here anymore. If it weren’t for the fact Gardenia had already made a comment about them planning to ditch and Chris likely asking about it if he left now, Russell would leave. As things were, he was stuck here watching her open presents with his jealousy threatening to overflow.
“Ahhh! This is so cute, thank you Russell!”
His prior feelings surprisingly crept towards guilt as she thanked him for essentially a stolen and barely thought out present wearing such a genuine expression all the while. Russell never knew what to do when people smiled at him especially when he was in such a foul mood.
“You’re welcome,” was all he ended up replying with though the words felt fake. There was no way Gardenia could have known what he had wanted and almost done, but it was unsettling how nice she remained towards him. Russell didn’t deserve it and the more he watched her open presents the more he wondered on whether he even deserved a proper birthday.
The rest of the party became a blur even when he was dimly aware of Chris’s present being opened from how nervous the other got about it. What was actually said, Russell didn’t hear, but from how sheepish, yet happy he looked, it must have been a good reaction. He couldn’t stand seeing such an expression at the moment and if it weren’t for that being the second to last present the teen would have left the moment he saw it.
Part of him was tempted to admit it was his birthday too even though it would be pointless. Almost everyone at the party was an acquaintance seeing as he barely attended class when he could help it and any sentiments shown towards him would feel fake no matter what. It didn’t help that his mood kept oscillating between feeling bitter and guilty either.
By the time the party was wrapping up and people were waiting for rides home, Russell didn’t linger. He wasn’t eager to get home, but he certainly didn’t want to stay at that house any longer. Chris didn’t seem to notice right away that he’d left, but considering the teen’s destination was in the same vicinity of where his friend lived, it was only natural they’d eventually bump into each other.
“Man, I really gotta’ thank you for lending me this so I could go. I didn’t think she’d like my present or even really notice I was there,” Chris rambled while Russell contemplated ducking into a separate alley.
“I’ll get it washed and returned soon, I promise.”
The words received no response and they were too close to Chris’ home for the conversation to continue much longer not that Russell was in the mood to lengthen it. There was only a few moments left for Russell to say anything, but he can’t bring himself to admit anything. Even if he considered the other a friend, there was no way he’d understand his jealousy and any form of comfort he gave—if any—would feel forced.
“Goodnight Russell and… be careful okay? You’re still welcome over, but I’m guessing you’re not really in the mood, huh?” He gave a lopsided smile never sure on how to approach the subject of Russell’s bad moods. If he were honest there were times those moods scared him more than just made things feel a little awkward.
As much as he’d wanted to tell his only friend everything, Russell did nothing. He nodded before turning back for the alley he had originally planned on going in and let the night take him.
It isn’t until a week later that Russell brought himself to go to class and leave the bathroom he called his room. The diary he admitted everything to served enough of a catharsis that even seeing Gardenia smile at him as he entered only spurned a tiny, quiet smile of his own.
She didn’t ask to share a birthday with him, and as for Russell, he’d simply never asked to have been born.