There’s a cold spot next to me when I open my eyes. I expected to see Gabriella looking back at me, but that’s just my dreams. I find her on the floor by the wall, examining my pictures and tracing over silhouettes and lines. Did she realize I was holding her the whole night, that I whispered to her, I love you?
The blanket is suddenly too hot for me so I swing out of bed and join her. “This is really pretty.” She points to a sky that’s a mix of blushing pink, vivid violet, and soft blue with the sun blasting gold through the clouds. “Where was this?”
It takes a minute for me to place it. Over the course of three years I have taken six thousand photos, all in very different locations. “The day I left Clovis. It must’ve been a few hours before we reached Boulder City, I guess.”
“These are amazing, Charlie. Do you show these to people?”
I shake my head. “There’s no one that would. My family, they just go, ‘Wow, Charlie, they’re great’ and then move on.”
“Back home I bet a lot of people would pay for them.”
That’s what I like about her. Always encouraging me. “I doubt it.”
“I know I would.” Her sincerity reflects in her blue eyes, and I’ve always trusted that look.
She gazes at the rest of them, occasionally gasping over a water fountain in the morning, citrus-colored flowers that collected raindrops, a cloud shaped like a snake in the evening sky, fireworks exploding at night. I decide to bring up a question that’s pestered me. “Why tennis?”
Gabriella glances at me uncertainly. “It’s the best way for me to get a scholarship. Being an honors student, that won’t get me much anywhere. Nowadays people have GPA’s a lot higher than 4.0 and I’m right there.”
That’s not the real reason. She sighs. “My dad made me. He’d much rather I am a sports superstar than an academic superstar. Just because he got in college that way.”
I remember now. The days she’d call me and complain how her dad got mad when she got a hundred on a really hard test and he’d say, I’d be more proud of you if you were in a sport. Our dads liked to push us to what they wanted, not what we wanted. They were best friends in college too, and that’s how we met. One block away from each other.
“You can’t make yourself be who he wants you to be, Gabriella. I refuse to be a lawyer like my father does. He’s stuck being a salesman and wants me to live out his dream.”
“We can defy them, right? We can be the better person. Our parents know nothing about us.”
“Right.” She smiles. “Hey, I think my mom will be awake in an hour. You wanna go get the cooking stuff now and surprise her later?”
“Let’s bake cupcakes!” The intense moment is over, thank God.
At the grocery store we stock up on icing, cake mix, sprinkles, whatever I can remember Mom baking with. It’s really rudimentary stuff, but she’ll appreciate being back in the kitchen again.
At checkout I spot a familiar red-head boy, tall and skinny. It’s Ian, Crystal’s baseball boyfriend. In his small basket I can see a bottle. I can’t be sure if it’s alcohol or an energy drink, it’s too dark and hidden underneath some cereal box.
He sees me and joins us. “Is this your girlfriend, Charlie?”
I blush, but try to keep my face straight. “Gabriella, from where I used to live. She’s my friend.” They shake hands and exchange grins, friendliness.
“I see you have baking ingredients.” Clearly he’s trying to hold a conversation, but I really don’t like this guy. Something in his hazel eyes sets it off. Crystal doesn’t often invite him over. When they were still in high school I usually found them holding hands in the halls, spewing PDA whenever they felt like. One day I actually found them arguing at his locker, and I was tempted to go over there and punch his face for yelling at her, but I didn’t know the story. I never bothered her about it.
“We’re going to cook with his mom later,” Gabriella says.
A silver flask pokes out of his shirt pocket. Ian notices I’m looking. “It’s Seven Up,” he explains. “The bottle itself is too chunky to carry around.”
Not fooling me. I can smell something in his breath that is not close to a soda.
The line moves forward. “See you later, Charlie. Tell Crystal I’ll pick her up tomorrow after volleyball.” I nod and sigh, relieved he’s gone.
“You don’t like him.” Gabriella turns to me after she sets the stuff on the counter.
“He doesn’t seem right. Don’t you think?”
“Ian’s fine. Cute, too.” I pretend to not be disturbed by it.
Mom’s ecstatic that we brought home something she loves. We spend the hours whisking mix, decorating the cupcakes, and taste-testing. Mom’s back to her old self, happy and forgetting the time and pouring all her energy into perfecting the food. I’m glad she’s normal again, if only for a few hours.
At one point Gabriella swipes at my face, her fingers coated with flour. For a second it felt like we were alone, Mom just a distant blur in the corner at the oven. I get back at her and the world slows, and then we clean it off. I wish I could’ve kissed her, but she doesn’t know and I can’t bring myself to. And Mom’s lurking in the back.
In Crystal’s room Gabriella begins to pack and I really don’t want to help her, but she asked me to. I don’t want her to leave.
“This weekend went by really fast,” I say.
“A little too fast,” she agrees.
I toss in a purple tank top. “Maybe I can swing by for Christmas break.”
“Maybe. That’d be awesome if you could.”
My heart is breaking. I don’t want a stupid suitcase in here. I don’t want to be putting away her clothes that smells like a meadow. I just want to hold her until time ends.
“That’s all. My flight leaves at seven.” She zips it up and faces me. I don’t want her blue irises to leave.
“Right.” I pick up the bags and place them in my trunk. She follows me and I close the passenger door. I can’t believe she’s leaving today.
We hardly talk on the way to the airport. I’m trying to memorize the whole weekend, the way she smiles and her eyes light up when she sees me. The radio and our breathing is all I can hear.
At the security checkpoint, she grabs my hand. “I hate that this is goodbye.”
Tears build up but I refuse to let them drop. “I’ll never say goodbye to you.”
Gabriella smiles that same smile when I left her three years ago. The sad smile that I never wanted to see again. “Then I’ll see you soon.” She wraps her arms around me, and kisses my cheek. “I’ve got to go.” She breaks the embrace, something that I should forbid. “Won’t be too long.”
I stand there, watch her disappear through the line, paralyzed to my core. Right when she walks away, I call out her name. “Gabriella!”
She doesn’t turn around.
The tears finally spill. She definitely could have heard me. Unless she couldn’t stand to see me anymore…
I was going to tell her I loved her.
The night can’t pull me to sleep. I clean up my room, straighten the chair and fix the things on my dresser, pitch junk food wrappers in the trash. I print out the pictures I took of Gabriella and tack them to the wall, removing some old photos to make space for her. Then I glance around for anything I left behind, and something pink on the floor catches my attention. It’s her shirt from last night, wrinkled and cold.
I don’t want to return it.
My mind is slowing, blurring with her scent and images floating of us in the park on Saturday, and then I can’t take it anymore. Sleep overrides me and I spend the night with her shirt, gripped tightly in my hands until the sun finally arrives.
I ask Mom about Christmas. She’d let me, but only if I pay for my ticket.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say hotly. “You paid for hers.”
“Her family was tight on money. And tickets at Christmas are a lot more costly than October.”
“That’s not fair!”
She sighs heavily. “Look, if you really want to go, you have to work at it. And you can only go after Christmas. And you must be home by New Year’s.”
It’s no use arguing. “Fine. My boss can pay me early. Just know I’d rather be there than here.”
Mom knows that I’ve practically turned into Crystal. She’s not bothered with dramatic statements anymore.
I send a letter to Gabriella saying I can see her in a month and a half, that I already know what I’m packing and I have an idea of a present for her. That I want more than anything to be with her.
After I stamp and seal it with an envelope, I remember something else I’ve always wanted to say. I finally have the courage to even write it down.
I love you.
But after staring at it for ten minutes, I crumple it up and toss it in the trash.