A knot forms in my stomach. What if I left it at Gabriella’s house? If so, what if she found it, and even worse, read the note? I keep looking. Nowhere to show.
I start to panic. Gabriella can’t see it. It’s not the right time, not the right place. It was intended for last winter, but the whole Carson ordeal stomped on it. I refuse to believe it’s at her house. For now I pretend that it’s somewhere around here, just hidden away.
Aunt Kylie has mailed in gas money and is ready for me to move in on Saturday. I look at my parents, knowing they won’t see me again for a few months, for my late graduation.
“Promise you’ll call once a week,” Mom orders.
“Yeah, fine.” I hug her and it sets off the waterworks.
My father stands there, waiting. I can’t tell if there’s a tear slipping out, but it looks real. “Charles.”
I distance myself.
“You take care of yourself, alright? Get done with school and catch up. You lost about a year.”
“I will. See you guys in May.”
My car starts and I drive off into the morning darkness, glad I’m finally leaving Scranton. Crystal can’t weigh me down anymore. My chains are loosened, but they’re still locked on the ground. I just have to see Gabriella first.
The anticipation of knowing I’ll be home, just someplace in town, excites me. I’ll finish school and go to community college while saving money for Sacramento, where Gabriella is currently a freshman at. She dropped tennis and is studying to major in history. She won’t be in Clovis when I will, but when it’s my graduation, we’ll reunite.
I forgive her. Time went on, and with Crystal’s death, I was distracted enough to not stay mad at Gabriella, but mad at Ian. We’re slow at the moment, but it’ll change.
Four days, six hundred photos, and nearly about twenty fast food meals later I finally arrive in Clovis. Home. The air smells so good here, so clean and new. I take a minute outside of the car before I walk into Aunt Kylie’s house. I can feel a surge of sparks in me, recharging and cranking the gears in my brain, realizing that yes, I am home at last. That I can be free again.
Kylie waltzes out to me with Uncle Doug and pulls me in for a hug. Their children have left the nest years ago, a little after Crystal was born. They’re off exploring the world as geographers for upcoming history textbooks.
“You’re finally here! You’ll take Harry’s room, it’s right next to the bathroom. Are you hungry?” She’s just so excited to have another child under her wing. Doug snorts. “Kylie, calm down. He’s only here for a few months.” But he smiles too, happy he can have someone to bond with.
Aunt Kylie is a lot like Mom. Highlighted blonde hair, always attempting to be hip and cool. It’s really not that bad, just a wrong accessory here and there. Uncle Doug wears a Berkley University hat, where he sons went. He’s tall, maybe my father’s height. But I can tell he’s a lot kinder than him.
“Sure, I can eat something. Let me call Mom to let her know she’s here.” I set off into my supposed room, which is just four walls, a bare bed, and an empty closet. Mom squabbles into the phone, how glad she is I got here safe, and that I’m happy to be back home.
“So, Charlie. Three months before graduation. Anything we can do for that? Do you need a tutor?” Kylie asks as she passes the pizza box to me.
“No, I’m set, thanks. I actually had all A’s before I dropped out last year.”
“Well, good. I’m sure you’ve already sent in college applications.”
I haven’t. Despite the hours I’ve spent that wasn’t on mourning Crystal, I just sat in my room and stared at the wall. Reading the rest of Gabriella’s apologies. I didn’t bother to fill out an application because I thought I could never get there.
“Not yet. I wanted to be certain I could finish my education first.”
Doug nods. “Where do you want to go?”
My answer overrides the truth. “Sacramento.”
“Nice choice.” Suddenly I’m reminded of Mr. Shum’s conversation, and my eighteenth birthday dinner. How both ended in questions. My aunt and uncle aren’t the kind to press on.
I glance out the window. “Excuse me.” Excitedly I run into my room, retrieve my camera. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes.” They stare at me, puzzled. “Won’t be long.”
When you’re a photographer, nature doesn’t wait on you. You have to get out and go. Drop everything you have, grab your camera, and go. Wasting minutes is like wasting years because who knows when this will happen again?
Rays of light slant out from cold, pale sheets of clouds. But that’s not what catches my eye completely. I look east and there are hundreds of birds flying overhead, in a flock, randomly placed. They curve with the wind; they soar farther away from me. So small, but so powerful. I can feel my wings lift, and let my heart fly.
Since my class has already graduated, I’m stuck in a year of kids I’ve met maybe once, in an elective or seen them at lunch. But they’re a lot more respectable than Chicago and Scranton.
A tuft of dark red hair is out in the corner of my eye. I slowly turn, wondering what this person wants from me.
“Mark. I’ve seen you before, didn’t we have art together? Like, seventh grade?”
Freckles dotting his nose. Gray eyes soft, full. “Yeah, but I was in eighth grade.”
“Oh?” I don’t wait for his question.
“I uh, dropped out last year. My sister died.” Sadness burns my tongue.
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t stay where I was. This is my original home.”
“Glad you’re back. Hey, you wanna go check out the new Starbucks after school? I could get you updated.”
I’m delighted that someone took notice of me. “Sure, that’d be nice.”
“My girlfriend, Julie, will tag along. She’ll be happy to see I’ve made a new friend.”
Kylie is out running errands and Doug is at work, so I follow Mark and Julie to Starbucks. It’s like any normal coffee shop, just fresh with espresso beans and pastries.
Their actions consist of lovey couple moves, and I feel a tug on my heart. Now that I think about it, I’ve never really been in a relationship. Bay can hardly count because it was one, mindless date. Dahlia’s horrible kiss can’t possibly count because I had no idea she’d do that. And Gabriella, well, I can never tell.
“When did you meet?” I ask, stirring the straw in my cup.
They look at each other, their eyes so full of love. “Second grade. But we didn’t really get together until we were sophomores, because we grew up hating each other.” Mark laughs.
“It’s funny, how you go from being annoyed at their flaws, and then you grow to love them. Because that’s who they are.” Julie smiles and they kiss. This time I don’t look away, like whenever Crystal and Ian did. They’re perfect for each other.
The afternoon turns into a light maroon sky, and we part ways. I feel the tree house calling to me, whispering I haven’t gone to see it since my last visit here. I venture through the faint darkness, guided by rising moonlight. I carefully make my way up to the edge and peer inside.
My letters aren’t there.
The childhood drawings are visible now, there is no flower petals, no videotapes. Gabriella has stripped this place back to normal. Just wind and my life floating through the air.
I feel ashamed. That she took them down, replaced everything with what it once was. The fear that she threw the letters away, because at this point, I don’t know where we stand. I haven’t seen her in more than a year, and we haven’t written since her graduation. We lost touch.
Immediately it feels like someone slammed into me, knocking me over. We’re not friends. Not to my knowledge. And I can’t tell if I still love her. That marks my next step.
I have to find that necklace.
“Hi, Mrs. Sanders,” I greet at the door.
“Charlie!” Her arms fly around me, and I’m happy for this one. If anything, Mrs. Sanders could be my second mother. She knows about me just as much as she knows her daughter.
“Can I go check in the guest room really quick? I think I left behind something.”
“Of course! While you’re looking I’ll go make you some of my special hot chocolate.” She scurries off to the kitchen. I smile to myself, remembering the sweet cinnamon she sprinkles into the whipped cream. Gabriella and I loved those.
The first place I look is under the bed. Nothing but dust. I check the closet, but then recall I never used it. Finally I turn to the desk where I placed my bag. Vaguely I can feel the box in my hands, being set aside as I angrily searched for paper.
But there is no box. Not even when I open the drawers.
Mrs. Sanders comes in with a mug topped with cream and my stress half melts away. This drink is a serious stress-reliever.
She hands me the cup. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
I take a sip and swallow. Ahh. “Not yet.”
“What is it? Maybe I can help,” she offers.
Do I tell her? “It’s a small black box.”
“Oh! Yes, last I saw it, it was up in Gabriella’s room.”
Her room? “I’ll be back.” I set down the mug and quickly head upstairs, increasingly becoming worried she’s opened it.
It’s on her nightstand. Right next to her bed. Easily accessible to open. I grab it and take the lid off.
Untouched. Good. I’ll never risk it again.
“I found it,” I call out as I head downstairs. Mrs. Sanders smiles.
“So, do you have time, or you need to get home?”
The clock reads a quarter after seven. Kylie and Doug can understand. We go over how Gabriella is doing, how the family is doing. She laments over Crystal and by now, I’ve learned to control my emotions. I can only get weepy but not full on crying.
“Thanks for having me, I’m really glad I got to see you again,” I say to her.
“No problem. Come over whenever you like.”
Well, I know I like Mrs. Sanders. I won’t have a problem if she ever became my mother-in-law.
“Places!” An administrator yells over the crowd of 347 kids scrambling about, adorned in gold caps and gowns. Finally, it’s graduation day. Mark stands next to me, his last name being Harrison. It’s funny how he’s just an added three letters.
“Aren’t you excited? God, finally a chance to get out of here!” he exclaims. I chuckle. We’ve become really good friends over three months. We’d hang out along with Julie, and it’s what I’ve needed. A solid friendship.
The ceremony is starting. I glance around for my parents, for my aunt and uncle. They’re waving at me, three rows up. And then I search for Mrs. Sanders, who promised she’d be here. She’s next to Mom, and Mr. Sanders is chatting happily with my father. And then a lock of black hair flips to the side.
Upon sight I want to break out of this orderly line, run up a flight of stairs, and see her, but Mark nudges me forward. I don’t want to make a scene. So I numbly move on, and then the valedictorian starts her speech and all I can think of is that she’s here. She came to see me when I couldn’t see her.
Fourteen rows have already received their diplomas. Now it’s my turn.
My feet carry me up the steps, pause, and then walk across that stage to the man holding my ticket to freedom, that I can finally start life with education and go to school for studying birds and then maybe, I can admit my feelings to Gabriella and something will happen.
“Charlie Harris.” Somewhere in the distant there are cheers but right now all I can hear is my footsteps, my quick breathing, and the shift in air as I extend my hand. I turn to face Gabriella, and she’s smiling. And right now, I don’t care I have a diploma in hand. Just the spotlight on her.
“Mark Harrison.” Clearly I have to break my gaze and continue forward. I look back and grin at Mark, but he’s tripping over himself trying to find Julie, who’s in the N row.
We both sit back down and my mind is locked on Gabriella. She’s here. I’ll be able to see her when we’re ever going to be released. I’ll be able to feel whole again.
I’ll be able to see if we’re friends.
We flip the tassel over and we’re graduated. Done. Kids scuttle out of the auditorium and reveal nice dresses and fancy clothes. I make my way to the front where my parents agreed to meet. They just got in hours ago, when I was at rehearsal. And then there’s Gabriella.
“Charlie, over here!” Mom calls out, and I don’t even have to go to her, she’s already running towards me. “I’m so proud of you!” She hugs me so tightly I have to push away a little. I know I shouldn’t do this; it probably reminds her of Crystal’s graduation and then Crystal herself. But I really want to see Gabriella.
The rest of our group joins us, Aunt Kylie snapping pictures on a cheap digital camera I always cringe at. My parents go first, then the relatives, then Gabriella’s parents, then, at last, Gabriella.
We awkwardly put one arm over each other, not a full embrace, but not walking away either. In that moment I can feel the heat rushing back, the balance we lost teetering to restoration. And slowly, we mold together like normal.
“Wish you were 2013,” she whispers.
“Nah, 2014 is better,” I whisper back. She smiles. Our parents gush over our accomplishments and review their years away from Clovis. I have her to myself.
“How long are you here for?” I ask quietly.
“August. I finished my tests early.”
“Nice. Always like you to try to get them done.”
My father focuses on me. “Well, what do you want to do with your future now?”
“I still want to go into ornithology. But I think I’ll do community first. Get the boring stuff out of the way.”
“Whatever you do, I’ll be happy if you’re happy.” I’m not sure why my father is so positive. He used to be controlling of us, but maybe since Crystal, he let it go. Realized that me leaving was the chance for him to change. And he did.
“And then?” Mom carries on.
I smile. “Sacramento. With Gabriella. Who better than my best friend to spend young adult life with?”
Her eyes just about melt. “I’ll be a senior though.” I roll my eyes.
“What does that matter? One year is better than none.”
“True.” We are one hundred percent back to our old selves.
Uncle Doug has picked up a cake and invited us all back to the house. Of course, it’s shaped like a graduation cap. It almost tastes like Mom’s cake, but not quite.
The adults gather outside and say farewells to the Sanders, while Gabriella stays with me on the porch. It’s dark now, just a few stars dotting the sky. We gaze at each other, not saying a word. And when silence has become too long, even for us, she talks.
“What are you up to this summer?” she asks.
“Finding an apartment. I can’t stay with them forever.”
“I can help you. Some of my new friends moved out of the dorms recently since they’re not freshmen anymore.”
“Yeah, that’d be cool.”
No sound but the rustle of a tree. “Charlie?”
“I missed you.” Her hand folds into mine.
There’s a shudder in my throat. “I missed you too.”
Now’s my chance. I can admit I love her, I can kiss her. But I hear footsteps approaching and our hands drop.
Never mind then.