Fifteen

☼►twenty◄☼

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The rising sun painted the edges of the sky a rosy-orange, and a chill hung in the air. It was barely six-thirty in the morning, but the time mattered very little - not in the grand scheme of things. I woke up two hours ago and was unable to fall back asleep. Knowing what the day was bringing hadn’t allowed the luxury of sleeping in. Curling my legs underneath me, I drew in a steadying breath and exhaled just as slowly.

The party was meant for me to have one last moment, a final chance to spend time with all the people I’d grown to love. Excitement warred with a bittersweet longing, and I couldn’t help but huff out a laugh. I didn’t expect to care for Anne and Robin, Harry and Gemma, Liza and Della and Anthony, even Miss Letts, but I did. And I should have anticipated being so mixed up about the impending goodbyes. I wasn’t quite ready.

The door creaked open, quiet in the silence of early morning, and I smiled as a mug appeared in the corner of my eye. Steam spiralled from the surface, carrying the familiar aroma of chai; my hands curled around the porcelain and soaked up the heat of the tea while Harry sat in the chair next to mine. Even as I sipped at my drink, I wondered why he was awake at this hour.

Living with him had been evidence enough of his distaste for being awake before the sun. Unless there was school, Harry chose to sleep in whenever he had the chance. So for him to be sat beside me as the sun was breaking over the horizon, it was unexpected. Unfamiliar. As pleasant as it was surprising.

“Why are you up so early?” I asked quietly, and with that, the serenity of the morning was shattered.

“Couldn’t sleep. You?”

“Same.”

“Excited for today?”

I shrugged and swallowed another drink of the tea. “I guess. I just, I hate that this is all I have left of my time here,”

He nodded slowly, and I knew he understood. He always did. His hand settled warm on my arm, comforting and sturdy. I glanced up at him forcing a smile before turning my attention back to the sunrise. He didn’t say a word as he linked our fingers together, and I blinked away the tears when he gave my hand a gentle squeeze. This was what I would miss most - the easy way he showed he cared, how he could effortlessly settle even my most turbulent emotions.

How I wished I could tell him the truth.

As all good things, our time in the dawn light came to a close. Anne found us there in the golden sunrise. Her gaze flicked from my face to where my fingers were entwined with her son’s, but she only announced it was time for breakfast.

The soft smile she gave me as I passed assured me that she would keep her comments to herself, that what she had seen changed nothing. I nodded and made my way inside.

The family and I spent the morning cleaning and preparing for the festivities. It didn’t feel ‘festive’ to me - I didn’t want to leave. This house was so full of love, warmth. I couldn’t fathom going back to a house filled only with silence and memories. But I had to, so I kept my sadness locked away.

Hours later found the garden full of people. Sunshine beat down on our shoulders, and I dabbed at the back of my neck with a napkin. My glass of water sat empty beside my knee, and I planted my hands in the grass and stared around. It wasn’t a bad turnout of guests, if I said so myself.

Della and Anthony were the first to arrive around noon, followed closely by Harry’s friends and their girlfriends. Liza showed up last and spent the first twenty minutes apologising for being so late; her parents hadn’t wanted her to come. My heart sank when she said that - what did it say about me that her parents still didn’t trust me after being friends with their daughter for months?

Now Della and Gemma sat in chairs in the shade, gossiping about something I stopped paying attention to a while ago. Liza lounged with the girlfriends of Harry’s friends. All three watched Harry, Anthony, Devon, and Joseph kick a football around the garden. Anne and Robin made their rounds, making sure everyone had enough drinks and snacks.

My stomach churned, twisted into knots, as I stared at all these people. The ones I’d miss most. I begged my body to not betray me. I didn’t need a reappearance of my breakfast, especially not today. Not right now. Clenching my teeth, I ducked my head to surreptitiously wipe away the tears that formed in my eyes. This was supposed to be a joyful, pleasant time.

Unfortunately, my actions didn’t go unnoticed. Anne dropped to sit beside me on the grass, and she pulled me into her side. I rested my head against her shoulder, sighing heavily. It was easy, easier than breathing, to admit that I didn’t want to leave. She pressed a tender kiss to my hair.

“We don’t want you to leave, either, darling. If we could, we’d keep you here with us forever.”

A tear slid down my cheek at her words, and I squeezed my eyes tightly shut to prevent more from spilling free. Someone shouted, others laughed, but I didn’t bother looking. The strength and consolation that Anne offered was far more important than whatever my friends were up to.

I finally pulled away after a moment, and her lips curled up into a sweet smile before she pushed to her feet. I let out a heavy sigh and went back to watching my friends.

“Here, you look like you need this.”

I took the glass from Robin on instinct, and he brushed his hand over my hair and walked off to pass out glasses to the girls - the boys were still playing keep-away with each other, which everyone knew meant they wouldn’t stop until someone in the game admitted defeat. I’d not seen that happen once since I arrived. They were all too stubborn, and usually, it was their parents calling them home that put an end to games.

My face screwed up at the first dry, almost bitter taste of the wine. I ran my tongue over my teeth and stared down at the purple-red liquid. Gemma plopped down next to me, nudged me with her elbow.

“I’ll drink it if you don’t want it.”

In response, I swallowed another mouthful; her laughter rang out through the air when I shook my head violently, swallowing nonetheless. I had to admit, the aftertaste wasn’t completely awful. So I decided to keep the drink.

Shadows stretched, dark and looming and promising an end, across the yard the longer we sat there. I knew it was the last of my time here with these people. The wine didn’t taste any better, but I continued to sip at it in hopes of prolonging the inevitable.

The sun finally slipped below the horizon an hour and a half later, and everyone took it as the sigh it was: Saturday was over, and it was time for our friends to go home. Even Harry’s mates embraced me before they left. That alone made it all seem so much more final.

I stood on the front stoop and watched them all disperse in their separate directions. My throat grew tighter as I stared at the surrounding homes, street-lamps leaving pale orange circles of light on the pavements. I knew I had to pack, and I would… eventually. But right now, I wanted to soak in as much of the town as I could before it would be in my past.

I double-checked the bureau, but nothing of mine remained. Everything had been neatly tucked away in my luggage, waiting to be stowed in a plane’s belly for the flight home. With a heavy sigh, I turned to my nightstand and gathered up the papers there - the things I needed to say to the lovely family who had accepted me into their lives without a second thought.

I’d already given my friends their letters on the last day of school, but I was waiting until right before I left to let the family know about theirs. Dealing with the emotional scene that would come from everyone reading them… I was well aware that my reaction would have been mortifying enough, and I couldn’t bear the thought of embarrassing myself so spectacularly.

Quickly folding each letter, I stuffed them into their own labelled enveloped and tucked in the flaps. Going home meant more than I could say. I missed my parents, sure, and no amount of correspondence with them would have changed that. But I had found a second family, too.

Anne, with her quick smiles and understanding patience. Robin, with his humour and sweet demeanour. Gemma and her wit, beauty, sympathy.

And Harry.

Loving, kind, generous, compassionate Harry.

I certainly grew far closer to him than I expected that first night. It felt like decades ago that I was so sure he and I would never be friends. He was too quiet and reserved, and I was too guarded. It was impossible to believe he had become the best friend I could ever have had, the best guy I could ever have fallen in love with.

“Packed up, then?”

I nodded, unable to meet Harry’s eye. If I did, I surely would have burst into tears. At least if I kept my face down, I could pretend I wasn’t dying inside. He coughed wetly, and a soft shuffling sound - fabric on wood - met my ears as he shifted his weight between his feet.

“Gem and I have a surprise for you.”

The tears came the instant I saw the fort. Gemma’s smile wobbled as she hugged me, squeezing until my breath was gone, and Harry’s green eyes shined suspiciously brighter as he watched us. She tugged me to the entrance of the fort and clambered in first.

I situated myself next to her, Harry in his place on my right. We passed bags of candy and bowls filled with popcorn between us. Slapping at each other’s hands whenever someone would dare take before we were done. Laughing at the mindless sitcoms on the television that we weren’t really paying attention to.

The fact that I was leaving the next day was on our minds, but I knew we were all pretending that tomorrow was never going to come.