Authors: Meg Jolie
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TABLE OF CONTENTS:
I didn’t get in.
I stared at the letter in my hand, rereading it once more. A tiny voice in my head had warned me of this. I should’ve seen it coming. Maybe I had seen it coming. I’d just chosen to close my eyes to it.
Noah had gotten his acceptance letter
to Hudson University a few days ago. I thought maybe my letter had been delayed in the mail. Or, I had thought, maybe it was coming later because my last name was closer to the end of the alphabet.
Callahan could conceivably receive his letter days before Emory Pierce.
It had seemed like a reasonable excuse.
Or probably, I now knew, the delay had been the result of being sent out with a separate batch.
My letter wasn’t an acceptance letter.
My letter was a
We regret to inform you
“Emory?” Noah’s anxious voice floated out of the phone I’d forgotten I was holding to my ear.
“Yeah,” I said in a tiny voice. “I’m here.” And I’d be staying here. Here in Ashton, going to State if I even managed to get in there. Staring at the letter in my hand, I was beginning to doubt myself. State had been my safety net. My back up plan. It was not supposed to be my reality.
“You didn’t get in
.” The words were emitted on a sigh. Noah knew me well. We’d been together almost two years now. But really, anyone probably would’ve been able to tell by my tone that the letter held bad news.
I’d called him the moment I’d pulled the envelope out of the mailbox. He’d offered to come over when I opened it but I hadn’t wanted to wait that long.
,” I said. I was going for upbeat, even if I had to fake it. I failed miserably. I could hear the edge to my tone.
Noah mumbled a few curse words under his breath. I knew he was taking this as hard as I was.
He rarely cursed. Noah was a saint. Or damn close to it. Probably the closest thing I’d ever know. And he was mine.
He’d been my boyfriend for nearly two years.
He’d been my life preserver this past year, the only thing keeping me afloat in a sea of misery.
“I’ll finish up here and be right over,” he said.
He was at his grandma’s house, taking care of some yard work. He and his grandma were close and he was often stopping by to help her with whatever needed taking care of.
“You don’t have to do that,” I told him half-heartedly.
“I’m on my way.”
Noah and I had been together since the day before our junior year. A huge group of us had decided to float down the Willow River to celebrate the last day of summer. Before that day, I’d known who Noah was, of course. Our high school was small enough that everyone knew everyone by name, yet big enough that you could blend in and get lost in the crowd if you wanted to.
But that day, Noah had come to my rescue.
I had planned on floating down the river with my friends, Kira and Renee. My best friend and cousin, Riley, had planned on floating down with her boyfriend. A last minute bikini malfunction—in the form of a torn strap—sent me racing back to my car for the extra swimsuit I knew Riley had packed. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, just desperate to get the damn thing taken care of. By the time I made the trip from my car, to the restroom, and back to the river bank again, Kira and Renee had assumed I’d left with Riley because I was nowhere to be found. Riley had taken off with whichever guy she was dating at the time.
I was left standing on the bank of the Willow River, alone, just me and my inner tube.
I’d fidgeted for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do. The entire trip typically topped out at four hours. It wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to do alone. Especially when all of your friends were floating down together, in groups. They were too far ahead to catch up to them.
I was getting ready to go back to my car, to call it a day, when Noah spotted me. He’d been getting ready to set off with a group of
guys from his baseball team. He’d glanced at me curiously. Once, twice, the third time, he’d come over to ask me if something was wrong.
I could still picture him standing there. He was wearing swim trunks and flip-flops. His honey-blond hair had been windblown. His skin tanned to perfection. His abs showed the beginning of a six pack. He’d perched his sunglasses on his head while he talked to me. His eyes were the palest blue that I’d ever seen. His voice made heart flutter. His smile made my heart race.
Minutes later he sent his friends off and had his tube tied to mine.
Four hours later, I felt like I’d gotten to know Noah
Callahan pretty well. I’d shared my sun block. He’d shared his snake spit—his special concoction of lemonade and sweet tea. He’d given it that name in the hope that his little sister would stay away from it. By the end of the night, I knew that Noah’s kisses were as sweet as his special drink. By the end of the week, we were officially dating. By the end of the month, I was pretty sure I was falling in love. By the end of junior year, I’d decided there was a good chance I’d marry that boy someday.
Noah’s fingers strummed across my desk. He’d just finished reading the letter for himself. I felt my cheeks redden. I should’ve gotten in. It was embarrassing that I didn’t. Worse than that, I had a hunch it was going to be life changing.
Noah’s dad and his grandpa had gone to Hudson. It had always been his dream to follow in their footsteps. We’d decided last fall that we would both apply. We knew we were young. We might still be together, we might not.
Hudson was five hours away from Ashton.
This posed a tremendous dilemma.
Can’t you have the guidance counselor help you out? Make a phone call? Write a letter? She must be able to do something!” Noah said as he tossed the letter onto my desk.
I shook my head. “I doubt she can do anything at this point.
You know they have a specific amount of openings.”
“You could at least have her try,” Noah said. “She could tell them that you’ve had…I don’t know
…extenuating circumstances or something. I know your grades have slipped the last few years.” I cringed. They hadn’t just slipped. They’d plummeted. “Maybe they’ll take another look. They can see in black and white that you were a straight A student before…before everything happened.”
I bit my lip. I’d never struggled with my grades. Not until the last few years. But the last few years had been enough to pull my GPA down. App
arently they’d pulled them below acceptable levels.
All those years spent in school and I felt like I had nothing but a battered, useless GPA to show for it.
The fact that I’d made the honor roll both freshman and sophomore year wasn’t enough to matter now. Not when junior and senior year had been such a struggle for me.
“Maybe,” I muttered.
I didn’t want to have Mrs. Roberts intervene on my behalf. I didn’t want her to dump my sob story onto some Admission’s Office secretary’s lap: Recently deceased brother. Absentee father. Alcoholic mother. Scratch that last one. I didn’t want that getting out. Now that my brother, Evan, was gone, I was left alone to guard that secret. Not even Noah knew how bad things had gotten with my mom.
Not that it mattered. I was sure that The Powers That Be at Hudson wouldn’t care. I was sure my situation wasn’t any worse than dozens of other students who had applied. I couldn’t decide if
that was comforting or depressing.
“Promise me you’ll at least try,” Noah said as he got up from my desk chair. He crossed the room to where I was sitting on the edge of my bed. I was staring at the floor beneath my feet. I felt worthless. I didn’t want to be the one to hold us back. Noah deserved better than that. He’d had his heart set on this school since I didn’t know when. He slid his finger under my chin, forcing me to look up at him. “Promise?”
I nodded. “I’ll talk to Mrs. Roberts.” I would. I would beg and plead, if it came to that. I didn’t think it would do much good, but after everything that Noah had done for me the last few years, I was willing to try. This was important to him and I desperately wanted to make it happen.
I was reasonable enough to know that it might not.
“If I can’t get in, then what?” I asked in a quivering voice.
He studied my face for a moment. His expression became determined. “Don’t worry, Em. We’ll figure it out.”
I had done as promised. I’d spoken with our guidance counselor. While she’d been sympathetic, there was little she could do.
She had, however, been able to offer me a precious nugget of advice. She’d suggested I enroll at
our local university. It was a small school and not particularly sought after—therefore, they weren’t able to be quiet as finicky about who they enrolled. In fact, it had been my backup school and I’d been accepted.
Mrs. Roberts suggested that
I work my ass off getting good grades. I was paraphrasing there, but the sentiment was the same. She’d even looked over the course catalog with me, helping me choose classes she thought I’d excel in.
With a whole lot of luck,
she thought maybe I’d be able to transfer to Hudson after a year. So studying my ass off was the game plan. In the meantime, Noah was going to Hudson. Now. Without me. It hadn’t been an easy decision to come to. In fact, we’d argued over it extensively. He’d offered to stay in Ashton for a year. I didn’t want him to make that kind of sacrifice for me. At my insistence, he’d enrolled at Hudson.
Now, here we were, five months had passed since the day I’d gotten my rejection letter. It was Noah’s last weekend in town. It was completely unfair how quickly these months had streamed
My only hope was that our freshman year, apart, would pass just as
quickly. I found that doubtful but what did I have if I didn’t have hope for us?
“I’m glad you aren’t going to Hudson,” my little brother, Tyler, unabashedly admitted.
He was only seven and would be starting second grade next week. He was young enough to be able to say what was on his mind without anyone really being offended by it. “I don’t want you to go away.”
He was sitting at the breakfast bar, swirling his spoon through his cornflakes. His summer blond hair, the same shade as mine, was badly rumpled. His big green eyes, also the same shade as mine, watched me somberly as I poured myself a cup of coffee.
My heart ached over the fact that these days, he so rarely smiled. He was just a little kid. He should be smiling, laughing, and giggling all the time. A year ago, he’d been a completely different kid than he was today. A year ago, our big brother had been alive.
I go to Hudson,” I pointedly said, “it’ll be okay. I’ll come home all the time. You can call me every night. We can video chat whenever you want to. Maybe Mom will even bring you for a visit.” Mom bring him for a visit? I doubted it and regretted mentioning it the moment the words tumbled out.
I walked over to him and ran a hand over his messy
, wavy locks. They were due for a cut and I tried to pat them down into something presentable.
It was a futile effort.
I knew that. It never stopped me from trying.
He said nothing as he glumly returned his attention to his cereal.
Around and around went the spoon. Not a single bite had traveled to his mouth. I refrained from calling him out on it. I’d learned to pick my battles. This was one I was willing to let go. He’d eat when he was hungry.
I had to pull my eyes away from the sight of him. When I saw him sitting there in his usual spot, it was so hard not to think about that morning, nearly a year ago, when everything changed.
That morning, we’d been getting ready for school. I had just stuffed a granola bar into my purse. Tyler
had been stuffing his face full of scrambled eggs. Mom had been rushing around the kitchen, poking her nose into the fridge and cupboards. She’d been trying to determine if she needed to stop at the grocery store, or if she had enough food in the house to throw together a decent dinner.
The doorbell chiming had momentarily frozen us all in place. No one ever stopped by our house at seven-eighteen in the morning. I remembered the time implicitly. I remembered glancing at the clock on the
microwave. I remembered Mom’s eyebrows wedging together in confusion. I remembered Tyler, who was always up for an adventure, bouncing off of his bar stool and racing to the front door.
I could picture him, in a freeze-frame effect, hand on the doorknob. It was the last second of our lives before our world shattered. Then he’d pulled the door open and we saw the deputy standing there, hat in hands, somber look on his face.
From that moment on, my detailed memory of that morning splintered.
People were not supposed to die bright and early on a Mon
day morning. Not on their way home from work. Evan had been the night supervisor at the paper production plant in town. He’d ridden his motorcycle to work, which was the norm for him. But the following morning, a storm had been rolling in. He’d been driving way too fast—which he’d been known to do—possibly trying to beat the downpour. He’d hit a rain slickened length of asphalt and he’d lost control.
My big brother, whom I’d always admired and looked up to, hadn’t been smart enough to
drivers had witnessed the accident. The emergency crew had been on the scene less than fifteen minutes later. Or so we had been told.
But it was too la
He never had a chance. Not even when a Good Samaritan had run to his side to try to give him assistance before the ambulance arrived. My brother had died on impact as his body
slammed into the asphalt.
I remembered these details of his accident because I overheard it recounted numerous times. As for what, exactly, the deputy said to us that morning, I couldn’t recall.
What I did remember was that he was there to tell us that my big brother was gone. Just…gone. In the blink of an eye, in the span of a heartbeat, he was gone.
Mom had crumpled right there
on the floor in the entryway. A keening wail erupted from her. One that could not be quieted. I’d pulled Tyler into my arms where he’d sobbed uncontrollably. His tears drenched my chest as they mingled with my own tears.
I vaguely remembered Noah walking through the front door, a look of sheer confusion on his face. He always stopped by to pick me up for school.
I vaguely remembered calling Riley, my cousin and best friend. It was her mom, my Aunt Aubrey, Mom’s sister, who called my father. The only other call I made that day was to Caleb Jackson, Evan’s best friend.
From there, those two phone calls, word spread quickly. I was glad that they took care of making people aware. The two phone calls I’d made were almost more than I could handle. Casseroles appeared, our house overf
lowed with sympathetic visitors. Somehow, some way, the funeral was planned. The days passed in an agonizing haze.
And then it was all over.
And only a gaping, aching memory remained.
Tyler had not made it a secret that he didn’t want me going away. Our dad had walked out on us right after Christmas—how kind of him to spare us one last holiday
. I had been a junior in high school. Tyler had only been in kindergarten. Less than a year later…Evan was dead. Gone forever.
It was no wonder that my little brother had attachment issues. Who wouldn’t?
Conflicting emotions raged through my body. I wanted out of this house, out of this town, away from this misery. Away from the memories. I wanted to get away from a mother who had become so withdrawn she may as well not even be here at all.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to bring myself to leave Tyler behind.
I heaved out a sigh. I was too young for my life to be so damn complicated.
Noah’s fingers tightened around mine. “Ready to go?” he asked.
toward the field. The flames of the bonfire lit up the night in a warm glow. However, I was perfectly content right where we were, on the side of the road, leaning up against his car. Here, I had him all to myself. The moment we went up to the party, I’d lose Noah to the crowd.
I knew I was being selfish. The party was the whole reason we were here. Noah’s best friend, Drew, was known for his cra
zy bashes. He and Drew had been friends since their Little League days. Last year, the two of them had helped bring our team to state. Drew was our star pitcher, Noah, our catcher. The two of them together were an amazing pair.
But those days were over.
Life was moving forward.
This was Drew’s
last party of the summer, before our friends started heading their separate ways, moving on with their lives.
“I guess so,” I finally said. I pushed away from his car. My lips still tingled from
the mini-make-out session we’d just enjoyed. “At least I have you all to myself tomorrow.”
His fingers slid from mine and he wrapped his arm around my shoulders instead, pulling me in for a tight sideways hug as we walked. “I am so looking forward to that. Are you sure you don’t want to give me a hint?”
“I did give you a hint. I told you to pack an overnight bag.” As far as what we were doing, where we were going, that was a surprise.
The field was already scattered with classmates, both graduated seniors and a sprinkling of juniors. The sun had set and the flames of the fire lit up the night. Music blasted from Drew’s car. A few people were already stumbling, in need of being cut off.
“There’s Riley,” I pointed out. She was standing with Kira. Renee had already left for school on the other side of the country. “I’m going to go talk to her.”
“I’m going to look for Drew.”
He leaned over to kiss my cheek. Then we went our separate ways.
Riley didn’t notice me coming until I was just a few feet away.
She turned to me with a miserable look on her face. Looking at her was a lot like looking at myself. We were nearly the same height and close the same build. Our facial features varied some. My face was narrower, her eyes were wider. She had a dusting of freckles across her nose but they were almost invisible under her make-up. However, we shared the same green eye color and long, blond hair. The biggest difference was that hers was naturally straight and sleek. Mine was wavy, almost curly. Our moms were sisters but Riley and I could easily pass for sisters as well.
hat’s wrong?” My eyes bounced from one fried to the other, waiting for an answer.
She blinked a few times and then fanned her hand over her eyes. I knew the gesture. It meant
I will not cry
“Jared,” she finally managed to squeak out.
I should’ve guessed. I glanced over my shoulder and spotted her ex, Jared, who was half hidden by shadows. He clearly wasn’t alone and he was very, very busy.
They’d broken up months ago but her Jared detecting radar was still functioning a little too well.
Kira raised her glass to me. “I’m going to go get a refill. I’ll be right back.”
I nodded and returned my attention to Riley.
“You know,” she said, her tears fading and her anger flaming to life, “I get that our break-up was mutual. It didn’t make sense for us to even try maintaining a relationship. So why the hell does it still hurt so much to see him?”
The answer was simple. “Because you, my dear, sweet friend, are
a good person.”
And Jared? He’
s an asswipe. Always had been, probably always would be. His only redeeming quality was that he hadn’t cheated on Riley. While that should simply be expected of a boyfriend, Riley had a horrible knack for dating cheaters.
So if I had to give him credit for anything, sadly, it was that.
Otherwise the guy was completely lacking in tact or manners of any sort.
That didn’t stop him from landing himself a full ride scholarship for football. He
made sure that everyone was aware of that. What he usually tried to leave out was that he would be playing for some small, God-forsaken university up north, in the middle of nowhere. The town was so indiscriminate, that none of us had even heard of it.
My thought on the matter was simple:
“He could at least try to be decent,” Riley continued to fume.
It was a small consolation that at least her tears had faded. “I mean, after this weekend, he could screw every willing skank in a two-thousand mile radius and I would never have to know. Instead, he’s here, dry-humping Janessa in front of the entire graduating class. Who does that?”
I knew it was a rhetorical question. One I was so very tempted to answer. I also knew it was best to let it go.
I bit my bottom lip between my teeth in an effort to keep my mouth shut.
“If he’s going to have one final…
with anyone in this town, it should be me.” She took a wobbly step forward. I reached out, latching onto her arm.
,” I chanted. I plucked the beer bottle from her hand. She scowled at me. “Give me the pissed-off face all night long if you want to. But you will be thanking me for this in the morning.”
“She’s right,” Kira said as she joined us again. She handed me a glass. I knew I probably wouldn’t drink it, but I was good at pretending.