Chapter 21 – Graduation
Dad waited for me to brush the fresh round of tears from my face before clearing his throat. He frowned, but didn't look surprised to see me home several hours early. Clearly Ms. Moore had called him to warn him, and for once, I was grateful. Dad didn't try to engage me in conversation or even find out what happened. Instead he wiped the tears from cheeks and kissed me on the forehead. "Do you want to talk?" I whimpered and shook my head. Dad nodded and pulled me into a warm, welcome embrace. "If you decide you want to, I'll be here."
I mustered up a weak imitation of a smile and then retreated to my room. I kicked off the shoes before curling into a ball on the bed and dissolving into ragged sobs all over again.
I'm not sure how much time passed before the knock jangled me from my comatose state. I twisted my head to look at the door where the offensive sound had come from but didn't respond. "Maybe he'll just go away," I muttered.
Knuckles rapped against the wood again. "Gin... you alive in there?" Veronica twisted the door knob and then poked her head into the crack. "Gin?" Beyond her, I could just make out Nai'a trying to get a glimpse into the room. "It's me and Nai'a...can we come in?"
I shrugged and turned away from them. In my head I could hear my Gran scolding me for being a bad friend and host but I didn't care.
"Hey Ginny," Nai'a said, coming around to the other side of the bed and kneeling in front of me. Her hair was a disaster and she had the barest hint of a black eye. "How are you?"
I shrugged again, then frowned, "what happened to your hair?" Veronica had come into my field of vision as well and I realized Nai'a wasn't the only disheveled one. "And your dress V?" The pair looked at each other and grinned conspiratorially. "Oh come on, you can't do that..." I croaked, my throat raw from crying. "What's going on?"
"Well..." Veronica sat down on the bed and nudged my legs aside. "Sit up and we'll tell you everything."
"Do I have to?" I groaned. That didn't quite seem fair but I allowed them to tug me into a sitting position and then looked expectantly between them.
"We got into a fight!" Nai'a said in a quick burst, as if the words had been simmering on her lips for hours. "With Chrissy and her bitches."
I frowned again and shook my head, "why? I mean not that there really needs to be a reason but, well why?"
"Because it was her!" Veronica hissed. "She took that picture at the fashion show and got Tiffani to add it to the slide show! Nai'a overheard her bragging about it to Will." The whole scene replayed in my mind on high speed and I groaned, grabbed a pillow and pressed it over my face as I fell back on the bed in a defeated lump. Veronica tugged the pillow away but didn't insist on moving me anymore.
"So we waited for the opportune moment and confronted her. Meaning V punched her!" Nai'a giggled and high-fived Veronica. It was all very strange seeing them all buddy buddy. "Tiffani and Raina were too scared to mess their hair or nails up to put up much of a fight but Chrissy...that girl has got claws!"
"Wow, almost wish I was there. Almost," I said, imagining Chrissy's dress and and hair in tatters a la Cinderella after her step-sisters got a hold of her. Nai'a and Veronica's laughs wilted after a moment. They shared another look and then both looked down at me. They turned away and I watched as they both tried to decide who would broach the subject. "He's gone," I said finally, sparing them both the uneasy duty. "Packed a bag, got on his motorcycle and fled into the night."
"Gone? But...well I mean we still have school on Monday. Maybe he's just gone to clear his head or something. I'm sure he'll be back and you can explain..." Nai'a said. She looked down at her hands. "I mean, there is something to explain right?"
I rolled my eyes and made a grab for the pillow but Veronica snatched it away. I gave her a half-hearted glare and then looked at Nai'a. "Todd kissed me...I didn't kiss him."
"Well there you go! Erik will come back and see the light," Nai'a said, trying to appear optimistic. Veronica, on the other hand, was frowning. She knew Erik well and clearly doubted Nai'a's prediction of the future. Still, she kept her mouth shut, for which I was thankful.
I nudged the sunglasses up to rub the sleep from my eyes as I leaned heavily against my locker. It seemed as if ninety percent of the school stared in my direction and whispered furtively as they passed so I remained hidden behind the dark shades even indoors. Of course, this probably spawned more whispers but I didn't honestly care. I'd already gotten my books for English but couldn't manage to move my feet in that direction so I remained still. The clock on the wall ticked closer to the bell and the crowd began to thin as more and more students disappeared into their classrooms.
The first bell rang, stirring me from my solitude. A few stragglers ran by, twisting to look at me before ducking around the corner. I'd never make it to English in time now. It was at the other end of the school. For a moment, I battled internally with what to do. I could go to the nurse's office and feign a stomachache, thus saving me from the torment of class. My conscious won out though and I turned toward my class, steeling myself with each step. Though eyes followed me from the door to my desk, no one spoke to me and the teacher didn't even ask me to remove my sunglasses.
I made a show of packing up my backpack slowly at the end of class so that everyone would be gone by the time I got up to leave. Nai'a was standing by the door, arms crossed over her chest, when I finally emerged. "Took you long enough – nice glasses by the way."
"Hey," I said flatly.
"Hi. Look, I – well I don't know how best to say this but figured you should hear it from a friendly face..." Nai'a said, placing her hand on my arm and nudging me toward the bathrooms.
I let her direct me and then turned toward her expectantly. "What is it Nai'a?"
Nai'a chewed on her lower lip and I wondered if she'd picked up the habit from watching me fret about things. "Erik was suspended. For the fight. And I was in the office and saw him...he made arrangements to take his finals early."
"He's not coming back to school," I said. I'd expected it to hurt more but it was simply true. It seemed like something Erik would do which is why Veronica had been so silent that night. She knew. And so had I.
"I'm so sorry Ginny. I tried to talk to him, but he just walked past me."
"It's not your fault," I said. "I'm going to the library."
"What about lunch?" Nai'a asked, glancing at her watch.
"Not hungry," I lied. Before she could pepper with me with more questions or give me the 'You've got to eat' speech, I readjusted my backpack and left the bathroom without saying goodbye.
The final weeks of school passed by in a blur after that day. With Timothy absorbed in planning graduation and Todd suspended, I only had Nai'a hovering about like a nervous fly during school. She went out of her way to walk with me from one class to the next, putting herself between me and the whispers. Chrissy even tried to get a rise out of me but grew bored when I didn't even look at her.
Todd returned to school the day before finals began. It was a harsh reminder that Erik could have been here. He could have taken his finals just like everyone else but he'd cut and run. For the first time, anger flared inside of me and I wanted to lash out at him. Todd was the recipient of my outrage and took the verbal assault with grace. He allowed me to curse him, without saying a word, until the final bell rang and our science finals were placed in front of us.
Each final after that released a little more tension as it was one step closer to the end of this chapter of my life. The idea of graduating, of leaving high school and home, had seemed terrifying once but now it held promise. Would college afford me a fresh start with a clean slate? Maybe I'd say goodbye to more than just high school when I left for college.
Buoyed by my attitude shift, my dad smiled brightly as I entered the kitchen on the morning of graduation. I hung the blue gown up on the coat rack and went about getting breakfast while Dad watched, grinning like a fool. After pouring my milk, I spun to face him, "what? Why are you staring at me?"
Dad's smiled faltered, "I – happy graduation day," he said. He produced a small gift from behind his back and held it out to me.
Embarrassed by my outburst, I struggled to pull a smile to my face as I accepted the gift. "Thanks, what is it?"
"Why do you always ask that? If you open it, you'll know."
"Right, sorry." I tugged at the ribbon and deposited it on the counter. The golden box was long and slender, perfect for a necklace or bracelet box. Or an envelope. I frowned in confusion as I pulled the thick, unmarked envelope from the box. Dad was grinning again, clearly excited, as I flipped it over and ripped open the flap. There were a half dozen brochures inside, carefully obscuring the airline tickets and itinerary. "Tickets?" I read through the details quickly, my eyes widening with each line. "These are for Europe...for a month!"
"I thought you might enjoy exploring some of the world before going off to college. Everything is adjustable depending on where you want to go."
"Wow! This....this is incredible Dad. Thank you!" I said, forgetting my cereal and leaning over the island to hug him. The milk dripped from the bowl, spilling across the counter but I ignored it, still puzzling over the gift. "But why are there two tickets? Are you coming with me? You and Jennifer are getting married next month..."
"No, it's not for me," he said with a laugh. "I think you're old enough to go without a chaperone now. It's for a friend – whoever you want."
"Thanks Daddy!" I said, smiling broadly. My mind was already filling with visions of traveling through Europe, though my companion's face was blank at the moment.
A few hours later, I waved to Dad as I was swept up with a flow of gowned seniors filing toward the gym for staging. Outside, beyond the gym doors, all our families were taking their seats in the bleachers alongside the football field.
Nai'a bounded up to me, her graduation gown flying behind her as she ran. "Ginny! I can't believe it's time!" I let her spin me around in circles twice before she saw some other poor, unfortunate soul to accost with her good cheer.
The smile came naturally this time as I watched from a distance. "It's good to see you smiling Ginny," Todd said, pulling my attention around toward him.
"Well it's good to smile," I said. "Hard not to on a day like this...four years in the making."
Todd nodded but looked down at his feet awkwardly. "Look, I wanted to apologize for...everything."
"Todd, we've been over this already. Can we just put it behind us? I'd hate to think this will be looming between us for years to come," I said. In the last few weeks, I had been angry with Todd to some extent but I didn't blame him for what happened at Prom. That honor belonged to Chrissy.
Todd opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by the teachers summoning us over to form up in order. "Last names starting with A to H over here," Ms. Moore called. She was standing on one of the benches to be seen over the crowd. Other teachers were calling their own groups and began sorting everyone in order.
"Guess that's us," I said, hooking my arm in his. Todd and I had fallen together in alphabetical lines since we'd been kids thanks to our last names. No one ever seemed to have a name that fell between Anderson and Bartlett thankfully. It would feel wrong if the tradition ended now.
After fifteen minutes of trying to corral students who really ought to know their alphabet better, the four rows of students had finally fallen into line. Outside music began to play and Ms. Moore motioned our row forward to lead the graduation march. The other rows would follow behind us and shuffle into their seats until all the little white chairs had been filled.
All but one.
I glanced back toward Nai'a. A single seat was empty beside her – where Erik ought to be. She caught my gaze and shrugged pitifully. I don't think I was actually expecting him to show up but I had kind of hoped he'd surprise us all.
Mr. Watt's voice from the podium drew my attention before I could muse on it too long. "Welcome class of 2012," the seniors erupted into applause, drowning him out. "Yes yes, it is a great day," he said with a chuckle. "Welcome to our parents and staff as well. Today we've all come together to usher these smart, young minds into a new chapter of their lives and, as I've watched them mature over the last four years, I must say I am proud of each and every one of them." He waited as the cheers and applause died down before turning to where Timothy was seated, "now out class valedictorian, Timothy Kline, will say a few words before we commence with the commencement."
Timothy's speech was well written and articulate – and a little boring in all honesty. I tried to remain rapt to his every word as a good, supportive friend but my gaze kept turning to the rows behind me. Erik's seat remained vacant throughout the speeches. "Ginny, come on," Todd hissed, tugging on my sleeve.
I spun around to discover my row had begun to move, lining up beside the stage already. I hurried to catch up to the others just as the first name was called. Terri Alderman shook Principal Watts' hand and took her diploma. She wasn't even off the stage when Todd's name was called. He was greeted by cheers and whoops from the entire class – an honor befitting the Prom King – and after taking his diploma, he paused to flex his muscles like the jock he was. I just shook my head and laughed.
"Genevieve Bartlett," Principal Watts' said, causing a small flurry of whispers but several cheers as well. I took my diploma and paused at the end of the stage for the 'kodak moment' with the photographer as I'd been instructed. It was the flash of metal in sunlight that caught my eye at first, drawing my attention toward the small tree line near the parking lot. I shielded my eyes against the sun, but whoever had been there before disappeared.
Behind me, another senior had already collected their diploma so I scurried from the stage and reclaimed my seat. I glanced back again but the bleachers full of parents blocked my view of the tree line so I returned my attention to the front as Tisha crossed the stage.
In the distance, a motorcycle revved and the tires squealed on the pavement.
"Hey Todd," I said, leaning in to whisper, "how do you feel about Europe?"
End Senior Year
Author's Note: There IS one more chapter for this story but it will mostly consist of photos so this is, in fact, the end of the high school portion of School Days. Look for the sequel which will follow Ginny through college soon! :)
And a couple of extras:
The full moon really messed with my shots but it was really nice looking anyway.