As we all stepped out into the hall to take pictures with our families, I think all of us felt the oldest we've ever felt. So much was coming for us. There was a small twinge in my stomach when I thought of Becca, who had never gotten this far. She was gone, and had nothing in her future. I wondered how long that thought would plague me.
"Congratulations, honey!" My dad picked me up and spun me around.
"I am bursting with pride," my mother said with tears in her eyes. "You have done so much. You should be so proud of yourself."
I hugged her, too, and then Lily. She was jumping up and down next to me. As I hugged her, I caught eyes with Johnny. He gave a half smile, and a nod. I smiled back.
"So introduce us to your friends!" my mother cooed. "I want to know who you've been spending all this time with!"
"Oh, I don't know. Everyone's with their families...."
Just then, Max walked up. I suppressed whatever was rising in my chest. I didn't want to say goodbye to Max. I just wanted to start over. Not that the thought of reliving the past year was any kind of appealing.
"Congratulations," he said.
"You, too," I said. "These are my parents, and this is my little sister, Lily."
He shook hands with both of them and introduced himself. He even held out his hand for a high five from Lily. She blushed and then hid behind my father's legs, peeking out at Max.
"Your daughter is amazing. I just wanted to tell you that I feel better for having known her."
I smiled and looked at my shoes.
"She sure is amazing, isn't she?" my father said, rustling my hair.
"Together for a picture, please!" my mom gleefully said and stepped back.
Max and I stood together, his arm around me. He kissed me, as he so often had, on top of the head as the flash went off. I would always love the picture, even though my smile was small and his brow was furrowed. It held so much in it.
"Adorable," she said. "But both of you try to look happy this time!"
We took one more picture, both of us smiling like you're supposed to in pictures.
"Thanks," I said to him.
"No problem. Do you want to meet my parents?"
He walked me over to them, and I did as he had done. I held out my hand and met each of them.
"I saw you up there, congratulations on your graduation," said Mr. Holloway. "Couple of cords, I see. Smart girl, huh?"
"I try to be." I smiled as genuinely as I could. I was too aware of Max next to me, and the fact that he would soon not be.
His mother said nothing, just looked at me.
"Max is..." I looked up at him. I wanted to return the favor and say something nice to his parents about him. But emotion was filling me. "Max is..." I smiled and breathed very intentionally to stop from getting watery. I felt like they might be able to see that.
"I have to show my parents around and then leave. It was so nice meeting you."
They said their goodbyes to me. Max hugged me and told me he'd talk to me soon. Then I turned, feeling like I'd said goodbye all wrong. That couldn't be it. I hadn't held on to him long enough.
"That's the kind of girl you ought to spend your time around," I heard his father saying as I walked away. I smiled to myself, still biting my lip to keep from crying.
My mom put her arm around me, and ran her hand up and down my arm.
I led them around, showing them the dining hall where I'd spent the mornings with Max and his coffee and newspaper. Where I'd gotten my hot chocolate for the nights I spent alone. I showed them the senior study room, my haven from the rest of the place. I remembered when he'd kissed me there.
I showed them my room, which was empty and characterless. I remembered all the nights I'd thought about him as I fell asleep. I also looked under the bed, which was now empty and void of the mysterious Louis Vuitton suitcase.
My mother was enchanted with every last corner of the place, taking pictures every time we'd let her. "Ooh," she said, "this place is just wonderful. Would you like to come here some day, Lily?"
"Yes!" she shrilled.
I privately wondered what ghosts would haunt these halls by the time Lily got here.
We ran into Cam and Blake, who were on their way out. They were polite, as always. Blake squeezed me hard and told me that we just had to stay in touch. Cam smiled and told me he was happy I'd come to Manderley.
When they left, I already missed them.
Dana was already gone. The funeral was the last time I'd ever see her. She hadn't come to graduation. I told my parents that when they asked about my roommate.
"Why didn't she go?" my mom asked, looking concerned.
"That girl who was missing, Becca Normandy? Do you remember when Michael told you about her over break?" They nodded. "They just found out she died. Dana and she were really close."
"That's a shame," my dad said, shaking his head. "I feel that everybody loses someone during their teen years."
"Did you know her best friend?" Lily asked.
I hesitated. "No."
At last, we went out to the front circle with our suitcases to wait for the cab. I saw Madison and Julia, who dashed over to me and told me they'd miss me. They both still looked very depressed. I wondered how long it would take for them to be okay again. They were just telling me they'd find me on Facebook when Johnny walked over. Madison and Julia went off to talk to Susan, who said nothing to me.
"Hey, new girl." Johnny smiled as he came over to me.
"I'm gonna miss you."
"I'll miss you, too. I don't know what I would have done this year without you."
"You better shoot me a text every once in a while."
"I will. You, too. Here, give me your number."
He took my phone, put it in and handed it back. He gave me a quick hug and said, "Seriously. Texts."
"Come on!" Lily shouted.
"I really do hope we see each other again," he said earnestly.
I nodded. "Goodbye, Johnny. Thank you for everything." I went off to join my family.
"That's us," my dad said when a van pulled up. "Number seventy-two."
I got in the car, and had a sinking feeling as I realized I wasn't going to see Max again. But just as I thought it, Lily exclaimed.
"Look, it's that guy!" She was pointing at someone running through the crowd of waiting people.
It was him. I beamed when I saw him. "Go ahead, I'll get in in a sec."
I ran to him, and met him about thirty feet from the car.
"I thought I wasn't going to see you again before I left," I said into his shoulder.
"I know. I know. I'm sorry. My parents wanted to talk to the headmaster about my performance and wouldn't let me leave. I wanted to. I had to say a real goodbye to you."
He gave me one last, long look, and then cleared his throat. "You'd better go."
Max leaned down to kiss me on the cheek, and I held him there. I turned to look at him. He moved a fraction of an inch toward my lips.
"Lily!" my mother shouted.
I turned to see Lily running up to us. "She has to go!" she said sternly to him. She then turned and marched resolutely back to the van.
I was just starting to apologize for her when Max kissed me. I felt everything fall away, and kissed him back. When we broke apart, I realized how much I was really, really going to miss him.
"We wasted time," he said with a laugh that didn't quite meet his eyes.
"Yes, we did."
"Go," he said with a sly smirk, "or that sister of yours is gonna punch me right in the knees."
I gave him one long look, and then ran back to the van.
"Hey, Callie," he said, when I was a few feet away.
I turned at the sound of my name. "Yeah?"
"I'll see you next year."
I smiled and looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"I got into Harvard."
I walked back to him. "What? I didn't even know you were trying!"
He smiled. "I didn't want to say anything. It was a crazy dream. I didn't think it'd actually happen."
"That's amazing, Max."
He nodded. "So if you make the right choice...and pick BU, we'll be right next to each other."
The urge to cry happened all over again. "I already accepted." I smiled. "I'll see you next year."
We both knew there was nothing more to say. I ran to him, just to feel him one last time. He kissed me and then pushed me off toward the van.
I looked at him as we drove away. He didn't move, but just stood with his hands in his pockets.
"You certainly had your choice of them here, didn't you?" my mom said happily. "Where to for dinner, do you think? I saw this cute little place next to the...what was it, Eastgate Hotel? We have about four hours until the flight, and we simply must have a celebratory dinner."
I was barely listening as the school receded out the back window. I remembered Manderley as it had been on my first day. The inside had been a mystery; the outside was a breathtaking facade of ivy and promise. Any story could have unfolded within its walls. When we drove back down the narrow road, and Manderley finally disappeared from view, I felt oddly nostalgic for the place I'd been so eager to leave. I knew now that I would never be back again. It may have burned to the ground as I drove away, and I would never know.
And as I left for the last time, I could have sworn I saw a tall, thin, blonde girl standing at the entrance of Manderley.
Books by Paige Harbison.
HERE LIES BRIDGET.