By the time graduation is over, I just want to go home. The bobby pins my mom used to attach my cap are digging into my scalp, my strapless bra is sinking slowly toward my waist, and a sticky sheen of perspiration clings to my skin, thanks to the polyester confines of my graduation gown.
Unfortunately, Mom has other ideas.
“We’re celebrating,” she says, turning the car away from the direction of our house. “Netflix will be there when you get back. You only graduate from high school once, and we’re going out to mark the occasion.”
I feel a lightning bolt of dread. “Really, it’s okay,” I say. “We don’t have to—”
“I’m not taking no for an answer, Caroline! Besides, we
already have reservations at your favorite place.” She gives me a hurt look.
So I guess that settles that.
A dull roar of conversation and laughter greets us as soon as I pull open the door to Lucci’s. It’s crowded tonight with other graduates and their families, and I’m caught between trying to avoid eye contact and studying the faces to see who’s here. Sweat prickles on my upper lip.
Luckily, with a reservation we’re not stuck in the waiting area long before a hostess is leading us to a booth. Hopefully, a very dark booth, waaaaay in the back.
But about halfway there, Mom stops abruptly. “Oh, look, there’s Mrs. Davidson. I need to say hello,” Mom says, changing direction and threading her way through the tables.
Even with my desperation to sit—to hide—eating at me, I know better than to protest. It won’t help. My mom works at the Merriman Hospital Foundation, in fundraising. She recruits donors and makes sure that their family members receive VIP treatment if they’re ever patients at the hospital. It’s her job to make sure they feel taken care of, which means she’s on call pretty much 24/7, especially when one of her “people” is admitted or comes in to rule out a heart attack at three in the morning. She spends a lot of time coordinating with her donor families and networking with doctors. “It’s all about relationships,” she always says.
“How are you, dear?” Mrs. Davidson asks me, once she and Mom have covered the basics of small talk.
I smile and try to say, “Great!” But my throat does that thing where it convulses midway through a word, and I end up choking on my own spit.
“Too much excitement,” my mom says with a laugh, patting me on the back as I sputter.
Can we just go home now? That would be celebration enough.
“Get whatever you want, Caroline,” Mom says, once we’re finally seated with menus. “And no arguments—we’re ordering dessert, too. One for each of us!”
Normally, I’m the last person who has to be talked into getting dessert. But right now I want to be in and out as fast as possible. One wrong person walking in, the wrong family choosing Lucci’s to celebrate graduation, and I could still be totally screwed.
But Mom is looking at me, so hopeful that all I can do is nod and say, “Okay.”
Dinner takes forever, mainly because Mom can’t decide what she wants, which is odd. We’ve been here hundreds of times over the years.
And she’s being . . . weird. Studying her menu, avoiding my gaze, except when I catch her staring at me, her eyes almost welling to tears.
Finally I have to ask: “Is everything okay?” My stomach is tight with dread, and every time the door chimes, signaling new arrivals, I have to fight the urge to look over my shoulder.
But if there’s something wrong with Mom . . . My imagination shoots rapid-fire through various disastrous scenarios: cancer, laid off, marrying some guy who wishes I didn’t exist.
She waves my words away. “I’m fine. A little emotional, that’s all.” She takes a deep breath. “My baby, graduating and going away to start college!”
I’m not sure I believe her, but she promptly dives into a one-sided discussion about the pros and cons of ricotta cheese, clearly signaling that that branch of conversation is over.
And then, after what feels like an eternity, we’re finished eating, the dishes are gone, and the waiter—who vanished for, like, twenty minutes—has finally returned with the check.
It takes everything I have not to bolt for the door as soon as Mom signs the receipt. I feel like I’m escaping my doom by a narrow margin, somehow. Which is ridiculous, because nothing happened. I’ve made it. I graduated. I’m done. Safe.
Mom is quiet on the drive home. Too quiet.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I press. “You know I’ll come home on breaks. I’ll only be gone for a couple of months at a time.”
“I know, sweetie, I know.” She reaches over and pats my hand with a laugh. “I’ll be all right.”
“If you don’t have to work tomorrow, we could stay up tonight and watch one of your old movies. I’ll let you pick a black-and-white one,” I offer.
“Oh, such a sacrifice,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You know the classics are the ones everybody else steals from.”
It’s an old argument, comforting in its familiarity. But it doesn’t seem to help much. The silence in the car is still too loud, and Mom seems nervous—anxious, almost—and I don’t know why.
Once we’re home, I start to head upstairs to change, but she stops me.
“Nope, not that way,” she says with a wide smile, as she forcibly steers me toward the sliding glass door onto the patio.
And only then do I understand why the evening was so drawn out and why she seemed on edge.
Our backyard has been transformed into something out of a movie. A dozen tall tables—wrapped in white tablecloths and tied off with red ribbons to match our school colors—decorate the brick patio. White tea-light candles flicker on mirrored centerpieces. The band is setting up under a tent near the far end of the pool, which is full of red and white floating candles, bobbing gently with the motion of the filtration system. There’s even an ice sculpture by the punch bowl
in the shape of our graduation year, although the 2 and the 0 are already melting.
“I don’t understand,” I say, my voice coming out in a squeak. I face my mom. “What is this?”
“Surprise!” my mom says, beaming at me.
That is an understatement. It’s absolutely perfect. And absolutely horrible.
“Sophie set it up while we were at dinner. I was so afraid I’d give it away!” She laughs.
“I know you suspected something, but not this, right?”
“No,” I agree weakly. Never, ever, this.
Mom steps forward to reach up and wrap an arm around my shoulders. Thanks to a late-breaking growth spurt, I’m now a few inches taller than she is. “You deserve it. It was rough starting over, but you dug in and made a life for yourself here. You kept your grades up and found your place with the yearbook committee and so many clubs.” She shakes her head. “I’m not sure how you did it all.”
Being on yearbook helps. If you’re in charge of organizing the sign-ups for pictures, it’s easy enough to slide into whatever photos you want. Boom. Instant proof of club membership.
“I’m so proud of you, Caroline.” Her eyes sparkle with tears as she squeezes my shoulders.
“Thanks,” I say past the lump in my throat.
“I know you said you and your friends weren’t doing much for graduation night.” Mom pokes me in my side.
I give a strangled laugh. “That . . . is what I said.” Because I’m an idiot.
“So I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to finally meet everyone. I’ve only been able to meet a few of them because my work schedule always seems to conflict,” she says. “Actually, only Joanna, I guess.” She frowns.
“Who did you invite?” I’m going to wake up at any second, right?
“We sent open-house invitations to the school, enough for everyone in your class,” Mom says. Looking for confirmation, she glances toward Sophie, her personal assistant, who is waiting by the sliding glass doors into the house.
“Yes, Regina.” Sophie gives a brisk nod, like a check mark on one of her endless lists.
“It said to keep it a surprise,” my mom says. “I guess that must have worked, huh?”
“Mm-hmm.” A sickening pit opens up in my stomach. So this is the source of those whispers and the sideways glances I received over the last couple of weeks at school.
“I know a lot of the kids will have their own family events tonight, but hopefully, they can stop by for a few minutes,” Mom says, sounding so pleased with herself.
“I . . . that’s great.” I force the corners of my mouth up
into a smile and try hard not to pull at the sweaty fabric of my dress, growing damper by the second. My mind spins, rapidly casting up scenarios and dispensing with them just as swiftly.
If I tell Mom I feel sick, she’ll blame it on excitement or eating too much rich food at dinner. She’ll tell me to drink some ginger ale and lie down for a few minutes until my “friends” get here.
A hysterical laugh threatens to bubble up and out of my throat. A complete emotional breakdown, which would be both real and convenient, might distract her, but it wouldn’t keep her from noticing the truth.
This is going to crush her. And it won’t be great for me, either. If she finds out . . .
“I promise, I won’t be in the way,” Mom says, holding up her hand. “A few people from work have stopped by.” She nods back toward the great room, where the now-lit-up windows reveal a handful of adults, mingling already with wine glasses in hand. “Keeping me company while I get used to the idea of being an empty nester.” She flattens her palm against her chest with a dramatic sigh.
“Mom . . .”
“I’m teasing.” Mom squeezes me once more. “Have a good time!” Then she disappears with Sophie into the house.
They reappear in the great room, visible through the win
dows. And the second my mom walks into the room, people make a beeline for her. Everyone loves her.
Seeing that sets off a pang of envy in me. I don’t know how she does it, how anyone does. It seems that if you’re going to form any real bond, people have to either really like you (my mom) or really need you (my dad).
But I’ve never been able to figure out what happens if you’re not enough to make them feel anything.
I turn away from the house to walk along the edge of the pool, as if motion will somehow convey purpose and confidence to anyone watching. It really is perfect out here. Exactly the party I would have wanted. Under normal circumstances.
My eyes water, and I edge my finger carefully under them to keep my mascara from running. I don’t want my mom to know that I’ve been crying when she comes back out to check on me, as she inevitably will when no one shows up.
What am I going to do?
I’m seriously contemplating whether a small fire—a few tea-light candles somehow tipped over by the “wind”—would be enough to get my mom to cancel this before it gets any worse, when the wrought-iron gate to the backyard clangs open loudly.
Ridiculous hope sparks inside me. Like somehow all the “friends” I’ve ever mentioned to my mother might suddenly parade into the yard.
But it’s just Joanna. Her long dark hair is falling out of its braid, and she, unlike me, has been allowed to change her clothes. She’s wearing leggings with a hole in the knee, and the thigh is covered in streaks of purple paint (used for shading on the dragon’s wings in her mural project), and an oversized Game of Thrones T-shirt. Or, knowing Jo, maybe that’s what she wore beneath her graduation robe.
“Nice spread,” Joanna says as she steps onto the patio.
“You came,” I blurt, rushing over as she moves to the food table.
“Yeah.” Joanna drags a corn chip through the avocado dip. “My parents aren’t big on the graduation-party thing. Not when you’re the third kid. We’re going to my grandparents’ on Sunday for cake.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” I hiss. True, Joanna and I aren’t exactly close. We’re friends by default. Lunchroom refugees who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was starting over in a new school and a new state (which might as well have been on another planet for all that Arizona had in common with New York), and horribly awkward. Still am. Joanna is just weird and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She once came to school dressed as her favorite character from Game of Thrones, with stuffed dragons on chains and everything. And it wasn’t even Halloween. But despite our differences and our lack-of-other-options friendship, I still
would have expected her to give me a heads-up about something of this magnitude.
“The invitation said it was a surprise.” Joanna scoops the chip into her mouth, dribbling some of the dip down the front of her T-shirt, a green blob on Khaleesi’s blond head. She wipes at it half-heartedly with a CONGRATULATIONS, CAROLINE! napkin. “What’s wrong with you? It’s not like anyone else is going to show up.”
“Exactly!” I reach up to rake my hand through my hair, but stop in time, remembering the updo my mom insisted on. It is elegant and very Audrey Hepburn, not at all like me at the moment. Or ever.
“So what’s the problem?” Joanna grabs a paper plate emblazoned with the words HAPPY GRADUATION! and piles on some shrimp rolls. “I think it’s nice that your mom wanted to do it, even if we’re the only ones here.”
I take a deep breath and open my mouth to explain, but then I get a mental flash of Jo’s reaction: nose wrinkled, her face scrunched up in disgust. She won’t understand this. For someone who’s obsessed with a show about medieval power structures, she has always been remarkably unconcerned with our position at the lonely end of the social ladder in high school.
“I need you to do me a favor,” I say instead. Maybe this can still work out.
“Okay,” Joanna says warily, around a mouthful of shrimp. “What?”
“When you go to say hi to my mom . . . ,” I begin.
Joanna’s perfectly groomed eyebrows—one of her older sisters tackled her and wouldn’t let her up until there were two instead of one—go up.
“I need you to say something like, ‘It’s too bad Felicity couldn’t be here because of the family emergency.’ And that Julie and Elena are out of town.” These new lies won’t zero out the others that have come before them. Not even close. Mom will still have questions—and possibly, eventually, suspicions—but the story might get me through tonight, through this party. Hopefully. And it’ll be way more effective coming from Joanna than me. My mom has never said, but I think she finds Joanna . . . disconcerting.
Jo is blunt and occasionally graceless in conversation, especially with adults. I tend to freeze up, but Joanna stomps right through, like a grimly determined soldier with the end of battle in sight. It won’t occur to my mom that Joanna is lying, as it might if I tried it, because Joanna doesn’t bother with—or is oblivious to the need for—polite social fibs. The lasagna was cold and a little burned. Actually, no, your new haircut looks . . . lopsided.
“I don’t even know who you’re talking about,” Jo says. “Felicity? We don’t even know anyone named . . .” She
pauses. “Wait, like on that show you’re always—”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Can you just do this for me, please?” I squeeze my hands together in a plea.
She narrows her eyes at me, taking in my poorly disguised panic. Then her expression clears, and she sets her plate down on the table. “Is this about Liam?” Her tone is cool, deadly.
“No!” Not exactly. Not at first, at least.
“Bye, Caroline,” she says with disgust, the exact reaction I was trying to avoid. She pivots away from the food table and starts toward the gate.
I chase after her. “Wait, Jo, it’s not what you think!”
She pauses, shaking her head. “Seriously, Caroline? I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it’s always about him, one way or another. Isn’t it.”
I don’t answer, because it’s not a question. Also, because she wouldn’t like the answer.
“It’s pathetic,” she says.
I flinch. She said “it’s,” but I know she means “you’re.”
“He’s not that great. No one is. You build up these bizarre expectations and hopes around someone you don’t even know.”
But I do know him! As much as you can know someone you’ve talked to once—twice if you count the whole bake-sale incident. It doesn’t matter, though.
He’s my Ben.
“What about you?”
Joanna continues. “Who are you? What do you want? What about, I don’t know”—she puffs air up toward her forehead, making wisps of hair dance—“reality? What’s wrong with reality?”
“Nothing,” I say in a small voice. Unless your reality sucks. Then what’s wrong with wanting something more or better?
Joanna sighs. “I’ll see you around, Caroline. Good luck with . . . everything.” She moves toward the gate with weary steps, her shoulders rounded, as if talking to me has exhausted her.
“Was that Joanna?” My mom emerges from the house, Sophie trailing after.
“She . . . had to go. Family stuff,” I say. The words taste bitter. Was it so much to ask of our friendship that she help me out with this one thing?
“Really?” Mom asks, doubt filling her voice. She hesitates. “Caroline, is there something you want to tell me?”
“Like what?” I ask, stalling for time.
“Like why Joanna didn’t stay? And where everyone else is?” she asks, and the gentleness in her voice makes me feel even worse. “Did something happen?” She reaches out to smooth my hair. Her dark hair is only a shade or two lighter than mine, and she’s talked for years about dyeing it to match my “gorgeous color.” “I know it gets complicated with college looming. It changes the dynamic. Especially when someone
is insisting on attending a school so far away.” She levels a pointed look at me.
“It’s fine,” I say quickly. I don’t want college to come up anywhere in this conversation. It’s a pristine box of untouched future, untainted by everything in my present. I have a plan. I’m going to have the life I’m supposed to have; I just need to survive tonight. “You know . . . the usual drama. A dumb fight. Joanna will get over it.”
“And Felicity?” my mom prompts gently.
Oh God. “She’s probably over it already,” I say.
“Baby.” Mom reaches out and pulls me closer. “Change is always hard. But never doubt yourself. You are absolutely perfect, just as you are. And your friends will realize that eventually.”
The backyard blurs as tears fill my eyes. If only that were true, Mom. Any of it.
I take a deep breath and pull away once my emotions are back under control. “Mom, your guests,” I say, giving her a gentle push toward the house. “You know, there’s that new wine bar downtown. Maybe you guys could take this party on the road.”
Could I eat enough appetizers to make it look like twenty people have come and gone by the time she’s back? If not, that’s what the neighbors’ trash cans are for.
Sorry, Mom, you just missed my friends!
She pats me on the shoulder with a fond smile. “No, we’re fine.” Then she turns to stare at the empty party area. “I still think it’s rude of them not to show up, fight or no fight. They can’t all be that busy tonight.” She bites her lip. “Maybe I should call Liam’s mom to see if he’s coming.”
“No!” The word explodes out of me.
My mother gives me a strange look. “Honey, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. I don’t know Dr. Fanshaw that well.” She pauses. “Pediatrician,” she says to Sophie.
Sophie nods immediately. “I have her number.”
“But I think she would understand—”
“Please, let me handle it my way,” I say, sweat trickling down my back to collect at the base of my spine. If she calls Dr. Fanshaw, it’s over.
After a beat, my mother nods. “All right, if that’s what you want.” But her mouth is pulled up in a sympathetic grimace.
She touches my cheek. “Okay.”
“Good.” Relief rushes through me like a dam has broken. I’m still going to have to answer questions later tonight, but at least there’s this mythical falling-out to help explain things. And she can’t expect me to talk about something that’s obviously painful.
As soon as my mom returns to the house, I make my way to the other side of the patio, out of sight of the windows, as if
that will convince her that guests have arrived and I must be off talking to them somewhere.
The band sounds more than decent, and the food smells delicious, making my mouth water, despite the fact that I’ve already eaten a full dinner.
For a moment I allow myself to imagine what it would be like. People chatting at the food table, possibly shoving around one another to get at the shrimp rolls. Someone would have spiked the bowl of punch by the ice sculpture by now, I’m sure.
I would be moving easily around the party, speaking to this group or that one, without stammering or freezing up. Maybe flirting a little with Liam, who would take me under his wing, including me in the conversations I would normally miss.
I can see it so clearly that it makes my heart lift temporarily. I want that feeling of belonging, of being accepted. Confident in knowing that they’re mine and I’m theirs.
But it’s not real. I blink and the image in my head is gone, not even lingering like the flash from a camera. Just gone.
An all-too-familiar sadness, the kind that always comes from the bubble bursting, rises up in me. It happens a lot more now than it used to. Some of the stories I’ve created in my head or told to my mom are so real and so close to what I want, it feels like a loss when something breaks the spell.
But this time I straighten my shoulders and push that sadness away. It’s different now. Because in three months, I’ll have
my fresh start at college. I’ll have my friends. And none of it will be fictional. I just have to be patient for a little longer.
I head toward the food table to kill some more time and because the meatballs in particular smell amazing. But as I do, I catch a glimpse of my mom through the bay window in the kitchen. And she’s on the house phone, her brow furrowed.
A hospital call, maybe. Especially with Sophie there at her side, reading something off her ever-present tablet. Though Mom usually gets calls from the hospital on her cell phone. . . .
The pieces click together a fraction of a second too late. She’s already talking.
“Mom!” I run for the house and throw myself through the partially open sliding glass door, my hip colliding with the edge of the metal frame. Pain shoots through me like an electric shock, but I keep moving.
I burst into the kitchen. “Mom! Hang up!”
“At Stella’s lake house. I see,” my mother says into the phone, turning away from me.
Dread bubbles up in me, like the nasty slime that spreads through the pool when the chemicals are wrong.
I can’t hear what Liam’s mom is saying, but I can fill in the blanks, imagine her confusion at this call. I’ve never been
to Liam’s house, never met his mother, though I’ve seen her when I’ve driven by their home.
I knew the truth would eventually come out—I’m not stupid—but I always imagined it as something I’d tell my mom years from now, something we’d laugh about long after it lost the power to hurt either of us.
“I don’t understand,” my mom says, fidgeting with a wine cork left abandoned on the quartz counter of the island. She is steadfastly avoiding looking at me. “Does this have something to do with the girls? Their falling out?”
I freeze, a statue in a too-bright floral print. The girls. Oh no, no, no. “Mom, please,” I try again, moving closer. “Hang up.”
But she’s frowning at something Dr. Fanshaw is saying.
And then time seems to grind to an excruciating halt. “I’m sure you know them. Joanna Duncan, Felicity Porter, Elena Tyler, and Julie—”
“They’re fictional!” I shout. Anything to make her stop. “I made it all up!”
My mom’s head snaps around to face me, her mouth hanging open in shock.
“Not Joanna,” I say slowly. “But Felicity, Julie, Elena, they’re television characters. I borrowed them. I . . . needed them.”
Mom stares at me, the color draining from her cheeks.
Liam’s mother says something, tinny and faint in the phone, but I can’t hear what.
Oh God. I turn away and sink to the floor in front of the island, the cool tiles burning through my dress to my skin.
“I’m going to have to call you back,” my mom says into the phone finally. “Yes, I’ll be sure to clarify with Caroline.” Her words, thin with anger and confusion, sound like the end of everything.