He wasn't supposed to come after her.


Being a freaky genius girl meant that she understood things much more quickly than other people. And while Troy could never be called stupid, he was more…innocent than she was. He thought that a thousand miles meant nothing; that phone calls and e-mails were enough to keep two different people together. He thought that as long as she didn't say the words, everything would be okay.

She knew better though; she'd lived it, time and again, and she knew exactly what distance did to people. It broke them—more specifically, it broke her. So maybe he wasn't naïve at all; maybe he was simply stronger than she was. In the end, though, it didn't really matter, did it? Because she was still leaving, and he was still staying, and all of the Tums she stole from her mother's purse did nothing to cure her heart(ache)burn.


She has learned to cut her ties quickly and painlessly. It is necessary, after all, when a girl spends most of her teenaged years moving around the country. And until the second semester of her junior year, it worked well; she had few (read: zero) friends, but that was okay because she could see the future—her future—and she knew (felt, believed, hoped) that Stanford was where she'd truly start living. Then she sang karaoke in a ski lodge on New Year's Eve when she was sixteen and suddenly everything was real and there was a boy standing in front of her with her life in his eyes and she had to remind herself (constantly, every day, sometimes twice a day) not to get too attached.

Troy, however, was the exception (he always is). He somehow managed to infiltrate her life until he was impossibly (and messily) intertwined with her own. And that was okay (and amazing and incredible and the best thing that had ever happened to her) for awhile, back when she could still pretend that her life would always be defined by TroyandGabriella; now that real life has intruded, though, she sometimes wishes she could cut those (unbreakable) ties.

But it's impossible to remove him from her life, not when she's still incapable of removing the necklace from around her neck. How could she possibly forget or deny or ignore everything that he was, and everything that he made her be? He had done the impossible, after all, making her believe in happily ever afters and friends that liked her for all her brainiac glory and a life that was more than equations and fractions and lined paper. He made her daring and exciting and mysterious and lovely, but more than anything, he made her want to laugh, forever and always. He made her bold; unafraid of change and attention and herself. The only problem is, he's not here to remind her of that.


She misses the way he looks at her. As comforting as his voice is, and as much as she loves talking to him (she has a message from him on her phone that she saved weeks ago, back when everything was still in the future and she wasn't actually living it, and she plays it at night, again and again, until she can almost imagine him beside her, humming a wordless tune and smiling sleepily into her hair), she misses his eyes. She dreams about them; how she'll look up from doing her homework or complaining about her mom or laughing at something stupid Chad had done and find his eyes on her face, so blue and deep, and she'll blush because the look on his face is just too…much.

He looks instead of touching her; he doesn't initiate touching very often (it's her who could never seem to stop touching him, and she fears that her grasping hands were too desperate and too revealing), and when he does he's infinitely gentle, as though she's somehow delicate (most of the time, he just looks at her; an intense, slightly bemused look that feels like he's touching her everywhere and leaves her aching to say those words that seem to fill her up with bubbling brightness whenever he's around). It had gotten to the point, right before she'd left, that she'd felt as though she might burst, because everything (his eyes, his hands, his mouth) was simply too overwhelming. Maybe it's a good thing she left.


Sometimes it feels like her year and three months in Albuquerque had never happened. Sometimes when she's surrounded by strangers with foreign names whom she's somehow supposed to become friends with (though none of them can roll their eyes like Taylor or hide a smile like Kelsi or make her feel so alive like…never mind), she pretends that her mother had been transferred to Santa Fe instead, and she had lived out her high school years never knowing Troy Bolton and East High (though she might have occasionally had dreams about blue eyes with fireworks reflected in them and brown hair dusted with snowflakes and a song that she couldn't forget).

Sometimes she can pretend that her life has taken the clear trajectory she had set for herself when she was twelve and her world was falling apart; when the only thing that kept her functioning was the belief and the promise of Stanford, a place that meant peace and happiness and freedom and home. And sometimes, if she tries really hard, she can pretend that she never found that home in a mischievous, floppy haired boy/man. But then she'd turn her head, or brush her hand against her neck, and she'd feel the metal lying hot against her skin and suddenly it was impossible to pretend or forget or deny, and then she has to dig out the pack of Tums she'd started buying for herself.


When she first saw his truck parked on the curb, she was afraid. She'd just begun to cultivate the numbness that was necessary to get through the day, and she was terrified of losing it. But then he was there, up in that damned tree and her mouth was opening and spewing words—what she said exactly, she has no idea—and she knew that he knew that she wasn't happy, but somehow she was in his arms and she could feel his heart beat and smell him and he was right there wearing those goofy shoes and she was in love with him, for God's sake, and when he looks at her like that (like she's everything he could ever want or need and oh God, her life is a cliché but it's so true)…how can she turn away from home?


She'd never told him (and probably never would) but she secretly loved his truck. True, it was old and slightly (completely and disgustingly) grungy, but it had a bench seat, which meant it was perfect for her to sit pressed up tight against Troy's side and lay her head on his shoulder and feel him breathe. And there was absolutely nothing better than racing down a dark and deserted highway at 1 a.m. with golden oldies playing on the only radio station they could find, while the knowledge he'd just imparted to her reverberated in her mind. Somewhere in California was all he'd said, but those three words were enough to soothe the (seemingly permanent) ache in her chest and allow her to throw three packs of Tums out the window while she giggled at the look on Troy's face.


She was almost (completely) sure that Troy loved her; she was a freaky genius girl, after all, so she understood these things more quickly than other people. Generally, she knew, when a man drove a thousand miles just to dance with you, not to mention chose a college that was conveniently in the same state as you, it meant that he was more than just in like. She wasn't completely (at all) sure that he would ever actually say it though; he had his own way of doing things, and words weren't always guaranteed with Troy. So to hear University of California, Berkeley (I love you) fall from his lips…well. There are just no words.

So here she is, standing in uncomfortable shoes on the stage at East High surrounded by her friends, with her mother in the audience, doing her best to not cry. Because here he is, standing in front of her, telling her in his own way that he loves her. And suddenly she knows that Stanford (and the rest of her life) will be the amazing place (home) she always dreamed of, because he'll be there, only 32.7 miles away from her.

But he did come after her, and that's all that really matters.