Never Let Me Go
A/N: This is basically to fill in the VERY vague last part of the last book of the Summer I Turned Pretty series, We'll Always Have Summer. I loved the end but I was very unsatisfied with the lack of details! So, to clarify, this begins with Belly's summer abroad in Spain when she gets her first letter from Conrad.
I hadn't realized I'd closed my eyes until I had to open them back up again, startled. I looked up, feeling the lingering effects of my most vivid memories start to ebb away. Javier was in the doorway with a plate of food, still dressed in his white chef's jacket. He smiled at my belated acknowledgment and walked into my room, stepping out into the balcony with me. He handed me the plate as he fell down into the seat beside me, taking in the nighttime scenery.
"Thanks," I told him, setting the plate on the little table beside me. In my other hand, I tucked away the letter, running my fingers over the smooth paper, checking to see if it was really real, really there. That it wasn't something I had dreamed up and was going to suddenly vanish into a cloud of nothingness once I opened my eyes.
"Are you thinking about your boyfriend?" he asked me. Underneath us, I could hear footsteps and quiet whispers in the same deep Spanish accent as Javier's.
"I told you, Javier," I told him. "I don't have a boyfriend."
"But you were thinking about someone," he said, giving me a side-glance. "You forget, Isabel, that I have three sisters. I know what those looks mean."
I sat in thought, watching the lights in the windows of the other buildings. Javier was quiet for a moment, too.
"Do you love him?"
I continued to look out and said nothing.
"You don't have to answer, you know," he said, shrugging. "I already know."
"Oh you do, do you?" I said, and he nodded, giving me a wry grin. "Then why ask?"
"Because," he said, leaning back. "I wanted to see if you would admit it."
I sighed. Suddenly, I felt little flutters in my stomach, like little butterflies in a jar. I thought I had outgrown this feeling. I was twenty now – twenty-one, in a few months' time – and I thought I had left all the painful relics of my past behind. For now, at least, while I was in this amazing new place, completely foreign to me, living with a host family that oohed and aahed over the few pictures I had taken with me – of my mom and dad, of Steven, of Susannah, and the Fisher boys. Here, I was Isabel Conklin, the American student studying abroad. I was not Belly, or Belly Button, or the girl that had torn the Fisher brothers apart.
I had been relishing my clean slate. That is, until today, when a letter came for me. When I'd first seen it on my bed, I just thought it was just another letter from my mom. Taylor never wrote; she preferred email or chat. Steven was also another one that had been swallowed up by the digital age, preferring email and texting over anything else. But it was my mom, the old soul, that still sent hand-written letters. She wrote to me regularly, and I wrote her back as often as I could, telling her about all about my experience living in Granada.
But as soon as I picked up the letter, I knew it was different. With some things, you just know. Subconsciously, it's like a wheel turns and things click into place and you suddenly just know. I just had that feeling. And the truth is, I hadn't had that feeling in a very long time.
"I do love him," I said quietly. "I've loved him for a very long time."
How could I possibly tell him that I had loved him for so long that I felt like if I didn't, if I just suddenly stopped, I would be lost? And wasn't it just the damndest thing? For so long I had hated that part of me, that part that couldn't stop loving him, no matter how inconvenient and irrational and destructive me loving him became. It was like a rotten, good for nothing limb that I just wanted gone. Buried, or burned, or thrown in a ditch. Just as long as it wasn't a part of me anymore.
But I had already gone down that road. I'd hurt a lot of people in the process of getting rid of something that I was now sure I could never really forget.
"So why aren't you with him?"
Javier shook his head and chuckled under his breath. "Women. They always say that."
"Maybe they say that because it's true," I told him.
"Maybe," he said, shrugging his broad shoulders. He brushed his dark, curly hair from his eyes. "But usually it is less complicated than they say it is. Look, all I'm saying is that just because it's complicated doesn't mean it isn't mean to be."
He got up, brushing off his hands on his dark pants. He smiled down on me. "Good night, Isabel."
"Night Javier," I said to him. "Thanks for the food. You really didn't have to, you know."
"I'll stop bringing it when you stop taking it," he said, winking, before stepping back inside.
When he was gone, I brought the letter back out. It was in a plain white envelope, nothing extraordinary. But then I looked at his neat writing, flawless and calculated, spelling out my name: Isabel Conklin.
My eyes scrolled up to the left corner, tracing the just-as-neat curves and ridges in the letters of his name. C. Fisher.
I hope you don't mind, I got your address from Laurel.
I waited for my mom to tell me that she had given my host home's address to Conrad, but part of me already knew I was waiting in vain. My mom had never been that kind of person. Susannah used to say that my mother's mouth was like a metal clamp when it came to secrets. She was never going to tell me unless I asked.
The night I bought a new phone card, I waited until she was home from work to call. She picked up on the first ring, and I could hear the TV faintly on in the background. Miles and miles away, I was back out in the balcony, sitting down.
We talked for a little about Steven, how things were at her job, and how things were going with me. I told her about the gypsies that put a curse on you if you didn't pay them, and how Javier always brought me home food from the restaurant and told me stories about the guys he worked with. But the more we talked about me, the more I kept thinking about Conrad's letter.
She was on speakerphone. I listened along as she rinsed something in the sink.
It took her a second to respond. "Mm-hm?"
I opened my mouth, trying to plan out the words. I don't know if you already know this, but Conrad wrote to me, or Guess who I got a letter from the other day? You won't believe it: Conrad. Either way, none of them sounded right. I didn't even know how I felt about it, so how could I expect to go to her yet?
"I have to go," I said, instead. "I've got a lot of homework to do."
After I hung up, I leaned over the railing, sighing. I closed my eyes. Down the street I could hear the street band starting up their session, filling the air with their strong guitars and soaring trumpets, faintly making their way over to me.
One year after mine and Jeremiah's almost-wedding was Conrad's graduation. For once, my mom had given me an option: I could go, if I wanted, but she wouldn't force me. After all, Jeremiah would be there. Things had smoothed over between him and me, but not completely. When we saw each other, we exchanged a too-polite Hey or a weak smile, but nothing ever beyond that. Taylor said this was just the natural way of things after a break-up, so I listened to her. "You have to know that there is a possibility that you and Jeremiah can be good friends again," she'd said to me one day, over cupcakes and frappuchinos. "But I'm going to be real with you here, Belly: that won't be for a long, long time."
And it was Conrad. At school, it was Jeremiah and I, and even then you could cut the tension with a knife. How was it going to be with the three of us there, all together?
The last I had heard about Jeremiah and Conrad, they hadn't been on speaking terms yet. Maybe things were better now, and if they were, I wasn't going to mess it up. I would do anything to get the Fisher brothers back together again, even if it meant staying out of the picture.
The morning of the graduation, Steven knocked on my door. He was already dressed in a casual, long-sleeved button-up and nice jeans. His hair was clean and short – a requirement for his new job, now that he had officially sold his soul to Corporate.
"Belly, you coming?" he asked. But I could tell from the way he examined the ratty pajamas I was still in and the stack of borrowed DVDs next to my bed that he already knew the answer.
"No, but tell him congrats for me, will you?"
He nodded. "Will do." And then, just as he was turning away, he stopped. He grabbed a post-it from my desk and a pen, scribbling something down.
"Here. Just in case you change your mind."
And then with a jingle of his car keys, he was gone. I heard his footsteps descending the stairs and then my mom yelling up to let me know they were going, before the decisive click of the closed door.
I sat there for a minute. I knew what he had written even before I had gotten up and slowly walked over, turning the post-it pad to face me.
It was the address to Conrad's graduation ceremony.
I didn't know whether I would make it on time. I had left almost half an hour after Steven and my mom, and had been stuck in traffic for another half-hour. Parking was another disaster, so I ended up having to park nearly half a mile away, having to resort to running and power-walking the rest of the way to the ceremony.
From the back I could see Brown's school colors displayed all over the arena: seal brown, cardinal red, and white. I searched the sea of turned heads for Steven and my mom, maybe even Mr. Fisher and Jeremiah, but there were so many people, it was impossible to spot them.
I did end up getting there on time. A few minutes later, Conrad's name was called, and he crossed the stage, smiling, shaking his professor's hand and taking his diploma. Amongst the polite clapping I could hear cheering from some students, and one recognizable whoop from all the rest that was unmistakably Steven. Conrad was wearing the gold sash that the honor students wore.
I hadn't seen him since the day of the wedding. As I stood there, watching him walk across, smiling and happy, I felt my heart get filled and then break all over again. Even from far away, even with him having no idea that I had come after all, Conrad could still make me feel this heartbreaking jumble of so many different things, of simultaneous highs and lows, of shuddering inhales and painful exhales. He looked out into the crowd for the briefest of moments, and I froze in my spot. I thought he saw me but I knew it was impossible. There were so many people there that day, and I was just one. Me. Belly.
I left early so that I wouldn't have any chance of accidentally running into them afterwards. Numbly, I walked back to my car. When I got inside, I sat in the driver's seat, putting my hands on the wheel, as if ready to drive off. But I didn't. Instead I laid my forehead against the wheel and I cried.
Conrad's letters were hard to explain. This was the main reason I told myself why I hadn't told Taylor about them yet. The first one was as out of the blue as you could get, but the next month, another one came. He told me about med school and his job interning at a lab, after his professor had handpicked him out of two hundred students for the job. It didn't pay great, but he loved it, and if he did well, it was promising. He also told me about his dad, forever trying to pull him into working for him, to be the Father-Son duo that he'd always dreamed they'd be. But Conrad had never shared Mr. Fisher's love for money, which was why I had always somehow known Conrad would have made a terrible banker.
He asked me how I was doing, but I never wrote back. He asked me about Granada, too, but even then I had a feeling he knew it would take more than that to get a response. So he filled up his letters with funny yet introspective details about his days, and memories. Memories about Cousins, memories about me, memories about Susannah, memories about my mom. Memories about all of us, sometimes together, sometimes apart. But in all of that, he never mentioned why he started writing to me. Why, all of a sudden, it became something that mattered to him.
Or maybe he had. Maybe it was in the very last line of the second letter. It was written hastily, smudged a little, a dangling afterthought.
I miss you.
The old Belly felt that she had to write back. This was Conrad, her Conrad. But this was also Conrad, pull-and-push Conrad, the Conrad that had told her too many times that he'd wanted her and then that he didn't. I remembered that night, out on the beach, when he had told me that he still loved me, always had, and always would – I'd played it back in my mind, over and over again, for the past year and a half. But with Conrad, he toed the line between perfect and worst timing. Maybe he, just like with so many other things, was just the master at being able to combine the two, at the same time.
"Can you believe it?" Rachel was saying to me, as we walked to the club. Her heels clicked against the stone street and she'd dressed in a slinky black dress, just for the occasion. As for me, I had opted for some practical flats and a casual cotton dress that I had found underneath all my luggage, thrown in as a last-minute addition. "Tomorrow afternoon, we'll be going back home, bidding farewell to the Spanish sun."
"I think what you really mean is the Spanish men," I said to her, and she turned to me, sighing wistfully.
"That I do, Isabel. That I really do."
It was officially our last night in Granada as part of the studying abroad program, and all of us had decided to celebrate by heading out to the local club that came highly recommended by Javier. Inside, the club was crowded and everywhere people were dancing, drinking, or both. Rachel spotted the rest of our group, huddled in a corner with beers, and we pushed our way towards them.
"About fucking time you ladies got here," Eric said to us. "Sam got you your beers. Now time for a toast!"
Sam came back with our beers, handing them over to us. As he handed me mine he gave me a small smile. "Glad to see you came, Conklin."
Rachel waggled her eyebrows at me. "You're welcome," she said to him, thirstily chugging her beer. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "I made her promise, but you're welcome."
"To our last night!" Eric said, above the pulsating music and the conversations going on around us. The people around us barely noticed, but everybody raised their beers and we toasted, clinking our bottles with as many people as we could, before taking a hearty swig.
"Now let's see some asses shaking!" Tom said, in a true frat boy manner. Tom was in the rival fraternity that Jeremiah was in, but he was nice. Earlier on in the trip, he had made a joke about my broken engagement, but then later apologized, with the corners of his ears all pink.
Rachel seemed to agree with this, and she grabbed him by his t-shirt, with a smile as big as a wildcat, dragging him out to the dance floor. "Hold my beer," she called out to me.
Most of the group dispersed, heading out to the dance floor. Soon it was only Sam and I left standing, watching the others as they disappeared into the mob of gyrating bodies.
"So," Sam said, moving closer to me, "you ready to go home yet?"
"Yes and no," I answered, as another girl from our group, Beth, pushed us aside and headed towards the exit. She was on her cell phone, trying to yell above the music. "I'll miss it here but I miss home, too."
"Same here," he said, nodding. The song ended and then changed into another body-grinder. I took another sip of my beer, wondering what time it was. I'd promised Rachel I'd come, not that I'd stay.
"Wanna dance?" he asked me, looking hopeful. I looked at him, and I had known that he'd had a little crush on me since the trip started. Even if I hadn't noticed it for myself, Rachel was more than willing in that department, always pushing me to start something with him. "Even just for the trip," she'd said. "That's what being young is for, right?" Rachel was right. And Sam was obviously good-looking – just in the past twenty minutes of being in the club alone, I had already seen numerous girls eyeing him from the distance.
I set our beers on the table, nodding. He smiled and took my hand, leading us to a spot on the floor.
As we began to move along to the music, I couldn't help but wonder what Conrad was going, thousands of miles away. If he, too, would be spending the night dancing with a girl, while spending his waking hours writing letters to me, the girl who claimed that would love him forever, and then disappeared.
I left before Rachel did. I made my way over to her as she was giggling and talking to Tom, tapping her on the shoulder and letting her know that I was going home. Her eyes jumped to something behind me. "Is Sam going to go with you?" she asked, and I shook my head. Then she nodded and said okay.
As I exited the club, relishing the escape from the stuffy, hot room, I was surprised to see Javier standing outside with his friends, smoking and drinking.
"Isabel!" he called out to me. "I thought that was you! Why are you going home so early?"
"I'm pretty tired, Javier," I answered in Spanish, not wanting to be rude to his friends, who were watching us. I said hello to them, too, and they nodded, smiling.
"Then let me walk you home, at least," he said.
"No, no, really, you should stay with your friends," I insisted, but he was already putting out his cigarette and setting his beer bottle on the ground.
He shook his head, "No, it'll only take a minute." He turned to his friends and told them he'd be back, and they nodded, continuing their conversation as Javier walked over to me. Their house was only a few blocks away, and I had some pepper spray in my purse. He still walked with me, asking me how I liked the club and if I was happy to be going home.
"I try to be a gentleman to all the study abroad students staying with us," he said to me, as we neared the house. "But I like you, Isabel. I think it is because you remind me of my little sister." He paused in thought for a second, before continuing on. A boy on a moped sped by. "Promise me something. Promise me that someday, some day before you die, or get married, you will talk to that boy. That way, no matter what happens, you will have no regrets, and you will live a happy life."
We were in front of the door. I turned to him and looked him in the eye. He was right. He was looking at me in exactly the same way a brother would look at his sister – with love.
"Of course," I said to him. "Anything for you, Chef Javier."
For my homecoming, Anika and Taylor took me out to our favorite Chinese restaurant: The Golden Cricket. It was a little hole in the wall we'd discovered one day and often came to when our funds were running low and we had a massive craving for orange chicken and platefuls of fried rice.
"All right, since Belly's told us all about her Spanish adventure—"
"And her super hot host brother," Taylor interrupted. She had gone through my camera earlier and gawked at Javier, whom she claimed looked just like Johnny Depp, but less wimpy.
"—it's time for our traditional fortune cookie fortune read aloud," Anika finished. "I'll go first." She cracked her fortune cookie in half, holding up the paper fortune to her face. "'You will be coming upon a great treasure,'" she read aloud, amused. "Right. Like that's the first time I've heard this kind of bull from you, fortune cookie."
Taylor was next. She sipped her diet coke as she broke her cookie in half. "'You are an intelligent being with a bright future.'" Anika guffawed and Taylor frowned. She turned to her. "I would rather get the phony treasure. Wanna trade?"
Anika ignored her and looked at me. "Your turn."
"Okay." I placed half of the cookie in my mouth, unscrolling the strip of paper. "'Your soul mate awaits you.'"
Anika's eyebrows jumped up her forehead. "Interesting."
"Who writes this stuff, anyway?" Taylor said, checking her lip gloss in her compact. "Even I could write better fortunes than this. They're always so lame."
As Anika rolled her eyes and challenged Taylor's proclamation of superior fortune cookie fortune-writing skills, I stared at my fortune. Your soul mate awaits you. At the bottom, as always, were my lucky numbers.
While they passively bickered, I folded it in half and slipped the fortune into my pocket, and then asked for the check.
Anika and I headed back to our apartment, and Taylor went back to hers. As Anika drove, she put on some new album she bought while I was away. It was sad and exactly the kind of music I could see someone listening to as they lay in a bath tub, the bath water murky and bubbles all gone, staring sadly into nothing.
"Do you believe in soul mates?" I asked her.
She kept her eyes on the road as we slowed down for a yellow light. "I believe it's a nice idea," she answered. "Just like true love and heaven and Santa Clause."
"So then that's a no."
"I'm still trying to figure it out for myself," she said, looking at me. The light changed to green and it was faintly reflected on her face. "So it's a maybe."
It had been one of those rare moments when Conrad and I were alone in the beach house. Steven and Jeremiah had gone out to the boardwalk and my mom and Susannah had also gone out for the day, claiming that they were just going to go out to look for new curtains. Conrad had said that he didn't want to go and then just went into his room and locked the door, probably to learn a new song on his guitar. I had been invited to the boardwalk, too, but I'd said no – partially because I liked swimming when no one was around, and partially because Conrad wasn't going.
I had just finished swimming and was on the couch, eating cereal from a bowl and watching an old movie. My hair was still wet and my shoulders were soaked, along with parts of the couch.
I hadn't noticed that Conrad had come out of his room until he sat himself down on the couch with me. Instantly my body tensed, sensing his nearness, but I tried to play it off as I barely glimpsed at him, instead trying to seem really engrossed in the movie. Which I was. Until he came along, anyway.
"I've seen this movie," he said. "I watched it in English. It's good."
"Is it?" I said, eating more cereal. "Guess I'll just have to see for myself."
And then we just sat there for five minutes. Being with Conrad did magical things to time – he had a way of twisting them into stretching even longer or making them pass by in a blink of an eye. This time, with us sitting there, in complete silence, it felt like forever. In a good way. Like it was the kind of forever that was soft and comforting, the kind that you wouldn't mind sitting in for a really long time. Not like the kind of forever you stood in while waiting in line at the grocery store, bored and impatient.
In the movie, the man said something about soul mates before it cut to commercial. A dog food commercial came on, and I shifted in my seat.
"Do you believe in soul mates?" I asked him.
He thought for a second. "I don't know. Maybe. Do you?"
"I think," I said, brushing aside the wet hair from my face, "that I do. But I don't think all soul mates have to be, you know, romantically involved. Like our moms. I don't think my dad was my mom's soul mate and I don't really think Mr. Fisher was Susannah's. I think they were each other's."
He sat in thought for such a long time that he hadn't talked by the time the movie came back on, starting back where it left off. I awkwardly squirmed in my seat. Maybe I had brought up the wrong conversational topic. After all, my knowledge on soul mates was as run-of-the-mill and elementary as you could get. But at that point, I had known for a very long time that Conrad was mine. My soul mate. I was young, but if my theory about my mom and Susannah was correct – they'd met when they were nine – then it really wasn't as crazy as it seemed.
"I like that theory," Conrad finally said, as if he had thought about it and couldn't find any logical flaws. "But how do you know? That somebody's your soul mate, I mean."
The way he looked at me, curious but at the same time intense, with a crinkle right in between his eyebrows, made me hold my breath. I don't know what it was about Conrad that one look made nothing else exist. Did everybody feel this way when it came to the person they loved?
"I don't know. I guess you just do," I said.
A wry smile crept across his face, breaking our moment. Just as quickly as it came, it was gone – vanished without a single trace, except for that lingering shiver in my spine.
"Well, that's not really much to go on, is it?"
I shrugged. "I'll let you know when it happens to me, then, okay?"
"Yeah," he said, turning back to the movie. "You should do that. Tell me when you think you've found your soul mate, Belly, and I'll do the same."
"Good." And then he glanced at me, briefly. "And don't forget, either."
I bit the inside of my lip, trying to get back into the movie, even though I had long forgotten what it was about. I knew that I could be eighty years old and never could have forgotten. I had a special compartment in my brain for all things Conrad, whether I liked it or not, and it wasn't the kind you could easily forget about. But I didn't tell him that. Instead I just leaned back and said, as casually as I could, "I'll try."
Thanks for reading! Next part coming soon!