A/N: Officially in the home-stretch! This is the last chapter! Thanks for reading, everyone! I'm re-posting this chapter - I wasn't satisfied with the shortness of it, originally, so I added some stuff in.
- Part Eight -
After the ceremony, we all went out to eat. I took them to the Golden Cricket, where Steven ended up devouring one plate of duck and another of crispy noodle all by himself. I noticed that my mom was smiling and laughing a lot more, and I wondered if she'd known that Conrad was going to come – or if he had surprised her, too. Even Steven seemed like he'd had no idea. He kept giving Conrad man-hugs, or claps on the back, telling him how good it was to see him.
"Seriously, though, Con," Steven said, shoveling fried rice into his mouth. "How'd you get a ticket?"
My mom, Steven, and I all looked at Conrad. My dad, who wasn't as in the loop as the rest of my family, was busy scraping more chow mein onto his plate.
"I mean," Steven said, "you don't just buy grad tickets at the gate. You get them ahead of time."
My mom dabbed her lips with a napkin, and I could have sworn I saw her try to hide a smile.
Conrad shrugged, putting down his glass. "I got lucky," was all he said.
Steven nodded, but winked at him. Then he turned to my mom and asked her to pass the chicken.
"Steven, the amount of food you're eating could feed a small village in Africa," I said. In front of me, Conrad chuckled. "For a week."
"What? I didn't eat breakfast this morning," he said. "Plus, Sash's got me on this diet thing with her. I haven't had Chinese food in, like, three months."
"A diet? Steven Conklin," I said, smirking, "I do believe you are whipped."
This time, my mom laughed. So was Conrad, bowing his head down, his body shaking with laughter.
He rolled his eyes at me. "Shut up, Belly. It might be your big graduation day, but I'll still give you a noogie," he said. And then he winked at me. Steven had never winked this much before. Maybe it was something he had picked up from his boss, Adam Greenfeld.
After lunch, my mom invited everybody over to the house for drinks, especially Conrad. I silently watched her as she hugged him in the parking lot. She hugged him for a long time, the way a mom hugs a son she hasn't seen in years.
"Are you sure you don't want to come back to the house with us?" she said, when she pulled back. She looked him straight in the eyes.
"Maybe I'll swing by a little later," he said. "It's good seeing you, Laure."
The way Conrad said this, I knew he meant it. He had that kind of tenderness in his voice, and it was also on his face. When Conrad Fisher really meant something, you knew it, because you could not only see it – but you could feel it, too.
She nodded, letting her arms fall to her side. She began to walk to her car. "Don't be a stranger, Conrad. I mean it."
Conrad had only parked one spot away from mine, so I watched him as he and Steven gave each other a man-hug, clapping each other on the back. I heard Steven tell him that it was good to see him, and that they should hang out whenever Conrad was down here and he was free. "I'm part of a paintball team now," Steven said proudly. "And on the weekends, I play golf with the big boss man. But I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you joined us one weekend."
And then Steven leaned in and said something inaudible to him. Conrad nodded and smiled a little, before Steven started walking towards my mom's car.
"See ya, Bells!" he called out to me. "Catch you at the house!"
I nodded at him, before turning back at Conrad. He was still standing there, looking at me. I rested my keys on my car, before approaching him. Just being near him made me dizzy – dizzy with wonder, with hope, with pure emotion. And the way he looked at me – the way he had looked at me the entire day, even through lunch and the ceremony. Like we were the only two people in the room.
"It was nice seeing you," I said to him, smiling. I kept my hands to my sides. "Thanks for coming."
His face was so close to mine. If I just leaned in a little, we could be kissing. But I didn't. Instead I just watched him as he looked at me, before his eyes wandered down to my neck, where they lingered for a moment, before traveling back to my face.
"The necklace," he said. "It looks good on you."
I touched it with my fingers. "Thanks." I began to back away, smiling the best smile I could. It felt strained against my face. "I'll see you around," I said, and he nodded, before I turned around and headed back to my car. I waited to see his car drive out of the lot first. Then I drove.
Maybe it was true, what they said about love making you crazy. Love by itself is chaotic and impulsive and reckless. But when a person loves someone, they make decisions, even if those decisions feel like they had to have been made by themselves. Decisions don't make themselves. People do. You can decide to give in, or you can decide to pull away.
I was halfway to the house when I suddenly found myself making a U-Turn. I didn't even realize it was something I had decided until I heard the screech of my tires and a honk from car coming opposite of me, and I was turning around.
These were the moments when I surprised even myself, where the action actually came before the deliberating and deciding. But maybe I had decided. Maybe I'd decided the moment I saw him there, in the crowd, at my graduation. Because it had to mean something, and I was sure it did. Conrad Fisher did not just show up just to show up. Conrad Fisher believed in gestures. And I knew, from the very first letter I had received from him in Spain, that he had been trying to prove that to me all along.
I didn't know whether Conrad was really going to be stopping by the house later, like he'd told my mom. But I couldn't take my chances, and I knew exactly where he was staying.
I just hoped he stayed long enough for me to catch him.
Three weeks after Jeremiah's and my almost-wedding, Steven surprised me with a visit. I knew it had to be a big deal because Steven hardly ever visited me. Every now and then he would call, but that was reserved for special occasions, like planning Mom's birthday, or to ask what size shirt Dad wore now.
When I opened the door, he was standing there with a box of donuts. It was a baby blue box, and I knew that it could only mean one thing: he had gotten it from my favorite donut shop from back home, Stella's. They made the best jelly-filled donuts, covered in powdered sugar. Those were my favorite, because they were the sweetest.
"Look what I brought," he said, smiling. "Just for you, Jelly Belly."
He brought the box in and set it on the kitchen counter, looking around. I thanked him, and opened the box. Three were missing.
"I got hungry on the drive here," he explained, not the least bit apologetic.
I picked up one covered in powdered sugar. On the side I could see were the jelly was almost seeping out. "So, what are you doing here?"
"Mom sent me," he said. He picked up a glazed donut from the box and bit into it. I never knew why I got so much grief for loving sweets – Steven was just as bad, if not worse. "But don't be fooled. The donuts were my idea." He chewed his donut, still looking around. "Hey, this is a nice apartment. Nice location, too. The elevator is always stuck at my apartment complex, but yours works nice and smooth."
I studied him. "Why did Mom send you?"
"Just to see how you are," he said, shrugging. "It's like all three of you dropped off the face of the planet. You, Jere, Con – we haven't heard from any of you. Con, especially. It's like he just disappeared. Mom didn't say so, but she's worried. You know how she is. Warrior Face and all."
And then he looked at me, all serious. Which it shouldn't have been, because Steven had some glaze on the tip of his nose. "So. How are you?"
"I'm fine," I said. I wiped some powdered sugar from my mouth. "I don't know why Mom is so worried about me. I just talked to her last week."
Steven was quiet. "Have you heard anything? From either of them?"
"No," I said, trying to sound matter-of-factly, but my voice fell flat, and dull. "Nothing."
He nodded. "I knew, you know. About Conrad. Especially when he started getting all moody that one summer – even though I wasn't there for all of it, I knew. But what do you do? You can't say anything. You can't even let on that you know. Could you blame me, Belly? I just wanted things to stay the same. The way things were changing. . . it meant we were growing up, and it meant that sooner or later. . ." he trailed off. He bit into his donut again.
I shook my head. "Nothing about what happened was your fault, Steven."
He looked at me. "Do you remember that day you swam out too far, and Conrad went to get you?"
"I had no idea he was going to go in after you. I mean, Mom was screaming at me – nobody even had their eyes on Conrad. And then suddenly, he was already in the water. I was relieved, because I didn't know if I could swim out to you and come back, but I hated him, too. I don't know why. And then later on I realized why it had to be Conrad. It just always was, for some reason. You didn't even have to ask him, he just did it."
I didn't realize I'd stopped eating my donut. The strawberry jelly was oozing out on to my hand.
"And then you guys went to prom, and things were different." He paused. "He was different."
I looked away. I tried not to think of my prom. It was ancient history buried away in my memory box. Even now, when I remembered that night, I felt hurt and disappointed, and I hated him for ruining it for me. Because that was what he did. He dressed it up, all nice and pretty, and then he stepped all over it.
"All of that's in the past," I said to Steven. "When you think about it, it really doesn't have anything to do with the future."
Just because you thought you were meant for someone didn't actually mean you were going to be with them, in the end. Look at me and Conrad. Look at me and Jeremiah.
He shook his head. "Maybe they're MIA for now, but we grew up together, and they both love you." He stood up, brushing his hands off on his jeans. "You'll see them again. Maybe soon."
That's when he said he had to head home – but not before taking another donut. "For the ride back," he said, grinning at me in that impish way he did.
"You keep eating that way, and no girl's going to want you," I called out to him.
"Speak for yourself," he said back to me. "Don't think I saw that carton of rocky road ice cream in the trashcan!"
Old Belly, kid Belly, would have stamped her feet and called Steven mean. But I just stood in the door way, waving back when he did, smiling to myself. Sometimes I forgot that Steven had a different perspective than all of us, an eagle's eye view of the mess that was me, Jeremiah, and Conrad. I had always thought that Steven was just oblivious – or he didn't care. I knew better now. I was glad he was there.
When I finally got to the summer house, his car wasn't in the driveway like I thought it would be. I sat in my car for a second, trying to figure out what to do. Had he really just come and gone, just like that?
I went up the wooden steps, using the spare key from underneath the loose plank in the corner. I called his name as I entered the house, but there was no response. Everything was perfectly neat, as if not a single soul had even ghosted by in the last few months. There wasn't even any trace of sand trailed inside the house. As I looked, even running up the stairs to see if he was in his room, I felt my eyes get hot and my vision get blurry. My chest tightened with disappointment and regret. I let my breath out in one shallow, jagged exhale.
There was nobody in the summer house but me. Conrad was gone, and I had let him slip away.
Suddenly, I found myself shoving the sliding door open. I walked out, awkwardly trying to unbuckle my heels while carelessly wiping my tears away with the back of my hand. When I finally got my feet free, I left my shoes in the sand. Then I ran.
I ran down the shore, towards the ocean. I could feel the sand giving way underneath my feet, and smell that salty ocean smell, and hear the gentle movement of the waves. I ran so that I wouldn't collapse, because if I stopped, I knew I would. I knew that if I could just make it to the water, I would be fine. If I could just get far enough to swim, I wouldn't crumble.
Before I got to the water, I stopped to get myself out of my dress. I unzipped the back and stepped out of it, leaving it in the sand. I thought I heard something, a voice, but by that time I had already dove into the water. I pushed myself forward, using my arms and legs, holding my breath until my lungs felt like they were on the brink of bursting. That was when I broke my head above the water, but I didn't stop. I kept swimming.
I hadn't swum in so long, and it was liberating in a way that nothing else could be. Once I started swimming, I felt as if I could never stop. Like I could swim forever, until I reached the other end of the ocean – until I had to stop, or I would die.
Nothing mattered when I swam. There was no Conrad, Susannah wasn't dead, Jeremiah didn't hate our guts – nothing bad existed there. When I swam, all that mattered was moving forward, constantly. Things were that simple. The real world was complicated. Full of mixed messages and cruel words and disappointment – things that sank you down in the water, like a coat of chains, instead of moved you through it.
I didn't realize that somebody was calling my name, until they got close enough that I couldn't mistake it as anything else. By then, I was in the middle of the ocean. The shore was so far away, and I could feel the exhaustion start to catch up to my body. The only time I had ever swam out this far was when I was younger, and Conrad had to come and get me to bring me back to shore.
That's when I saw him, swimming towards me. He wasn't far away at all, and that's how I knew he had been swimming after me for a while. Maybe even since the beginning.
When he was close enough, I yelled out to him. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. Because I had looked everywhere, and he hadn't been there at all. Not at the house, not anywhere. Just gone.
"I saw you," he said. He stopped when there was still some distance between us. He was breathing hard. "So I went after you."
"You didn't have to," I said to him. In front of us, the sun was starting to set. Even in the freezing water, I felt my face get hot. "I was just swimming. It wasn't like I was going to do something stupid."
He shook his head. "I came," he said, his eyes looking stormy and blue just like the water around us, "because I told you I would."
I closed my mouth, just looking at him. I didn't know what to say. His hair was dark from the water, sticking to his forehead in clumps, and the wind made us both momentarily shiver. In the far distance, I could see the pile where he had left his clothes on the beach.
"I love you," he said.
I felt my heart swell. I dazedly shook my head. "That's not enough."
"I know. I know that, Belly. That's why I showed up today, and the other day, all those months ago, when we saw each other here. Why I started writing you those letters. I wanted to do it right, this time. I wanted to finally deserve you – because I didn't back then. I didn't, and I knew it, and I think you did, too. Even Jeremiah did."
I swallowed hard, feeling the water move us along gently. I watched him, and the way he was looking at me – desperate, honest, vulnerable. He'd looked at me this way once before, on this same beach, and I had turned away. It wasn't a question of whether he meant what he said. It was a question of whether he would keep his word. It was easy to make a promise; difficult to keep it.
"How do I know?" I asked him, my throat hoarse. "How do I know you won't just leave again?"
Somehow, some way, the tide had brought us closer together. I could see the beads of saltwater on his face now, the strands of blond hair clinging to the nape of his neck. I could even see where he had cut himself shaving this morning, a tiny healing cut along the curvature of his jaw. I wanted to run my finger against it, to feel that it was real. That he was real, and here, with me.
"I'm not that guy anymore, Belly. The guy who ran away when things got too serious, or too hard, when everybody needed him the most," he said. "That's not me. It hasn't been for a long time now." His Adam's apple moved inside the skin of his throat, and he looked inside my eyes imploringly. "I need you to know that."
I blinked, before I closed my eyes. The air was getting colder around us. Inside my chest, my heart was responding to every single word he was saying without pause. It was saying, Take him back, with every beat. Take him back. Take him back. Take him back.
"Conrad, you live in California now," I said, my voice barely a whisper. "It would never work with us."
"Come with me," he said, and he was closer now, closer than before. "Belly, I'm asking you to be with me. Come with me to California. If you hate it, you can leave. You can come back here." His eyes searched mine. I hadn't realized that I had started holding my breath. "But at least try, with me. Please."
My head felt dizzy with the barrage of thoughts that erupted from what he was asking, but I only saw him. Conrad Fisher, here in the middle of the ocean with me, asking me to come with him to California. And yet all I could think about was that day, the day he swam after me all of those years ago, the way he panted the entire way as he swam me back to shore, telling me that we were almost there. And I believed him, because he was Conrad. He was my Conrad.
I felt a smile steal across my face, and this seemed to surprise him for a second. I looked towards the shore, and then behind us, to the sunset. The sky glowed tangerine and pink, making Conrad's skin blush.
"I'll race you for it," I said to him. "To the shore. If you win, then I'll go with you. To California. And if I win. . . you have to do an Irish jig for me."
I didn't wait for his answer. I had already pulled myself underwater and started to swim.
Conrad didn't call me after our fight that night out on the hood of his car, while we had been playing Truth or Dare and eating Trail Mix. I waited, and waited, but he never called. I would stare at his name in my cell phone address book as I waited to fall asleep, tempted to call him just to yell at him, but I never did. I wanted him to see that I was grown up.
It was on a Friday night. I'd been invited to a party with Taylor but I backed out, telling her that I had some work to make up for history. That wasn't true. I had one of the highest grades in history. I just wanted to sulk and watch Pretty in Pink and eat the donuts my mom had brought me from Stella's.
My mom was out at a colleague's birthday party, and I was all alone. I was sitting in my room, eating my second powdered jelly-filled donut, right in the middle of when Andie and Blaine were about to meet again at the prom – when I heard it. Faintly, at first. So faintly that I thought that it was coming from the movie. But then it got louder, and I couldn't mistake it. It sounded like Irish music. Bagpipes. Lots and lots of bagpipes.
I paused the movie and went over to my window, lifting it up to see what was going on outside. We had an Irish neighbor, but not once had I ever heard of him having a party and playing Irish bagpipe music. And that's when I saw him. Conrad, standing in my yard. The windows to his car were rolled down, and that's where the music was coming from.
When he saw me, he raised up something he was holding. It was the biggest bag of Trail Mix I had ever seen, the kind that my mom bought for long trips from Costco.
"I think," he called out to me, "I owe you a do-over."
He got there before I did, exhausted and freezing, but smiling from his victory. I stood up, walking over to him, with jelly knees. Conrad had always been a faster swimmer than me, and I knew that. Even if I had been on the swim team in high school.
When I reached him, he cupped my face in his hand, and kissed me, slow and deep. His lips were cold and salty, but I didn't mind, because when he kissed me, every single molecule inside my body sang. And nobody, not even Jeremiah, kissed me the way Conrad did. He kissed me like he could kiss me forever, without tire. Like I was the only girl he ever wanted to kiss. Like I was his Belly. Belly Conklin, the girl from the summer house. The only girl that he had ever taught to dance. The only girl that ever knew how to make Conrad Fisher laugh, and forget. The girl who loved him with everything she had. Past, present, future. Always.
Some love stories end with people riding off into the sunset. But Conrad and I, we were born in the water, underneath the gold summer sun. We swam off into it.