Epilogue – Don't Stop Me Now
"Is it everything you'd dreamed it would be?"
I turn to shoot a look at Emmett, but my hair is everywhere. At first I tried to tame it, attempted to knot it at the base of my neck. The wind had other plans, though, so I just let it fly, let it go where it wanted to go.
I dance one hand through the air out of the window, pushing my hair against my neck with the other one so he can easily see my mock glare. "Are you making fun of me?"
"C'mon, would I ever make fun of you?" He squeezes my knee and winks before turning his attention back to the road.
"More questions with questions?" I ask, reaching over to play with the curls at the nape of his neck. My hair goes flying again, but I don't care. "And yes, actually, you would make fun of me. You make fun of me a lot."
"Nah, Hale. I make fun with you." He gives me one of his wide, beautifully dimpled smiles. "We're fun together."
I hum, nodding my head. "Nice save. And as a matter of fact, it is everything I dreamed it would be."
"Good. That's what I like to hear."
I smile and close my eyes, tilting my head to the sky. The classic rock station Emmett's playing is lining up a block of Queen. I let out a soft yes when I hear the beginning strains of what I consider to be my new personal anthem. The sun's rays warm my face and being here with him warms the rest of me; the moment is perfect, one that I know I'll look back on always. I wasn't exaggerating when I said this moment is everything I dreamed it would be. It's actually more. It's what I wanted before I was even aware I wanted it, even before I saw him driving down the street in the Jeep I'm sitting in now, with the top down, windows open, laughter seeping out.
I've been waiting all winter for this ride. Thanks to Washington's temperamental weather, this is the first time we've been able to take the top off, to really enjoy the bit of warmth the sun's giving us. It's fitting in a way, considering summer is about to start. It's the weekend before our last week of school. A first time sandwiched in between so many last times.
The back of Emmett's Jeep is packed with our things from the senior retreat, which just happened to land the night prior to the graduation party my parents planned. May and June have been non-stop in terms of events. Every weekend is crammed full of parties, every weekday wrapping up the special school events that make up the end of senior year. My camera is getting a work out, capturing images for both the paper and myself.
The Student Counsel and Honor Society joined forces in planning the senior retreat. We wound up booking the lodge on the outskirts of the rez, a big, hulking thing that's all wood and stone, surrounded by tall pine trees as far as the eye can see. The night was PG-13 fun, especially given that we had chaperons with us, but we were all surprisingly okay with that.
Everyone kept chanting "less sleep, more bonding" when anyone looked like they were going to pass out from exhaustion. I think we all secretly wanted to sit around and eat s'mores and tell ghost stories until the wee hours of the morning, clinging to our last days as kids, all of us together. Even if it was just for the night, we didn't want to rush into adulthood.
After all, it's knocking on our door pretty loudly.
The morning air had just lost its chill as Emmett and I were packing our stuff away to head home. But the sun was shining brightly overhead, the sky clear of the clouds that had hung over us for what felt like an entire year. It was the perfect day for our inaugural ride in the Jeep with the top off.
Emmett happily complied in doing the dirty work while I sat on a log railroad tie, watching him work and calling out directions on something I knew absolutely nothing about. Alice joined me at my perch to add her two cents while Jasper was tossing stuff into the back of his car (which he's sure is on its very last wheel).
"Did you have a good time last night, babe?" Emmett asks, breaking me out of my thoughts.
I stop singing under my breath, and my head lolls until I'm looking at him. He's completely relaxed behind the wheel; his hands resting on the bottom of it, a beat-up hat on his head and a soft smile tugging at his mouth. I lean over, resting my cheek against his shoulder. He smells like firewood and spice. It reminds me of the first night we hung out, takes me back and makes it feel like yesterday, even though it was nine months ago.
"Ask me again when I've had more than four hours of sleep," I say around a yawn.
He catches it and yawns, too, a jaw-cracking one that makes my eyes water. "Seriously, if I fall asleep in the middle of your party, you can't blame me."
I sit up, raising a pointed eyebrow. "I'm sure I can."
"You made us stay up all night, Hale."
"Actually," I drawl, "Alice made us stay up all night because she threatened to draw dicks on our faces if we fell asleep. Please get your facts straight."
"What she lacks in height, she makes up for in threats. She'll have to come up with ways to boss us around from her fancy fashion school."
"Hmm, New York's a pretty far reach."
"If anyone can do it, she can." He sighs with an affectionate grin, shaking his head. "I'll miss that one."
I don't have to say that I will, too. Even if it wasn't completely obvious by the tone of my voice, Emmett would know I'll have an extremely hard time saying goodbye to the four people I've grown extraordinarily close to over the past nine months, when the summer's over.
And it won't be easy to say goodbye to the people I've grown away from, either.
I guess I should have expected it. Edward warned me it would happen, and I think deep down I knew it would, but the gradual drifting between me, Jess and Lauren still took me by surprise. Maybe it was the gradual part of it that made it so surprising. It was okay at first - still different, but we all made an effort. They met me at my locker most mornings, and we did after-school shopping trips to Port Angeles occasionally. Emmett was game for hanging out with them whenever I asked, and we did the triple date thing a few times, which was fine, if not a little weird. For all of Lauren's promises to make "being nice" her resolution, and as much as she'd been there for me when Emmett's gram got sick, she didn't bend over backward to make Emmett feel included.
Even if that hadn't been the case, Mike and Tyler were still as tight as ever with Roy, whom I avoided whenever possible. So that meant lunchtime was spent at Emmett's table. It meant that I didn't go to Mike's parties on the weekends. It meant that instead, I went to another gathering that happened a few blocks away. And, as I'd discovered the first night I'd wandered into Edward's front yard last fall, that was where I really wanted to be. It was where I felt like I belonged.
After a few months, it wasn't just the place but the people I felt that sense of belonging with. I got to know Bella, Alice, Jasper and even Edward in a different way, got to see all of the big and little things that made them who they are. They turned into these people who know I snort when I laugh (Bella does a dead-on impression), who make fun of my passionate rendition of "Don't Stop Me Now" whenever I hear it, and that, given the opportunity, I'll eat Gummi Worms until I'm sick. They turned into people who weren't just Emmett's best friends anymore. That change was just as gradual, the way they became fixtures in my life.
I think I knew, when I saw Jess and Lauren at the diner one night with their respective boyfriends, along with Roy and Vera, that maybe sometimes you just can't fully bridge the gap once it's there, even if you wish you could.
I still see them, but it's less frequent and more uncomfortable. I invited them to my party today, but I have no idea whether they'll make it, seeing as how neither of them RSVPed (not a surprise - both of them have always had a penchant for just showing up). I didn't even see them much at the retreat last night, just got glimpses of them every once in a while.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
I look over at Emmett with a wry smile. He raises a questioning eyebrow. "Just a penny?"
"Isn't that how the saying goes?"
"Yeah, but it's a totally outdated saying, McCarty. You have to account for inflation." He laughs, the sweet, deep one that kind of lilts at the end, and I stick my bottom lip out. "You wound me with the insinuation that my thoughts are only worth a penny."
"So sensitive, babe. I'm fully aware those thoughts are Stanford-grade." He says this teasingly, but also with a note of pride in his voice. I wrinkle my nose and his grin gets bigger.
Stanford. Also known as the school I'll be attending come fall. Also known as the school that resides in Palo Alto, California, which happens to be nearly a thousand miles from where Emmett will be in the fall. Despite his gram's insistence that he apply to a university, he'll be going to Peninsula College (which is where I ended up taking a photography course on Saturdays, after Bingo). Her health has been stable since her accident this past fall, and a day nurse helps with her care, but Emmett doesn't want to take a chance. He doesn't want to be far away from her.
I get it, of course, and support it, but that distance looms over us. We've discussed it ad nauseum and have a plan - monthly trips home for me, trips to California for him when he can save up enough money, phone, Skype, emails, homing pigeon - but there's still a sense of uncertainty that creeps into the rock-solid knowledge that Emmett and I are going to make this long-distance thing work for us.
Emmett sighs next to me, squeezing my thigh. "Stop thinking about it."
"I'm not thinking about it," I lie.
He turns off the road suddenly and pulls into a parking lot pocked with potholes that jostle me in my seat. I smell the rich scent of coffee before I see the little coffeehouse in front of us and sigh, annoyed and grateful that he knows me well enough to realize I need caffeine to shake off my grumpiness. It's another thing that's changed this year. After a few late nights and long mornings working on senior projects, coffee and I are now best friends forever.
Thankfully, Emmett is understanding of our relationship.
He pulls into the only empty spot at the end of a row of cars, putting the car in park and turning off the ignition before shifting in his seat so that he's facing me.
"You are thinking about it. You're doing that thing with your face."
I glare over at him. "What thing with my face? And be very careful with your answer."
"That thing where your forehead wrinkles up and your eyes get all narrow," he replies, leaning toward me. He traces my bottom lip, and then taps it gently. "And your lips get all pouty."
I grumble under my breath, but say nothing.
He ducks his head down until our eyes are locked. His are a bright, beautiful blue, so serious and earnest, but still crinkled a little at the corners. "We're going to be fine, Ro. Seriously. Do you think there's any way I'm letting you go?"
I know his question is rhetorical, but I shake my head anyway. We've had this discussion more than a few times and I've tried to adopt his easy-going attitude, the one that I coveted before I even knew him, but there are some things are more ingrained than others. Still, if there's anything I've learned this year, it's that I have to try. I can't find out any other way.
"Come on, babe. Let's go get you some iced, Splenda-ed skim coffee. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll even have whipped cream."
My pout disappears as he jumps out of the Jeep and makes his way to my side to help me out. As soon as my feet hit the dirt parking lot, his arms are around me. Our foreheads rest against each other and I say, "You're really too good to me."
He murmurs, "Nothing but the best," before our lips meet and I forget about the worry, about the future, about the what ifs and the maybes, and just live for this very moment.
"How could we have been so wrong, you guys?" Jasper sighs, as I sneak up between him and Emmett. They're standing on the lawn in a loose circle with Edward, Bella and Alice, not far from the present table with all of my now-opened gifts. I've been trying to get back to them for the better part of the past twenty minutes, but my parents have been parading me around the backyard to chat with their friends. Guest of honor and all that.
"I don't know. I was sure I guessed right," Edward replies, shaking his head mournfully.
"What are you guys talking about?" I ask, nudging Emmett's hip with mine, which, in the wedge heels I'm wearing, is much more reachable than usual.
He winds his arm around my waist and pulls me close, placing a kiss on my temple. "We had a friendly wager going about what your parents were going to get you for your grad present."
Bella and Alice both roll their eyes. I smile when I think of the $500 worth of Continental ticket vouchers they got me, then raise an eyebrow at Edward, Jasper and Emmett.
"And?" I prompt when no one speaks up. Edward is smirking from behind the fist pressed against his mouth. Jasper blinks solemnly and looks past me to Emmett.
"A pony," Emmett says matter-of-factly.
"Oh, for god's sake," I mutter. I can already see where this is going. I turn to Jasper. "And you?"
"A small island." Alice stares up at him and his eyes widen innocently. It's a little lost with the shit-eating grin that pulls across his mouth, though. "What? I said small. God only knows what these rich bastards get each other."
"Right, because that's realistic. I love you, you simple, simple man," Alice replies, patting him on the back. His shirt says "I Came To Dance." I'll have to remember to ask Bella and Edward to text me pictures of his t-shirts every day, once they get to UW. Or at least the really good ones.
Jasper shrugs. "I prefer creative."
She grins and reaches up on her tiptoes to kiss him. He lets her struggle to close the distance, but just for a second before swooping down and planting a kiss squarely and noisily on her lips.
God, I'm going to miss them.
I swallow the lump forming in my throat and turn to Edward. "And what did you say, Cullen?"
"Well, I'm a practical man. Realistic, if you will. I guessed the elder Hales would give you a crown, since you're their little princess." Edward gives me a good-natured wink to let me know he's teasing, but I reach out and punch him in the arm anyway.
"And I mentioned that you already have a crown, Homecoming Queen," Jasper replies. "Too bad you didn't get to double up with the Prom win."
I hold up a hand. "Trust me, Jess appreciated the crown more than I ever could have. Mine is gathering dust in my closet somewhere."
"Prom was fun anyway, wasn't it?" Emmett whispers in my ear. I can feel his smile against my skin and I nod with a grin.
"Prom was very fun."
It was, and not just because I got to dance with Emmett to cheesy top 40 love songs and drink Tyler's spiked punch. By some Saint Prom miracle, my parents allowed me to stay the night at the hotel the dance was held at. It probably helped that said hotel was in Port Angeles and they didn't want us out on the roads late at night. It probably also helped that I promised I was sharing a room with Bella and Alice, which was a total lie, although our rooms were on the same floor. Still, I wonder if deep down they knew and turned a blind eye, knowing Emmett and I are going to be separated soon enough.
"They're talking about sex, aren't they?" Jasper asks with a grimace.
Edward nods. "Totally."
"Scandalous," Alice gasps.
Bella covers her ears. "Ugh, my virtue, you guys!"
"Oh, hey, Emmett, is there a pot here?" I ask, looking around me in mock confusion.
Emmett purses his lips, unconsciously pulling at the collar of the polo shirt I'm sure his gram made him wear. She's sitting on the patio, talking to Carlisle and Esme, thankfully nowhere within earshot of this conversation. "I'm not sure, but there's definitely a ket-"
"Rosalie Lillian Hale, how the hell are ya?" A voice calls out, effectively cutting Emmett off.
I turn to see Jess traipsing across the lawn, wearing one of her signature short dresses. She's surprisingly nimble for walking in heels and carrying Eric, to whom she is making kissy faces while speaking in a baby voice. Mike trails behind, carrying her purse and a wrapped present.
My gaze shifts beyond them, where Lauren and Tyler are not. When I meet Jess's eyes, I know she's caught it. She gives me a slight shake of her head and the momentary slip of her smile tells me that they aren't coming.
"Sick," she mouths, and then mimes a telephone. "She'll call."
I shrug with a little smile, determined to move on even though I feel a little flash of disappointment. Rather than focusing on what's not, I need to focus on what is.
"I see you're full naming again, Jessica Alison Stanley," I reply when she gets close enough that I don't have to bellow at her.
"You know how I do," she says, shrugging her shoulders and swaying her hips with a cheeky smile.
There's one thing that she's not doing: calling me Posie. I haven't heard it from them, except for occasionally, in the past few months. That's something that was gradual, too. Now I'm mostly called Ro. The group of friends surrounding me used it enough around other people to make it stick. The Posie aspect of my personality isn't something that's completely gone, though, which is okay, too. She shows up when I see shoes I can't live without, or when I'm irrationally pissy about something. She's a part of me, even if it's a significantly smaller part. I can't help but wonder what I'll wind up going by at Stanford, but I know that whatever it is, it's more about my personality than my name.
Jess and Mike reach us and she pulls me in for a quick hug before grabbing the present from Mike with her free hand. Her eyes scan the group and she smiles, a little unsure. "Hey, guys. Sorry to interrupt."
"Your timing was perfect," Bella replies, grinning slyly at me and Emmett.
Mike slings Jess's purse over his shoulder, cocking a hip. "So, what do you think? Dooney and Bourke should hire me to model, right?"
"Red is definitely your color, man," Emmett says, and gives him some complicated guy handshake. Say what you will about girls going to the bathroom in groups, I personally will never understand the handshakes.
Jess thrusts her gift at me. "You don't have to open it now, but it looks like you've opened all of your other ones, so if you want to..." she trails off uncertainly.
I run my finger along the perfectly folded paper; it's beautiful - purple with a subtle swirling pattern. I almost don't want to open it. "No, of course I'll open it now."
And when I do and I see what it is, I look back up at Jess, whose cheeks have gone pink. She looks even more unsure now, like she thinks it's wrong. But it's perfect. I cradle the photo album with one arm, running my hand over the butter-soft red leather, down to the "R" embossed in the right-hand corner.
"It's handmade. I ordered it on Etsy, actually," Jess says, throwing Alice a smile. She beams back. "And the pages are acid-free, which is supposed to be good for the photos or something."
I hug her tightly and then press the album to my chest, my eyes burning. "It's perfect. Thank you so much." She shrugs, but her smile is wide and relieved. When I look at Mike, I see that his is, too, although his gaze is directed at Jess. "I'm going to go put this in a safe spot."
I walk over to the present table, letting the conversation ebb and flow around me, cocooning me. I place the album next to a small stack of my other favorite gifts: the beautiful, delicate necklace Edward, Bella, Alice and Jasper all went in on, with a charm shaped like an old-fashioned camera hanging off the end of it; the funky fingerless gloves Alice knitted me ("as a statement piece only. No one actually needs gloves in California"); the beautiful vintage broach Gram gave me from her own collection, shaped like a rose. And, of course, Emmett's gift: the picture of us from the night of Homecoming, housed in a rose-gold frame that Bella and Alice must have helped him pick out, because it's stunning. Perfect in a way that even Emmett, amazing boyfriend that he is, couldn't have chosen.
I pick up my Nikon, nestled in just behind the pile of gifts. The neck straps goes over my head and I pull my hair, which I wore loose and straight, out from under it. The strap settles against my skin, comforting with its familiar weight.
When I turn back around, my friends are all standing a few feet away, talking and laughing. I step back and raise the camera to my eye, peering through the viewfinder. My finger finds the shutter release button blindly, settles in as I find the perfect shot. It's not hard; there are so many to choose from: Edward and Jasper bumping fists; Bella with her arm slung around Alice's shoulders, her cheek pressed against Alice's hair; Jess smacking Emmett's arm, her mouth open in a wide laugh. I look past them to my parents, who have joined Esme and Carlisle on the porch with Emmett's gram. She's seated next to my dad, her hands waving in the air animatedly. My mom is standing next to them, her hand resting on my dad's shoulder, a smile playing on her lips.
I take pictures of the sun filtering through the trees lining the backyard, too, because I want to remember them when I've gone. I want to remember the people, this place, what everything looks like right now, because I know this will be something I want to hold on to. These are the memories I want to capture.
And I know these will be the photos I place in the first pages of my album.
When I finally slide back into the spot next to Emmett, he looks first at my camera and then at me. I smile, closing my eyes as he leans down and places a kiss on the slope of my cheekbone.
"Happy?" he murmurs in my ear.
"So very," I confirm, looking up at him. He grins the soft smile I love best, with deep dimples and bright blue eyes.
After a few minutes, I see my mom step out onto the patio from the French doors that lead to the kitchen, carefully balancing a red and white cake. They're Stanford's colors, of course; they couldn't be prouder. In fact, my mom has already ordered some Stanford garb, including matching sweatshirts for her and my dad. I'm pretty sure it's the first sweatshirt she's owned in her life. They're so excited for this next part of my life to start, and I know it isn't just because I'm attending one of the best universities in the nation (although that definitely helps). I'm not surprised that the excitement has bled into the cake's decor.
"Oh, cake time!" Bella claps her hands and starts herding us toward the patio with everyone else. Nothing gets people moving like the promise of dessert, apparently.
I look sideways at Emmett, and he grins wickedly. "Don't say it," I warn, holding my hand up. He affects an innocent look, grabbing my hand and kissing my knuckles.
"Don't say what?" Jasper asks as he saunters next to us.
"I was just wondering if we're going to sing 'For She's a Jolly Good Fellow' or something," Emmett answers, squeezing my hand. I squeeze his back. There are still a few things that we can keep between us, like my texting faux pas from the beginning of the year. "I mean, what are you supposed to do for a graduation cake?"
Bella chimes in, "You could always do the ol' icing on the nose for good luck. I think that works with any type of cake, not just birthdays."
"Icing on the nose?" Jess asks, wrinkling her own. "What's that about?"
"Don't tell me you don't know about this time-honored tradition," Bella says, ditching Edward so she can walk next to Jess and explain the reasoning and logic. I hear Jess say "That's brilliant," which doesn't surprise me in the slightest. That type of thing is right up her alley. I'm sure she'll be adopting it, if for no other reason than it'll give her an excuse to smear people with icing.
My dad is beckoning to me from the table set up especially for the cake, with a proud father smile and impatient "hurry, hurry" hand motions. I hustle over to him, giving Emmett's hand a squeeze before I disengage, and go to stand between my parents. My mom wraps an arm around my waist.
"We're so proud of you, Rose," she says, beaming.
I'm proud, too. I've never felt truer than I do right now standing here. Last fall feels like a lifetime ago, and in a way, it was. I've come so far, and I know this is just the beginning.
"All right, show us what you've got," Dad says, picking up a knife and handing it to me. I take a deep breath and appraise the cake. It's huge, way too big for the amount of people we have to feed, although I know the boys do everything they can to put a major dent in it.
It occurs to me, as the knife hovers over one corner of it, that my future school's colors are the same as my past school's. It feels significant somehow, a reminder that, even in the midst of change, you can find familiar in the new.
I lift the knife and make the first cut into the cake, purposefully. Diagonally.
Mom speaks up. "Uh, sweetheart? What are you doing?"
There's a soft snort from across the table and I know who it is before I even make eye contact. Bella is smiling and when I meet Edward's gaze, he is, too. I look at Alice and Jasper, who gives me a surreptitious thumbs up. And then Emmett. He nods and grins, knowing what I'm going to do, what I'm going to say.
And so I smile, cutting into the cake again. "Whatever I want."
We've loved writing this story, especially because it was with each other, and loved sharing it with all of you. The amount of appreciation we have for you wonderful readers is vast. Like, Grand Canyon big. Huge. We'd love to hear from you one last time so that we can thank you one-on-one, but for those of you who we don't get to talk to, thank you so much.
Val, JD and Jan, we love you. That's the beginning and the end of it. Thank you doesn't even begin to cover it.
We believe that everything happens for a reason. While I (Mer) was at a craft fair today (supporting the local artisans), there was a booth for a Yorkie Rescue. If you're in the market for a dog, consider rescue, please. Check out saveayorkierescue(dot)org if you want an "Eric" to keep you company.
We'll be posting a future take on Wednesday as a separate story, so if you don't have us on author alert and want to read that, alert us! After that, we're going to close this chapter (pun!) of our writing lives and move on to other things.
Take care, dear friends!
PS - I love you, Snooder.
PPS - I love you, too, Snood.