A few months had passed. I had zero contact with anyone in Arizona anymore, but that was my choice. Garrett and Julia had called me a few times, as well as Austin and Halvo. Brayden called me every single day for the first month, but he since stopped. My voice mailbox was full and I had no intentions of ever cleaning it out. I had only listened to a few voicemails at first; then I just let it go. It wasn't going to help me get over anything. It wasn't going to make my father want to get to know me. My life had gone back to normal. I started school at the University of Washington and took a job at a café that was within walking distance of my very own apartment. I still visited my grandmother every single day, but I couldn't live with her anymore. I would never get used to being in that house without my mother's presence. I don't think my grandmother would either, but she tends to handle things more gracefully than I do. I may not have done the right thing by running away from Arizona and everything that I had there, but I have never regretted it a single day. Don't get me wrong; I did miss the people there. They were always there for me and they all did their best to help my mother's plans unfold, but the plan was a bust. The way things ended aren't how my mother had planned, of that I was sure.
It was midterms week and I was trying my hardest to balance studying with work. I didn't have much of a social life to throw into the balancing act, but I was glad. That was one less thing I would have to handle. I had my Literature book balanced on the bar so that I could read in between checking on my tables. The container of coffer to my right was the only thing keeping my brain working and my muscles moving. I couldn't remember the last time I slept. My shift was over in a few minutes and as soon as my tables left, I was free to go, and I had an intense date later with the library.
As soon as my last table left, I cashed out with my manager and grabbed my book, darting out into the crisp fall air. I started walking to the direction of the library when I accidentally bumped into someone. "Sorry," I muttered, looking up to see who it was and my heart stopped.
"You're fine," the person said and kept walking. I watched as someone who looked like Joel Kanitz walked away. It must not have been him because he kept walking. I shook my head and continued on my way. I passed someone reading a newspaper on a bench who looked just like Andrew Cook, but he glanced at me and kept reading. I shook my head again and kept making my way to the library. I suppose my mind was telling me that I missed Arizona more than I let myself believe. I turned the block and did a double take when I thought I saw Julia and Garrett.
"This is ridiculous," I muttered to myself. "They aren't here, stop thinking they are."
"Who isn't here?" someone to my right asked. I instantly recognized the voice and would be lying if I said that it didn't make me even the slightest bit happy.
"Gibbs?" I asked, finally allowing myself to turn my head a few inches to look. He threw his arm over my shoulder and started leading me in the opposite way of the library.
"You know, I've always liked Seattle in the fall. Something about the temperature just rubs me in all the right ways."
"What are you doing here? So I actually did bump into Joel? And I saw Andrew reading a paper and I saw Julia and Garrett crossing the street?"
"What are you talking about?" he asked with a smile. I rolled my eyes and stopped walking.
"Seriously, what are you doing here?"
"Look Carolina, we know what that what happened to Rusty-"
"Justin," I corrected him and he rolled his eyes.
"We know that what happened with Justin wasn't how you wanted it to go down, but that didn't mean that you had to leave so fast. You didn't even say goodbye to all of us."
"All of you?" I asked, suddenly looking to my left to see a huddled mass of faces that I knew so well, crowding the sidewalk. Faces that I had missed more than I let myself admit.
"All of us," Peyton said, wrapping her arm around Kennedy, who was grinning from ear to ear.
"Oh my god," I breathed, allowing a smile to settle on my face.
"It took a few days and a few planes, but here we are," Nick said, stepping forward to grip me in a hug that was more of a death grip.
"God, I was not expecting this," I finally said, stepping forward to start giving everyone hugs. I made my way through the crowd, laughing and smiling with everyone who made the trip to come see me. I finally made my way to the back, where Julia and Garrett were waiting.
"I'm so sorry with how I left things," I started, awkwardly tugging on my hands. I didn't know what to do with them. "I never meant to hurt you guys. Any of you," I said looking at everyone else. "I just thought maybe my life would be better going back to normal."
"Sweetie, we understand. It's okay, we completely understand." Julia said, placing her hand on my cheek and looking into my eyes. "We were all selfish and wanted you to stay there forever. I also think that you should know something," she continued, dropping her hand from my face.
"What is it?" I asked, looking from Julia to Garrett.
"It was us who told Brayden to lie to you. Before you even came, that was the game plan. We weren't expecting you and Brayden to start dating or anything like that. We told all of the kids to do that because we didn't trust them not to ruin everything. So we ask that you stop punishing him for something we told him to do."
I bit my lip and let out a sigh. I nodded and shrugged my shoulders.
"Well, tell him that I am sorry things ended the way they did. God, I was so hard on him, wasn't I?"
"You should tell him yourself," they said, separating to reveal Brayden, who I assume had been there the whole time. Before I could even comprehend what was going, he wrapped his arms around me and planted a kiss to my forehead.
"I'm so sorry for lying to you, Carolina."
"God, I didn't allow myself to miss you for all of this time, but seeing you here, right in front of me, it makes me regret all of the time I've wasted being foolish and selfish. I should have let you explain everything to me."
"None of that matters," he shrugged, pulling me closer. "I love you, Carolina."
"I love you too," I said, meaning every word. I heard the "awe's" and the claps erupting behind us as Brayden leaned in to kiss me. I smiled and let myself get lost in his embrace, laying my head on his shoulder and closing my eyes. When I opened them, the one person I didn't expect to see there was standing a ways down the block, pacing back and forth, rehearsing something over and over. He kept shaking his head and talking to himself. I turned around to look at everyone. They all smiled and motioned for me to go talk to him. I looked at Brayden, who kissed the top of my head and nodded. I handed him my school bag and stuck my hands in my jacket.
"I don't know if I can do this," I said to the crowd of people behind me. They all looked so hopeful.
"You can do this. He didn't fly here just for the coffee, you know," John piped in. I nodded and started making my way down the sidewalk.
I stopped a few feet short, not wanting to scare him off. He looked pretty deep in conversation with himself. He almost looked crazy. I cleared my throat and he practically jumped out of his skin, focusing his attention on me.
"Carolina," he said, tucking his free hand into the front pockets of his jeans, his other hand holding a wrapped gift. "Hi."
"Hello," I replied, politely.
"Do you want to go get some coffee? I feel like a circus monkey with all of them watching," he laughed, nodding in the direction of all of his friends. I looked back at them and laughed, nodding my head.
"I know a great place," I replied, as I started walking to the café I had left a few minutes before. He fell in step with me, but we were silent for most of the walk. When we reached the café, I told him to grab us a table as I got our coffees. He offered to pay, of course, but I declined.
"I work here, so it's free," I shrugged as he smiled and nodded, going off to pick out a booth.
I sat down across from him, setting his coffee in front of him. "I hope you don't mind, I mean, my mom said in one of her letters that you liked your coffee the same way she did, so if that's changed, I'll get you a new cup." I informed him.
"Pumpkin spice," was what he said.
"I'm sorry?" I asked, confusion painting my face.
"You like pumpkin spice."
I froze and looked at him. He was fidgeting with the lid of his coffee, not making eye contact. "You like pumpkin spice," he repeated.
"How did you know that?" I asked. He ignored my question and grabbed the wrapped present, sliding it across the table.
"I want you to have this," he told me. I eyed the gift and then slid it back to him.
"I don't mean to be rude, Justin, but if you think you can buy me after what happened, I don't-"
"I'm not trying to buy you," he said, finally looking at me. "Your mom would have wanted you to have this."
I nodded and sat my coffee down. It was a vinyl, I could tell just by the shape of the package.
"Should I open it now," I asked.
"Go ahead," he smiled, and I smiled back, ripping the corner off of the carefully wrapped package.
"Jesus Christ," I said, pulling the vinyl from the wrapping.
"Your favorite artist is Ryan Adams, and that is your favorite album of all time."
I nodded, running my fingers across the very same "Love is Hell" vinyl that my mom bought Justin many Christmases ago. I smiled and looked at him again. "You're scared of heights. You hate onions and you've never made below an 'A' in your life."
"How do you know all of this?"
He sighed and took a sip of his coffee. "As soon as you left, Brayden barged into my house. He told me what an idiot I was being, that you would have been the greatest thing that ever happened to my life, just like you were to his. He told me some of the things I was missing with you, how great of a person you were and how you didn't deserve what I did. He's never talked down to me, the whole eighteen years he's been alive, but when it comes to you, he'd do anything," he smiled and shook his head. "You've gone eighteen years without me, Carolina. You've known about me for all of this time, but I didn't even know you existed until you came to my house. I really didn't mean to treat you the way I did, I hope you understand that I am not that kind of person. You just dropped all of this information on me so fast that I had whiplash, you know?"
I nodded and bit my lip. "I know, I am really sorry about that. When I get nervous, I tend to talk too much and not really think about what I am saying. I've always had a level head but I am not good with things like this." I paused and took a deep breath. "You know, every year for Christmas, I always asked Santa to bring you back to my mom and me. It never happened. She was always so sad, but she always thought that I didn't notice. She missed you; she always missed you. She never told me about you, though. I think it was because she didn't want me going to look for you and turning your whole life upside down, but that's exactly what I did."
"You didn't turn it upside down, you just shook it up a little bit," he smiled and shrugged. "I just don't know why Lena didn't tell me she was pregnant. I never understood what I did wrong in that relationship. I guess that's why I've never moved on. I always held out hope that maybe one day, she would remember that what we had was special."
"She always knew that it was." I took a deep breath and began to tell him the things my mom told me to tell him. "She didn't want you to jeopardize your whole career. She knew that you were planning on missing out on tour for her, and that was crazy. She didn't want that to happen. Leaving you was one of the hardest things she ever had to do," I said, reaching across the table to place my hand on top of his. He didn't move away, which I thought was progress. "If she would have told you that she was pregnant, you would have thrown it all away for us."
"But that would have been my decision," he said slowly. "I loved your mother more than I have ever loved anything or anyone. When she never came back to Arizona, I felt like I lost a part of myself. I did lose a part of myself. There were dark days after that. I spent the past eighteen years trying to move on, but nobody even came close to Lena. All that I wanted my whole life was a wife and a family. The bands, they both meant a lot to me, but I knew they wouldn't last forever. A family does." I retracted my hand and sat back in my booth, thinking about what he was saying. "I finally have a shot at a family," he continued, rubbing the back of his neck, "and I've already managed to screw it up once. I don't want to miss out on anymore of your life, Carolina. You're my daughter. I wish I could have been there for you for the past eighteen years, but there's nothing we can do about that now. What I want is to be a part of your future. I want to have celebrate holidays together, I want to walk you down the aisle at your wedding. I want to do stupid family vacations where we road trip and stop at stupid places. I want to be your father, if you'll let me. I feel like e have a lot of catching up to do, and if it's okay by you," he paused, looking at me and smiling, "I think that we should start right now."
I smiled and slid out of the booth, watching as he did the same. I wrapped my arms around him and this time, he pulled me tightly to his chest, returning the hug. I hadn't noticed the tears in my eyes or the massive crowd of people that had just gathered at the windows, cheering at our little exchange. It may not have been the vision I had planned out in my head since I was a little girl, but it was even better. My father wanted to be a part of my life. He wanted to be there for me, and I suppose my mother knew that he would all along. She may not have thought it through, but she knew both of us, the two most important people in her life. She knew that everything would be okay in the end. And it was.
So don't run away from things when they get difficult or scary. I suppose I had to learn that the hard way. Never give up hope, because life may just surprise you. It works out the way it is meant to.