Night Road (Page 20)

Night Road(20)
Author: Kristin Hannah

A wish.

Lexi stared into the small flame dancing above the twisted blue candle.

There was only one wish, and it wouldn’t come true, but she made it anyway.

“Good luck, Lexi. I hope your birthday wish comes true.”

After that, they ate their donuts, toasted her birthday again with glasses of milk, and went their separate ways—Eva to a Saturday shift at Walmart, Lexi to the ice cream shop. For the rest of the day, Lexi was in constant motion. On a sunny weekend like this, the shop was crazy busy.

She didn’t slow down again until evening, when Zach and Mia picked her up from work.

Lexi did her best to be cheerful around both of them. She laughed and joked and talked at the dinner table, but when Jude brought out a cake with candles, her fragile veneer cracked a little and it took willpower not to cry or run away.

Next year, she would celebrate her birthday by herself. Mia and Zach would be in sunny Southern California, living the college dream. She wanted to be happy for them, she really did. But she kept glimpsing the future that lay like a storm cloud on the horizon. Oh, they talked about staying in touch and keeping their lives braided together, and their intentions would be as true as their emotions, but it wouldn’t be enough. When she told them about Eva’s Florida offer, they both groaned aloud and begged her not to go so far away. They wanted to see her on school breaks.

Easy for them to ask. But she wanted that, too.

“What’s it gonna be like?” Mia asked that night as the three of them lay together on blankets on the beach. It was the first time one of them had dared to ask the question aloud.

They were holding hands, staring up at the stars.

“I’ve been dreaming about it for so long,” Mia said. “But now that it’s getting close, I’m scared.”

Lexi heard Zach sigh beside her. Because she loved him, she knew what that sound meant: he was stuck in the middle. He loved Lexi—she knew that, believed it with every part of her soul—but he and Mia were more than connected. They were twins, with all that the word implied. They could read each other’s thoughts. And really, one of the things Lexi loved most about Zach was how much he cared about the people he loved. He hated hurting anyone. Mia most of all.

That was why he was going to USC. No matter how much he loved Lexi, he loved Mia and his parents even more. He couldn’t disappoint them. And he worried that Mia was too shy to make it at USC on her own.

“We’ll still be friends forever,” Lexi said. She wanted it to be true, needed it to be.

Beside her, she heard Mia draw in a breath and quietly start to cry.

“Don’t cry,” Zach said.

Sadness rose up in Lexi, and before she knew it, she was crying, too. “We … we’re dorks,” she said, wiping her eyes, and although it was true, and it made her smile, she still couldn’t stop crying. She loved both of them and soon they’d be gone.

“I’m gonna miss you, Lexi,” Mia said. She rolled over and hugged Lexi and then rolled over onto her back again.

Overhead, the night sky loomed, as incomprehensible as their futures; beneath it, Lexi knew how small they were.

Zach pulled his hand out of Lexi’s grasp and said, “I’ll be right back.” Then he got up and hurried back to the house.

“You’ll call me tons, right?” Lexi asked.

Mia squeezed her hand. “We’ll be like Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox. Bffs forever.”

“Sam and Frodo. Harry and Hermione.”

“Lexi and Mia,” Mia said. “Just think: someday we’ll be old together and we’ll laugh about how scared we were to go off to college.”

“Cuz we’ll still be friends.”

“Exactly.”

Lexi fell silent. She’d learned a long time ago that there were things she might want but would never have, and it hurt less if she tried not to want what was unattainable. Was this friendship like that? Was this just a high school friend version of first love that would diminish into a fond memory with time and distance?

Zach ran back, slightly out of breath. He stood above them, a silhouette against the moonlit waves. “Get up.”

“What for?” Mia demanded.

Lexi didn’t ask why; she just got up and took his hand. She loved the way his strong, warm fingers curled around hers.

He held out a Ninja Turtles Thermos. “I have an idea. Move your ass, Mia, and quit asking questions.”

“Someone thinks he’s the boss of me,” Mia said as she got to her feet and brushed the sand off her backside.

Zach led them down to the big cedar tree that guarded their beach.

In the moonlight, he looked pale, almost ghostlike, but there was a brightness in his green eyes that shone like tears.

He held out the Thermos and opened it. “We’ll put something in here and bury it.” He stared at Lexi. “It’ll be … like … our pact.”

“For as long as this time capsule is buried here, we’ll be best friends,” Mia said seriously. “Going off to college won’t change that. Nothing will change it.”

“We won’t be like everyone else,” Lexi said, hoping her comment didn’t sound like a question, but even now, in this solemn moment, she had trouble believing. Everything came so easily to these two. “We’ll never really say good-bye.”

Mia nodded. “Not as long as this is buried.”

Zach held out the open Thermos. Moonlight caught a flash of the silver interior and made it glow. “Put something in here as proof.”

At another time, in another place, it might have been funny or melodramatic or just plain silly, but not here, not now, in this darkness that felt weighted by the future that was bearing down on them like an eighteen-wheeler.

“I love you, Lex,” Zach said. “College won’t change that. We’ll stay in love. Always.”

Lexi stared at him. It felt like they were connected, drawing one breath back and forth.

Mia dropped a pair of expensive gold earrings into the Thermos.

Zach took off the Saint Christopher medal he always wore and dropped it inside.

All Lexi had was the string friendship bracelet Mia had given her in tenth grade. Mia had long ago lost the one Lexi had made for her, but Lexi had never taken this one off before. She untied it slowly and dropped it in the Thermos. Her memento made no sound when it landed; it bothered her, as if she were the only one of three of them that left no mark somehow.

Zach screwed the lid back on.

“I don’t think we should ever dig it up,” Mia said. Behind her, a gust of wind came up from the waves and ruffled her hair. “Digging it up would mean … like good-bye, and we don’t want that. As long as it’s here, it means we still love each other.”

Lexi wanted to say just the right thing. The moment seemed magical, charged; she’d always remember it. “No good-byes,” she said, meaning it.

The look that moved between them was heavy with emotion: in their eyes, they passed around the sad truth that they would be separating soon and that they loved one another, as well as the sweet truth, or hope, that in this coming future some things would survive, that three teenagers could stand in the moonlight and promise to be friends forever and keep that promise.

They knelt in the sand, far above the high-tide line, and at the base of the old tree, they dug deep, deep into the cold gray sand and buried their Ninja Turtles Thermos time capsule.

Lexi wanted to keep it going, to keep promising to search for a future that felt slippery, but when the capsule was buried, the sand looked undisturbed again, and the moment washed away.

Nine

In early June, the garden was miraculous. This was the time of year that Jude—finally—could take a moment to sit back and enjoy the hard work she’d done. Everywhere she looked, she saw the rewards of her careful planning and judicious pruning. The beds were a riot of glorious color, with sugary pink saucer-sized roses, ruffled yellow peonies, spiked purple delphinium. The deep green English boxwood she’d taken such time with was well on its way to becoming the bones of the garden. Above it all, a lotus tree was in full golden bloom; it looked like a Monet painting, just slightly out of focus, against the vibrant blue sky.

She could see how it was all coming together, growing in. Soon, maybe even next year, she would be ready to reveal her pride and joy to the garden-tour attendees.

She peeled off her dirty gloves and got to her feet. The heady scent of roses captured her, made her stand there a moment longer than she’d intended. There was such peace for her here. Every plant, every flower, every shrub was placed according to her plan. If she didn’t like the way something grew or spread or bloomed, she yanked it out and replaced it. She was the Red Queen of this realm, in complete control, and, as such, she was never disappointed.

But there was more to her current sense of well-being than that. She hadn’t realized until the twins got accepted to USC how tense she’d been throughout senior year, how stressed out. She’d worried endlessly about the kids and for them. She’d worried that one or the other would miss a deadline or make an irreparable mistake or that they wouldn’t have the chance to go to college together. Now, she could sleep again, and, amazingly, she was excited for them to leave home. Oh, she was still anxious about them, still concerned about the emptiness of her nest, but spring had lightened more than a gloomy sky; it had lightened her way. She could glimpse a new future for herself, a time when she could be the captain of her own journey. If she wanted to go back to school for landscape architecture, she could; if she wanted to open a garden accessories store, she could. And if she wanted to simply sit on a lawn chair for the whole summer, reading the classics she’d missed, she could do that, too. Hell, she could spend a summer reading comic books if she wanted to.

The thought was liberating and a little scary.

She glanced down at her watch. It was nearing three o’clock, which meant that the kids would be home from school any minute. If the pattern from the past month held, they’d come home in a swarm of seniors, all of whom seemed to be on a mild form of crack. That was what pseudo adulthood and impending graduation had done to the kids. They’d become amped up, superemotional versions of themselves. The boys laughed too hard sometimes; girls became maudlin at the drop of a hat, burst into tears over a bad hair day.

It was no wonder that emotion ran so high in these first golden days of summer. In the words of the great Sam Cooke, change gonna come, and everyone knew it, felt its hot breath drawing near. Most of the island kids had been together since grade school, and their friendships ran deep. They were torn now, wanting both to stay here, where life was safe and known, and to fly far, far away, testing the wings they’d just recently grown. Each passing day, each hour, brought the end of high school that much closer. They felt the need to make lasting memories together. That was what mattered most to them, getting together. It was the same thing that scared the parents. Parties were rampant.

To combat the whole party obsession, Jude had taken her cue from the plain old garden spider: she created an attractive web. She’d had Miles haul out the Jet Skis and the ski boat and ready them for use. She made endless trays of food for ravenous boys and set out bowls of chocolate-covered dried cherries for the girls. She made it easy for her kids’ friends to spend the day and night here, under her watchful eyes. For the most part, it had worked. Also, she had learned to trust her kids. Sure, they snuck a few beers at parties, but they kept their word: someone always stayed sober to drive, and they had never missed a curfew.