Chapter 75: Follow The Light - Travis
I woke up early the day of graduation, despite having stayed up late the night before dancing on Sella Moora’s stage for the final time. I beat my alarm, too conflicted about the day ahead to sleep soundly.
My room was barren. My black cap and gown, dress and matching shoes, toiletries, and a blanket and pillow to sleep on were the only exceptions. Everything else had been hauled away and placed on the plane the day before.
I laid in bed looking at my cap and gown, my only thought was that I was I had woken up someone else’s room. I went to bed feeling as though it was mine, but the next morning, it belonged to a stranger. It made me realize SMA would not be mine for much longer.
My phone’s alarm forced me to escape my mind and reenter reality. Elle was wiping toothpaste off of her mouth with a paper towel when I entered our bathroom.
“We’re not going to say anything along the lines of, ‘this is the last time we’ll blank’ all day. And we’re most certainly not going to say goodbye.” I spoke before words had the opportunity to escape her open mouth.
She closed her mouth and nodded.
“Your makeup looks pretty.” I hugged her from behind, resting my head on her shoulder.
“It’s all waterproof.” She immediately started to cry.
“No,” I spun her around. I put my hands on either side of her face. “You’re going to be in Listonenia in two weeks to help me decorate my apartment. We’ve got bigger and better things to do. It’s time to get out of here. Okay?” I looked into her eyes.
“This is not the end.” I hugged her.
“I bought you something.” She sniffled, drying her eyes when we pulled away.
“What? No. I didn’t buy you anything.”
“Hush. You know I love to shop.” She took my hand and tugged me into her room.
It was in the same shape mine was. She opened her desk drawer. She offered me a small teal blue box with a white ribbon around it.
“You shouldn’t have gotten me anything.” I pulled the tail end of the box.
“I wanted to.”
I lifted the lid and found a bunny charm for my bracelet. I looked up at her with a smile.
“Milo can get over me stepping in on his turf. You were mine first. I’ve known you are energizer bunnies from day one. He’s not boxing me out now.”
“You can’t tell him or even hint about it.” I giggled.
“It’ll be our little secret.”
I hugged her.
“And I finally made my way into your jewelry box. It’s been a long time coming.”
“I’ve only had it for three months.”
“That’s basically forever.” She checked her watch. “Shoot. I need to get going.”
“Late for being early?”
“Yes. I want to practice walking on stage and rehearse my speech a few more times.”
“You are going to be amazing like you always are.”
She untied the belt of her robe and removed it to reveal a sophisticated sleeveless red dress.
“You look great.” I fully examined her outfit. The glossy black pumps with a red underbelly really sent it over the edge.
“Putting this together required a lot of time and effort. I wanted the last time –“
“But it’s about wearing our school colors.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. She flipped a garment bag over her forearm. “Love ya, Babydoll.” She kissed my cheek before she left.
I quickly fastened my charm onto my bracelet and took an instant shower to make up for lost time. I did my makeup before putting on my white dress. I took a rule from Elle’s handbook and opted to make all of it waterproof. I managed to zip the back of my sundress solo, but I required assistance with my cap and gown. I sought help from Morgan. Sami was already in her room when I arrived, Morgan was bobby pinning her hat to her hair to keep it from falling.
“Sliding problem?” Morgan did not even need to look up from her work.
“I tried pinning, but I can’t quite get the back.”
“Have a seat. I will take care of it as soon as I am finished with hers.”
“Today’s a normal day and no one is allowed to get sentimental.” Sami was painting her nails black.
“That’s just what I told Elle. We’ve got the same idea.”
“But this is –“
“No.” Sami and I said in unison.
“A moment –“
“’No’ does not mean convince me, Mom. High school sucked. Music and my friends rocked. I’ll still have the last two, even after I move my tassel. Today’s just a day where I have to wear something stupid and do something I don’t want to simply because society says that’s how you’re supposed to transition into the next chapter of life.”
“You’ve even found a way to make graduation cynical.”
“I got that last line from Watson. The kid knows what he’s talking about.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“I actually agree with them.”
“Really?” Morgan looked over her shoulder to see me.
“It’s important, but it’s overly hyped. These weren’t the best four years of our lives. We learned things, but we’re about to learn tons more after this. And surrounded by so many people’s families is uncomfortable.”
“Yes, someone else gets it.” Sami praised.
“Well, I’m still excited. It’s nice to have a special day every once in a while. It gives us something to look forward to.” Morgan remained unmoved but she respected our opinions, just as she always did.
She applied my hat next. The three of us left after I attached hers and Sami’s nails dried. We all knew to walk to the boys’ suite without consulting each other. Adam was the one to open the door. I gave him a flash hug before continuing to his room.
I knocked once as a warning and entered without a reply.
“The purpose of a knock is to ensure the person on the other side of the door is decent. I could have been stark naked.” Milo kept his eyes on the mirror as he folded his necktie.
“It was a risk I was willing to take.” I shut the door behind me. “There are to be no sentiments today. Sam and I are slowly but surely getting the word around to the whole gang.”
“I’m surprised at you.”
“Why?” I corrected his tie once I was standing in front of him.
“You live for little moments.”
“This one’s not little. Just how big it is hasn’t hit me yet.”
“You look cute in your mortarboard.”
I pecked him softly. “Do you need help with yours?”
“Yes, please.” He kissed me again.
My heels gave me enough height to have easy access to his head. I secured his hat using a few of my own bobby pins.
“Does taking a picture together count as sentimental?”
“It is pushing it, but I think I will allow it.”
He picked up his phone and aimed it at the two us once he had put his arm around my waist. I put my hand on the shoulder he was not utilizing to hold me. I put my cheek as close to his as I could without our hats interfering. We were all smiles as pictures were taken.
“Has it hit you yet?” He lifted his gown in order to put his phone into his pocket.
“No, and don’t make a thing of asking. I’m cruising through, trying to make it without crying.”
“There are so many rules today.” He opened the door for me.
“There are always many rules. You’re a selective listener.” I patted his chest on the way out.
The eight of us were surprisingly on time to the procession arrangement. We were alphabetized by last name. I was dead last because of my new last name. I didn’t mind the idea of being the last one to receive their diploma, but I hated the fact that I had to sit in the nosebleeds during Elle’s speech. I turned to the ultimate schemers for help.
“Is there anyway I could be closer to the front for Elle’s address? I want her to be able to see me.”
“Of course there is.” Sami began to look around, trying to think of a plan.
“Dioguardi.” Finn stated simply.
“Dioguardi.” She repeated with a smirk.
“Why do you keep saying Art’s last name?”
“He’s seated beside me, D and E. We’re close to the front.”
“You think you can get him to swap with me?”
“I know I can. He’s terrified of me. Walk into the auditorium in your correct spot. There will be preamble before Elle goes on. Keep an eye on the program. Just before she is about to go, walk to our row as if you were told to do so. Do the same when you return and I will handle the rest.”
“Can I hug you? I want to hug you.”
“Fine.” She rolled her eyes.
I gave her a quick squeeze. I did the same to Finn. “You are evil geniuses.”
“We enjoy what we do, Ma’am.” He saluted me with two fingers.
I skipped to my assigned space in line and waited anxiously for the show to start. The start of the orchestra’s rendition of Pomp and Circumstance was our cue to begin our descent into the auditorium. I had plenty of time to look around for my family as we slowly marched down the center aisle.
My mom was the first one I saw. She was standing and had her phone aimed in my direction. Audrey was seated beside her, giving me a thumbs up. Everett held Emilia in his lap. He used her hands to clap. Sophia needed to sit on B’s lap in order to see. He had to stop her from running up to me to give me a hug. I smiled and waved, finally feeling as though tears might be a possibility.
I daydreamed during Headmaster Lawrence’s introduction of our class. I continued to do so through two of the orchestra’s songs, but I was sure to rise to my feet on the third.
I did just as Sami told me. I held my head up, my face calm and my shoulders relaxed as I strode up to the second row. Art swapped with me without contest, too fearful to make eye contact with me. I was allowed into the row so smoothly that it appeared to be planned, everyone standing to allow me inside. They sat down the moment I did.
“Thank you.” I whispered to Sami.
She held out her hand inside of replying. I knew to hit it. I waved to Milo, who was a few seats down. He shook his head at me with a handsome smirk. I winked with a smirk of my own. I leapt from my seat and clapped when Elle’s name was called. She gracefully made her way from her seat on stage to the podium several feet ahead of her.
“I LOVE YOU!” I yelled over the applause.
She blew a kiss to me from the podium. I pretended to catch it and she smiled.
“As Headmaster Lawrence just stated, my legal name is Eleanor Woollard. A name is a name. We’re all given one when we’re born and we’re free to tweak and change it as time goes on. I know everyone here got that memo because only like five people in our class go by their given names. –“
“—I was born Eleanor, but today I stand before you as Elle. I did not begin to understand what it truly meant to be myself until I arrived at SMA. And I know I’m not the only one. We’re all here because we stand out amongst the crowd and we always have. It is isolating and terrifying, but it becomes life affirming when we’re able to take back control by following hearts and trusting our minds. We were taught to do that here at Sella Moora by taking classes and concentrating on our crafts. But if I’m being honest, I learned my greatest lessons from those around me. This is not a place where dreams come true, it is where they are fostered until we’re ready to go out and make them a reality. We’re going to be called by our legal names as they distribute our diplomas, but it will not change the fact that in these four years, we have started to define ourselves by our actions. We’re ready for more. It’s about time we go get it.”
I was once again on my feet when her speech concluded. I screamed and cheered as loudly as I could. Her transition from the stage to the audience reminded me to return to my original seat. I climbed over people to meet her in the aisle. I gave her a hug.
“Couldn’t have done it without your love.”
I initiated our custom handshake -- a double high-five, a kiss on both cheeks, and a hip bump.
“Ladies, please sit down.” Headmaster Lawrence requested.
“She’s my best friend. She did a great job.” I put my hand on Elle’s back as I told the people around us.
We went to our back row seats together, arm in arm. We were seated side by side – W and Z. We applauded for our friends; we cheered and clapped for our family. We had so much fun that the wait for our turn felt nonexistent.
“Eleanor Tracy Woollard.”
Elle walked onto the stage when her name was called, waving at the crowd with a bright smile. She shook the appropriate hands and posed for pictures. I should have been taking notes on what she was doing instead of being caught up in how happy she looked.
“Isabella Mia Zapata.” I was visibly startled when my name was called. I played it off with a curtsy. Then I thought a standalone curtsy would look weird, so I rose from it and stood on the balls of my feet and did pirouettes until I reached the headmaster. Confusion was written all over his face when he handed me my diploma.
“I couldn’t resist using this stage one last time.” I offered him a smile with my response. I was close enough to the microphone to be heard by the crowd. They laughed as they clapped.
“Good luck, Izzie.” He shook my hand.
“Thank you.” I accepted my scroll. I quickly shook the outstretched hands of my teachers. Ms. G, my dance teacher, hugged me sobbing. I took my posed photo with her. I auditioned for her five years ago. She said yes on the spot and the rest is history.
The nine of us met up before going into the lobby to see our other families.
“Iz, what was that?” Ryan chuckled.
“I messed up and decided to go with it.”
Milo draped his arm across my shoulder and kissed the side of my face. “You were magnificent. It was your most beautifully awkward opus to date.”
“How did you get Art to give up his seat, Sam?” Elle asked.
“I told him the truth. He was lucky I was prevented from fighting him after what he did in Denver. Izzie, someone who actually supports you, needed his seat. And I would literally drag him from it in front of everyone if he did not leave it willingly.”
“I can’t wait to live with you in California.” Elle hugged her.
“How’s it feel to have graduated a second time?” Morgan nudged Adam.
“Surprisingly different. I feel like I actually learned something. It wasn’t the book stuff. I learned to relatively socialize.”
“With fellow weirdoes.” Sami clarified.
“Socialize none the less. I’m happy I get to continue doing so.”
“Are we ready to face them?” Nick looked at the door.
“We’ve got to, Buddy. They’re our rides home.” Finn patted him on the back.
We migrated onward together. I was hugged the moment I was within my mother’s reach. She was speaking too quickly in Spanish for me to understand.
“Breathe.” I insisted, chuckling.
She took a deep breath. “You’re you. I love you so much for it.”
I nodded. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you too badly up there.”
“I couldn’t have been proud.” She kissed my face repeatedly.
Sophia ambushed my leg shortly after I parted from my mom, holding onto it tight. I scooped her up and placed her on my hip.
“You rang?” I smiled.
“I love you and I like your hat.” She played with the tassel.
“I love you too and I hate my hat.” I pulled it off, ignoring the tugging of the bobby pins. I put it on top of her head.
“My Izzie Bee is a graduate.” Audrey hugged both Sophia and me.
“And still a major dork.” Ev ruffled my hair with his free hand.
“Some things will never change, even as I age.”
“My little dancer was up there.” B hugged us next.
“I panicked and she broke out. There’s no stopping it sometimes.”
He kissed the top of my head. “Where’s Milo?”
“He’s—“ I looked around for him. I caught him giving my mom a hug before introducing her to his. His effort made me smile. I walked to him instead of answering.
He turned to me with a smile. “Hey.” He kissed me.
“Soph, guess what?” He prompted with enthusiasm.
“What?” She was just as into it.
“Izzie and I are getting married.”
She gasped. “You’re going to be a princess?” Her eyes were as wide as they could be.
“His wife. One day.”
“Congratulations, Izzie.” King Vincent joined the three of us.
“Onward we go. Where we stop, nobody knows.”
“We both know you will not be stopping any time soon.” Milo contradicted.
“He’s got me. There’s so much left to do.”
Less than thirty minutes later, our created family stood in front of the ones we were born into, forced to take pictures. We made the most of it, though, laughing and goofing off during most of them. It wasn’t a sad occasion because we knew we’d have many more moments. It was just a day.
I held Matilda to hold as the last of my personal items were loaded into my mom’s rental car. I went to the spot where it all began one last time. I stared at the building ahead of me, trying my best to memorize every feature.
“Thank you for everything.” I whispered as I geared up to leave. Tears fell for the first and only time that day.
An arm was draped across my shoulders. I looked over and up at its owner. I was reminded of the moment I met him.
He was just a boy who was insistent on helping me. I was just a girl who was anxious to start the next chapter of her life.
“Ready?” Milo’s accented voice pulled me out of my reverie.
“Yeah.” I smiled.
We turned around and walked out the way I came.
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