She’d earned the cap . . . and the gown, and there was no way Melanie was going to take them off until she fell into bed later that night. Tossing her cap in the air would have resulted in someone else grabbing it, so when Principal Mason of River Bend High had announced the graduating class, Melanie shot from her seat, waved a hand in the air, and screamed.
Hours later, Melanie hugged her yearbook to her chest and wiped the tears that threatened to take over what was supposed to be a night of celebration. She jogged from her car to Zoe’s mom’s double-wide. She pounded on the door before letting herself inside. As expected, Jo and Zoe already had the music pumped, the box of pizza opened between them.
“You started without me.” She waved an accusing hand at her best friends.
Jo lifted a bottle of Jose Cuervo in the air. “Haven’t even cracked the seal.”
Melanie didn’t want to know how JoAnne had managed a brand-new bottle of what they considered the good stuff. Then again, what self-respecting high school senior didn’t have some connection somewhere to grab a bottle of booze?
Zoe still wore her gown, her cap sat beside the yearbook both she and Jo were studying. Jo had shucked her gown and tossed it by the front door . . . her cap was probably in the hands of an unknown senior . . . or worse, the custodian.
“Grab some glasses,” Zoe said before Melanie made it into the room.
The three step detour had Melanie in Zoe’s kitchen, the familiar space was marginally clean . . . the remainder of that morning’s breakfast sat congealing on dirty dishes in the sink.
With two plastic cups and one made of glass, Melanie dropped on her knees before the coffee table and offered a pet to Gas Tank, Zoe’s Pomeranian shih tzu mix. The mutt had repeatedly earned his name through the years.
“Did you see Mitchel Giesler after the ceremony?” Jo asked.
Melanie enjoyed the distraction gossip offered. “He was already shitfaced.”
Zoe turned the page of her yearbook before taking a bite out of her pepperoni and cheese. “He’s always shitfaced.”
“So am I, but I knew better than to show up at graduation for everyone to see.” Jo exaggerated, but both Zoe and Melanie knew better than to correct her.
“Not to mention your dad would have killed you.”
Jo rolled her eyes as she reached for the bottle and twisted the cap as if proving a point.
Melanie sniffed the cup and looked around. “We’re really going to drink this straight?”
Jo finished pouring Zoe’s portion and set the bottle down. “Walking out of the house with lemons and salt would have been a dead giveaway.”
“And walking out with the tequila wasn’t?” Zoe asked.
“Whatever.” Jo lifted her glass in the air. “To the end of high school. No more Mr. Edwards and his lisp.”
“No more Mrs. Mothball and the smell of her musty closet that follows her everywhere,” Zoe added.
“No more expectations of straight As to get into college.” Melanie understood that expectation personally.
They shot back the liquid fire and set the glasses aside.
Jo refilled while Melanie grabbed a piece of pizza to calm the burn that was running down the back of her throat. She ate the pizza, not really tasting it.
Everything was about to change.
All the planning and studying . . . her college dreams were about to come true.
Zoe and Jo were reading some of the other senior entries while Melanie’s eyes swelled with tears.
The first sniffle had Jo glancing over. “God, don’t start that.”
“I can’t help it,” she uttered. “I’m going to miss you guys.”
“It’s college. You’ll be back for holidays and summer . . . you’ll probably see us more than your new friends.”
Melanie’s lips started to tremble.
She shook her head. “I-I won’t.”
Zoe and Jo both stared. “What do you mean?”
“My parents . . . they’re moving. The house is going on the market next week.”
The snarky smile on Jo’s face fell.
Zoe wrapped the long length of her straight black hair behind her back. “Where are they going?”
That was the hardest part. “My mom said Connecticut . . . my dad said Texas.”
“So which is it?” Jo asked.
There was no stopping the tears. “Both. They, uh . . .” She pulled the sleeve of her graduation gown over her eyes and sucked in a breath. “They told me they’re both tired of fighting. That a divorce after I graduated from high school was for the best.” Her older brother, Mark, was already out of college and living in Seattle, and she was the only thing keeping her unhappy parents together.
“That sucks, Mel.”
“They’ve fought forever. I just thought that was marriage, ya know?”
Jo and Zoe exchanged glances. They both had single parents and didn’t really know. Jo’s mom had died young . . . car accident. And Zoe’s dad was doing fifteen to life for armed robbery.
From the outside, the good people of River Bend thought everything was Norman Rockwell in the Bartlett family home. Like many kids, Melanie was encouraged to take all the college prep classes, take AP English, and join Associated Student Body. She’d been on the cheer squad in early high school but canned the chick club when she saw head cheerleader Margie Taylor kissing on Melanie’s boyfriend. Melanie dumped them both and hooked stronger with her true friends.
“It was all for them,” Melanie muttered.