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We finally put the house up for sale in Texas. Mom has managed to save almost 180,000 dollars from life insurance dad actually had. The house isn't paid off yet, but after all is said and done we should get another check from the sale. Mom and I spend the majority of November focusing on our finances. We set aside more for our college funds and she opened a savings account for Kel. She payed off all the outstanding credit cards and charge cards that are in her name, and instructed me to never open any in my own name. Said she would haunt me if I did.

***

Today is Thursday. It’s the final day of school for all the districts; including Will’s. We have early release today, so I bring Caulder home with us. He usually spends the night on Thursdays while Will goes to the slam.

I haven't been back to Club N9NE since the night Will read his poem. I understand what Javi meant in class now-about having to relive heartache. That's why I don't go. I've relived it enough for a lifetime.

I feed the boys and send them to their bedroom and then head to my mother's room for what has become our nightly chat.

"Shut the door, these are Kel's," she whispers.

She's wrapping Christmas gifts. I shut the door behind me and sit on the bed with her and help her wrap.

"What are your plans for Christmas break?" she asks.

She's lost all of her hair now. She chose not to go with a wig-said it felt like a ferret was taking a nap on her head. She's still beautiful, nonetheless.

I shrug. "Whatever yours are, I guess."

She frowns. "Are you going to Will's graduation with us tomorrow?"

He sent us an invite two weeks ago. I think each graduate gets a certain number of guests and his grandparents are the only other people he invited besides us.

"I don't know, I haven't decided yet," I say.

She secures a box with a bow and sets it aside. "You should go. Whatever happened between the two of you, you should still go. He’s been there for us, Lake."

I don’t want to admit to her that I don't want to go because I don't know how to be around him anymore. That night in his laundry room when I thought for a brief moment that we could finally be together; I had never felt so elated. It was the most amazing feeling I've ever experienced, to finally be free to love him. But it wasn't real. That one minute of pure happiness I felt and the heartache that came moments later is something I never want to experience again. I'm tired of grieving.

My mother moves the wrapping paper from her lap and reaches out and hugs me. I didn't realize I was wearing my emotions on my sleeve.

"I'm sorry, but I think I may have given you some terrible advice," she says.

I pull away from her and laugh. "That's impossible, Mom. You don't know how to do terrible."

I take a box from the floor and pull it into my lap as I grab a sheet of already cut paper and begin to wrap it.

"I did, though. Your whole life I've been telling you to think with your head, not your heart," she says.

I meticulously fold the edges up and grab the roll of tape. "That's not good advice, Mom. That's great advice. That same advice is what has gotten me through these past few months." I tear a piece of tape and secure the edge of the package.

My mother grabs the box out of my hand before I'm finished wrapping it and sets it beside her. She takes my hands and turns me toward her.

"I'm serious. You've been doing so much thinking with your head that you're ignoring your heart completely. There has to be a balance. The fact that both of you are letting other things consume you is about to ruin any chance you'll ever have at being happy."

I shake my head in confusion. "Nothing is consuming me, Mom."

She shakes my hands like I'm not getting it. "I am, Lake. I'm consuming you. You've got to stop worrying so much about me. Go live your life. I'm not dead yet, you know."

I stare down at our hands as her words soak in. I have been focusing on her a lot. But that's what she needs. It's what we both need. She doesn't have that much time left, and I want to be there for every second of it.

"Mom, you need me. You need me more than I need Will. Besides, Will has made his choice."

She darts her eyes away and lets go of my hands. "No he hasn't, Lake. He made what he thought was the best choice for him, but he's wrong. You're both wrong."

I know she wants to see me happy. I don't have the heart to tell her that it's over between us. He made his choice that night in the laundry room when he let me go. He has his priorities, and right now I'm not one of them.

She takes the box I was wrapping and returns it in front of her and starts wrapping it again. "That night I told you I had cancer, and you ran to Will's house?" Her voice softens. She clears her throat, still avoiding my eyes. "I need to tell you what he said to me, at the door."

I remember the conversation she's referring to but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

"When he answered the door I told him you needed to come home. That we needed to talk about it. He looked at me with heartache in his eyes. He said, 'Let her stay Julia. She needs me right now.'

"Lake, you broke my heart. It broke my heart that you needed him more than you needed me. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, I realized that you were grown up…that I wasn't your whole life anymore. Will could see that. He saw how bad his words hurt me. When I turned away to walk back to the house he followed me into the yard and hugged me. He told me he would never take you from me. He said he was going to let you go…let you focus on me and on the time I had left."

She places the wrapped gift on the bed. She scoots toward me and takes my hands in hers again. "Lake, he didn't move on. He didn't choose this new job over you…he chose his new job over us. He wanted you to have more time with me."

I take a deep breath as I absorb everything my mother just revealed. Is she right? Does he really love me enough that he would be willing to let me go?

“Mom?” My voice is weak. “What if you’re wrong?”

“What if I’m not wrong, Lake? Question everything. What if he wants to choose you? You’ll never know if you don’t tell him how you feel. You’ve completely shut him out. You haven’t given him the chance to pick you.”

She’s right, I haven’t. I’ve been completely closed off since that night in the laundry room. Maybe he just needs to know it’s okay. I need to let him know that it’s okay for him to love me.

"It's seven-thirty, Lake. You know where he is. Go tell him how you feel."

I don't move. My legs feel like jell-o.

"Go!" she laughs.

I jump off the bed and run to my room. My hands are shaking and my thoughts are all jumbled together while I throw on my pants. I put on the purple shirt that I wore on our first and only date. I go to the bathroom and inspect my reflection.

There's something missing. I run to my room and reach under my pillow and pull out the purple clip. I snap it open and remove my mother's strands of hair and place them in my jewelry box. I go back to the bathroom and brush my bangs to the side of my head and snap the clip in place.

21.

“Don't say it's over

‘Cause that's the worst news I

could hear I swear that I will

Do my best to be here

just the way you like it

Even though it’s hard to hide

Push my feelings all aside

I will rearrange my plans and

change for you.”

-The Avett Brothers, If it’s the Beaches

Chapter Twenty-One

When I walk into the club, I don't stop to look for him. I know he's here. I don't give myself time to second guess anything as I walk with false confidence toward the front of the room. The emcee is announcing scores for the previous performer when I walk onto the stage. He's apprehensive as I grab the microphone from him and turn toward the audience. The lights are so bright, I can't see anyone's faces. I can't see Will.

"I would like to perform a piece I wrote," I say into the microphone. My voice is steady, but my heart is about to jump out of my chest. I can't turn back now. I have to do this. "I know this isn't standard protocol, but it's an emergency," I say.

Laughter overcomes the audience. The rumble of the crowd is loud, causing me to freeze at the thought of what I'm about to do. I start to have second thoughts and turn around to the emcee but he nudges me back and gives me the go ahead.

I place the microphone in the stand and position it down to my height. I close my eyes and take a deep breath before I begin.

"Three dollars!" someone yells from the audience.

I open my eyes and realize I haven't paid my fee yet. I frantically dig my hands in my pockets and pull out a five dollar bill and walk it over to the emcee.

I return to the microphone and close my eyes.

"My piece is called-"

Someone's tapping me on the shoulder. I open my eyes and turn around to see the emcee holding two one-dollar bills up.

"Your change," he says.

I take the money and put it back in my pocket. He's still standing there.

"Go!" I whisper through clenched teeth.

He stammers and walks off the stage.

Once again, I turn toward the microphone and begin to speak. "My piece is called Schooled," I say into the microphone. My voice is shaking, so I take a few deep breaths. I just hope I can remember it, I re-wrote a few lines on the way here. I inhale one last time and begin.

I got schooled this year.

By everyone.

By my little brother…

by The Avett Brothers…

by my mother, my best friend, my teacher, my father,

and

by

a

boy.

a boy that I'm seriously, deeply, madly, incredibly, and undeniably in love with…

I got so schooled this year.

By a nine-year-old.

He taught me that it's okay to live life

a little backwards.

And how to laugh

At what you would think

is un-laughable.

I got schooled this year

By a Band!

They taught me how to find that feeling of feeling again.

They taught me how to decide what to be

And go be it.

I got schooled this year.

By a cancer patient.

She taught me so much. She's still teaching me so much.

She taught me to question.

To never regret.

She taught me to push my boundaries,

Because that's what they're there for.

She told me to find a balance between head and heart

And then

she taught me how…

I got schooled this year

By a Foster Kid

She taught me to respect the hand that I was dealt.

And to be grateful I was even dealt a hand.

She taught me that family

Doesn't have to be blood.

Sometimes your family

are your friends.

I got schooled this year

By my teacher

He taught me

That the points are not the point,

The point is poetry…

I got schooled this year

By my father.

He taught me that hero's aren't always invincible

And that the magic

is within me..

I got schooled this year

by

a

Boy.

a boy that I'm seriously, deeply, madly, incredibly, and undeniably in love with.

And he taught me the most important thing of all…

To put the emphasis

On life.

The feeling that comes over you, when you're in front of an audience? All those people craving for your words, yearning to see a glimpse into your soul…it's exhilarating. I thrust the microphone back into the emcee's hands and run off the stage. I look around but don't see him anywhere. I look at the booth we sat in on our first date, but it's empty. I realize, after standing there, waiting to be swept off of my feet-that he's not even here. I spin around in a circle, scanning the room a second time. A third time. He's not here.

***

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