Chapter 10 – Graduation day
‘Twenty-four… twenty…five… twenty…six…!’
‘Come on, put your legs into it! You can jump higher than that! What are you, a sloth?!’
Ever since my victory against Nailah, my daily schedule had permanently changed. Gone were my hourly morning jogs. Instead, for four days a week, Nailah met up with me every morning to do what she called “preparatory exercises”.
And with that she meant pushups. And jumping jacks. And balance exercises followed by squats and more pushups. Basically, moving in all kinds of ways that my jogging body was not used to, and it caused the most horrific kind of muscle pain. That’s why she only called on me four times a week – to “give your squishy body some time to rest”.
‘Give me a break already,’ I complained, my legs almost giving in underneath me. ‘I’m jumping as high as I can!’
Nailah smirked and I knew that there was an insult on the way.
‘Can’t keep up with me, pup? We can call it quits for today if you’re too squishy to go on. Or maybe the gravity just has more of a pull on you these days? You do seem more massive than before. A new diet?’
‘Those are muscles, you idiot,’ I scoffed.
‘Keep telling yourself that. One day it might be true.’
Nailah’s words stung, but for some reason I did not mind. By now, I was certain that the woman had the same competitive spirit as me. In fact, the stronger I became, the more exited she seemed to get. I guess she was just really happy about finding a suitable running partner to compete with.
‘Okay, that’s enough for today,’ Nailah said, looking at the sun above us. ‘You’ve reached your limit.’
‘Geez, what gave it away? The shaky legs?’ I complained, panting. Nailah let out a laugh.
‘Now that you mention it, they could probably pass for jelly pudding. Do you need help walking back to your porch?’
My parents were still at work, so we were practicing in our backyard. Said porch was about five meters away from me.
‘I think I can manage,’ I growled.
‘Suit yourself. In that case I’ll see you again next week, Chase.’
She turned around to walk away. Meetings with her were always brief- I’d greet her, and Nailah would immediately start the training, sometimes even without so much as greeting me back. She never stuck around long after it was over, either. Today seemed to be no exception. I didn’t really mind, but… it did make casually chatting a bit difficult. But this time, we were on my territory. My house was right beside us. I could work with that.
‘Wait!’ I said quickly, before she could leave. ‘Would you like to come in for a drink?’
She stopped walking and turned around. A puzzled frown was on her face. She looked at me for a moment, before asking, in a confused voice:
It was just one word. But she had said it in such a sincerely confused tone that it completely threw me off balance. I had thought it good manners, and appropriate to the situation. But she really seemed to be unsure of how to reply. That was… weird, to say the least. It suddenly dawned upon me that I knew nothing about this woman at all. Besides her name, that was.
‘Well- I mean, we’ve been training for a while now. Aren’t you thirsty? I mean, we don’t have to go inside. I could just… get you something. On the porch.’
Gods, I sounded like an awkward teenager. Strictly speaking I was a teenager, but our graduation ceremony was a few weeks away. And usually my social skills were a bit better than this.
‘It’s all right. I’m not thirsty.’
She frowned again. This was… a bit awkward. My subtle strategy of getting to know her had failed before it could even start. Note to self: don’t ask Nailah to share a drink with you in the future.
‘Do you need something?’
She was still looking at me with that puzzled expression on her face. Quickly, afraid to make it even more awkward, I closed the conversation.
‘No- no, I’m good. I’ll just… see you next week. All right?’
She turned around again, this time falling into a jog. I did not stop her. Soon, her silhouette had passed the entrance gate to our yard, and dissapeared from sight.
Vanished again. I guess some things just never changed.
Several weeks later…
Slowly, I fastened the tie around my neck. I disliked ties, but they just happened to be a part of the dress code for today. Mum had told dad to go out and buy a new bowtie just for this occasion. Something about it “bringing out the colour of my eyes”.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror. The suit looked good on me. I looked… mature. I’d always done so, of course, but not like this. Like someone that was about to graduate and turn into an adult. Looking at it gave me mixed feelings. I hadn’t done worn this suit since the day of Jamie’s funeral. His murder had been solved, but some part of me still felt that there had been more going on than what the police had told us. It had left a bad taste in my mouth.
Jamie was supposed to be here for this.
I brushed my hair to the side a little bit and turned around, walking out of the bathroom. My parents were already there, waiting for me to finish getting ready. As soon as she saw me, my mother’s face lit up.
‘You look wonderful, Chase! See, I told you that bowtie would look good on you. Green really brings out your eyes, sweetie.’
‘Are you ready to go?’ dad asked, walking up to me. ‘The ceremony is going to start in half an hour. We shouldn’t be late.’
‘Yeah, I’m ready.’
He gave a satisfied nod. Dad usually never wore formal attire, but it seemed that mum had made him wear clothes outside of his comfort zone, as well. It looked good on him though.
‘You’re rocking that blouse, pops.’
‘See! I told you that it would look handsome!’ Mum chimed in from the other side of the room.
‘Yeah, yeah. Don’t get used to it.’
It took us about ten minutes to drive to Town Hall. Most people had already gathered; I could see them crowding around the entrance. As our school was so small that it didn’t have a single room large enough to hold more than twenty people, graduation ceremonies were instead held in Town Hall. It made it slightly more of a formal event.
‘Hey, Chase! Over here!’
I heard Evelyn’s voice as soon as I stepped out of the car. Our usual group was already there, waiting for me in front of the building. In front of them stood Evelyn, wearing a pretty green dress that accentuated her figure. She gave me an enthusiastic wave and gestured me to come closer.
‘Last time I saw you, you did not have such long hair,’ I said, my gaze slowly traveling downward before looking back into her eyes.
‘Extensions!’ Evelyn chirped happily. ‘I wanted to grow my hair out again to the length I had before. I got a little impatient.’
‘You look good,’ I said sincerely. ‘Right, Bobby?’
‘R-right,’ Bobby stammered. Evelyn, beaming, grabbed hold of his hand.
‘Come on, Bobby, let’s find some seats in the front. I don’t want the view to be blocked by the head of someone’s distant uncle.’
‘All the relatives are sitting on the right side, anyway,’ Bobby protested, but allowed himself to be led inside by Evelyn. I watched the two go with an amused chuckle. It was definitely not Bobby that was in charge of that relationship.
As soon as the last chatter had faded away, the principal began to speak.
‘As school principal it is my honour to welcome all of you here. Seeing graduates, parents and staff here today is a testament to the achievements of the graduates and the love and support they have received over the years.
‘Growth comes in many ways. Through out of school activities, helping others and dealing with the changes every school student has to go through, as well as achieving at school. The graduates have shown a readiness to tackle all these areas. This has given you all a rounded education. It has also meant you have grown as people into well rounded young adults.’
‘The future holds many challenges and successes for all of you. Each of you will have your own unique opportunities to grow and blossom into even better people than the ones I see before me now. I am confident that you will rise to every occasion.’
Let me wish you all the best for the future. Thank you!’
His speech had ended. A big round of applause sounded for the principal, and he smiled contently. A different teacher made her way up to the front of the room, holding a small stack of graduation certificates. The principal placed the stack on the nearest column, letting a dramatic pause fall before he took the first certificate and read the name out loud.
‘That’s you,’ Evelyn muttered. I nodded and rose up from my seat. There was a round of applause as I made my way over to the front. As soon as I reached the principal, the clapping stopped. He flipped the certificate around, so that it was readable from my side, and handed it over to me.
‘Congratulations, Chase. I hope that your future is a bright one.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
With a mild feeling of satisfaction, I took the paper from the principal. Although we had not spoken even once during my years at his school, he seemed to be genuinely proud of this moment. He was a good guy. I nodded to the principal, turning around and walking back to my seat accompanied by another round of applause.
The ceremony after that was the exact same with every person that was called forward. Some stood a little straighter than others, but we were all proud to have made it this far.
As I looked at my classmates, I wondered what they were going to do now. Most of them would probably go to University. As we were in the middle of the countryside, the nearest University campus was five hours away, and we had no train station. They would probably move there, and only come back to see their parents on some select weekends.
‘Congratulations, young man.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
My group of friends would be moving away, too. We had already discussed it, with Evelyn speaking of the idea first. Her enthusiasm had rubbed off on Bobby, and had already been looking at shared dormitories for the five of us on the town’s library computers. They had not shared their findings yet, but judging by the expectant look on Evelyn’s face, she would probably bring it up before too long.
Not long after Bobby’s turn, the ceremony ended. People started getting up from their seats and making their way over to the hall, where a small after party would take place. As Bobby got up from his seat to leave, too, I quickly stopped him.
‘Hey. Got a minute?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Bobby said, a little surprised. ‘What, you want to crash the after party or something?’
‘Nah. I just have something we need to talk about. Come with me.’
I led him out of the hall, past the crowd gathering around the buffet. My parents shot me a questioning gaze, but did not call out to me. I quickly slipped out of the building and around the corner, to the now abandoned soccer field.
‘You want to play catch during our graduation?’ Bobby joked. ‘My suit is newly pressed, you know.’
I shook my head, stopping at the edge of the field and turning towards my friend. By now, he was frowning. Bobby sized me up and down, then raised a single eyebrow.
‘Why do I get the feeling that you’re going to drop some knowledge on me that I do not want to know?’
‘Because I am,’ I replied shortly.
‘Wonderful. Let’s hear it, then.’
‘The University. I’m not going.’
Bobby’s frown grew larger. There was a brief moment of silence, after which he let out a sigh.
‘I was afraid you’d say that. Am I finally going to hear the reason for your weird behaviour lately?’
‘You are. Though I’m not sure if you are going to believe it.’
‘Try me. You’d be surprised.’
I took a deep breath, nodded to myself and opened my mouth.
‘I’m about to find my biological parents.’
If anything, he had not expected that answer. With a confused expression on his face, Bobby looked at me.
‘Wait- weren’t you abandoned on your folks’ doorstep as a baby?’
‘I was,’ I responded. Bobby’s confused expression remained.
‘You’re going to have to explain that one to me, man. When did this happen?’
And so I told him. I spoke of everything that had happened since the day I found those letters on the kitchen table. I told Bobby about the warning that they contained, my multiple encounters with the wolves- everything. The sun started to set, but I paid it no attention. I mentioned my meetings with Nailah, and why I had started to train with her. As I spoke, Bobby started to look a little bit overwhelmed- and excited.
‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?! This is huge, man!’ he finally yelled, after I had finished talking.
‘I’m not sure. I guess I felt like I had to be ready first. And now, I am. As soon as we graduate and turn into adults, I’m going to read the last letter and use the information in there to find them.’
‘You should have talked to us about it earlier! Do you need help? I’ve got some contacts in Bridgeport already. I bet I could dig up some intel for you if you gave me their names. And Tristan has an uncle in the military- we could use him, too! We could even-‘
‘No,’ I said quickly. ‘This is something that I need to do alone.’
I could not involve Bobby in this. The warning in my mother’s letters still sounded clear in my mind.
If you try to find us before you are ready, it will get you killed.
For some reason, I knew those words to be true. I did not know what kind of hairy situation my family had gotten themselves caught up in, but the thought of involving my friends in that made me very, very uneasy. Another friend’s death was the last thing that I wanted. No, it was better if Bobby stayed out of it altogether.
As that thought flashed through my mind, Bobby frowned. His shoulders slumped forward a little and his expression turned to one of mild frustration.
‘But… It’s important to you. I just want to help.’
‘I’ll be fine, Bobby,’ I smiled at him. ‘You guys have more important things to worry about. You’re going to try and study to be a lawyer, right? That’s a tough course to take on. You’ll need all your time to focus on that.’
I tried to persuade him, but Bobby was having none of it. A steely look appeared in his eye. Until then, the weight in our relationship had always lied with me. But in that moment, I could see Bobby grow as he looked me straight in the eye. We were equals, and he knew it.
‘To Maker with law studies. I’m helping my friend. After I kick his butt for not telling me about this until bloody graduation day.’
His steely resolve would not waver. By now, I realized that there was no way to talk him out of it. He was going to help me out no matter what I said. It made me nervous, but also grateful. Bobby really was a good friend.
‘No problem, man,’ he said, falling back into a smile. ‘You were there for me, too. It’s time I repaid the favour. Let me know as soon as you find out their full names, all right? Between me and Luke, I bet we can find you a lead. Just wait and see.’
I just nodded. That seemed to be enough for him. Bobby turned his gaze away from me. From here, you could just see the clock on the school building.
‘Fudge! The after party probably ended already. Evelyn is going to kill us if we’re not there to take a group picture before the others leave.’
‘We can take group pictures every day,’ I smirked. Bobby shook his head.
‘Not in fancy suits we can’t. Come on, let’s go.’
He turned around, leading the way as we slowly moved back to Graduation Hall. As he walked, I looked at this back and strong shoulders. Bobby had grown, as well. More than I had expected. He was no longer that unconfident teenager from before. He looked like an adult, too. Evelyn had given him that extra bit of self-confidence he needed. Bobby looked ready to move out of town and take on the rest of the world. From behind his back, I smiled at my friend.
Our birthdays were right around the corner.