It had been a mere three days since school let out, and already, freedom seemed to ring through the air. Leaves wavered lazily in the breeze, squirrels scurried across the trimmed lawn, and I lay back on the moist grass, surrounded by four of my best friends, Julia, Mark, Hannah, and Gaby.
We should have been smiling, laughing, and running barefoot across the lawn, but in the last few moments of Julia’s going away party, a melancholy mood had settled over us all. Later that evening, Julia’s plane would leave for Germany, and there would be no return flight. She was moving.
Julia sat cross-legged on the lawn, her hair pulled away from her round face with a neon green hair tie. Her blond bangs spilled over her forehead, and the blazing sunlight brought out the hints of amber and chestnut in her eyes. Her gaze flickered anxiously from face to face, as if she were struggling to memorize every last detail.
Our friendship had been forged over the scorching embers of middle school. With the new school year had come stricter teachers, meaner kids, more work, and only one constant face through all of my classes: Julia. We’d met on the first day of school, and from there, we had quickly become friends, growing closer and closer as the days passed. As soon as word of the move had reached my ears, I’d fallen into a state of permanent denial. Julia wouldn’t leave because she simply couldn’t; a change that drastic was unimaginable and therefore impossible. Even now, I was hoping for a miracle.
Mark stood up abruptly and drew his phone out of his pocket.
“Everyone get in!” he called. He held his phone out. A selfie. A desperate attempt to preserve these last moments with Julia. We piled into the frame, and he snapped the photo. Four of us clustered around a beaming Julia, our smiles broad and genuine. I wished I could freeze that moment and live in it forever.
The sound of approaching footsteps brought me back to reality. I glanced up and caught sight of Hannah’s mother, a tall, thin woman with short hair dyed a dark shade of magenta, stepping out onto the porch. She peered at Julia over her red-framed glasses and smiled.
“Sweetie, your mother’s here.”
Without a word, Julia scrambled up and walked indoors. I followed, clambering up the wooden steps and ducking through the doorway. The door slammed shut behind me, and Julia and I found ourselves alone in Hannah’s kitchen.
The air was much cooler inside, a sharp contrast to the smoldering heat outdoors. The midday sun bathed the entire room in a soft, golden light, and the aroma of freshly baked cookies drifted into my nose. The room seemed like a safe haven, a tiny piece of the world that harsh reality couldn't touch.
"Julia, hurry up. Your mother's waiting."
Even the safe haven was temporary.
Julia hurried past me into the hall. I followed, my shuffling footsteps deafening in the silence. Finally, we stepped out onto the front porch. By now, the rest of the group had clustered around us.
Julia turned toward us and grinned halfheartedly. "Bye, guys."
I wanted to smile back, but I couldn't; if I smiled, the tears might fall. I just nodded.
Julia bit her lip and started across the lawn. A few strands of her hair had escaped her ponytail and hung limply around her face. She reached up to push them out of her eyes.
I tore my gaze away from her; I couldn't bear to watch her climb into the car. I turned to the sky, but it seemed to taunt me with its endless expanse of clear blue, framed by lethargic wisps of clouds. I looked back just as she pulled open the car door.
Julia hesitated, then glanced back at me. I could have sworn that I saw tears glimmering in her eyes, but she climbed into the back seat. The sight finally jarred me out of denial. I’d seen her in person for the last time. She was really gone. The others trudged into the house, and I was alone.
I sank down onto Hannah’s front steps. The sun-warmed brick burned against my skin, but I didn’t care. I’d spent so long denying that she was leaving. I’d put off saying goodbye, and now, when it had finally hit me, it was too late. How could I have let this happen? Angry tears clouded my vision. The cracked pavement before me danced in and out of focus like a mirage. A tear slipped down my cheek, and I reached up to wipe it away.
Hope fluttered in my chest; I knew that voice. I looked up and met a pair of hazel eyes. Julia forced a smile. “We never really said goodbye.”
“I’ll miss you,” I blurted. “You’re my best friend.” We both knew that it was true, but neither of us had ever said those words aloud before. Her eyes widened, and another smile broke out over her face, genuine this time. She knelt down on the steps beside me.
“Promise we’ll stay in touch?”
Before I could respond, she threw her arms around me.
“Promise.” I mumbled into her shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long we stayed like that; it could’ve been seconds, minutes, or an eternity. The next thing I remember, Julia was halfway across the lawn. I heard the scraping of metal as the car door slid open, and I watched as she climbed inside. The door clicked shut behind her. The car pulled out of the driveway. The squealing of tires on concrete echoed through the air, and she was gone.
I smiled. This time, I was ready.