Just as Alex zips up her suitcase and checks her makeup in the mirror one last time before leaving to meet the bus back to Gainesville, she hears the familiar sound of a key card unlocking the door. She looks out of the bathroom to see Kelley walk in.
“Hey,” Kelley says.
“I just—I don’t really want to walk down separately and deal with the questions.”
“I understand. Where’d you go last night?”
“Carli’s. She had two queens.”
“Gotcha,” Alex says. “Here, you’ve got—” She reaches out to brush away a stray eyelash from Kelley’s cheek, and Kelley flinches. “Make a wish.” She holds out the eyelash on her thumb. Kelley just looks at it and back to Alex, ignoring her attempt at normalcy.
“Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah. Kel, listen—”
“I don’t really want to right now, if you don’t mind,” Kelley says. “I’m sorry for leaving last night. And I’m sorry for yelling, but I’m not sorry for anything I said. I don’t want things to end poorly, so let’s just leave them here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I love you, and if you aren’t willing to be the one to do it, then I will because I want whatever is going to make you happy.”
“This doesn’t make me happy.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t want to delay the inevitable. The past few weeks have been so incredibly hard, and it’s just going to get harder.” Kelley takes a deep breath, placing her hands on Alex’s waist. “This has been amazing, seriously. The best five months of my life—more than that, if you include becoming your friend, which I do. You changed my life in so many ways, and I’ll always love you for that.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Kelley says with a slight smile. “I can’t wait to see you change the world, superstar.”
“I never would have gotten this far without you,” Alex says, tearing up.
“Sure you would have. But I’m glad I got to be at least a small part of that.” Kelley feels her phone vibrate in her pocket, and she knows it’s probably Christen or Ali telling her to get her ass downstairs because the bus is leaving. “One more for the road?” she asks, leaning in for a kiss.
Alex’s lips taste like salt, and it reminds Kelley of the first time they kissed at Cantina after taking shots of tequila. She couldn’t have possibly known then what an impact Alex would have on her life, and she wonders if, feeling the way she does now, heartbroken and in love, empty and full all at the same time, she would have done anything differently. Suddenly, “one more for the road” seems next to impossible, and Kelley finds herself pulling away first.
Pain flashes in Alex’s eyes like she realizes the significance of Kelley’s lips leaving hers for what could very well be the last time ever.
Kelley’s hands drop from Alex’s waist, and she leans over to pick up Alex’s bag off the floor, opening the door for her to exit first.
On the second night, she goes for a run. She knows any one of her sisters or friends (and definitely Kelley) would admonish her for running down the notoriously poorly lit Sorority Row so late at night, but it’s the only thing she can do. She ends up at Lake Alice, where she stays for far too long, lying on the dock and staring up at the stars as if she’s waiting for someone, but she knows nobody’s coming.
On the third night, she almost texts Kelley. She knows she shouldn’t, but she scrolls through her Kelley album till the tears fall, thinking about all the memories she only shares with Kelley, and she wants confirmation that she’s not alone, that the memories aren’t just going to die because she has nobody to share them with anymore.
Every night after that gets a little easier, slowly but surely. Some nights are particularly rough, especially the ones she spends in the library, secretly hoping Kelley will walk in. She gets so preoccupied imagining what would happen if she did that she forgets to actually study till Lindsey warns her she’ll fail her finals.
The first time they see each other is on the night of the last day of classes. They signed up to do the annual Midnight Fun Run 5K along with all their friends way back when registration opened up, but Syd and Lindsey volunteer to run with Alex so she doesn’t have to awkwardly socialize with—or at least around—Kelley.
Of course, that doesn’t last. Ashlyn finds Alex so she can say hi and give her a hug. While she’s asking her how she’s holding up, Kelley passes by behind her, and Alex can’t help but stare. Ashlyn turns around to see what she’s looking at, and they catch Kelley’s eye.
Kelley smiles and waves awkwardly before walking over in an attempt to make things less awkward… which, of course, backfires.
“Hey,” Kelley says. “How was your last day?”
“Yeah, good,” Alex says. “And you? The internship?”
“Good,” Kelley says. “They offered me a job.”
“Oh, wow,” Alex says. Her blood runs cold thinking about how many people must already know about it. Who was the first person she told? A few weeks ago it would have been Alex. “So you’re going to stick around here?”
“The job’s in DC, actually,” Kelley says.
“Oh, wow,” Alex repeats. Is that all she can say now? “Well, that’s amazing. I’m really happy for you.”
Alex runs the fastest 5K she ever has that night, desperate to cross the finish line and get home and away from all this. She practically runs home in addition to that, and when she’s finally showered and in bed, finally feeling clean of the discomfort of earlier, she gets a text from Kelley.
“Hi,” it reads. “It was really good seeing you tonight. I don’t want things to be weird between us, which probably sounds dumb, but it’s true. I have something to give you, so if you have some time to meet up and go to coffee or something, let me know. If you don’t, I’ll just give it to Tobin next time she’s here haha… just let me know :)”
“Okay, I’ll let you know,” Alex replies. Kelley’s back at it with the smiley faces that she started with when they first met, but now they hurt Alex in a totally different way.
“Yeah, you did,” Alex says, nursing the same beer she’s been drinking since they got to the party. She knows it’s true, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.
Finals week is over, and it’s pretty much every senior’s last night to party before the town fills up with parents and family members near and far. Syd’s grand idea was to set up a slip and slide on the lawn outside the ADPi house when they get home, and Alex is apparently a buzzkill for shooting it down.
“Shit, we gotta go,” Lindsey says. Alex turns around, half expecting to see Kelley, but it’s worse.
“Alex!” A drunken Derek approaches, beer in hand. “How funny that I’d run into you at both the first party and last party of the year.”
“Hilarious,” Alex says, looking for an escape route.
“Let me get you a drink,” he says. “I’m assuming you could use it. I know how badly I needed a drink when Kelley broke up with me.”
“You cheated on her,” Alex says.
“Yeah, with you. So it was worth it as far as I’m concerned.”
“You know, I think it was definitely worth it,” Alex says, sudden courage taking over her body. “You got to use Kelley as a stepping stone to get where you wanted, and I got the most genuine love I’ve ever experienced. So thanks for that.” She turns to walk away.
“Yeah, and you got to fuck me,” Derek laughs.
Alex spins around, her hand thinking before her brain as she slaps him across the face. “Now you can go fuck yourself.”
“I take it back,” Syd says as they’re leaving the house. “That never would have happened with Kelley around.”
Alex’s dad raves about the free valet service while her mom and sisters order drinks at the bar while they wait to be seated. She wishes she had more excitement to share, but all anyone wants to talk to her about is Nigeria, and she dreads it more and more every day.
“Morgan? Party of eight?” The hostess asks, smiling brightly. “Your table is ready.”
Alex busies herself with her dress as she escorts them to the back, but a familiar laugh makes her head spin to the left. Of course. Kelley and her entire family would choose the exact same restaurant on the exact same night for her graduation dinner.
Alex’s vision gets blurry, and suddenly she can’t breathe properly. “I’m going to go to the restroom,” she says, excusing herself before she’s even sat down.
Once in the restroom, Alex works on her breathing, trying to collect herself. She hunches over the sink, burying her face in her hands. When the door opens, she straightens up, trying to look like everything is fine. She might have gotten away with it, too, if the person walking through the door weren’t Kelley.
“Are you okay?” Kelley asks. “I saw you practically sprint this way.”
“Fine, just a little woozy,” Alex says.
“I heard you slapped Derek silly.”
Alex cracks a smile before shutting it down and shrugging. “I don’t know about silly.”
“He probably deserved it.”
“He’s deserved it since August.”
“You never texted me about when you’d be free,” Kelley says with a smile.
“I would have brought your present if I’d known you’d be here.”
“Present?” Alex asks. She had assumed Kelley just wanted to give her something she’d left at her place.
“Now you’re interested,” Kelley laughs. “I leave to go home Sunday morning. If you can come by sometime before then, just text me and I’ll make sure I’m around.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I got it… before,” Kelley says, and Alex just nods. That makes more sense. “Listen, I know you’re having dinner with your family, but my family would really like to say hi. No pressure or anything, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable—”
“It’s fine,” Alex says. “I’d like to see them too.”
“Okay,” Kelley says. “So… you good?”
“All good,” Alex lies. She follows Kelley back out to the dining room, passing by her own family’s table with a plastered smile that she manages to pass off as real when she hugs Kelley’s parents and Erin.
They ask about Nigeria as Kelley tenses beside her, and she answers their questions as graciously as possible.
“I should get back to my family, but it’s so nice seeing you all,” Alex says.
“Hey,” Kelley whispers, grabbing Alex’s wrist. “I know I haven’t officially met your family, but can I—”
Alex nods quickly. “Yeah, come over.”
It’s Kelley’s turn to follow Alex to the table. Katherine and John smile warmly at her while Kieryn makes grabby hands for Kelley.
“Everyone, this is Kelley.” She needs no further introduction, of course, and Alex’s sisters exchange a glance, unsure about how to approach this situation.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you,” Alex’s dad says, standing up to hug her. “I was beginning to think we never would. Congratulations on graduation. That’s a mighty fine accomplishment.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kelley says, her cheeks turning pink.
“And I guess we have you to thank for our Ali Cat going all the way to Nigeria in August,” he continues. “She seems excited, so I guess we can’t be too upset.”
“She’s going to do amazing things,” Kelley says.
“How funny that we’d end up at the same restaurant!” Alex’s mom says.
Kelley smiles. “We seem to have a way of being on the same page a lot of the time,” she says. Alex looks down at her shoes, and Kelley takes it as a hint. “I’d better, uh—” She motions toward her table, and everyone says their goodbyes.
Alex smiles at her, waving a quick goodbye as she goes back to her family. She sits down and pulls Kieryn into her lap, in need of any distraction she can get.
She has time for a shower and lunch with her family before she has to be ready and in the stadium. Kelley is in the same session, but Alex knows she’ll drive herself crazy if she thinks about that or looks for her. When Kelley’s name is called, Alex looks up at the big screen and cheers as Kelley beams, blowing a kiss to her family in the stands.
When Alex finally crosses the stage, she hears Kelley’s loud whistle, which she’d recognize anywhere, and a grin spreads across her face. She’s past the point of crying over graduation, but her tears well up a bit at the thought—which has only just occurred to her—of saying goodbye to Kelley for good.
When she gets back to her seat, she has a text from Kelley, a picture of her crossing the stage.
“Thought you might want this. Good job superstar! I’m so proud. And you didn’t trip ;)”
“Thanks, you too,” Alex replies. “Can we meet up after for a pic? I feel like it would be weird not getting one with you.”
“Of course,” Kelley texts back. “It would be my honor.”
This time they at least get to go their separate ways when the pictures end, but they still refuse to say goodbye. Not like this, not surrounded by hundreds of people all trying to stay out of each other’s way and fighting for the best lighting.
“So, um, the thing you have for me?” Alex says. “Can I come over tonight after dinner with my family?”
“Yeah, of course,” Kelley says. “Actually, I have a better idea. Text me when you’re ready and I’ll tell you where to meet me.”
“Okay,” Alex says, slightly skeptical. She wants their goodbye to be in private, but she knows Kelley has plans with her family, and they will certainly take precedence over Alex, at least now.
“Hi,” Alex says quietly, as to not startle Kelley.
Kelley looks up and smiles. “Hey,” she says. “I hope it’s okay that we’re here. The house is kind of insane right now with everyone’s families and whatnot.” She hands Alex a small bag filled with tissue paper.
“Yeah, same at mine,” Alex says. “I, um, I didn’t get you anything.”
“That’s okay,” Kelley laughs. “I just ordered this and I was planning to give it to you for graduation, and I couldn’t send it back or anything. If you don’t like it, it’s okay.”
“I’m sure I’ll like it.” Alex gently pushes the tissue paper aside, reaching in to pull out a small black jewelry box. “Oh God, Kel, how much did this cost you?”
“Hush,” Kelley says. “Just look.”
Alex opens the box to reveal two small silver tennis bracelets, laden with emeralds. “Oh, these are beautiful,” she gasps. “Kelley, I can’t accept these.”
“Yes you can,” Kelley says. “You have to. Look. The green is for the Nigerian flag, and I had them engraved.” She shines the flashlight from her phone on the bracelets, gingerly taking the one on top in her hand. “To Nigeria,” she reads, before setting it down and picking up the other. “And back.”
“Kelley,” Alex breathes, her eyes filling with tears.
“The first was supposed to be yours and the second would be mine, but I thought you could take them both,” Kelley says. “Maybe they’ll bring you good luck or whatever.”
Alex picks up the second bracelet, reading the words over and over. “You bought these before?”
“The weekend you were in DC,” Kelley says. “Maybe an impulse buy, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was a nervous wreck that whole weekend. And when I talked to you, you just seemed so scared, and I had never seen you like that. You’ve always been my rock, so confident even when the world turns upside down. And I wanted to be that for you when you needed it. So I thought it would be a symbol, you know? Like you’d go all the way to Nigeria, and when you came back, I’d be here.”
“Why didn’t you try to stop me?”
“From going? Are you crazy? This is an amazing opportunity. I’ve told you this a million times.”
“Yeah, but didn’t you want me to stay?”
“My selfish side absolutely did. It still does. But then there’s the part of me that loves you and wants all the best things for you. And that side had to win out. You know, considering it makes up pretty much all of me, including my selfish side.”
“I didn’t want to leave you,” Alex says, her lips trembling. “I didn’t want this to end.”
“Me neither,” Kelley says softly. Her eyes dart down to Alex’s lips for a split second before she catches herself, but Alex catches her too.
Alex presses the bracelet into Kelley’s palm, wrapping Kelley’s fingers around it. “Keep it,” she says. “I want you to be here when I come back. I want to come back for you. I want to come back to you. Please.”
“Okay,” Kelley says softly.
Alex leans forward to capture Kelley’s lips, audibly sighing when they connect again for the first time in what feels like ages. Kelley’s lips are just as soft as she remembers, and her hair the same.
“God, this is cliche,” Kelley laughs when they break apart, but when she blinks open her eyes, Alex is still close enough to see the tiny tears on the ends of her lashes.
“This is going to be really hard,” Alex says. “But I feel like the last three weeks have been harder than anything I’ve ever done, so maybe it was all just preparation.”
“Did you cry a lot?” Kelley asks. “Because I did. Like every night. Christen would make me hot tea and rub my back.”
“She’s a lot nicer than my roommates,” Alex laughs. “No more tears.” She wipes away her own before wiping away one of Kelley’s.
“These are the good kind,” Kelley assures her.
“The best,” Alex agrees, leaning back in for another kiss.
Kelley cups Alex's face with her free hand, remembering every inch of her effortlessly. “Do you have anywhere else to be tonight?” she asks. “Christen is staying with her sisters. Erin was going to stay with me, but I can kick her out.”
Alex laughs. “Kick her to the curb.” She kisses Kelley again, slow and deep this time, before pulling away, biting at Kelley's bottom lip as she does. “But remember what happened last time? Don't do it again.”
Kelley cringes, remembering the fake orgasms that always worked on Derek. When she couldn't get even one by Alex, she should have known she was the one. “Deal,” she agrees.
Alex takes Kelley’s wrist in her hand, taking the bracelet from her and fastening the clasp. She lifts Kelley’s hand to her lips, kissing it softly.
Kelley returns the favor, interlacing her fingers with Alex’s. “Thanks for coming back to me,” she says.
“Thanks for giving me something to come back to.”
“I think maybe you shouldn’t leave,” Alex murmurs, feeling Kelley stir against her.
“I think you’re right,” Kelley says, kissing the first place her lips touch, which ends up being Alex’s chin. “Maybe we should both just stay here forever.”
“Or I could come with you.”
“I wouldn’t hate that.”
“My parents might.”
“I can’t say I’d blame them. They’ve been away from you for four years, and you’re going away for another full year. They deserve time with you.”
“Yeah, but I’ve gone three whole weeks without you,” Alex groans.
Kelley laughs. “Maybe we can work something out where I come out to California for a while before you leave.”
“When?” Alex asks. “Come tomorrow and leave when I go to Nigeria.”
Kelley pecks Alex on the nose. “We could probably use a little bit of practice with this whole long-distance thing.”
Erin is the only one who seems to pick up on the matching bracelets they wear, and she smirks at Alex as she subtly smooths her hair, which still hasn’t recovered from the activities of the night before.
Kelley’s parents hug Alex and wish her well in her adventures before hitting the road, warning the girls not to wait too long and wind up in traffic. Kelley is one of the last to leave the house, so there aren’t many girls to say goodbye to besides Tobin and Christen, who come back to help clean out the room.
Finally, when the room is bare and the car is loaded, there’s only one goodbye remaining.
“I, uh, I think my phone charger is still inside,” Erin says. “Do you want some snacks? I’ll grab some snacks.” They all know she didn’t leave her charger inside, but nobody questions it.
Kelley places her hands on Alex’s shoulders, rubbing circles into her collarbone with her thumbs. “It feels like we’ve been putting this off for a really long time.”
“So what’s a little longer?” Alex asks.
“Every second it gets harder,” Kelley says. “I’m going to be a wreck when you go to Nigeria.”
Alex’s fingers subconsciously find Kelley’s right wrist and toys with the bracelet on it. “We’re going to be fine,” she says. “And when it gets hard, I’ll be counting down the days.”
“And while you’re away I’ll be lobbying the headquarters every day to bring you right back to DC when you’re done,” Kelley says. “Remember when we talked about goals? Look how many you’ve accomplished in so little time. This is just another one to work toward.”
“I love you so much,” Alex says, eyes filling with tears. She places a kiss to Kelley’s lips which leads to another one and another one. They stay like that for longer than they probably should, at least until Erin politely clears her throat from behind Alex.
“I really hate to interrupt,” she says softly.
“If you didn't, we'd never stop,” Kelley says.
Alex steps back, distancing herself from Kelley, and gives Erin a hug as she takes a deep breath to stop her tears.
“I'll call you when I get home,” Kelley says.
“I'll be on a plane,” Alex reminds her.
“Then you call me.”
“It'll be late.”
“I need to get used to the time difference anyway.”
“I love you.” Alex kisses Kelley quickly on the lips once more.
“I love you more.”
“Not a competition,” Alex says, sticking out her tongue. She opens the driver’s side door for Kelley without taking her eyes away from her, as though if she were to break eye contact, Kelley would disappear.
“Just a fact.” Kelley squeezes Alex’s hand with one hand while revving up the engine with the other. “See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow,” Alex agrees tearfully, closing the door. She steps back so Kelley can pull out, waving goodbye until the car is less than a speck in the distance.
She takes a deep breath to collect herself, realizing this is what it feels like to be left behind, that this is how Kelley is going to feel in August—on her birthday of all days. She stops herself from texting Kelley, fully aware that she’s driving and would grab her phone in a heartbeat for Alex.
She thinks back to the night that set the ball rolling on the chain of events that led her to Kelley. For weeks afterward, she regretted sleeping with Derek, but now she knows she wouldn’t change a thing.
Sydney had vowed that this year would be different, and she couldn’t possibly have known how right she would be. When she told Alex to “live a little,” she had no idea how much living there was to do.